A Moment in Time: Tudor North Flag Ref. 91210N
Disclaimer: In the interest of full disclosure I worked at Sidney Thomas Jewelers from July to August 2015. This is not a paid promotion
Ten years ago Tudor had pulled out of the US market after declining sales and decades of being seen as the "Poor Man's Rolex". Now over a decade later, they are one of the most popular brands among collectors and last year released their first ever in-house movement in the Tudor North Flag Ref. 91210N.
I'm too young to remember a pre-2013 Tudor. Whilst working in retail I was aware of the stigma that followed the brand around but as I was never a Rolex fan I didn't really see the need to learn more about Tudor. What I do remember was the buzz and excitement surrounding their return to the market. Our direct competitor across the mall was to receive a Tudor shop-in-shop right at the front of their store. Of course I downplayed it to my clients and also to myself. Three years ago the majority of their line-up was re-editions or heritage pieces like the Black Bay, Chrono or Advisor, another brand simply retreading old designs. Think Longines except this time with a shield instead of wings. How wrong I was.
The Tudor North Flag Ref. 912120N was announced at Baselworld 2015 to critical acclaim with everyone impressed at Tudor's ability to have developed an in-house movement in such a small space of time. The design was different than anything we'd seen from their contemporary line-up and it blew all their other releases straight out of the water (Until the release of the Black Bay Black). Tudor was back in a big way.
There have been many comparisons drawn to the design of this watch and those designed by industry titan Gerald Genta, namely the Patek Philippe Nautilus and Audemars Piguet Royal Oak. To me the only resemblance is that all three watches have an integrated bracelet but who wouldn't want to draw favorable comparisons to those two great watches? If you look back at the watches developed by Tudor and Rolex, two stand out as direct inspirations far more than any Genta design; the Tudor Ranger II and the Rolex Ref. 1530.
It is true that the Ref. 1530 was Rolex's response to the popularity of the Nautilus and Royal Oak but once you get over the integrated bracelet, the watches are very very different. With no octagonal bezel, no JLC movement and no nautical theme , the Rolex is far more similar to the standard Datejust of the time. There are real similarities in the case design between the North Flag and the Ref. 1530 namely the short lugs that start millimetres after the dial and the harsh angular case lines that hug the bezel so tightly. Whilst the case might be influenced by Rolex, the dial is all Tudor as it is very similar to that of the Tudor Ranger II. Released in the mid-seventies, the Ranger II's big block font, steeped chapter ring and second hand all make it onto the North Flag relatively intact.
With the sharp angles and brushed satin finish, it would be easy to describe the North Flag more as as scientific instrument than a normal tool watch and this is not by accident. Tudor talk about their involvement with the British North Greenland Expedition that took place from July 1952 to August 1954. 30 scientists carried out climate, geological and glacial observations in one of the most inhospitable places on Earth and each were issued a Tudor Prince Date Ref. 7809. For a great re-cap of the BNGE, go check out this Lesson in Wrist-ory by Wound for Life. The Ref. 7809 bears no real resemblance to the North Flag but as an historical inspiration it serves it's purpose well enough.
The satin finished steel is very attractive in a almost clinical way though I'm sure once it's been worn on a few expeditions it will become a bit more personal. At 40mm it sits well on the wrist thanks to the slightly curved lugs and the fact that there is not a millimeter of wasted space on the case. The inner chapter ring sits high against the bezel just like the Ranger II however in this case the bezel is domed like the Ref. 7809 rather than fluted. At five minute intervals there are yellow markers that complement the second hand and power reserve indicator. Each of the hour markers, including the bold 12 and 6 numerals, are applied and add so much depth to the dial. I sometimes find Tudor's watches a little flat but these numbers pop beautifully.
A power reserve indicator is placed at 9 o'clock,the charge diagram is placed on the left hand side with an arrow turning to show how much power is left in the mainspring. It might seem odd to have a power reserve indicator on an automatic watch however the rotor on an automatic watch only maintains the amount of energy left in the mainspring rather than actively winding it further. A watch will be the most accurate and reliable when it has a full charge on its mainspring and has a quick drop-off in accuracy when the power becomes low. By adding that power reserve indicator, it shows the wearer that whilst there might be enough power in the watch to display time, it would be better if it were hand-wound to full.
The MT5621 movement, the first in-house movement Tudor have produced, is a real milestone for the brand. It can accommodate a power reserve indicator, it has a free sprung balance on a full balance bridge yet both watches it is in (the North Flag and the new Pelagos) cost less than $5000. I'm surprised at how little fuss Tudor makes over the free sprung balance as it is a huge achievement for a company for their first in-house movement.
On most watches you will see a lever sticking out from the balance wheel pointing towards a scale usually marked Fast/Slow. This is the regulator and when moved it changes the length of available spring in the balance which alters the frequency in which it oscillates, thus changing the accuracy of the watch. By moving the regulator to fast, the available spring is shortened causing the frequency to increase and makes the watch run faster. By moving it to slow, it lengthens the available spring making the coil become longer meaning the oscillation takes longer causing the watch to run slower.
Conversely a free sprung balance is controlled by a series of small weights that surround the wheel. By tightening or loosening these screws, their distance from the center of the wheel is altered which changes the inertia of the wheel and therefore the length of time per oscillation. You might have seen similar screws on a regulated balance wheel however these are only there to act as stabilizing weight for the wheel. Regulators can be used on watches with a free sprung balance as an additional method of modification but the primary method is the weighted balance.
Prestige manufactures like A.Lange & Sohne, Patek Philippe and Jaeger-LeCoultre all produce movements that have free sprung balance wheels and the fact that Tudor is making one straight out of the gate is very impressive. The movement itself is not overly decorated and some criticism has been levelled at it for how plain it looks but I would wager that was a decision made to keep the watch affordable. The style of the movement does fit in with the "scientific" aesthetic the watch is going for and remember that you're still getting a COSC certified, in-house movement for under $5000.
I really like the North Flag. It has one foot in the past with it's design inspirations yet it is marching onwards towards the future. With Baselworld 2016 just over a month away, we'll get to see what Tudor has planned for the MT5621 pretty soon. It could mark the start of complete vertical integration for the brand, seperate not only from it's big brother but independent from outside sources for movements. I'm not expecting a complete overhaul of all their watches as an ETA base still allows a low price barrier to entry for first timer buyers but the North Flag marks the first step out for Tudor out of a very large crown shaped shadow.