© Dr. Peter McClean Millar - April 2021
So when is a Doxa not a Doxa? When it is a Synchron. What? Come again? Most people who have come here to read this review will have heard of and possibly even own the new Synchron Military watch. With it's release, many people leveled criticism at the Military that it was a copy of the Doxa Army. That’s a reasonably fair comment if you just look at images of both watches but it is actually further from the truth than you might think. The best way to illustrate this is take a look at the watches, beginning with the Army.
I don’t own a Doxa Army so I would like to thank Red Godin and Mike Moritz for the use of their photos in this review.
The Doxa Army is a watch that very people knew much about and even less people had ever owned one or even seen one in real life. I have a couple of pictures of one in the 40th Doxa book but they were added at the last minute because the watch literally appeared out of nowhere. In the 10 years I had owned and been writing about Doxa SUBs, I had never seen one. I added the watch more as an afterthought rather than a conscious decision to include it because it was a significant piece of Doxa’s history.
The case was definitely Doxa but the bezel was actually a 60 click countdown bezel with an acrylic insert. The watch was produced with a black coating. No idea what it was. Although the principal of PVD was invented in 1852 the refinements in the process didn’t happen until the 1960s and 70s. So if the Army coating was done by PVD it was really when the technique was in its modern infancy.
I’m going to pause here for a quick coatings overview. People use the letters PVD and DLC as if they mean the same thing. i.e. “Is it a PVD or DLC coating?” They are not the same thing. DLC is an acronym for Diamond-Like Carbon, it is a type of coating and depending on the chemical composition can exhibit different properties. They don’t have to be Carbon based. Titanium Nitride is also popular as are other carbides, nitrides, silicides and borides for specialized applications. PVD stands for Physical Vapor Deposition, also known as thin-film coating, is a process in which a solid material is vaporized in a vacuum and deposited onto the surface of a part. There are a number of processes which fall under the term. The coating may nor may not be DLC. So if a watchmaker states it is a DLC coating then you know what type of coating it is. If they say PVD coating they are telling you how the coating was put on, not what it is. It may not be DLC or another type of hard, durable coating.
For me and maybe many others, the Doxa Army was a bit of an anomaly. There was next to no information about the watch and there was no-one I knew who had one. It was a Doxa in name only. Yes it used a classic Doxa Tonneau case but it didn’t have a NODECO bezel and didn’t use classic Doxa SUB hands. The watch shipped on a Tropic strap and not the Doxa SUB Beads of Rice (BOR) bracelet. The movement was a Synchron 21 Jewels 118 which is an ETA 2472. Some watches have a signed Synchron rotor, others show a Doxa rotor and 17 Jewels. Possibly an ETA 2852. It really wasn’t a Doxa SUB in my eyes. It was released in the early 1970s when Doxa was part of the Synchron group which consisted of Doxa, Ernest Borel and Cyma. It was hoped that as a group they could use synergies and economies of scale to help fight off the devastation of the Quartz Revolution. It wasn't as successful as had been hoped and Synchron was sold off around 1980.
There is a thought that some of the Doxa Army watches were produced without the coating but I have my doubts. The coating didn’t adhere particularly well to the watch and flaked off and many people removed what was left leaving a somewhat mottled appearance on the case. Presumably the case was bead blasted prior to coating in order to give a better surface for the coating to adhere to. In the images of the Doxa Army above you can see that "orange peel" surface on the watch case. The give away on the stainless steel watches that look like they have a brushed case can be seen on the crown. It was originally coated too but you can often see the remnants of the coating in the spines of the crown even though the coating has been completely removed from the case. The Army crown was unsigned. Although the image above shows an Army with a replacement, non original crown, the back of the case still has remnants of the original coating.
What is interesting for me is that although the Army was released during the Synchron era the case used was the first generation SUB 300T case, which was the thinnest of all the vintage cases. The thickest were the Synchron generation cases. But for whatever unknown reason Doxa decided not to use it. The Army measured 45mm lugs to lugs, 45mm wide (including the crown) and 13mm high. It used a flat mineral crystal and the lug width was 20mm.
The Army was produced around the beginning of the 1970s and was supposed to have been made for the Swiss Army but there was no way to verify that. Doxa, however, did supply watches to the Swiss military. The following is an excerpt from the 50th Doxa book:
Between 1969 and 1975, in small batches, the Swiss Army Divers acquired approximately 150 watches. Case backs and dials differ between batches (eg some with DOXA or Synchron logo or without), but all have the Swiss cross, EMD (Eidgenössisches Militärdepartment, which translates to: Swiss Federal Military Department) and the diver’s number engraved.
The image above shows the caseback from one.
So what exactly was the Army? Who was it manufactured for, aimed to sell to and how many were made? None of these questions can be answered with any degree of certainty. My own thoughts are that because the bezel is a 60 minute countdown rather than a standard 60 minute elapsed bezel found on just about every other dive watch and the hands and dial are completely different to the standard SUB dive watch, it may have been more of a fashion statement rather than aimed at the Scuba crowd. A picture of it in a Synchron catalog shows it on the same page as other fashion watches rather than beside the SUB 300T. Each Doxa Army was supplied in a zipper bag made of camouflage cloth. Probably not a surprise to know a few were used as pencil cases.
So how many were made? That’s a tough question. With no official documentation to go on, the only thing you can do is look at the serial numbers on watches that have appeared. In my own “research” I have seen serial numbers in the range 6675837 to 6676123. If we assume that Doxa allocated a range of numbers for the Army then we could assume that there were somewhere around 300 watches made. However, given that there have been so few Doxa Army’s ever seen, my guess is that the serial numbers were just a standard numerical progression for both the Army and the SUB 300T watches produced at the time. As the casebacks also show the model number (11899-4 for the 300T and 11891-4 for the Army) then I suspect that is how the watches were tabulated. Model number rather than production serial number. If I’m correct then there really is no way to know how many Army watches were made and my guess is it could be far, far less than 300. But just hold that thought on serial numbers because I will return to it.
It came as a surprise to many people when in early March 2021 Synchron announced the release of the Military. It was probably more of a surprise that it looked like a watch they had seen before. My father would have summed it up with: “every resemblance to the Doxa Army is purely……. intentional” The Synchron Military was released in a limited run of 500 watches. 250 were in uncoated Stainless Steel and 250 had a black PVD coating. What surprised everyone including the folks at Synchron was that the 250 uncoated watches sold out in 24 hours. The coated ones were all gone 5 days later.
Among all the shocked people at the Synchron Military release, the most shocked were probably the management at Doxa and for those that don’t already know, here is where the story gets interesting for you. Rick Marei who is the man behind Synchron (he acquired the name of the defunct group mentioned earlier) is also the man who basically resurrected the Doxa brand 20 years ago. The Doxa brand is owned by the Jenny family who bought it in the 1990s. One of the things Rick had wanted to do almost from the start with Doxa was re-release the Army, but the Jenny family didn’t think it would be of much interest to Doxa fans and so every time Rick brought it up, it got quietly shelved. Rick wasn't an employee of Doxa but through his Synchron group he came up with the designs and marketed and sold the Doxa SUB watches that Jenny built through their subsidiary; Walca. The arrangement was very successful for almost 19 years until the Jenny family wanted total control and the business arrangement was terminated. They installed a new CEO and Doxa took a different direction. The parting of ways may have been a surprise, but it allowed Rick to focus on resurrecting another famous and all but forgotten brand: Aquastar, culminating in the re-release of one of the most iconic vintage dive watches ever: the Deepstar.
It also allowed me to write another book. Shameless plug time ....... "A Dive Into Time"
Fast forward to now and the Doxa Army that isn’t a Doxa Army. The Synchron Military. Sure it looks like a Doxa Army but it doesn’t say Doxa on it and “Quelle surprise !”, Doxa had nothing to do with it. It’s probably an understatement to say that the Military release caught Doxa with their pants down. They responded immediately with an image and a message that raised a few eyebrows. It is shown below.
The general consensus was that they hadn’t been working on an Army and didn’t have a prototype but needed to do something so they dug out the image above with the by-line: “Only the original deserves your trust” and tried to look cool and trendy. It probably wasn’t one of Social Media’s finest moments! Anyone who had ever seen a Doxa Army looked at the hands and went: “wait a minute, they are not Army hands". The hour and minute hands are from a SUB and who knows where the second hand came from. Doxa claimed it was “an original picture of several executions back in the beginning of the 70s”. Many people including me didn’t believe it.
They quickly followed up with another image showing the correct Army hands but with a modified dial to the original. It is shown above. Look closely at the 12 o'clock marker. I'll come back to it later.
I’ve done a lot of searching and researching in the last month and I have to publicly say: “I think I was wrong”. That first image Doxa showed may indeed be a photo of a prototype or very limited release with SUB hour and minute hands. Humble pie never tastes good but it needs to be eaten What made me change my mind? Mike Moritz owns one! That's it pictured above. It may even be the only one. Mike is a Doxa fan and often wondered about the hands. Thinking that they may have been replacements to the traditional Army style hands. With the release of the image by Doxa, I think that mystery is cleared up.
There is another thing about Mike’s watch that is different to the standard Doxa Army. Remember I was talking about caseback serial numbers. Well go back and look at the caseback image further up. It shows the model number at the top of the caseback and the serial number at the bottom. Look at the image of Mike’s caseback above. The serial number and model number are both at the bottom of the caseback. Now look at the serial number. It is more than 50 less than the lowest number of any Army I have seen so far. Whether Mike’s watch was indeed a very limited issue of the Army or a prototype will probably never be known but one thing is for sure, it is pretty darned rare.
What is interesting for me is that although the Army was released during the Synchron era the case used was the first generation SUB 300T case, which was the thinnest of all the vintage cases. The thickest were the Synchron generation case. But for whatever unknown reason they decided not to use it. The prototype with the SUB hands and the production cases are definitely first generation SUB 300T cases. Easily distinguished because of the size and shape of the crown cut out and thinness of the case from the side view. The Synchron Military is true to the Synchron era watches and uses the thicker case. The image above shows the Synchron Military and the same vintage case used for the Doxa Army. The Military case is the same dimensions as the vintage Synchron SUB case.
The use of the Synchron era case also means the case edges are symmetrical. There is no crown cutout on the right side of the case as there is on the Doxa Army. There is a crown recess, but it is below the upper edge of the case. The image above compares the top views of the Military and Army crown cutouts.
And it is that cutout and different crown profile on the Military which is what a number of people consider the biggest shortcoming of the Military. The crown sticks out too far. On the Army the crown stuck out 2mm, on the Military it is 4mm. In the image above of the prototype case, look at the rounded edge at the bottom of the crown. If it had been flat the crown would have recessed slightly more. For most people it isn’t an issue but for some depending on how they wear the watch it may dig into the wrist. It doesn’t for me and I wear my watches very loose. The other thing about the Military crown is that it does not have a decouple mechanism. Put simply it is a modification inside the crown that disengages the crown from the stem when you screw the crown down so it doesn’t continue to engage the winding train. Synchron say it was done that way as it is one thing less to wear and possibly fail on the watch. Crown failure isn’t that common a problem but having had 2 decouple crowns fail on two different watches in the past, it is real and if it happens to a vintage watch be prepared to pay big bucks for a replacement, if you can get one.
I got the Military prototype case in July 2020. Rick sent me a couple of photos of it then shipped it over and said: “what do you think?” My first reaction was that I didn’t think that the white chapter ring was correct and thought a black one would be better. In fact it isn’t a chapter ring it is actually the crystal gasket. I tried it with a number of different dial and hand combinations, but the white gasket just didn't seem to work. I removed the crystal and painted the gasket black and sent him some photos. He had already come to the same conclusion that the black looked far better and that’s what you now see in the production watches.
Another thing that is different in the prototype is the bezel, not only was it white luminous material which was changed to a color which approximated aged lume for the production watches but the minute indices were just polished steel. In sunlight they looked great but angleing your wrist out of the light caused them to disappear. You can see the effect above.
At the time I had bought a Maranez Samui and as it is also based on the vintage Synchron SUB case I wondered if the BOR bracelet would fit. It certainly did and beautifully. I posted a picture on the Dive Watch Forum and when the Military was released many people bought the bracelet. Sometimes serendipity just has it's way. There is a lot to like about the Maranez bracelet. It tapers from 20mm at the lugs to 18mm at the clasp and is closer in look and feel to the vintage Doxa BOR than any of the Marei or ICE era bracelets are. If you have a vintage Synchron SUB 300T and need a bracelet, my advice would be to get one of the Maranez BORs as it fits perfectly.
So what was the production version of the Military like? I asked if I could get a dial and hands to complete my prototype but Rick surprised me with a complete watch. All the stainless steel and coated watches came in a Synchron tube with a number of extra straps. Mine came on a dark grey Tropic with a spare black Isofrane and two other straps (one black and one light grey). As mentioned above, the case is outwardly identical to the Synchron SUB 300T so that makes it 42mm diameter (without the crown), 45mm lug to lug, and 14mm thick and a 300 meter water depth rating. The bezel has a sapphire insert and the crystal is flat Sapphire. The watch is powered by an ETA 2824-2. In the photo below you will notice a blue covering on the crown. This is a film that many crown manufacturers add for protection. It is easy to remove. I never do. I just leave it until it wears off. The case is 316 Stainless Steel and again as mentioned above, the watch was produced with 250 watches uncoated and 250 watches with a black PVD coating.
The thing you won't see in any of the pictures of the watch is the price. It sold at $990. The fit, finish and quality of the watch is truly excellent. The complete package with extra straps was a very nice touch but what really made the watch an almost impulse buy was the price. You rarely get deals like this and what made it sweeter was it was from a man with a 20 year track record of producing Doxa SUBs, Aquadives and now Aquastars. This fell right into the: Give people what they want at a price they are happy to pay. So no big surprise they went fast.
When it comes to luminous material on a watch, the gold standard for me is still the Seiko Monster. It has massive amounts of Superluminova on the dial and it glows like a lighthouse. But the Military is no slouch in the lume department. I think the image above talks for itself so I'll shut up and let you literally just bask in the glow.
One of the things you will notice about the watch is that the dial is subtly different from the original Doxa Army. Look at the 12'o clock marker on the Military and compare it with the vintage Army pictures above. Notice the black square on the Army dial which is missing from the Military. Remember I told you I'd come back to the second picture Doxa released when the Military came out. They said it was a new prototype. Go back up and check it again. Notice how it doesn't have the black square either. Seems we have a case of Doxa copying Synchron copying Doxa.
So now the wait is on to see what Doxa comes up with for their new version of the Army. Some people have questioned whether they actually will release a watch because Synchron beat them to the punch and their focus seems to be more on the trendy end of the market now. My feeling is that they should and will release an Army. No matter how good the Synchron Military is, it will never have one thing that the Doxa Army will have. That is the name Doxa on the dial. For many people that is enough to buy one. I'm interested to see what they come up with. I'm sure it will not come with a genuine Tropic strap like the original, it probably won't come on a BOR as good as the Maranez and won't sell for $990. I also hope there isn't a bright orange Jenny fish on the crown but I'm sure the watch will look great and people will buy it because it is a Doxa.
But this review isn't about a watch that may or may not ever be produced, it is about a watch that took so many people by surprise. It is also about a watch that you cannot buy anymore unless it is second hand and it is about a watch that showed that Synchron was back as a watchmaker and has many people wondering what they will come out with next. Synchron really proved the old adage to be correct: "Build it and they will come". They built the Military and an Army of fans came.