Posted on August 04 2020
For many watch fans in the UK, Rotary is seen as a bit of a home brand. Indeed, their head office is in London. This British connection goes back to the early days of the brand. Although founded in Switzerland towards the end of the 1800s, it was only a few years later that they opened their first UK office.
It was the Second World War that really cemented the Rotary brand, with its ‘winged wheel’ logo, in the British consciousness. From 1940 Rotary began to supply the British Army, meaning that most homes would have had at least one of their watches. The UK has remained the companies largest market.
This familiarity - the brand being a common high street sight - has meant that Rotary is easy for the watch nerd to overlook. Particularly now that the company is Chinese owned and produces watches in Japan and China, in addition to Switzerland.
Like a number of the brands that I’ve highlighted recently, it’s worth digging a little deeper into the company and its watches. Of course, they do produce the very affordable quartz models that you’ll be well aware of. However, they also produce Swiss-made pieces, often mechanical.
Their higher specification Swiss-made watches are grouped under the Les Originales moniker, within which they have additional collections. For the non-Swiss models, there are also a number of collections that stand out, particularly the Heritage, Avenger and Henley lines. There’s a strong British connection with these collections referencing Cambridge, London and other cities.
There are a number of these watches that you’re less likely to stumble across on the high street and I wanted to pick out some of my favourites for a closer look. I’ve selected watches that cater to my preferences, but with a real emphasis on quality and specifications. It was important for me to focus on the Swiss-made mechanical watches, although I've not highlighted them exclusively.
I’ve opened the list with my favourite current model, a watch created to celebrate 125 years of the company. It’s the best example of the brand’s Swiss heritage and involvement with the British military and the perfect place to begin our round-up.
There’s usually one watch that sparks my current interest in a brand. This is the one that made me take a closer look at Rotary. Produced in a limited run of 300 pieces, this is a revival of an earlier Rotary watch, but with some slightly updated specs.
Although marketed as capturing the spirit of Hollywood’s older glamour, this feels more like a military watch to me. I’m reminded more of Rotary’s link to the British Army than the silver screen. Either way, this is a watch that is unashamedly vintage in character. The case shape, the ivory hands and the fonts, all point backwards. The only real compromise with modernity is the 40mm case size.
Other than that, the watch is an authentic vintage styled piece. There’s a mineral crystal, an automatic movement and token water resistance. It’s a splendid looking piece that inspired me to dig a little deeper.
Rotary GS05125/04 Heritage Ltd Edition
Those details make for a very attractive watch, particularly with the addition of a red GMT hand and the date at 6 o’clock rather than 3. Although not as overtly vintage as the first watch, there’s still enough of a vintage vibe to warrant its inclusion in the Tradition line. Again, it’s a comfortable 40mm wide and is reasonably slim at 11mm.
At this price-point, I would have preferred a mechanical movement, but then if it was a Swiss-made mechanical movement it’d no longer be this price.
Rotary GB90181/32 Tradition GMT
I’m a big fan of the Rolex, so this much more affordable piece immediately caught my attention.
At less than £200 this is an inexpensive watch, and therefore has the specs expected at the lower price point. There is a sapphire crystal and decent water resistance, but it’s powered by a quartz movement. In keeping with the previous watches, it’s around the same size. 41mm this time.
Overall, it’s a good watch for the money. The design is attractive, with just enough of the Rolex to draw comparisons. It’s attractively priced.
Rotary GB05295/04 Henley GMT
Until I began my research I wouldn’t have expected to find this big brand producing a watch in a limited run of 300 pieces. Whatsmore, the watch is an automatic, housed in a full titanium case.
What’s the story behind the Heritage Titanium?
Along with the other watches in the Heritage line, this watch was released to celebrate125 years of the company. Again, Rotary have delved into their own archives for inspiration. The inspiration here has been the companies links to the British Army and the result is a vintage military style. The automatic movement is visible through the exhibition back and along with the titanium case, the watch is protected by a sapphire crystal.
It’s a little larger than vintage military watches, but that’s to be expected in today’s market. The spartan design works well and the Ox and Sword hands are a nice touch that adds a little design flair without diminishing the field watch aesthetic.
Remember, there are only 300 of these in the world.
Rotary GB05249/04 Heritage Titanium
When a watch brand is looking in its archives for designs to reissue, a divers watch is always a safe bet. As I pointed out here, brands like Doxa, Zodiac and Oris have released vintage-inspired divers. In that article, I actually high-lighted Rotary’s Avenger divers watch, which in some ways is the poor man’s Vintage Dive.
This is the higher specification automatic version.
Stylistically, the two watches have a lot in common. Unsurprising since in both cases it is Rotary recreating their own historical designs. The Vintage Dive is powered by a Japanese automatic movement and has 100M water resistance. However, it’s not really for the specs that you’d be buying this watch.
You’d buy this watch because of the beautiful retro styling. The non-fussy dial and simple bezel. I’ve mentioned Doxa, and their vintage diver has a cushion case, colourful dial and a very complex bezel. I love both, but the contrast is clear.
The Vintage Dive is a functional tool watch. Again, there’s a hint of the military in the design and the lume adds to the impression of age. It has a real authenticity that works if you’re a fan of vintage pieces.
Rotary GB00488/04 Vintage Dive
The watch itself is a divers-style GMT, meaning it can display two time zones. There’s a couple of colour variations, with the deep green dial being my preference. Design-wise, there's little that is unique, rather it’s a well-made example of a familiar style. There’s a scratch-resistant ceramic bezel and a sapphire crystal, so it should wear well throughout its life.
Powered by a quartz movement and with100M water resistance, it covers the bases as a reliable daily beater. You can usually pick this model up for around the £200 mark which is the price point I'd expect.
Rotary GB05108/24 Henley GMT
It’s the chronographs that I’m highlighting in this post.
This variant has a strong retro appeal, including an attractive blue dial, with two contrasting silver sub-dials. It’s a classic design, that is quite basic for a chronograph. There are indices rather than numerals, two neat, symmetrical dials and a small date window at 6 o’clock. It is all subtle and understated. A nice touch is the cross-hatch markings on the chronograph pushers - reminiscent of vintage Super Compressor watches (more here).
Although noted as a sports watch, this piece would work just as well with formal dress, particularly this variation with the stainless steel bracelet. Still, with Rotary’s Dolphin Standard water resistance it can be worn in water.
Rotary GB90130/05 Avenger
When faced with the choice of an automatic or quartz option, I’ll always favour the automatic. There’s a very similar quartz model, but this automatic one caught my attention more. The movement is a Swiss Selitta and is visible through the exhibition back.
The sunburst dial is exquisite and is viewed through a sapphire crystal. There’s a date window at the traditional 3 o’clock position and minimal text on the dial. That makes for a formal dress watch that favours build quality over design flair. I like it.
With that in mind, at 40mm it’s mid-sized and quite slim. Neither too small nor overly large. It’s certainly worth picking up when you catch it under the RRP - you can then get a Swiss-made automatic for a very affordable price.
Rotary GB90165/04 Legacy
It’s a deceptively simple design, that again works due to the whole package rather than individual features. Being a Swiss-made mechanical piece is once more the main selling point - the affordability being a major attraction.
As expected, a high level of workmanship has gone into the watch and the specs are impressive for the price-point. The automatic movement is the most obvious, but there’s also a sapphire crystal and a robust three-link bracelet. Compared to other Swiss automatics you’ll find this very competitively priced.
Rotary GS08150/06 Verbier
It takes some of the features of the earlier watches - a sunburst dial, sapphire crystal and baton watch hands, and presents them in a less expensive quartz-powered model. Stylistically, the Lausanne watches complement others in the Rotary line-up, providing entry-level models to their Swiss-made pieces.
Of the variations available, it is this white dial version that impresses the most. Particularly as the others feature roman numerals rather than the plain applied indices of this model. I prefer the simplicity of this variation, with a slightly less busy dial.
Rotary GB90110/06 Lausanne
It’s a modestly priced automatic with a popular style. I prefer the design of the Verbier, but for many, this more classically styled model, with the distinctive fluted bezel, would be preferable. It’s cheaper too.
If we’re sticking with the comparisons between the two watches, they’re actually very similar. The same diameter, crystal and water resistance. The big difference, of course, is the two words at the bottom of the Verbier’s dial - Swiss Made rather than British Design.
Rotary GB05380/04 Henley Automatic
Packaged in an impressive box, with an additional rubber strap, this is a watch legitimately designed to be used for diving. The 22mm Milanese bracelet can be replaced by the rubber alternative - ideal for swimming. It’s quartz-powered for reliability and has a tough sapphire crystal.
After highlighting a number of understated dress watches it’s nice to round out this list with a bold, over-sized tool watch. The contrast highlights the range of styles produced by Rotary.
Rotary AGB90045 Aquaspeed
As we’ve seen, Rotary has a strong history, having just released a collection of limited edition pieces to celebrate their first 125 years. Their current range includes inexpensive watches that are made in the far east and readily available on the high street and pricier mechanical and Swiss-made models.
Amongst these, there’s also a range of styles. I’ve probably favoured the classic models more, but as the Aquaspeed demonstrates, they do also produce functional tool watches. As a watch fan, I’d be inclined to focus more on the Heritage and Ltd Edition pieces. Indeed, there are already a few models that have sold out in the short period I’ve been researching the brand. As with some of the other brands that I’ve discussed recently (Stuhrling watches, Avi-8 Watches), if you can stay open-minded you might find a gem in an unexpected place.
Please add your own thoughts in the comments below.