Tudor North Flag Review
The Tudor North Flag is one of, if not the, most anticipated watches from Baselworld 2015. It, along with the new Tudor Pelagos, made waves by announcing a truly in-house movement for the brand. That's interesting for any brand, but it was perhaps most exciting for Tudor fans, as one of the key differences between Tudor and Rolex was the presence of the in-house movement in the Rolex. Today, that difference largely evaporates. But the North Flag is more than just a vessel for a movement, it's also a complete watch in and of itself and is almost as exciting from a design standpoint. Genta's name has been invoked more than one time to describe its retro tool watch good looks.
The North Flag is the progeny of more than one classic model, but none more so than the Tudor Ranger II. Primarily, it borrows the hands and bright colors of that model, but we'll be focusing in on what precisely connects it to its past. Just as importantly, the Ranger II, as well as the Ranger, are Tudor's version of the Rolex Explorer. This is interesting because historically Tudor actually used the Rolex model name for their versions with this notable exception. Suffice it to say that, even today in 2015, the Ranger occupies the Explorer spot in Tudor's lineup. The North Flag, however, is a more unique model which has no direct Rolex equivalent. Were I forced to compare it to a Rolex, it'd be the Explorer 2, if only because they're rather brightly colored with two complications, but that's a stretch.
So if the North Flag is, unlike many Tudors, not a direct adaptation of a Rolex, then what is it? Well, it's a novel creation. It borrows from the Ranger II and Explorer, of course, and the movement inside is very much a Rolex design, but it is, in the end, quite unique. So where does the North Flag name come from, the Ranger II or the Explorer? If you guessed the Oyster Prince, you'd be right (good guess by the way). Its name is inspired by Tudor's first exploratory mission, the British North Greenland Expedition. In this icy adventure, the explorers were given Tudor Oyster Princes, both to test the watches and to assist the expedition, where it performed admirably.
Join me as I take you close, really close, downright uncomfortably close, to the North Flag and its all-new MT-5621 movement. We'll be exploring every element of this watch, from the historic underpinnings of the Ranger II and Explorer to the design of the variable inertia balance wheel to the power reserve complication.
We begin, as always, with the dial. What we find is a classic tool watch, that, perhaps sans the power reserve complication, would not be at all out of place in the '70s.
All of the tool watch elements are there. Ultra high contrast hands? Check. Matte dial? Check. Frameless date? Check. Excess lume? Check. It does allow itself one small frivolity, however, with the addition of the power reserve.
While we're on the subject, let's take a look at the power reserve. The implementation is quite unconventional. What at first appears to be a hand is actually a disk. I can only speculate that Tudor implemented the design this way because it keeps the dial flat, but that is just my guess. I rather like the interesting approach, and I love power reserves generally. There is also a bit of complication symmetry with the date on the other side, not unlike the Damasko DK14. It's interesting that Tudor went with bright yellow accents here, since I consider the power reserve to be of secondary importance.
The power reserve is probably the single biggest departure from the Ranger II. Of course, the Ranger II lacked this complication, but more importantly, it had an Arabic 9 in its place, making it much more similar to the Rolex Explorer. It's conceivable that Tudor's power reserve complication was implemented as a differentiator to help make this model stand alone and resist Rolex comparisons.
The hands are one of two elements that are, more or less, directly lifted from the Tudor Ranger II. The shape is almost identical, although all three hands are longer and more slender than the inspiration. There is a bit of a taper to the lumed tip of the seconds hand as opposed to the right-angled rectangle of the original. Most obviously, the seconds hand is now yellow instead of orange. Also worth noting is that the minute hand now has lume along the entire length of the hand, instead of the last half in the original.
Here we see the pièce de résistance of the North Flag: the date. No, I'm not kidding. Finally, finally, we have another in-house movement with an instant date change. There are a handful of these, outside of Rolex itself, but to this day the vast majority of in-house movements take one or even two hours to change over. Stylistically, the date is exactly what you'd expect from a tool watch: it lacks a frame and the black-on-white writing helps legibility. The date does, however, mark another departure from the Ranger II as Tudor has mercifully dropped the cyclops of the original.
Here we see another subtle nod to the Ranger II in the form of the chapter ring, although now with the addition of yellow accents. The numerals and markers are very similar as well with a combination of lume and white paint. They are certainly easy to read against the matte black dial.
Ah, the requisite lume shot. The blue lume here is well above average in quality and application. The photo doesn't quite capture the real story, despite my best efforts. As these North Flags are in such high demand my time with it wasn't quite sufficient to perfect this shot, but suffice it to say it is more even in real life, although the brightness is accurately reflected. The intensity is very good for a watch of this sort, certainly not as great as a high-end diver, but more than you'd expect. The longevity was superb, although my observations are hardly scientific. I really like that the power reserve's hand, despite its appearance, is not lumed. That creates a dark x-axis that makes the watch extremely easy to orient at a glance. The hands are also sufficiently different from one another that they will be discernible at a glance. Nothing too surprising here, but a nonetheless impressive showing.
The North Flag's dial is the right kind of vintage: it takes inspiration from the past, but it doesn't look dated or old. I like to think of it as what a 1970s tool watch designer would have created if he had access to 2015's technology and precision. In a sense, then, it's more a 1970s watch inspired by the present than a present watch inspired by the 1970s.
As good as the North Flag looks, it's mostly the new movement, the MT5621, that gave it its celebrity. Of course, many brands have in-house movements these days, but Tudor's is more interesting than almost all of them because not only does it have important implications for Tudor, but for their relationship to Rolex as well.
The MT5621, and the Pelagos' new MT5612 (which is virtually identical), are Tudor's first in-house movements ever. But this is more profound for Tudor than it is for most companies. As you probably already know, Tudor and Rolex are basically two sides of the same coin. Historically, Tudors didn't even receive a unique name on many models and directly used the Rolex name (like Submariner, for instance). The main difference between the brand has always been about the movements: Tudor used outsourced movements and Rolex used almost entirely in-house movements. In 2015, this distinction begins to evaporate.
Naturally, you'd expect Rolex to save all the best technology for itself and give Tudor something less impressive to help maintain its superior position. This is not, however, what occurred. The MT5621 is, in my opinion, more advanced than most, if not all, Rolex movements, with the possible exception of the new 3255. That's a bold claim, but let's go really, really in depth with the new movement and I'll explain all of the perks of its design.
Most of the magic is going on right here at the balance wheel. Its design strongly inspires comparisons to popular Rolex movements like the 3135. The most important thing to note is that it's free sprung, one of the hallmarks of a high-end Swiss movement. The free sprung design is widely adopted by brands like Patek Philippe, Jaeger LeCoultre, Rolex, Omega, F.P. Journe and Audemars Piguet, to name a few.
The basic difference between the free sprung design and the one used in the vast majority of watches is the lack of a regulator. The regulator changes the effective length of the hairspring in order to change the rate (gain/loss) of a watch. The advantage of this design is that it's extremely easy to work on, usually requiring the turn of a single screw. However, regulators have a couple of weaknesses. The first of these is that they tend to "de-regulate" over time as the watch gets bumped around, leading to greater deviations over the course of years. Additionally, free of the disruptive influence of the regulator, the hairspring is said to be able to "breathe" better, resulting in greater stability. Both designs have their adherents and you can find watches at any price that use either design, although free sprung designs are closely associated with the Swiss high-end. In fact, as far as I know, this is the most affordable free sprung movement in the world.
In order for free sprung designs to work they need some way of changing the rate of the movement. This is performed via a variable inertia balance. Most variable inertia balances are like this one, with tiny gold screws in the rim of the balance. By moving an opposing pair of screws closer to the balance, or further away, the rate can be advanced or slowed accordingly. Here we see that Tudor has deviated quite a bit from Rolex's design. Contemporary Rolex designs, as well as Omega, place the screws on the inside of the balance wheel. That's an unusual approach, but it makes a lot of sense, because it allows Rolex to increase the diameter of the balance wheel, contributing to stability. If the screws protrude from the balance wheel you'll need greater clearance in a given movement for the same given balance diameter, ultimately requiring a larger movement (or a smaller balance).
Tudor must have recognized this problem (no surprise since I have little doubt that Rolex designers are behind the MT5621) but have taken a different approach. I would say that this most resembles Breguet's design, hiding the screws within recessed portions of the balance, although a bit less boldly than Breguet in this regard. Regardless, the performance should be the same as Rolex's or Breguet's approach.
Stepping away from the balance for a moment (don't worry, we'll get back to it soon), one of the impressive features of the MT5621 is its 70 hour power reserve. This number represents a 75% increase over the industry standard of about 40 hours, which is the number that you'll find in virtually all movements in this price range (and much higher). 70 hours is not a surprising number for two reasons: it's the same used in the new Rolex 3255 and it's very similar to an emerging three day standard. For those of us who rotate watches frequently (almost certainly you if you've made it this far in the article) this can be a real time saver.
A word about the decoration, or lack thereof. Watch collectors are in hot pursuit of a fine distinction between finishing and decoration, which is perhaps not specious. Suffice it to say that while the finishing is anything but rough here, it's not exactly the prettiest movement in the business either. On one hand, this is very much aligned with the Rolex approach to movement design, which aside from noteworthy exceptions like the Cellini Prince, are best described as "functional." It's also consistent with the very pure tool watch design of the rest of the watch. For my tastes, however, I do like to see a well decorated movement, and while I understand that this isn't going to rival a Vacheron, some Geneva stripes could do wonders. This, however, is a matter of aesthetic taste, and this is a lot of movement for your money, so I can't complain very much.
The rotor and winding system is also next-gen Rolex design. The entire system has much more in common with the new, ultra high-end 3255 than the 3135. The rotor, for instance, shares a strong family resemblance to the 3255, but also note that it appears to be a monobloc design, as opposed to a rotor with a weight attached to it as you might find in the 3135. The resemblance is more than skin deep, however.
Here we can see something that Tudor has not, so far as I'm aware, disclosed. Rolex has been a serious adherent to sleeve bearing designs for their rotors, at least until the Daytona update and the new 3255. Like those next-gen movements, the MT5621 has dropped the ruby sleeve bearing in favor of, in my opinion anyway, superior ball bearings, not unlike you might find in Omega or JLC movements. Sleeve bearings have the advantage of being quieter than ball bearings, but despite my years with ball bearing automatic winding systems, I've never encountered bearing noise with a bidirectional mechanism like Rolex's, so I'm not sure if that's a real world concern. Ball bearings, not just in the watch industry but in most industrial applications, are considered to offer superior longevity. The watch industry, recently including Rolex, is clearly moving in this direction, so it's nice to see here.
Tudor employs bidirectional winding which is not surprising since Rolex is a big fan of this approach. It is a bit interesting, however, as it somewhat bucks the industry's move towards unidirectional winders, like with Patek, GP, JLC, JR and various others. I don't think it makes a big difference either way, but I have a preference for bidirectional systems like this one. Bidirectional systems are somewhat more sophisticated in that they're much quieter and they almost never have "rotor wobble." In most bidirectional systems, including this one, you'll simply never know it's an automatic, where with a JLC 899, great movement though it is, you will feel it when you make sudden movements of the wrist.
In another nod to Rolex movement design, a balance bridge is employed over the far more conventional balance cock. The difference between this and the more common design is that the bridge attaches on both sides of the balance wheel as opposed to the balance cock's one-sided approach. Theoretically, this should make for a slightly more robust movement. The only cost with going with the bridge design is that it obscures more of the balance wheel, but I actually like how bridges look anyway, so this doesn't bother me at all.
Another major update is in the hairspring material. Like Omega and a small number of other companies, Tudor has chosen to go with silicon in its new movement. Silicon has several advantages over a metallic hairspring, including superior dimensional stability (i.e. it returns to its original shape easily), a smaller mass (contributing to stability when encountering external vibration or shock) and, perhaps most importantly, an immunity to magnetism. To be clear, this is not like Omega's Master Co-Axial, rated for extreme magnetic resistance, but it is the hairspring that is, by far, the most susceptible to magnetism, so in the real world this should do quite well against magnetic fields.
It's worth noting what the silicon hairspring means in context to the Rolex relationship. To date, no Rolex men's movement has a silicon hairspring, including their new 3255. For men's watches, they've stuck with their respected parachrom bleu metallic spring. That in and of itself is not unusual, as other great brands like Grand Seiko and JLC have stuck with metallic hairsprings as well. What's more interesting is that Rolex offers silicon hairsprings in their 2236 movements, aimed at the female collector but has, so far at least, not utilized its technology in any of its other movements. Suffice it to say, at least for men's watches, Tudor beats Rolex to the punch in hairspring technology.
We can now finally get to the complications. The existence of the power reserve in the North Flag is the sole difference between this MT5621 and the Pelagos' MT5612 (confused yet?), which lacks this complication. Both, however, have dates, and what a date mechanism it is. I don't have proof of this, but I think it's highly probable that the mechanism used here is the same as the one Rolex uses throughout their range. The date change is absolutely instantaneous. This North Flag, which may or may not be representative of all North Flags (I only had one to test), changed the date about a minute prior to midnight, all at once, which is actually an excellent result. I absolutely love this feature. This alone may require me to buy one for myself.
Oh, and it's also a COSC certified chronometer, again like Rolex. Well, I think that just about covers the new movement, so let's take a look at the case.
The size of the North Flag's unconventional case is basically perfect for the average man in my opinion, coming in at 40mm, my personal favorite. Perhaps the most intriguing element to the case is that black outer bezel, which is interestingly enough made of ceramic. Tudor seems to be enjoying mixing a lot of materials together lately, with the new Pelagos combining ceramic, titanium and steel in a single case. I'm not quite sure what advantage the ceramic outer bezel offers, other than looks, because I would think it's not a particularly scratch prone area, but regardless, it's a nice touch.
I really like the vintage-inspired lugs too. I don't typically like this look, but here it works really well, and sits on the wrist very comfortably. It integrated with the bracelet and optional strap very nicely in my opinion, although I foresee that it may cause issues for those wishing to use a wide variety of aftermarket straps. Although the lugs closely resemble the Ranger II's, they're actually inverted, with the center removed.
The bezel has a nice radial brush to it. I think it looks great, although I wouldn't mind having a full ceramic bezel if only for the scratch resistance. The design is quite a departure from the inspiration, the Ranger II, which used a fluted bezel. I greatly prefer the North Flag's look, however.
The watch is not particularly thick either. It's certainly no ultra-thin, but I doubt this thickness on a 40mm watch will bother anyone. I like thin watches and it certainly didn't bother me.
The crown, signed with a Tudor shield emblem, looks great too. It's got a kind of satin finish to it.
The crown, of course, screws down for 100 meters of water resistance, which is plenty for a watch like this. What's more interesting, however, is just how smooth the crown is to use, either winding or tightening. This is a very quiet, very smooth winding mechanism. You can just barely feel the click as you turn it. When screwing or unscrewing the crown, it's also perfectly smooth. It reminds me a lot of Damasko's system in this way, so I suspect that the crown may be decoupled from winding the watch when it's being opened or closed.
For a nominal price increase, you can get the North Flag on a bracelet, as seen here. I haven't seen this on the strap yet, but in photos I think it looks terrific, so I might be inclined to go that way myself, but this bracelet is still very impressive. Please forgive the blue stickers, I try to leave the watches I review the way I find them to the degree possible.
Tudor skipped embellishment on the clasp in favor of more subtly imbuing it with shapes that resemble the Tudor shield. The simple brushed finish should be very easy to touch up which is always helpful.
Tudor has a preference for friction clasps and the North Flag is no exception. Both sides are independently held in place by ceramic ball bearing detents. It's very secure, but I think my favorite approach is Omega's, which combines a button approach on one side with a friction detent on the other.
One thing that I was really pleased with is the Rolex-style screw pins that connect the links. This is a really easy to work on system that you can do at home with a decent tiny screwdriver. Unlike, say, Grand Seiko or Omega, which have screws on each side of the bracelet and a friction pin (sans collar) inside, this only has a single component. The screw is the pin and it only screws in on one side. This makes it considerably faster and easier to change the length of the bracelet.
The North Flag is still in scarce supply, so if you can't see one in person, check out our high definition video.
Every year it seems like there is a watch I am really looking forward to reviewing. Last year it was the Maurice Lacroix Gravity, but this year it was this North Flag. It's actually not typically my kind of watch-I'm not really a tool watch guy, even if I can appreciate their appeal. But this is a watch I definitely want to own.
I love it when a watch delivers on every level. So often I have to offer caveats...I have to say but it's very expensive, but it's very large, but it has a boring movement etc. This watch isn't for everyone, that's true, but it's a watch with no real shortcomings. Movement aficionados will love it. Tool watch collectors will love it. Rolex/Tudor fans will love it.
I found the movement particularly impressive. In-house movements are in vogue lately, but so often that's a distinction without a difference. If you're going to bother making your own movement, you need to offer something special, and the MT5621 certainly does that. It's a chronometer, it's got a great power reserve, it has nearly all of Rolex's high tech features (and more, in some ways) and it's not even particularly expensive.
This brings me to a philosophical dilemma: what's the difference between a Rolex and this North Flag? If we let go of insubstantial distinctions like branding, it's really difficult to point to any one great differentiator. It looks like a Rolex, inside and out, it feels like a Rolex, it's got an in-house movement that seems to be developed with Rolex design principles. I guess Rolex uses a higher grade of stainless steel? I'm not really sure. My favorite contemporary Rolex is probably the Explorer II, and frankly I'd much rather have this North Flag than it.
I have to try and force myself to criticize it a little. I guess the movement could be embellished more, I wouldn't mind seeing an all ceramic bezel instead of the outer ceramic bezel ring, and I think it would be cool to have a variety of color options as yellow isn't for everyone. But I'm nitpicking. If you like tool watches, this is pretty much as good as you're going to get.
So far, this is my favorite new watch of 2015. I had high expectations for it and it didn't let me down. Were I well-heeled, I'd own one myself. If you do plan on getting one, I would recommend putting an order in ahead of time as they're in short supply. We got a grand total of 1 from Tudor and that was sold within a few hours.