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Review: Baltic MR01

I love an oxymoron. “I can resist everything but temptation,” said Oscar Wilde. “The budget was unlimited, but I exceeded it,” said Donald Trump. But my favourite is this: “That cheap watch is excellent.” You see, watchmaking is one of those distinct industries in which excellence comes at a cost, one so steep you could put snow and a chalet on it and make a tidy income. There are good cheap watches and even great cheap watches, but at some point the bough breaks and the analogy falls, because it seems like making a cheap, excellent watch is nigh on impossible. That is, until now.

The Design

This is the MR01, the creation of French-based watch brand Baltic, and I’m not alone in saying that this is one of the most attractive watches in recent memory. Indulge me for a moment in some subjective analysis, for which I speak not just, I hope, myself, but any number of the other people who think this watch looks absolutely magnificent.

On paper it’s unremarkable: a simple case just 36mm across, wrought in steel; a three-hander dial with sub-seconds and Arabic numerals; all worn on a skinny leather strap. There’s not a lot to work with here, and as you’ll see, that only makes the achievement this watch has accomplished all the more spectacular.

What you see here is the culmination of five years of learning on the job, an evolution of design that results in something that looks almost timeless. If you’ve ever been involved with anything creative before, you’ll know just how much of an effort it takes to make something look effortless: and the Baltic MR01 looks definitively effortless.

You won’t find anything innovative or unusual here. It’s a watch that looks just as familiar as it does new. The feuille or “leaf” hands are almost as old as time immemorial. The Breguet numerals hark back to Breguet himself, from the late 18th century. The large sub-dial has always been the simplest way to transmit seconds from the movement.

But what Baltic has here is an intrinsic understanding of form. Artists have long been trying to define what makes something look proportionally right, introducing such concepts as the “golden ratio” seen so frequently in nature, inspiring what is perhaps one of Patek Philippe’s most uninteresting designs. Art, it seems is not a science.

Scale, proportion, contrast, texture: it’s all at work here. The case may be small but the dial doesn’t feel crowded. Definition is achieved not just with colour, but with finish as well, contrasting polished markers with a grained backdrop. The bezel and crown don’t overwhelm or disappear, the lugs aren’t too delicate or too butch. Said out loud and those things could describe any old watch. Look at the MR01 and you’ll see how it all comes together.

The Specification

Ok, so that was more than enough creative fluff for one review. A watch that looks pretty is one thing, but that’s about as useful as a dissolvable umbrella if it’s actually a piece of rubbish. The Baltic MR01 has it all to play for.

There are three colours to choose from for the finely textured dial, silver, salmon or blue, all three punctuated with bright silver markers and hands. This all sits behind a Hesalite—acrylic, to you and me—crystal, that, with a slight dome, very much harks back to the first time around watches looked like this, the 1930s and 40s. Unlike Omega’s Speedmaster, however, which gives you the option of authentic Hesalite or more modern and scratch-resistant sapphire, you only get the one option. There’s another little oxymoron for you there.

If you’re thinking about water-resistance, forget it. This isn’t the watch for you. At just 9.9mm thick, including the domed crystal, you’re better off treating this watch like you would its vintage brethren, keeping it as far away from moisture as you would a Gremlin.

But never mind what’s outside the case; where things start to get really interesting is what’s inside it. It’s a surprisingly thin watch—another factor in what makes the proportions feel so authentic and satisfying—and the initial instinct would be that the movement inside does away with the ability to self wind. That is, after all, how period watches ended up as thin as they are.

With just 42 hours of power reserve, you’ll be glad to hear that, no, it is not a manually wound watch. To save space, this movement does away with a full-width winding rotor to convert the energy from your motion into power stored in the mainspring—instead it has a micro-rotor.

Inset deep into the movement and engraved with the brand’s name, the micro rotor not only keeps the movement thin, it also gives the mechanism within the opportunity to be seen and enjoyed. Not only that, but that reduction in height had to go somewhere, and so the movement fills the case edge to edge for yet another proportionally satisfying experience.

The Price

This all seems like a lot of watch for $650. And if you can’t get an excellent watch cheap, then it suggests something’s afoot. And it is, but the difference here is that Baltic are utterly transparent with it. If there’s one thing that mires the industry, it’s transparency. The kudos in branding a watch as “Swiss Made” or “in-house” has led many a watchmaker to bend and even break the truth. Baltic decided to skip that altogether and be upfront from the word go.

So here it is: the watch is pretty much entirely manufactured in Hong Kong, including the movement, which is a Hangzhou calibre 5000A. I know what you’re thinking, or rather doing: running a million miles away, and were this Baltic’s first watch, I’d be lacking in confidence myself, but there’s something else worth considering. The parts may be manufactured in Hong Kong, but the assembly and testing happens in Baltic’s home country of France under the watchful eye of the brand itself, and with it comes a two year comprehensive guarantee.

Baltic as a brand is in this for the long haul, investing in products that give us what their creator, Etienne Malec, became frustrated in searching for himself. The goal is simple: offer excellent watches for fair prices. Over the past five years, I believe Baltic has made some truly great watches, but with the MR01 we’ve finally reached the dream: excellence.

I don’t expect you to take my word for it, and you don’t have to, because so many people agree with me that the MR01 has completely sold out. There are more on the way, but demand has outstripped supply so enormously that the MR01 has been spotted for resale at over three times the asking price.

Baltic is by no means the only small watch brand making affordable watches like this, so why all the fuss? The big difference is something so intangible that it, like some kind of quantum-esque reaction, can’t really be pinned down. Baltic’s vision reads like that of any of its competitors, but the execution is driven by a mind that truly understands the deepest wants of people like you and me. It’s a rare thing, a very rare thing, but the Baltic MR01 is not an oxymoron. It is truly cheap and awfully excellent.