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Hands On: Hamilton Khaki Navy Frogman Automatic

Hamilton walks a fine line with its 2016 novelty, the Frogman Auto. Part of the brand’s Khaki Navy collection, the Frogman Auto 46mm is the larger of two new dive references that successfully balance modern functionality with historic homage. The result genuflects in brief to Hamilton’s past landmarks but triumphs as a convincing union of impressive functionality and contemporary style.

Baselworld 2016 witnessed the launch of countless historic facsimile “tribute” watches. The Frogman Auto isn’t one of these. While those “revivals” have their place, such pure nostalgia plays also offer little room for innovation. And it’s easy to see why; innovation entails risk. Hamilton’s triumph with the new Frogman Auto 46mm is the model’s ability to channel the spirit of past dive references without resorting to slavish literalism.

Hamilton Khaki Navy Frogman

Pioneering special forces and their early tactical gear provided the core inspiration that spawned the new Frogman line. Early United States Navy Underwater Demolition Teams (UDT) were issued Hamilton water-resistant watches during the late 1940s and early 1950s. Hamilton is fond of recalling this fact and the prominent placement of its divers in the 1951 film, “The Frogman.” Collectors can be forgiven for drawing a blank on the film and its (then) blockbuster $2.1 million box office; the UDT, however, was the forerunner of today’s celebrated SEAL and SWCC units.

The Frogman Auto is big and robust; it’s not afraid to declare itself as a product of this century. On the wrist, the 46mm titanium case threads the needle between size and ergonomics. Secure fit is a product of judiciously shaped lugs and a rubber strap that projects downward rather than outward at the point of exit from between the lugs.

To its credit, Hamilton appears to have designed the Frogman Auto 46mm with average human forearms in mind. The watch on test for this review was worn with comfort and planted security on a wrist of 16cm in circumference. Titanium is part of the Frogman Auto 46mm’s ergonomic equation, and it helps to reduce the mass of this oversized watch to roughly that of a conventional 42mm steel timepiece on a comparable strap. Incidentally, that is exactly the size and material of the junior reference Frogman Auto 42mm that serves as the entry level option in Hamilton’s new dive model line.

Watch enthusiasts reared in the era of oversized watches understand that case profile, lug sculpting, and strap fit are more important than outright size in determining the fit of a watch. Basic measurements beyond the 46mm diameter (exclusive of crown) include 57mm from lug-tip to lug-tip, and the case is 16mm thick at its deepest point.

When sized for a 16cm wrist, the strap of the Frogman auto 46 still counted one perforation in reserve for an even tighter sizing; 15cm wrists can be considered the lower limit of practical fit for this timepiece. Short and tightly tucked lugs span an impressive distance, but their specific shape drapes that wingspan around the wrist rather than projecting out horizontally.

And that strap deserves special mention. Like every other tangible part of the Frogman Auto 46mm, the natural rubber strap feels more substantial than collectors are conditioned to expect in this price range. It’s extremely thick where it joins the lugs, and the curved ends of the strap create a seamless junction with the case that removes the often ungainly lug gaps of conventional straight-bar strap ends. Impressive refinements include a matte-black center on the topside that creates upscale tonal contrast and a velvety texture when touched.

The sizing perforations opposite the pin buckle are angled through the strap for improved retention when buckled and easier removal when pulled taught. Even the pin buckle features thoughtful satin finish, nuanced facets, and a distinctive skeletonized Hamilton “H.” This strap exhibits a trait that holds true for the watch as a whole; in the hand and on the wrist, the Frogman Auto makes an impression of solidity to belie its $1,445 U.S. retail price. The watch’s macro components bear no crudeness, and the micro-scale details are convincing.

Aesthetically, the Frogman Auto 46mm is big but not bombastic. A subdued satin finish envelops the grey titanium case, and it endows the huge diver with a measure of elegance. The red anodized aluminum bezel insert offers a striking contrast with the sunburst black dial and the grey of the case. Applied hour indices provide yet another premium refinement that’s often absent in this market stratum, and they glow with a ferocious teal pigmentation when external lighting diminishes.

From the standpoint of functionality, Hamilton’s newest sports watch excels. All dial markings are large and offer generous contrast in any lighting conditions. Hamilton’s bezel features a cog-style pattern that allows easy purchase on the unidirectional ring even when hands are wet or sweaty; the ring moves with audible reports, and the haptic element is superb. A standard helium release valve may be superfluous to most or even all owners, but Hamilton’s accessible luxury concept entails adding features in excess of need. Likewise, the 1000-meter depth rating is sufficient to assure the owner that no aquatic scenario short of outright abuse will compromise the watch.

Regarding that depth rating, Hamilton chose the nearly extinct “canteen” crown mechanism as its mode of water resistance. In most brand portfolios, this could be dismissed as a contrived affectation, but on the Frogman, the canteen is the single most direct reference to the watch’s SPECWAR heritage. Early U.S. Navy Hamilton divers were far smaller, cruder, and less advanced than the new Frogman, but that canteen crown is a living link between the old watches and the new. The mechanism surprises on two levels: first by its presence, and then by its substance.

Canteen crowns are rare. The Cartier Pasha is the best-known modern instance of the canteen crown, but the unit on the Hamilton Frogman Auto is nothing like the delicate chain-borne assembly on the Pasha. Hamilton’s mechanism feels like the deployment mechanism of a multifunction Swiss watch – robust. For good measure, the swing arm of the canteen assembly doubles as the upper crown guard of the case, and the canteen cap offers true 100 percent crown-impact security from all angles.

The canteen cap is huge at almost 10mm in diameter, and it swings free on triple articulated arms that allow the cap to move out and up for abundant clearance of the true crown. Due to the macro-scale of all this hardware, even the underlying functional crown is big enough to obviate the fiddly chore of manipulating the internal unit of conventional canteen crowns.

Once past the charming theater of the crown assembly, the user interacts with Hamilton’s self winding caliber H-10. The 25-jewel mechanism is based on the bones of the tank-tough caliber 2824, but significant alterations to the rate (down to 21,600 VpH) and the mainspring (larger) endow this caliber with an impressive 80 hours of power reserve when fully wound. This is far in excess of the 38-48 hours common to this price class. Additional refinements include a hacking function that halts the seconds hand for precise setting and a rapid-adjuster for correcting the date wheel.

Accepting the risk of untested design is a bold play in the parlous seas of today’s watch marketplace, but Hamilton appears to have navigated those waters with success. The Frogman Auto in 46mm is a large, modern diver that wears well on a smaller wrist, feels more costly than it is, and functions better than its antique forebears in every way. Line-for-line historic re-issues are hot right now, but in the Frogman Auto 46mm, Hamilton’s product planners made a laudable decision to honor the past in spirit rather than letter.

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