Ball has released many versions of their Engineer Hydrocarbon watches through the years, all featuring the unique case sporting that memorable crown guard and bright, tritium gas tube-lumed dial. Unveiled at last year’s Baselworld 2015, the Ball Engineer Hydrocarbon AeroGMT watch provides the legibility, construction and material quality, and masculine looks the line is known for and takes it a step further by introducing the first ever tritium gas tube illuminated bezel. I’ve now spent a couple of months wearing this watch, and I still feel like a kid when I see the normally mostly black-and-white-with-touches-of-yellow dial illuminate to a bright green, blue, yellow and orange dial in the dark. The amazing part of this watch is really how it goes from being totally monochromatic by light, to being gloriously colorful in the dark.
For those unfamiliar with Ball, I’ll tell you that they have a rich history as the brand tasked with keeping the railroad system that reticulates America, operating on time. After a tragic train collision in 1891 in Kipton, Ohio, Webb C. Ball was conscripted as “Chief Time Inspector” for the railroad system, which is a really, really great title for the man for whom the Ball Watch Company is named. So, when you see the decorative “RR” on the crown protector, you know that it stands for Rail Road. It really is a cool bit of history and one that Ball is, and should, be proud of. Of course, now they’re not only creating “railroad” watches, but have a huge selection of dive, dress, and watches designed for aviation professionals, like the Ball Engineer Hydrocarbon AeroGMT.
Ball has an obsession with legibility and illumination. They’re one of few brands that uses tritium gas tubes for illumination in dark scenarios.Tritium (h-3) gas tubes are coated with phospor which causes the phospor to fluoresce, or basically glow, in a process called “radioluminescence.” These tubes are used in things like many emergency exit signs, because they require no electricity to illuminate. There are 43 tritium tubes on this watch, meaning you’ll be able to have great visibility in the dark. And, for the first time ever, Ball has applied tritium gas tubes to the numbers on the GMT bezel. They claim the illumination will last on the watch for 25 years. This is technically true, since tritium has a half life of 12.32 years, but the illumination will be half as vibrant by that point and about a fourth by the 25th year.
The Ball Engineer Hydrocarbon line has had many previous iterations, such as the Ball Engineer Hydrocarbon Spacemaster Orbital II Chronograph (Reviewed here) and the Ball Engineer Hydrocarbon Hunley watch (Hands-On here). You’ll notice that they all share a similar look, with a large, protruding crown with crown guard. This is Ball’s patented “Crown Protection System,” where you press a pusher at the top of it and pull the protective cover down. After you do this, you can adjust the crown as you please. Does it actually protect the crown any more than if it wasn’t there? I don’t really know, and the only claim that Ball actually makes about a practical benefit of it is that it “ensures the crown must be screwed-in to its original secure position after time adjustment” and that it also meets the shock resistance standards for the watch. In any case, it’s a good-looking addition to the watch.
The Ball Engineer Hydrocarbon AeroGMT is 42mm wide and sits 13.85mm high on the wrist. It’s got a great wrist presence, but the aforementioned crown protection system might jab at your hand if you tend to wear your watch closer to the hand. So, like with all watches, please try this one on and really see if you’re comfortable with it before buying. You’ll notice the broad lugs on this watch, which help add to the “heft” of the piece which really feels much bigger than its 42mm when you take the lugs into account with the crown protector and substantial bezel.
Speaking of the wearing experience, Ball has a really excellent bracelet on this watch. This part will be familiar to fans of Ball, but the bracelet not only comes with half links on either side of their “folding buckle,” but also has a diver’s extension on each side of the buckle so you easily adjust bigger or smaller. We always appreciate anything that allows for micro-adjusting on the fly in an otherwise good bracelet. It’s elegant in its simplicity and I really appreciate the level of thought that went into it. The designers at Ball must have anticipated the complaint about the crown protector jabbing at some wearer’s hands, and the bracelet offers a lot of flexibility in solving that problem – if you want to look at this adjustment option in that way.
Looking at the dial, the large, arrowed hour and minute hands have the tritium tube running through them. The GMT hand, plus the bi-directional 24-hour bezel, allow you to keep track of three time zones. There’s also a decent but not terribly attractive date window at 3 o’clock that I could probably do without, as the cohesion of the rest of the dial is awkwardly chopped by it. Overall, it’s a good-looking dial but one that really lacks a lot of personality, especially when you consider the choice to remove the “RR” decorated seconds hand and plain black dial. It might look there’s a bit too much “plastic” for some people’s taste, but there isn’t really anything offensive about it.
As for the movement, the watch features the automatic Ball RR1201-C which is a modified ETA 2893-2. It beats at 28,800 vph (4 Hz) and has a 42-hour power reserve. It’s a movement that’s worked for Ball with their other GMT watches, and is a solid, COSC certified modified ETA. You won’t get to see it though, as there isn’t an open case back. Rather, Ball has decorated the steel case back with a silhouette of a globe’s longitudinal and latitudinal lines. Around the circumference is a cities index with corresponding GMT time reference.
The steel case back helps function as a Faraday cage, designed for magnetic resistance. This helps the Ball Engineer Hydrocarbon AeroGMT to be magnetically resistant to 4,800 A/M which is the minimum requirement to be considered a passably “anti-magnetic” watch. Ball does have their patented “A-Proof”anti-magnetic system that was debuted last year with the Ball Engineer II Magneto S watch (Hands-On here) which raises that resistance to 80,000 A/M by allowing the bezel to control an “iris-style” anti-magnetic shield. Of course, this system would clash with a rotating GMT bezel like on this watch.
The Ball Engineer Hydrocarbon AeroGMT has a good 300 meters of water resistance, which is certainly a very respectable number. Ball makes a note to talk about the “signature toughness” of this watch. It can resist impacts up to 7,500 Gs, which is more than the 5,000 Gs offered by a lot of other Ball watches. I want to mention something about these kinds of metrics when they’re used to discuss said “toughness” of a watch. The 5,000 Gs of shock resistance is based on the International Standard ISO 1413 test. What this really means, is that the watch can withstand a drop from 1 meter (3.28 feet) onto a hardwood floor. The 7,500 Gs of shock resistance in the Ball Engineer Hydrocarbon AeroGMT takes that up to a 1.5 meter (4.9 feet) drop onto a hardwood floor. Compare that to the most basic Casio G-Shocks that can withstand a 10 meter (32.8 feet) drop. Obviously, comparing resistance in a mechanical movement in a steel case to a digital watch in plastic is like comparing apples and oranges. My point, however, is that I really don’t understand the need to equivocate the ability to fall off a dining room table with “toughness” and it’s always kind of annoyed me.
Overall, the Ball Engineer Hydrocarbon AeroGMT is a great watch with a distinctive look and a lot of personality. A durable and handsome piece with great legibility and even greater legibility in darkness. Make sure to try the watch on and see if it works for you, but there isn’t much to keep me from recommending it to someone looking for a masculine watch they won’t see strapped around everyone’s wrist. Ball is the kind of brand for someone secure enough to accept that it’s not an instantly recognizable status symbol, but rather one for a wearer who appreciates the history, quality, and aesthetic of the brand. Price for the Ball Engineer Hydrocarbon AeroGMT (Ref. DG2016A-SC-BK) is $3,500. ballwatch.com
>Model: Hydrocarbon Engineer AeroGMT Ref. DG2016A-SC-BK
>Would reviewer personally wear it: Yes
>Friend we’d recommend it to first: Someone looking for a GMT watch that’s big on character and uniqueness as opposed to recognizable flashiness.
>Best characteristic of watch: Solid feel of the watch on the wrist and bracelet flexibility.
>Worst characteristic of watch: Crown protector can be seen as an uncomfortable gimmick by some.