This might be the ultimate set-it-and-forget-it wristwatch

The value proposition behind the new Citizen Eco-Drive Promaster Tough

By JACK FORSTER / Pic By BLOOMBERG

I’ve had a recurring fascination, for as long as I can remember, with the idea of a watch that would, for all intents and purposes, run forever, with perfect accuracy, more or less without human intervention. (In theory, anyway; in practice, I’ll take “for the remainder of my natural span of years”, of which I notice there are fewer than there used to be.)

This, of course, runs counter to the nature of watches as machines. Half the fun of owning a good watch is caring for it properly, after all, and for most of the history of watchmaking, a forever watch wasn’t even a remote possibility; regular servicing and regular replacement of parts like mainsprings were all part of the game.

In recent decades, however, technology has started to catch up to the fantasy of indefinite autonomy, and while the Citizen Eco-Drive Promaster Tough is not a forever watch by any means, it comes much, much closer than any mechanical timepiece, along with being remarkably, well, tough — just what it says on the tin, as they say.

An analogue watch, powered by light, in a very sturdy case, designed and engineered to tolerate abuse

The Eco-Drive Tough has had several incarnations (I remember the Super Tough with great fondness, despite — or perhaps because of — its ursine heft), but the basic philosophy has always been the same: An analogue watch, powered by light, in a very sturdy case, designed and engineered to tolerate abuse, up to and including physical conditions that might well prove fatal to the owner.

In this respect, it’s aligned somewhat with the G-Shock, but the G-Shock wears its toughness on its sleeve in a way the Eco-Drive Tough does not. It’s also a multifunction liquid-crystal display (LCD) timepiece, which means that it has certain advantages right out of the box in terms of shock resistance. A solid-state timepiece with no moving parts, other than the actuating and setting buttons, leaves less to chance than an analogue quartz watch, at least from a reliability standpoint.

The exterior of the case is clad in Duratect, about 5 times more scratch-resistant than standard stainless steels

So, what attributes ought a watch to have, if it’s to be a candidate for something you could count on, even if the time machine that has taken you back to the era When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth should suffer an unfixable fault? Well, you would not want it to be mechanical were there are any better alternative. Mechanical watches require regular servicing in order to last a lifetime, and while you certainly can run a well-made mechanical watch past its service interval — sometimes, well past its service interval — without noticing any immediately obvious issues in timekeeping, in general it’s not a good idea.

Space Traveller Pocket Watch

Even the best-made watch, after running for 20 years without attention, is apt to be on its last legs in terms of wear and tear. There are some exceptions: George Daniels, in his autobiography, mentions running some of his own timepieces for more than a decade with little to no change in rate and with little, if any, sign of wear. But we should probably not take the performance of a hand-made masterpiece by one of the greatest watchmakers of the 20th century as a sign of what to expect from mechanical watches in general. (Though the thought of evading velociraptors with a Space Traveller Daniels’ pocket watch tucked into one’s waistcoat pocket has an undeniable, rather HG Wells appeal.)

It’s not a multifunction LCD watch, so the circuitry is quite simple

However, the Eco-Drive Tough shares with the G-Shock all the charm of a watch built to a singular purpose, perhaps even more so. What the Eco-Drive Tough lacks in versatility, with respect to a multifunction LCD wristwatch such as the G-Shock, it gains back in a classic clarity with spiritual roots in the great, simple aviation and field watches of the 20th century. And simplicity has a virtue all its own in the context of a field watch; as the owner of several multifunction LCD watches, I can attest that operation generally becomes instinctive after a while, but you will be hard-pressed to operate some more-complex models without recourse to the manual. 

Simple and Duratect

The design is simplicity itself: A steel case with monocoque construction (the movement’s inserted on the dial side) 42mm in diameter, and 10.75mm thick; the exterior of the case is clad in Duratect, which is Citizen’s proprietary titanium alloy, about five times more scratch-resistant than standard stainless steels. The crystal is synthetic sapphire.

The case exudes solidity; the screw-down crown is protected by crown guards; water resistance is 200m; and resistance to magnetism is 4,800 amperes per meter. The rechargeable cell inside the watch is a potential point of concern if you’re looking for a timepiece that will run indefinitely with no need for a watchmaker’s attention, but the manual for the Eco-Drive Tough says bluntly that “the energy cell should last for the life of the watch”, which, given its simple and robust construction, should be a boringly long time.

The Eco-Drive Tough is available on either a ballistic Cordura strap or on a bracelet, but I think this watch works better on the strap, which feels, like the movement, as if it were designed to last “for the lifetime of the watch”. It’s just as robustly constructed as the case and extremely comfortable.

The watch case, as well as the strap, doesn’t offer anything at all in terms of cosmetics (unless you consider the minimal engraving on the case back cosmetic) but they certainly seem to overdeliver where it counts, in terms of durability. And as every fan of field watches knows, pursuing an engineering goal with a focused sense of purpose can give you an aesthetic that’s all the more pure for not having been an explicit goal at all.

Excellent Night Visibility

Nighttime visibility is excellent, thanks to the Super-LumiNova (SLN) on the hands and dial markers. Super-LumiNova was developed by Nemoto & Co, a Japanese company, as a replacement for tritium-based phosphorescent paints in 1993; it’s manufactured under licence in Switzerland by Tritec AG.

Is this a real “forever” watch? It’s not, but it comes closer probably than many, perhaps most, modern watches. It’s not a multifunction LCD watch, so the circuitry is quite simple; the mechanical forces from the stepper motor that drives the hands are probably low enough that mechanical wear is a non-issue for all practical intents and purposes; the power cell is said by Citizen to be good “for the life of the watch”, which is a little bit like saying that a human heart is guaranteed for the life of its owner, but I take Citizen’s point. (The oldest Eco-Drive watch I own is probably 20 years old and still going strong — an Eco-Drive Skyhawk, if anyone’s curious.)

The two places I’d think wear and tear would probably be most noticeable and potentially problematic are the spring bars and the LumiNova on the hands and dials. SLN has been around for close to 30 years; in general, it seems to be quite durable and chemically stable, but exposure to the ultraviolet radiation in sunlight typically causes chemical deterioration of the binders in paints over time. It seems reasonable to assume that repeated exposure to strong sunlight might have a deleterious effect on the lume, but to what degree I don’t know.

Can’t be Cleaned

Spring bars seem to work just fine in general. Heaven knows, they hold millions of watches on millions (billions?) of wrists every day; but even after all this time, I still can’t bring myself to trust them completely. As I wrote several years ago, they can’t be serviced, can’t be cleaned (except for however much cleaning you get out of rinsing your watch under running fresh water, which probably isn’t much), and yet they do seem to just keep on keepin’ on. Still, in a marooned-time-traveller scenario, it could be cause for concern.

Those two caveats aside, it really does seem like a hell of a lot of watches. There is something about its absolute simplicity and rejection of any unnecessary flourishes that is positively refreshing; despite its ruggedness, the Eco-Drive Promaster Tough seems commendably unconcerned about impressing anyone with anything.

It’s a watch that shows just how far the basic technology of portable timekeeping has come, and this version of the Tough has an excellent chance of becoming as much of a cult watch as previous iterations. There are very few watches at any price that I’d feel comfortable taking on a one-way trip through a wormhole, but this is one of them. Especially at US$340 (RM1,387) bucks (on a strap) I think it’s a hell of a value proposition. — Bloomberg