Anthony gives a personal perspective of the Sinn 356 Chronograph on a road-trip to its homeland.
A friend of mine who runs a small company, swears by the motto: “If you want to get something done, get a German to do it.” You can understand why. German engineering and quality is renowned as the best in the world. And Germans – on the whole – are never late. So you would expect their watches to be second to none.
I’ve always been a massive fan of Sinn, along with most watch aficionados I know. The company was founded in Frankfurt in 1961 by Helmut Sinn, a former flying ace and flight instructor. This heritage is very clear in many of the Sinn watches you see today, with a strong focus on aviation. But not just aviation as we know it: the company also made watches that were taken into space, most recently in the 1990s with the Russian-built Mir spacecraft and on the German Spacelab mission, using space shuttle Columbia.
A Military Watch Band mission to Germany
I was heading to Germany for work, and really wanted to take a Sinn watch there, especially as I would be passing through Frankfurt. Unfortunately there wasn’t time to visit the Sinn headquarters, but that will be a trip for next time. The watch I choose was the Sinn 356 pilot watch, distinguished by the word “flieger” – which funnily enough, means “aviator” – on the dial. The watch itself was comprehensively covered on these pages by a review just over a year ago.
So writing an in-depth review wasn’t the reason why it was coming to Germany with me. Instead, I wanted to see, as a committed driver, if a pilot’s watch would serve someone more intent at low-level flying: down the autobahn. After my recent experience with the new Phalanx on a Military style strap, I also wanted to see whether or not as a former Military Style strap hater, my conversion was complete. I’d enjoyed wearing the Phalanx, but on a very different type of Military style band. Could I still happily live with one on a daily basis?
The Sinn 356 originally came on a metal bracelet, but would it still look and perform as well attached to a Military Style Strap? The steel bracelet gives it a very strong personality, and many people feel that it's an integral part of the look and philosophy of the 356. Is that feeling maintained when you change the strap: in this case, a ZULUDIVER 141 Nylon Military Watch Band? So many questions. And five days to find out.
The 356’s greatest trick
First impressions: this is one handsome watch. A classically-proportioned chronograph (with a 38.5-millimetre case) it features an equally classic black background with super-clean lines and the sort of domed acrylic crystal that makes you feel a bit like a flying ace.
There are three subdials, slightly sunken into the face, as well as a date window, so plenty of functionality in a relatively small space. And if you had to choose just one impression that sums up what the aesthetic of this watch is all about? It looks busy without ever feeling cluttered – and that’s the real genius of this watch. In a slightly surreal Kafka-esque way – another German innovator – this watch somehow manages to pull off a clean look that suggests minimalism while incorporating plenty of detail at the same time. Don’t ask me how that’s even possible – yet somehow it is. Personally, I’m not generally a fan of overt branding on a watch, but to my mind the Sinn logo, in its crisp flowing script, is the nicest one out there bar any. Again, there’s no objectively logical reason as to why that’s the case: it just is.
The whole ensemble just works, especially with that logo placed at the three o’clock position. It hints that this is a watch filled with surprises: and that’s absolutely true. All of them very good.
Planes, trains and autobahns
First, the driving part. The 356 sits on the wrist neatly and very comfortably, and if making an early start, that bright green lume is more than welcome in gloom of the dawn. It clearly indicates the time at a glance, and makes you think briefly of what it must have been like to have been shivering in the cockpit of a fighter plane; alone with just the night sky and your watch for company, relying on the glow of the lume to help you plot your flight path.
As a diversion, it’s well worth reading The Shepherd by Frederick Forsyth – which is set in Germany – to capture exactly that sort of atmosphere. We won’t ruin the surprise but it's a gripping book, where the 356 would have been right at home.
Anyway, there’s always a slight feel of the lone aviator when you’re heading out on a long car journey at dawn. And the Sinn 356 was an excellent companion. Essentially, driving watches and flying watches are designed with the same priorities: clarity, precision, and instant readability. Which means that a pilot’s watch makes a perfect choice: especially a Sinn if you’re heading to Germany on the autobahn (via the Eurotunnel).
Here’s the interesting thing. If anything, that ZULUDIVER 141 strap enhances the air force heritage of the Sinn 356, especially in ‘army green’. This particular strap comes in a choice of four colours, none of which would look out of place on the Sinn. The steel buckles make a perfect counterpoint to the actual watch too, to the point that you could easily imagine this strap as an option you find in the box. However, it's worth pointing out that you can also customise the hardware on your Military Band, as we offer three finishing options - satin, IP black or polished.
And because the colour is subtle, it doesn’t draw attention to itself on the wrist either, instead letting the 356 itself become the highlight. It could be that I’m becoming a Military style strap fanboy in my advancing years, because one aspect that I’d never properly appreciated until now is how much a metal bracelet can be a show-stealer.
Most people – myself included – like that, as we obviously see the bracelet as being a holistic component of the actual watch. But take off that showy bracelet, replace it with something that’s almost back-to-nature simple, and a wholly different stylistic dynamic emerges. It’s a bit like having a special painting: you can either put it in an ornate baroque frame or a plain glass one. Both are impressive – but in which one do you notice the actual painting more?
The ultimate driving machine
Setting off early through the quiet streets of London, the route took in the familiar trip through the channel tunnel to Calais – dispatched with the minimum of fuss – then north up to the Belgian border after Dunkirk, before turning right towards Brussels, continuing south-east past Liege and crossing the German border at Aachen: a travel time of about three hours, with only a slight hold up due to some congestion in Brussels. See? After a bit of time with the 356, you even end up talking like a pilot.
After diving into Frankfurt for a meeting, where Sinn was founded 59 years ago – expect a party and some special releases next year perhaps – it was back west towards the Nurburgring: my final destination, some 400 or so miles from London as the crow flies, and about 600 miles (and 14 hours) after leaving home that morning. All very easy by BMW 330d and Sinn 356. Who says that trouble comes in threes?
The Nurburgring is of course the home of the German Grand Prix, where I was heading on Formula 1 duty, working in the communications department of tyre supplier Pirelli. And Sinn has an interesting history at the fabled German track, which Sir Jackie Stewart called “the green hell”. In 2004, one of Germany’s most famous racing drivers, Hans-Joachim Stuck, won the 24-hour race there, wearing a Sinn 958 on his wrist. He was also driving a BMW: this time, an M3 GTR. So, there was real significance in driving to the ‘green hell’ in the car I had, wearing this watch. Of course, my BMW is almost as old as Stuck’s victory, considerably less powerful, and on top of that it’s done a venerable 170,000 miles, but that doesn’t stop the whole experience from feeling special and somehow significant. This is definitely the right watch (and right car) for the occasion.
The 24-hour race, which was won by Stuck, doesn’t take place on the track that’s now used for Formula 1. Because the modern Nurburgring grand prix circuit hides something of a secret in the trees beyond its gravel traps and tyre barriers: the colossal Nordschleife. That’s the one where Stuck won with a Sinn 958 on his wrist: a distinctive watch for sure, but lacking the beautiful clarity of the 356.
Lord of the Ring
At 20.81 kilometres or around 13 miles – four times the length of the regular Grand Prix circuit – the ‘old’ Nurburgring is the longest and most fearsome permanent circuit in all of motor racing.
More so than the length, it’s the constantly flowing bends, elevation changes and the proximity of the crash barriers that make the Nordschleife quite so demanding for the drivers.
The Nurburgring was laid out in the Eifel mountains around the town and castle of Nurburg in the 1920s and hosted its first German Grands Prix soon afterwards: initially on an even longer layout that combined the Nordschleife (or ‘north loop’) with the shorter Sudschleife, located where the current GP circuit is.
Part of the Formula 1 calendar from 1951, the Nordschleife proved to be challenging enough on its own as the speeds of the cars increased. It earned a fearsome reputation for its bumps, blind corners, and the bravery needed to conquer it: especially in heavy rain and fog. That’s still a feature now: there was no Friday practice at this year’s grand prix there as the cloud was too low for the medical helicopter to take off.
After drivers boycotted the 1970 race on safety grounds some modifications were made, like smoothing out some bumps and jumps, but much of the danger remained and it was impractical for the demands of television. The final F1 race on the Nordschleife was held in 1976 – marked by the fiery crash in which Niki Lauda suffered life-threatening burns, made famous by the movie Rush. If you’ve not seen it, this is a must-watch.
The perfect watch for work and play
The Sinn 356 did everything well: being a perfect travel watch, driving watch, and of course flying watch – if you’re inclined to take to the skies. What I really appreciated was the way that it felt so comfortable on the wrist, and how the bead-blasted exterior made it more than man enough to cope with the inevitable bumps and scrapes that you get when moving around a lot.
But above all, it was the aesthetic that did it for me, with function following form perfectly. Those syringe hands are unusual, but they allow you to quickly tell the time with such a degree of precision that you wish more watches had them.
And what about the value? At well under £2000, this represents value for money that is truly stunning: considering the robustness, precision, heritage, chronograph functionality and gorgeous looks of the entire package. But actually, this trip to Germany wasn’t really about any of that. It was about how this watch feels and looks in this setting, on this Military style strap.
It's definitely a change from what I would normally wear, but I’d like to wear one more now. And it’s also incredible how wearing a watch in its historical and geographical context makes you appreciate it even more: another nice surprise.
I wore the 356 on the ZULUDIVER 141 Nylon Military Watch Band while driving, while at a business meeting, while at a race track, and during two evenings out: one formal dinner and one more riotous night out in a traditional German cellar bar. For those who haven't experienced this yet, do it now. Beer is so integral to the German way of life, that there are even strict laws governing how it is made. As this Sinn watch proves, absolutely nothing in Germany is left to chance.