Is the Steinhart Ocean One Vintage Chronograph a passable homage?
A while ago, there was a show on TV called “Faking It”. It was pretty good actually, and the premise of it was that a “faker” – for example, a burger-flipper operating out of a van in a lay-by – would be placed among a series of Michelin starred chefs in a cookery competition. The faker, who would prepare for the challenge with some intense tuition from genuine experts, didn’t necessarily have to win, but instead simply pass himself or herself off as not an imposter.As you can imagine, the challenge was massive. But the one really surprising thing about the programme was just how often the fakers got away with it. As a friend of mine recently remarked though, it’s probably not that surprising in the end: because we’ve all had experiences in life when we’ve been placed into positions where (let’s be completely honest about it) we have absolutely no clue about what we’re doing. And nobody seems to notice. In fact, it’s often the exact opposite. Frequently you find out that, if you pretend to be good at something, you actually end up being quite good for real; like a self-fulfilling prophecy. Call it the power of positive thinking.
So what’s that got to do with watches? The answer will be pretty obvious once you take a look at the Steinhart Ocean One Vintage Chronograph. You’d probably describe it as a tribute watch to the Rolex “Paul Newman” Daytona (although Steinhart see it as belonging much more to water rather than land).
It ticks all the boxes: chunky steel bracelet, a recognisable silhouette, and most distinctively of all that unmistakeable panda face, with three black subdials on a gorgeous cream background. No doubt about it, this is a really attractive watch: which is why values of the Daytona (especially the Newman variants) have rocketed to the current almost unbelievable levels.
Where watches meet the race track
So what’s so special about Paul Newman – and the Daytona named after him? Many famous names from other spheres have tried their hand at motorsport. Few, if any, have done it with as much style and success as Paul Newman. Newman was an icon of Hollywood for his dashing looks and blue eyes as well as his acting abilities that earned him eight Oscar nominations for best actor. But his racing exploits only added to the Paul Newman legend. It was training at a racing school for the 1969 film Winning – in which he played racing driver Frank Capua – that really got Newman hooked on motorsport. In the 1970s he began competing in Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) events, and went on to win four national championship titles. He competed at the Le Mans 24 Hours in 1979 and finished second overall on his one and only appearance, driving a Porsche 935. At the age of 70, Newman went on to win his class at the Daytona 24 Hours in 1995.
In the world of watches of course, Newman became synonymous with the particular Rolex Daytona to which the Steinhart Ocean One pays homage. His racing endeavours are central to the watch’s story – after all, the Daytona was designed for use by racing drivers to time their efforts on track.
It was during the filming of Winning that Newman’s wife and co-star Joanne Woodward bought him a Daytona fitted with an ‘exotic’ dial. It’s this dial that differentiates a ‘Paul Newman’ Daytona. When Newman received his, the exotic dial Daytona was one of Rolex’s least popular models. This has helped it to be so rare relative to its later-found popularity because so few were made.
That was the power of Newman’s legendary status. And when his very own ‘Paul Newman Daytona’ went for auction in 2017, it fetched $17.753 million – a record price at the time for a wristwatch.
Making a differenceFaced with that illustrious history, the Steinhart leaves you feeling a little conflicted; at least initially. To call it a fake would be unjust and untrue, but at the same time, is it trying to be something that it’s not? This is where the line becomes harder to draw. Because although it looks superficially similar to a Daytona, the truth is that it isn’t similar at all. Look at the size of it for a start. The Steinhart, at 42mm, dwarfs the 37mm (original) Daytona
The details too are completely different. And it’s all these differences that ultimately reconcile you to the watch more. You start looking for these differences and celebrating them, in order to justify liking it. “No, it’s obviously not trying to be a Daytona, because....” is how you end up starting every sentence when you talk about it. And by the end of the conversation, you’ve come up with 50 good reasons why it’s not a Daytona. Definitely not an imposter, instead something totally and utterly different. Or so you repeat to yourself.
Here’s a thing though. Regular listeners of our podcast might remember that we had James Grant as a guest: an authorised Rolex dealer in Cheltenham. And when he came in, I found myself shoving my sleeve over the Steinhart slightly, in a way that I probably wouldn’t have done had there not been a Rolex expert in the room. But that probably says more about me than the watch.
Imitation is the sincerest form…
As you might tell, perhaps I wasn’t entirely convinced or comfortable with the Steinhart at first – but that doesn’t mean I didn’t like it. A few people thought it was a Daytona; I didn’t really bother to contradict all of them, but you do feel a bit bad about it. And that made wonder what Rolex actually think about this sort of thing. So I asked somebody who knew: a Rolex dealer on the other side of the world. What he had to say surprised me a bit. Rolex, I’m now reliably informed, are pretty relaxed about this sort of thing. For two reasons: firstly they believe it just increases the desirability of their brand: imitation being the sincerest form of flattery and all that. Secondly, they think it might just get people into the real watches one day. And there’s no doubt that the experience of wearing the Ocean One does make you think that it would be really cool to own a proper Daytona one day. At the same time, questioning exactly why anyone would pay several hundred thousand pounds for a Newman version.
And just look at what you get for €980 courtesy of Steinhart. A handsome, imposing, seemingly indestructible watch that looks amazing. Take it all in for a moment: it’s astonishing value and you can’t fault the quality. It has a classy look to it, like something far more expensive, and the ETA movement is a tried and trusted workhorse that won’t let you down. What’s there not to like? It definitely feels like a guilty pleasure. But in the end, it’s a homage watch, and you just have to get over that. Some of Rolex’s own watches were homages after all; the Submariner was unquestionably inspired by Blancpain’s Fifty Fathoms. So what’s the problem there? As with all watches, it’s about appreciating it for what it is, rather than what you would like it to be.
A Spa break with a difference
The Ocean One is certainly a watch that takes a few days to get into, for many reasons. But once you do, it becomes a reliable, if slightly attention-seeking, travelling companion. I had a busy schedule with the Steinhart: London to Switzerland for a quick meeting, then down into Italy by for more meetings in Bologna, followed by Italy to Belgium for some racing; the Spa 24 Hours.
As the name suggests, that’s 24 hours of racing across one of the trickiest circuits in the world, normally in the cold, wet, and dark. So where better to take a watch that calls to mind the Daytona: an iconic timepiece that is synonymous with motorsport glamour?
The five miles or so of Spa-Francorchamps, in the middle of the rolling Ardennes hills, is a ferocious challenge at the best of times. But during the vast history of the 24 Hours of Spa, seldom has there been a predictable race around this legendary and blindingly fast stretch of Belgian real estate.
While 24-hour races are far from unique, the Spa 24 is an event with its own special characteristics. It’s never straightforward, and such is the nature of the circuit – the gradients, the capricious micro-climates, the epic corners of Eau Rouge, Blanchimont and Pouhon – that it’s perhaps the most volatile and difficult race of them all to take part in.
You’re never far away from an accident, whether due to the proximity of the barriers or the sheer relentlessness of the turns, hour after hour. It’s not like the Le Mans 24 Hours where the gap between first and second can be as much as two laps. instead, victory can be decided by mere seconds. And that’s why you need a chronograph. The Steinhart fitted in perfectly to this environment; the lume easy to read in the middle of the night as well.
One week on from first wearing it, I was delighted to have it with me. Ask any driver or team what the most difficult aspect of the 24 Hours of Spa is and most of them will say that just reaching the end in one piece is a relief. Most will encounter some trouble, very few will get any respite and almost all will be mentally and physically drained by the end. But to race twice round the attractive black bezel of the Ocean One, and come out the other side at one of the world’s most picturesque racing venues, is something worth the sacrifice. This watch was perfectly suited to the occasion. At Spa, it came into its own.
On a couple of occasions I experienced that funny thing, which probably only high-powered watch collectors get to experience on a regular basis. That’s when people are talking with you but they’re not looking at your face. Instead, they’re checking out your wrist. And it’s quite obvious – especially if they know you are into watches – that they’re thinking: is it? Is it really? Has he come into some money or something?
But of course, they’re far too cool to ask. Depending on how competitive the individuals are (and racing drivers tend to be quite competitive) they’ll sometimes try and shuffle their own expensive watches into more prominent view. Go to a motorsport paddock and you’ll see a lot of Richard Milles, not to mention the ubiquitous Monaco. Because there’s nobody cooler than Steve McQueen – apart from possibly Paul Newman…
In conclusion? You go on a journey with this watch every time you take it anywhere. Not just literally on a journey – and this one numbered around 3000 miles – but also a psychological one, when you question what a watch really means to you, how much you’re influenced by trends and labels, and to what extent you’re swayed by other peoples’ opinions.Strip all that baggage away and what remains is the Steinhart being a really nice, eye-catching watch that’s good value and very well-made. Throughout my time with it, I found to be a really reassuring presence on the wrist, comfortable to wear and elegant to look at. In time, I confess: I really grew to like it. Do you care that it looks a bit like a Daytona? Possibly. Among some people, who have never worn it, the Steinhart might always remain unloved.
But here’s a salient fact: the Newman Daytona itself was deeply unloved when Paul Newman first started wearing it. Yet Newman – or rather his wife, the original purchaser – didn’t care. She bought it, and he wore it, simply because they liked it. And so, this watch actually has more in common than with the Paul Newman Daytona than you might think, because actually, it has little regard for public opinion. It’s there for you to wear if you like it. And personally, I do.
Click here to find out more about the Steinhart Ocean One Vintage Chronograph in White.