Inside & Out: Raymond Weil Freelancer Chronograph
How I got this watch: I contacted Raymond Weil to request a review piece and they sent me a Freelancer Chronograph which I wore for two weeks. This is not a paid review.
The Raymond Weil Freelancer Chronograph is a great first step to start your mechanical watch collection
If I told you that for the last two weeks I wore a mechanical chronograph from a third generation, family owned, independent watch brand, would you think of Raymond Weil? Probably not and that is a real shame as R.W is so often forgotten about or actively ignored by so many of the watch community. Over the course of the quartz crisis nearly 800 watch brands went out of business with the remaining few either skyrocketing in price or going into mechanical hibernation to survive. This was the landscape that Mr. Raymond Weil surveyed and thought, "This is the perfect time to start a watch brand".
Mr. Weil knew that he couldn't let the mechanical watchmaking tradition die and in 1975 he started Dinita ( a contraction of his daughters names, Diana and Anita) however a Saudi client convinced him that his own name might be better suited as the name for his brand. It was a slow start with the brand's first booth at the Basel Watch and Jewelry fair was a small sixteen meter cube with only a bridge table and four folding chairs on the inside. Raymond Weil did, and still does, indulge in quartz production but the focus was on making fashionable and affordable mechanical watches.
Whilst Mr. Weil's pragmatism to making both quartz and mechanical watches kept the company afloat during difficult times, it also forever hampered Raymond Weil's standing in the eyes of serious collectors. Whilst industry stalwarts like Longines, Omega, Heuer and others also went into quartz production, they had a wealth of beautiful mechanical pieces that they could lean on to show their watchmaking chops. Without that history and with Mr. Weil's insistence on keeping their watches affordable meant that to some, Raymond Weil is seen as a lesser brand.
To those people I say that you're missing out
This watch, an automatic chronograph with a sturdy Valjoux movement, is 43.5mm in diameter. If you think that only small Panerai should be that size then I'm sorry to say that the size never bothered me. It is bigger than I'd like but it's not unwearable in the slightest. The 43.5mm diameter and 13.7mm height might seem gargantuan compared to a vintage chronograph but to a fresh face used to G-Shocks and Fossil, it's just another reasonable sized watch. Raymond Weil does have one high-end piece, a skeleton tourbillon, but the bulk of their collection caters to people wanting a nice looking watch and the Freelancer is just that, a really nice looking watch.
At under $3000, you're getting a workhorse chronograph that can be reliably and cheaply serviced nearly anywhere in the world. Whilst the decoration and movement architecture is basic compared to vintage and other contemporary chronographs, it will captivate those unfamiliar with the inner workings of a mechanical watch. The retro-ish panda design might seem derivative of early Daytonas to the seasoned eye but to an initiate its just a great looking watch. That dial does indeed take inspiration from some of the great but manages through small touches to feel like its own watch rather than a carbon copy.
The blue registers against the cream background work really damn well by adding just a touch of dignified color and the vinyl-esque pattern running around the dial adds an extra level of detail without cluttering up the place. The applied hour markers are the right proportion and give great clarity without dominating the dial and the lume pips are designed in a way that blend into the dial yet provide ample glow during the night. The lume placement is actually one of my favorite things about the Freelancer as the hands are well coated yet didn't look too 'lumey' (Technical term) which keeps the dress chronograph vibe intact yet keeps it functional.
A wonderful visual cue that differentiates the running seconds from the chronograph registers is also a nice touch; the chronograph registers have white hands that pair with the central second hand whilst the running seconds has steel hand that matches the hour and minute. It's a small detail that might seem inconsequential to those used to wearing chronographs but those just starting out, it's a great visual reference. I can't tell you how many people I sold watches too that looked at the wrong hand and complained that they couldn't get it to start/stop. It sounds silly but when you're upgrading from a quartz Fossil that has the running seconds of a chronograph in the middle, or perhaps has one of those 'calendar chronograph' layouts, these colored hands could make all the difference.
I'm not typically a fan of fitted leather straps, where the watch end curves to snugly fit the case, but this was one I didn't mind so much. The racing style strap is a strange choice considering the semi-formal style the watch seems to be going for but it was comfortable to wear and can always be swapped out if it's not to your taste. The inclusion of a deployment buckle is very welcome, especially on a watch of this price, even if initially threading the strap through the buckle was a slight struggle.
These little touches just made me like the Freelancer more and more as I wore it
Whilst on the whole I liked the watch, there were instances where the lower price is apparent. The Valjoux 7753 is a workhorse movement, not a graceful stallion, so the blanket stippling (the overlapping circles) is a little bland to the trained eye. The architecture of the chronograph is also a little dull with a lot of the really fun parts hidden away underneath plates and bridges and as this is a CAM rather than a column wheel, a pretty firm push is needed to use the chronograph.
Perhaps the oddest feature of the Freelancer was the date pusher at 10 o'clock which, whilst useful, teeters on being a bit head-scratching. With a quick-set date controlled by the crown becoming almost ubiquitous among watches, it's odd that Raymond Weil decided to use an additional pusher instead. It wasn't an eyesore but it was a constant reminder that this watch is for a more general audience who might not wear an automatic watch everyday and need a quick method of setting the date after weeks of not wearing it. None of these issues were life threatening and neither the slightly sticky chronograph or the date pusher stopped me from enjoying the watch.
Those that are years into this passion might turn their nose up at the Freelancer, "An automatic chronograph for less than $3000, Oh how delightfully gauche", but that same person at the beginning of their passion will love it. Do you remember first getting hooked onto mechanical watches? The thrill of first seeing a display back and seeing the movement spring to life? Do you remember your first Hodinkee article (For me it was this video about sundials) or even your first Timepiece Chronicle article? I hope you do because that person would have loved the Freelancer Chronograph, even if you might not now.
There are details on the Freelancer that might irk a pursuit; the date pusher, the inclusion of a date window, the decision to put that window at 4.30, the seemingly random screw on the left register, the Automatic text on the bottom register and of course, the size. If none of those things bothered you then go right ahead and buy a Freelancer chronograph, you'll have a blast.