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Why your next watch should be a solar powered one

You want a watch that keeps accurate time, doesn’t need frequent servicing or a battery change? Well, it’s time you considered a solar one

The Seiko solar diver SNE585P1.
The Seiko solar diver SNE585P1. (Instagram/Beyond The Wrist)

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I have been thinking of getting myself a solar watch. I’ve a fair number of mechanical watches: A mix of handwound HMTs and a vintage Favre Leuba, plus modern Seiko automatics and vintage iterations from Titoni and Roamer. For my mountain travels and daily workouts, there’s the indestructible G-Shock. The one thing I don’t have is a dive watch, and I’m increasingly of the view that if I get an out-and-out tool watch like a diver, it might as well be a solar quartz. 

But it’s “just a solar quartz” watch right? After all, aren’t watch aficionados supposed to be all snobbish and sniff at anything that’s not a mechanical? Well, I’m sure such “enthusiasts” exist, but I’m not one of them. I grew up wearing cheap quartz watches from Timex and Titan, and they’re all still there. A battery change once every few years and they tick along just fine. A solar watch is more a matter of ethics, and convenience. 

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Quartz watch batteries are mostly either lithium ion or silver oxide. The latter lasts longer than the former, but you do have to change them, quite a few times. And batteries create waste on a global scale. According to a 2021 paper in the journal Case Studies In Chemical And Environmental Engineering, the amount of waste batteries was growing at a compounded annual rate of 8% in 2018, and is projected to reach up to 30% by 2030. In 2018, a mere 5% of 345,000 tonnes of waste batteries were recycled. This is where the ethical imperative comes in. If the technology exists whereby you can completely bypass batteries, well, you should shift immediately. 

Then there’s the question of convenience. A solar panel in a watch isn’t just charged by sunlight, but any kind of light. And it holds the charge for months. If you forget your watch in a dark drawer for six months (or more), and it stops, then all you need to do is put it under some sort of light, dial up. But there’s another kind of convenience as well. When it comes to quartz watches, the one big thing going for such movements is accurate timekeeping. In that, the cheapest Timex can give the most expensive Rolex a run for its money. Now if you ally that precision with an unending source of solar power, then you get the tooliest of tool watches. Just strap it on and head out. 

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Now, I try to put myself in out-of-the-way situations, usually up a mountain, at least once a year. And as much as I love dress watches, for me, a rugged watch or two with 200m of water resistance and a tough build, is a no-brainer. Among non-digital watches, I can’t think of anything other than a dive watch that fulfils this requirement. And I am in urgent need of a dive watch. So I started looking around. Most good Swiss automatic divers retail above $1,500, where I’m effectively priced out. Micro brand watches offer great value, but sadly, importing one to India usually means paying nearly double the price. 

Which leaves me with Japanese brands. Now Seiko and Citizen, both behemoths in the global watch business, make some of the best divers out there for the money. You can add another Japanese manufacture to the list: Orient. Of these, Seiko has the most storied dive watch heritage, stretching all the way back to 1965 with the brand’s iconic 62MAS. Citizen’s divers are no slouches either, given how venerated they are by people who actually go diving. And Citizen is the master of the solar quartz, with their proprietory Eco-Drive technology, dating back to the 1970s, driving watch models across the range. Orient offers some of the best entry-level divers out there. For me though, where Citizen and Orient lose out is in the sizing. 

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The Orient Kamasu, an excellent automatic with an in-house movement, comes with a case that’s 41.8mm. It has a short lug-to-lug distance of 46.8mm, so it wouldn’t overhang my 6.5 inch wrist. But it’s still a little too visually large for me. The ISO-rated Citizen Eco-Drive Promaster is an excellent watch, but its 44mm case size and a nearly 50mm lug-to-lug distance is too large for me. I’m forever drawn to Seiko’s automatic divers, but they’re either too large (the Turtle), or too expensive (the SPB143 or SPB147). 

Recently, I came across a cool line of solar divers from Seiko which seem to have the perfect specs. These are the compact solar scuba divers that were released last year. But the model I’m drawn to is a new colourway—blue—that was released earlier this year. A 38.5mm case with a 46.7 lug-to-lug ratio, it is also thin (due to the solar quartz movement) and has a sapphire crystal. An ISO-rated 200m diver to boot, could the SNE585P1 be the one for me? I intend to find out. 

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Meanwhile, as a final parting shot to the solar quartz naysayers, I have just one word to say: Cartier. You know solar is the future when one of the biggest luxury watch manufactures is getting into the game. I refer, of course, to the Cartier Tank Must SolarBeat, a 2021 release that wowed enthusiasts at the time. People still haven’t stopped talking about it. Go take a look at it, and tell me it isn’t for you. 

Handwound is a column on watches and watchmaking.

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