Timeless Designs: The Hamilton Ventura

Ventura1957The year 1957 wasn’t an especially significant one in the decade of the 1950’s but like most all years, it had its claims to fame. In the month of January alone, two events in particular are noteworthy: the inauguration of Dwight D. Eisenhower to his second term of office as President of the United States and the introduction of the world’s first commercially available wristwatch powered by a battery. The Hamilton Electric was born and no other wristwatch in the new Electric line summed up the “Fabulous Fifties” like the Ventura.

Consider the time in which it was born. The 1950’s saw an entire new wave of design come into maturity that mirrored the optimism of the times. Everything, from appliances to furniture, accessories and even homes, reflected the future modern touches of the designers of the time.

Tail fins soared on automobiles, the rocket era was in full swing and with the introduction of the Electric line of wristwatches, Hamilton wanted something that beat with the times. They turned to industrial designer Richard Arbib and from his pen a number of striking designs found themselves rendered into precious metals. The Ventura was the first such design and it has been the most enduring.

The original Ventura, referenced in sales literature of the time as the Ventura I, was introduced on January 4, 1957, along with a more traditional design model, the Van Horn (a safe-bet watch, just in case the new design didn’t go over well with the public) and from the moment it hit the stores, it was a runaway success, despite its somewhat lofty price of $200.00 Crafted entirely of 14k gold (US market versions), the Ventura featured a case design unlike any others of the time with a bold, triangular shape and lugs reminiscent of automotive fins.

Originally fitted with the somewhat troublesome Hamilton 500 electromechanical movement, the Ventura, when properly maintained and cared for, was accurate and never needed winding, although battery replacements were fairly regular, usually about once a year. Within a short time, the more refined and improved Hamilton 505 movement found its way into the Electric of watches.

The first Ventura wristwatches were made available in a yellow gold case with either a black or a silver dial that featured the hours denoted by golden dots with tracer lines that radiated inward. A jagged electric line transected the center of the dial, connecting the 3 and 9 together, the total effect of which suggested electricity with a hint of the atom. A unique two-tone leather strap in black and gold came with the first Venturas but was quickly phased out due to manufacturing costs and a tendency to not hold up well.

The following year, a white gold version was introduced, although it never sold in numbers like the yellow gold versions and consequently is a rarer find today. Additionally, an 18k rose gold version was produced at some point for export only, making it probably the rarest of all Hamilton Ventura watches.


Rod Serling with his yellow gold, silver dial Hamilton Ventura

In a sea of ubiquitous wristwatches, the Ventura and most of its electric brethren stood out and this uniqueness soon found its way onto the wrists of some notable television and movie personalities. While this was unintentional at the time, product placement was something that Hamilton would take advantage of in future decades.

Rod Serling, the producer of “The Twilight Zone” wore a gold Ventura with a silver dial in his opening and closing monologues on many episodes of the show.

The futuristic, space-age design of the Hamilton Ventura was a perfect fit for both Serling and his hit TV series and he wore the watch for many years after its small screen debut but it was undoubtedly the big screen debut of the Ventura that immortalized the watch in the minds of many fans, linking it forever with the biggest name in the music industry, Elvis Presley.


Elvis Presley on the set of Blue Hawaii, wearing a yellow gold, black dial Ventura

Presley wore a yellow gold Ventura in the movie “Blue Hawaii” and the watch was highly visible in many scenes, including one brief closeup. It is unknown if the watch was a studio supplied watch or not but apparently Presley liked the Ventura because he added a white gold version with a dealer-installed expansion bracelet to his personal collection. The Ventura later became known as the “Elvis Watch” because of the association with Presley.

The Ventura was produced for six years and was sold by Hamilton jewelers until all the supply was used up. Eventually Hamilton discontinued the Electric line after significant inroads had been made by Bulova’s humming Accutron, as well as the advent of the Quartz controlled wristwatch but the Ventura story was far from over.

Fast forward a quarter of a century to 1988. Hamilton, which had been purchased by the forerunners of today’s Swatch Group in Switzerland was looking to get their name back in the minds of watch buyers. In a market flooded by mostly inexpensive quartz watches of boring design and questionable pedigree, Hamilton had to find a way to both penetrate the existing market and to do something that would stand out from the crowd.

Instead of looking at the existing trends, they decided to look inward at their own history and from their archives, they drew inspiration that started a new trend. Pulling designs that had proven popular in the past, they came out with a new line of old watches, authentic reproductions of timeless classics, reissued to resonate with a modern world.

VenturaAdFrom the 20’s came the Piping Rock and from the 30’s, the Boulton, Ardmore and Wilshire were reborn, among others. Topping the range of models, Hamilton reintroduced the Ventura to a new generation of watch fans who had never seen it before and were immediately taken with the design. The vintage watch trend was born and has continued more or less unabated to this day.

Hamilton made four versions of the “new” Ventura available for purchase by mail order in magazines and later, in retail stores: yellow gold-plated with silver or black dial, white gold-plated with black dial and rose gold-plated with black dial. These new versions of the Ventura were authentically detailed based on the original designs and a very close approximation of the original Ventura. Each came with a color coordinated Teju lizard skin strap, depending on the dial color.

Powered by a modern Swiss quartz movement, the new Ventura was the perfect blend of modern, reliable timekeeping technology encased in a proven, classic vintage design. The wearer of a Ventura was virtually guaranteed that his watch would draw attention when worn and over the next nine years, the new Ventura became a staple in the growing portfolio of the Hamilton Watch Company, now a part of the Swatch Group. Although the appearance changed little, the yellow and rose gold-plated models were eventually phased out as the white gold-plated version with black dial became the standard-bearer.

In 1997, the release of the feature film “Men in Black” reintroduced the Hamilton Ventura to the movie going public as part of Hamilton’s campaign to get their watches on the big screen. The movie became a big hit and the Ventura became a bigger star as the watch of choice worn by Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith, the stars of the movie.

A chronograph version of the Ventura was released for the sequel, as well as new versions of the classic model, now in stainless steel with dial choices in black, silver and salmon color. While constructed of better grade materials, the post-MIB Ventura models differed from the original Electric models in details as well as movements. Dials were now flat instead of gently domed and the word “Electric” had never appeared on a modern Ventura. The back of the watch was thoroughly modern in design and the tang buckle was replaced by a modern deployant buckle.

In 2007, Hamilton celebrated a milestone with the 50th birthday of the Ventura and released two special editions of the watch. The 50th Anniversary Ventura came in two versions: a larger sized version with an automatic movement and a skeletonized dial for viewing the movement and a traditional version with a quartz movement.

Ventura50The quartz movement version drew the most attention, featuring a case that much more closely approximated that of the original 1957 Ventura, both front and back. Stamped from new dies, this 50th anniversary edition included a sapphire crystal and a domed dial with a unique pattern not seen on a Ventura before. While still evocative of the times in which the Ventura was born, the new dial was different and for the first time in fifty years, the word “Electric” reappeared on the dial. This version is the only quartz powered Ventura to ever feature that word on the dial. A slightly wider 18mm crocodile strap with a vintage tang buckle rounded out the package, as well a commemorative box.

Only 1,957 examples of the 50th Anniversary Hamilton Ventura were crafted for the US market, making this version of the watch one of the rarest of the Ventura line. The automatic also came in a strictly limited and numbered run of 1,957 examples.

Two other versions of the 50th Anniversary Ventura also were produced by Hamilton but these were made for the Asian market and were never sold in the United States. Two runs of 1,957 watches were crafted, one in yellow gold PVD plate and the other in rose gold PVD plate, both featuring dark bronze dials with the original atomic dial indexes of the Ventura I. These were the first new Hamilton Ventura watches in several years to feature a gold tone case and some of these found their way to the US via online retailers like Ebay. Both are considered to be very rare in the western hemisphere.


2010 Stainless Steel Elvis Presley Ventura

Not one to let a good thing end, Hamilton decided in 2010 to issue two new special editions of the Ventura to commemorate the 75th birthday of Elvis Presley and these are considered by many to be the most authentic reproduction of the original Ventura to date.

The first one was crafted in stainless steel with a steel expansion bracelet similar to the style of bracelet Elvis wore on his personal white gold Ventura purchased in the 1960’s. The black dial retained the signature jagged line across the center and the atomic themed dial of the original Ventura.


2010 Gold PVD Elvis Presley Ventura

A yellow gold PVD plated version, also with an expansion bracelet in gold, was available, it too with a black dial and a unique red second-hand similar to the ones found on the rare 18k gold models of the past. Even more unique, both watches could be had with a two-tone leather strap in either black and silver or black and gold, depending on the case material. This was the first time Hamilton had offered such a strap since the original 1957 model debuted. The strap, many collectors believe, show the watch in the true way that its designer, Richard Arbib, intended for the Ventura to look….cool, futuristic, striking and unique and on that front, Arbib and Hamilton succeeded.

Ventura21Today, the Hamilton Ventura is considered to be a truly iconic watch of American design and enduring style. It is available in a variety of versions, sizes and features, from the original design reproductions to the automatic, the chronograph and, since 2010, a modern 21st century reinterpretation that redefines the Ventura in a modern world. No other American watch design is as well known or as long lived as the Ventura and its popularity doesn’t seem to be slowing at all.

If you want to own a watch that is both reasonably priced, iconic in design and steeped in history, look no further than the Hamilton Ventura.


Swiss Efficiency: Mondaine Swiss Railways Automatic

Mondaine Automatic

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