A year with the Helm Vanuatu

Maybe the best watch you can find for $300

A year ago I won an Instagram giveaway from Helm Watches. The prize was their Vanuatu model, a wonderfully bold and tough dive watch that I’ve come to wear almost every day since first putting it on my wrist. In that year it’s been through trials of all seasons and has kept on ticking away and looking as good as it did on day 1.

Vanuatu’s key specs:

  • 42mm brushed 316L stainless steel case
  • 22mm lug width (strap size)
  • Screw down crown
  • Date window at 6 o’clock
  • Sapphire crystal
  • Seiko Instruments NH35A automatic movement
  • 300m water resistance, tested in accordance with ISO 6425:1996

This is a good looking watch on paper, but the $275 price tag actually made me incredulous regarding its quality. Sapphire crystal and 300m water resistance are unusual features for a sub-$500 watch. The automatic movement from Seiko is the same that can be found in some Seiko 5s and Invicta watches which reside in the same price range. The NH35 movement is reliable and stayed true to its 40-hour power reserve in my time using it. With a reliable movement and resilient casing, the Vanuatu is a trustworthy watch. Picking up the watch, it doesn’t feel cheap at all; it feels durable and has a good weight to it. Just holding it for the first time dashed my doubts about Helm’s promises at this price-point.

The Vanuatu has a bold and noticeable wrist-presence with the thick black bezel and 42mm case, but doesn’t go overboard in dive-features as other similarly styled dive watches are prone to do. It accomplishes the balance in style with its completely flat face that makes it feel more narrow than its 14mm thickness. The crystal is flat and level with the bezel which gives it a paradoxically subtle look on the included black nato strap. It can be described as aggressive and overbuilt at the same time as it is refined and dignified.

One of my favourite things about the look of the Vanuatu is how understated the Helm branding is. Helm’s H logo is centred under 12 o’clock’s fence-post marker in a glossy grey that almost blends in on the charcoal face. “Diver’s 300m Automatic” is written in matte grey below the centre, it’s hardly noticeable at a glance. That subtly makes for a sharper style and for a better practical dive watch. The face is free from distraction to make it very easy to read. The orange dots behind the hour markers make for a nice touch as well, especially with the impressive lume. It is one of the more versatile dive watch looks out there and with the right straps can be worn in virtually any situation.

Note the second-hand sweeping over 11 o’clock

I would be remiss to not mention its similarity to its probable design inspiration in the Sinn U1 and maybe also from the Mondaine SBB collection. However, the Vanuatu comes into its own by taking the right cues from the history of dive watches. They have come up with a unique and formidable watch that is as striking as it is functional which altogether makes it perfect for every day wear.

Day 01

The Vanuatu comes in a solid square box that feels like a brick that emanates the personality of the watch itself. In the box, along with the watch, is an instruction manual, a warranty card, a hand-written and signed record of WR testing, and a personalized hand-written note (which may only be included because I won the watch). It also includes a branded cleaning cloth and extra pins.

The watch comes attached to a 5-link stainless-steel engineer strap, a nylon nato strap of your choosing is also provided. I went with black nato with brushed steel hardwear. The metal engineer strap is not for me, it doubles the circumference of my wrist and triples the weight of the watch. Everything I said above about how elegant this watch can be would be erased by wearing that strap. However, I will say that it is an impressive piece of hardware, it’s just not for me.

Day 02

I learned the hard way that the term “waterproof” on a watch is a measure, not a promise when, as a child, I decided to drop my velcro-strap Timex into a lake for the fun of diving in to retrieve it. The watch did not survive.

I was reminded of that when I dropped the Vanuatu into a glass of water on the second day of owning it, just for fun. I had never owned a dive watch before and was eager to please the kid in me. The strap was saturated, but it had passed my test of being submerged in 8oz of water.

Day 35

I live in Montreal, Quebec and it gets cold and snowy here. My Vanuatu has been out in the cold for snow-shoeing, snowball fights, and my often flurry-full winter cycling commute.

Day 61

I banged it glass-first into the corner of a granite counter and the collision made a terrible “clack” sound. I was sure I had broken my almost-new watch. Fortunately, it lived up to its promise of being tough and didn’t even have a scratch.

Day 94

Helm reposted this pic on their Instagram, I’m flattered.

The snow turned to rain and I still didn’t have to worry.

Day 180

Using the dive bezel, I tracked my hike time in the Alps. I couldn’t trust my phone battery for the long treks out from Chamonix, but I could depend on an automatic watch to keep beating. The masthead photo of this article is from this trip.

Day 230

I wore the watch in a pool. I could have taken it off, but I didn’t. The kid in me strikes again.

Day 359

I’m writing this review with it on my wrist, held on by an army-green nylon zulu strap from cheapestnatostraps.com. It’s telling me it’s time for lunch.

Thank you to @ helmwatches on Instagram for having the occasional giveaway and thank you to @ philipsoltysiak, the pro windsurfer who’s awesome Instagram account led me to Helm in the first place.