Recently I was in New York City for the Christmas holidays and made it a point to stop in my favorite watch store, a company known for carrying just about every Swiss and German wristwatch of note. It was not in my budget to buy anything extravagant this trip but while I was there, I came across the Mondaine brand proudly displayed underneath a very large clock suspended from the ceiling. I had never heard of this brand before but I was immediately taken with the Bauhaus styling of the case and the stark simplicity of its minimalist white dial. “Official Swiss Railways Watch” the display stated and in the case were a collection of Mondaine watches, all variations on the same styling theme. I have always liked minimalism in the design of things and the Swiss are well known for this theme in many of their newer buildings. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that the price of the Mondaine line was so reasonable. Most of the watches on display were in the $200 range and, while quartz, this is a very reasonable price for a watch made in Switzerland and imbued with so much of the influence of the center of the watch making world.
I was very pleased that for only a few hundred more, an automatic was available and despite my intentions, I ended up leaving with one on my wrist and it has been on there nearly every day since. Following is my review of this watch, which I think deserves to be exposed to a wider audience because of the value and quality that comes standard with it.
The automatic, like most all of the quartz versions, is executed in solid stainless steel and is polished on all surfaces. The very straight, rectangular lugs jut out from the case at a slight angle downward and are spaced apart at 20mm. The watch is available with either a plain, understated leather strap in black or a stainless steel mesh bracelet, both of which are a compliment to the watch. I purchased the latter but was also able to purchase the leather strap as an accessory so that I could change it at will. The case is 40mm in circumference, completely round and the sides bow out all around, lending a touch of softness to what would otherwise be a very severe case. This is an element of the Evo line, which this particular model belongs to. The bezel is very thin which gives makes the famous dial the star of the show as it expands out to the very edges of the case. The back of the watch features a mineral viewing glass to showcase the movement and it is signed “Official Swiss Railways Watch” along with the logo that incorporates the Swiss cross with arrows going left and right, indicating motion. The initials SBB CFF FFS are included, denoting the name of the railways in German, French and Italian. Also included are “Mondaine” “Switzerland” and other writings. While very official looking, the writing on the glass (or under it as the case may be) does detract from the movement a bit.
The crystal is a hardened mineral glass with a nice dome that magnifies the dial just a little but looks almost vintage in appearance. The crown is very smooth and polished and includes a built in band of rubber that makes it possible to wind and set the watch. On the end of the crown is the letter “M” in steel that is imbedded in a field of red enamel-a very classy touch for a watch in this price range.
The dial is centerpiece of this watch and is taken from the design of the highly accurate and synchronized clocks that are a feature of all the Swiss railway stations. Designed so that passengers could see the time from a distance, the watch carries this tradition on the wrist with a highly visible and easy to read dial. Finished in a matte white, the minute marks are all in black, with very large bar marks at each of the five minute marks. The hour and minute hands are both black and highly visible against the white dial. Rectangular and bold, the minute hand has a very slight taper to it, so slight it is almost unnoticeable. The second hand is almost an icon in itself. Based on the red paddles that conductors used to use to signal the engineer that the train should depart, it is a long, thin stick that ends in a large red circle that smoothly makes its way around the dial. The combination of white, black and red is as aesthetically pleasing as it is functional to use and even without my glasses on, I can easily tell the time with it. The dial keeps the writing at a minimum with only the name and logo at the top and the word “Automatic” on the lower end of the dial, all in a simple, straightforward font. A discreet day/date window fits right in between the 3 mark and the center of the dial and it disappears completely when the hands go over it. The day can be displayed in either English or German.
All in all, the combination of the case, crystal and dial are very pleasing, straightforward and nice to wear. No other watch I have owned has so visibly made the statement “I am a watch” in such a simple but bold statement. The supple, well made mesh bracelet just adds to the overall look of the watch and the wearing comfort of it. It molds itself to the arm and fastens together by means of a hook clasp with a snap down square buckle. It is very plain and uncomplicated.
Powering this watch is the tried and true ETA 2836-2 movement with 25 jewels. Mostly unadorned, the rotor is the only part decorated but in a nice way that shines boldly in the light. It is signed “Mondaine Watch Co. Ltd” and moves very smoothly without rattling. The movement keeps good time, gaining about 5 seconds a day but within normal tolerances for a non-chronometer watch. If you want more accuracy, the quartz version is just as nice looking and features a Ronda movement. I was very pleased that for less than $500, I was able to buy a sharp looking, Swiss made watch with a steel bracelet and an ETA branded automatic movement. I do have to wonder how much longer Mondaine will be able to get these movements though and I look for them to eventually begin to use Selita movements-of course, having the power of the Federal Swiss Railways behind you as a sponsor just might entice the Swatch Group to keep providing movements to them a while longer!
Summary: For a very good price, you get a high quality, stainless steel, Swiss made automatic wristwatch that features a well known look and does its job in a highly efficient manner, almost like…a Swiss railroad train. You get a modern, minimalist look with a touch of old world class combined into one package. Speaking of packages, even the box is minimalist, clad in a black, understated leatherette material, much smaller than the usual watch box and contained inside a nicely decorated cardboard outer box. It stores very easily. Efficiency is the word that comes to mind with Mondaine Railway watches. I would encourage anyone who wants a simple, classy and likeable watch to consider giving Mondaine a look.
Note: I previously published this review on Timezone.com in January of 2011