A Review of the Helm Vanuatu

A Review of the Helm Vanuatu

8 min read
Richard Brown



Richard Brown



Back in 2020 we first introduced the elusive US brand Helm. Two years later we have gained some test time with a 2022 Vanuatu Diver. Helm is synonymous with their ultra loyal fanbase and patient waiting lists so we had high expectations of something special. Could the Vanuatu live up to the long wait? Join us as we dive deep into the world of Helm.

First some background. HELM Watches are American owned originating from North Carolina. Their first model, the Vanuatu 300m Automatic, was originally released accompanied by a mission statement: “To produce durable, affordable, dependable timepieces that are inspired by adventure and exploration, and designed for a lifetime of both.”  A fine mantra to conceive a watch.

The driving force behind Helm is a gentleman called Matt Cross. A keen watch collector who struggled on a limited budget to find affordable models which met his durability requirements. Matt noted with some frustration that there was a good choice for customers with plenty of money to spend, but like so many of us now, he found the most desirable models excessively priced and those he could afford lacked critical technical capability.

What to do? Matt’s innovative solution was what most of us only dream of - to design and manufacture his own watch. A combination of a classic design he had already formulated and being based in Hong Kong at the right time culminated in fast, efficient, manufacturing and the release of the first Vanuatu, named after the South Pacific islands nation famous for their coral reefs and a WW2 shipwrecks. This watch has now evolved to become the definitive Helm and set design parameters and a powerful company ethos for successive models to follow.

A closer look at the 2022 Vanuatu 300m

I should point out at this stage that the Helm we reviewed was supplied on the proprietary RS2 rubber strap, not the standard steel bracelet pack which is also accompanied by a military style strap. This was a bespoke request for a professional dive customer so we were grateful for access.

Unboxing any Helm is a good experience. First thing we notices was a small hand written note on the box saying “Top”. Matt had added this so you open the box the right way up! That’s because he has personally packed the contents in a sequential order that gives you a journey to the product through essential paperwork. The dramatic “H” logo sits proudly on the box top looking like a helicopter landing pad. Lift the lid and you find a black envelope with a warranty card and pressure test certificate, hand completed by Matt. Also included is a handbook which you should read (never assume you know it all), some Helm logo stickers and a spring bar changer.

The Vanuatu is not subtle. At 42mm diameter and 50mm lug to lug it’s not physically a huge watch but it has significant presence. The stainless steel 316L case is brushed in an attractive yet purposeful pattern which adds to the tool watch look. And that’s what the Vanuatu is – a pure tool watch. It oozes functionality and works hard to cultivate the look of a product that won’t let you down. But it is more than just clever aesthetics. Helm watches really are rugged and professionally tested. Every Helm watch has the word "DIVER'S" printed on the dial. All watches are individually tested up to and beyond ISO 6425:2018 at a water pressure equivalent to 125% of the watch's rated depth.

Like the rest of the watch the human interface elements, the bezel and crown, have been designed without compromise. They have a cam wheel appearance with significant ridging on the edges to allow for a flawless grip, even with thick gloves on. The bezel helpfully protrudes just over the case further enhancing securing of handling.

Flip the case over and we have a deep and imposing Helm logo engraved into the back. Essential information also reassures us that the watch is tested and will take the hits. Even though it remains hidden the case back reflects the philosophy of design and construction. It is bold and impactful.

Inevitably we then come to the dial. The design element that Helm is arguably most renowned for.  They are a paragon of legibility. There is little text which is a welcome change. Only the “H” logo below the 12 indice tells you the brand. Below the hands we are informed that the watch is a DIVER’S model and the depth rating is confirmed along with the automatic movement. All of this is in a subtle graphite colour which barely stands out. Which introduces us to another element of Helm design – that nothing should detract from the presentation of information to the user who may be in a hostile environment.

Superficially it looks like there is a lot going on with a Vanuatu dial but that could not be further from the truth. It is simple with everything exaggerated to improve visual acuity. Blocky but not unattractive indices are supported by a strong minute track. Each indice is reinforced by a lume orange dot to further draw the eye. The hands are elongated wide rectangles of pure lume. If viewed in isolation they could look clumsy and oversized but when married up with the design of the watch they work perfectly. The minute hand has a small protuberance (syringe fashion) which gives you a pointer to the minute track. An orange second hand stretches right to the rehaut and meets seamlessly with the orange hour dots as it ticks them off. Generous BGW9 lume is not confined to the dial as the PVD black bezel also has critical elements imbedded with the ability to glow in low light. At 6 o’clock there is a smaller patch of lume to accommodate a date window. This is available with a standard white wheel with black numerals or an inverted version which we think looks best. In full dark the lume is legendary and you’ll find yourself plunging the room into blackness just to look at the watch.

Internally the Vanuatu is perfectly adequate if not special by utilising a tried and tested Seiko NH35 with hacking and manual wind features. This should deliver an accuracy of between 20-40 seconds +/- a day with a reasonable 40 hours of power in reserve. It does the job well and is repairable. The key behind this choice was to positively affect the retail price of the watch.

And that’s where the final shock comes in. This stunning creation which we would go as far to say is one of the best tool watches available is sold at just $285 from the Helm website. Small wonder there is a waiting list. However Matt tells us that he contacts Vanuatu customers at a rate of over 100 per month so with a bit of luck you won’t have to wait too long. Handling one for the first time we would definitely say it was worth the wait and unequivocally recommend you sign up.

The straps the Vanuatu come on are excellent. This is a big factor in the watch wearing so well and not feeling too large. The rubber strap we tested was well made and a bit of an Isofrane clone. The quality felt superior and from new it was comfortable and supple. Although we did not see the standard steel engine bracelet we know from discussions with the company that it is equally designed without compromise and extremely well regarded. In summary there was a real sense of expectation when we learned that a Helm was incoming. Many of us in WatchGecko had waited quite some time to see one and there was collective breath holding when the box was first opened. This was followed by noises of approval and an equally collective moment when we all realised that this was a very good watch. So in answer to my initial question of whether the Helm Vanuatu was worth the wait the answer is an emphatic “yes”. As alluded to earlier it is possibly one of the best tool watches we have seen in a long time and we see a lot! If we look at the watch as a holistic package encompassing build quality, price and design ethos its pretty hard to find fault. Bottom line is Helm have nailed it with this watch.  

Strap Showcase for the Helm Vanuatu

Of course no matter how good a package you can always change the look and given the Vanuatu is such a striking model we thought very carefully about our strap change alternatives. We feel each one brings a different look to the watch so consider them if you own a Helm or any dive watch which is similar.  

ZD Maverick MKII - Grey stitch

With this new MKII (August 2022) improved version of one of our most popular selling sailcloth watch straps, we have taken customer feedback and made a few upgrades. It makes the perfect partner for the Helm Vanuatu or any serious dive watch.

Featuring new ZULUDIVER branding to the lining of the strap, the buckle has been upgraded with our popular Sub-Aquatic, which is made from saltwater resistant 316L stainless steel, professional dual finishing, solid machined tongue and drilled holes for easy fitting or removal.

This watch strap features medium padding for added comfort but remains lightweight and flexible and is finished with a remborde edge to ensure it looks as good as it is tough. We have fitted quick-release spring bars to make it easy to fit the watch straps to your watch.

ZD Military Herringbone Military Strap - Bond

This is our latest Premium ZULUDIVER Military Herringbone military style nylon made from high strength seatbelt nylon webbing and fitted with our premium grade stainless steel military style nylon polished hardware, which includes the ZULUDIVER etching on the buckle and the keeper at 6 o'clock. The nylon we have used on this range is silky smooth providing a softer feel, and its reflective iridescent quality means the colours seem to change when seen from different angles. As with all our military style nylons, this example of our classic military style nylon watch strap has been carefully crafted with sturdy stitched joints for a long service life complementing your favourite watches.

Note: The Helm we tested actually now dives for a living on a ZD military style nylon strap so that is testimony to this classic pairing.

Tropical ZD Typhoon black/grey

We have taken our recently introduced TYPHOON sailcloth military style strap and upgraded it in this model with premium sold metal hardware. With our unique multi-layer sailcloth, which outperforms many inferior sailcloth imitations, we have created this premium sailcloth Tropical TYPHOON military style watch strap.

Three layers make up the 0.78mm thick PVC sailcloth rubber which literally sheds water. The first lining layer is made of a black woven cotton fabric which gives it tear-resistant strength. The next layer is a grey neoprene foam for flexibility and comfort in a wide range of temperatures. The top layer is black PVC rubber embossed with a sailcloth pattern and gives the material its unique look and robust high abrasion-resistant finish. The combination of these layers makes the material durable, flexible and very comfortable to wear.

ZD 400 (III) Italian in Orange

With orange featuring so well in the Vanuatu the ZULUDIVER 400 MKII Italian rubber Diver strap is a comprehensive package offering multi-adjustment sizing and the solid reassurance that comes with a flip-lock clasp. Manufactured and styled in full co-operation with renowned strap experts Bonetto Cinturini, this high-end strap, with unique carbon fibre pattern, will compliment the Helm or any dive/outdoor watch. The multi-adjustable sizing also offers superior comfort in hot climates making the 400 MKII an ideal choice for outdoor and survival watches, especially in Orange.

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Richard Brown

About the Author: Richard Brown

I truly believe one of the best partners in exploration and adventure is a fine watch. Over 30 years of collecting, my fascination with the technical capabilities of both vintage and modern timepieces has never abated and it is a privilege to be able to share this passion through writing.

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