In contrast to most other vintage hobbies, a beautiful patina is considered a major advantage for an old watch. A watch dial that has become old gracefully, as opposed to rusty and worn, is appreciated. Certain types of wear, like the sun-kissed ‘tropical’ look of faded dials on watches worn in sunnier environments, can even fetch far higher prices than near-mint pieces. So when this little mechanical chronograph crossed my path, I was intrigued. The graceful patina was amazing, completely fitting the age of the watch and enhancing the look of the dial. If this was a perfectly mint watch, it would not be nearly as interesting.
This Helbros watch is from the ’40s, which means it’s more than 70 years old. But after a recent service it’s working fine, so fine that it’s currently my daily office watch.
So what is a Helbros? Like most watch brands from the pre-quartz era, Helbros has disappeared without much of a trace. The internet forums are split on the origins of the brand – some say it’s a private label brand by the Helbros department stores in the United States, built by Swiss watchmakers but branded with their own name. Others say the Helbros Watch Company was the US branch of the Helbein Brothers, watchmakers from Switzerland. An old ad from 1947 does show a similar model from the Helbros Watch Company.
In my search for more information about Helbros I discovered this same watch had been sold several times in recent history – thanks to its unique patina pattern it’s easy to recognize this specific watch. It was for sale as recently as a year ago and its previous owner took this beauty shot:
On the inside the watch runs on a Swiss Venus 170 movement. Venus was a specialized movement maker which sold its products to many other watch brands. The 170 was used by famous brands such as Breitling, Heuer and Gallet. The 170 is not the prime example of its time – that honor goes to the very desirable Excelsior Park and Minerva movements – but it’s a very respectable piece of technology, especially compared to budget models of the time such as Landeron.
The Venus 17x movements used a ‘column wheel’ instead of the more modern ‘cam’ system in mechanical chronographs. Column wheel movements have more responsive and tactile buttons, but are more expensive to produce and service. The layout of the subdials on the 170 model is vertical, which I highly prefer to the more traditional horizontal layout.
Still, I could keep talking about the looks of this watch all day long. The white dial that has turned cream-colored over time, the catchy red of the telemeter scale, the deep blue hands that have faded to a near-black color. The classic look of the curved dome of the plexiglass crystal. The patina of the dial, which changes character depending on the way the light hits it, the scratched chrome coating on the case, the signs of wear and tear on the watch that show it’s been used instead of locked into a vault. The end result is more than the sum of its parts.
The one struggle I had was finding a decent watch strap for this model. Like many vintage watches of its time, it takes a size that is no longer common in this day and age: 17mm lug-to-lug. Modern watches don’t really use odd sizes anymore, so all the straps you can buy in stores are in even sizes like 16mm or 20mm. In fact, the watch came on a 16mm strap when I bought it, so the previous owner was unable to find a proper strap either. However, my local watch strap store Horlogebandenspecialist found me a very pretty 17mm Rios strap in ostrich leather.
So after all this praise, do I have anything bad to tell you about this watch? Well, yes. It’s small. Remember that this is a watch from the ’40s, long before oud modern fashion sensibilities regarding big watches would hit. Today, a 40mm watch case is considered normal for men and a 45mm would be considered a big watch. But in the ’40s, 36mm was big. This watch, at 32mm, was considered normal. In this day and age a 32mm model is considered a women’s watch. Luckily, my Asian genes work to my advantage and with my wrists I don’t really need a bigger watch. This looks just fine on me.
So this is definitely going to be my default watch for the coming period. It does casual, it does office, I bet I could even get away with wearing this with a suit. A fine choice for daily wear.