San Martin Watches Review | Are They Any Good?
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There's no doubt about it, Chinese brand San Martin offers the most impressive build quality that I've seen for the money.
In many ways, their budget pieces put big brands to shame. As such, they've rightly received a lot of attention from reviewers, me included.
However, they've always come with one big caveat. The vast majority of their repertoire consists of 'homages,' glorified clones of famous watches. This includes copies of Rolex, Tudor, Omega, Seiko, and many more. In fact, there aren't really any original designs to speak of…until now, perhaps?
They recently emailed offering to send me some more watches, and I got straight to the point.
"Do you have any watch designs that are not 'homages'?".
To my surprise, they provided a rather unexpected response; they did have some custom designs that I could take a look at! Interesting. Could these be the holy grail of budget watches? Original designs with the top-notch build quality that San Martin is known for? That was a proposition too tempting to ignore.
I chose two from the links they provided, and they shipped them across.
By the end of this post, I hope to have answered two questions:
Have these watches been overhyped, or are they just as good as reviewers say? And...
Was San Martin lying to me?
WATCH THE FULL VIDEO REVIEW BELOW:
San Martin Watches Review
For this review, I'll be analyzing three San Martin watches. Last year, I purchased the gilt dial SN004-G with my own money; the remaining two 'non-homages' were sent in by the San Martin Official Store on AliExpress. They were happy for me to retain full creative control, which means you'll get the complete picture.
The SN004-G is around $210-$250, the SN045-G is roughly the same, while the SN029-G sells for more like $160 at the time of writing.
All three utilize the industry-standard 316L stainless steel and feel very sturdy considering the low price tag. They all have screwed case rears securing the watches to an advertised 200m, and each house Seiko automatic movements.
The two rotating bezel models are fitted with excellent quality solid-link bracelets with 4 micro-adjustment holes. The third features an equally good fabric strap with dual-layered construction and steel appendages.
The models provided by San Martin are up to high standards set with the first watch I purchased. The precision and delicacy with which these have been executed is genuinely remarkable. While the bead-blasted watch isn't very complex, the surface texture is superbly consistent, and the cutouts have been undertaken very accurately, with sharp, angular corners.
Both also have highly grippy crowns, while the SN-045G has a detailed shark engraving on the rear, with a matt surface surrounding it. No joke, all three of these watches feel like others that I've seen retailing for upwards of $500.
All also feature scratch-resistant sapphire crystals, with two of the three featuring decent anti-reflective coatings. The bezel actions are excellent with satisfying clicks, no noticeable back-play, and perfect alignment across the board.
Perhaps the only area where these watches fall short is the dials. San Martin hasn't quite landed on a winning formula with these yet, as each is rather plain with flat, textureless colors and generic font choices for the accompanying text.
They each look a little dull and could do with an injection of personality. I think someone at the company needs to pick an identity and run with it so that they can start to discover a style that defines the brand. The different logos used across these three watches showcase an absence of this clear direction.
Something they have got a firm grip on is quality control. Many Chinese competitors produce comparably specced watches for similar prices or even less. However, purchasing one of these can feel like a dice roll due to the lackluster QC.
Conversely, that exhibited with these San Martin watches is better than most major watch brands that I've come across. There are no signs of dust or dirt under the crystal, no stiff bracelet links, no scratches (at least when they were new), and great alignment of both bezels and markers. For the money, it surpasses all expectations.
In hindsight, though, it's no surprise. San Martin has a video on their store page documenting every part of the production process. It turns out they have a very rigorous procedure, including spot-checking their watches through microscopes to ensure there are no imperfections.
I highly doubt most large, mass-produced watch brands implement such a deep inspection procedure at anywhere near this price point. In recent times, even giants like Seiko have been known to release 4-figure watches that frequently feature blatant errors visible to the naked eye.
Even the boxes are better. These San Martins arrived in highly secure utility-style boxes with thick padding and high-quality accessories, including silicone bands and spring bar tools that surpass those in my watch repair kit.
Overall, this results in a final product that feels at least two tiers above the likes of a similarly-styled Pagani Design.
What’s the catch then?
I'm glad you asked. It turns out that San Martin may not have been 100% transparent with me. The original SN-004 that I purchased…I already knew that one wasn't original. This was based on a classic Rolex design from the 1950s, which I was cool with, given that the Rolex is impossible to find in new condition or for attainable prices.
However, the other two, the two they sent me...they're not quite as promised. As I pointed out in my dive watch round-up, the SN-045 does have a rather unique, stubby case shape and a sleek bracelet, though I thought the dial looked familiar. After researching, it appears to have been copied directly from a Seiko 1970 'Willard,' with an identical layout and handset.
I suspected that the other one may have looked similar to several other watches, with the minimalist fixed bezel design. Unfortunately, I didn't realize how close until a commenter pointed out that this was likely a clone of the Unimatic U2, which looks the same, just a bit thicker.
San Martin wasn't completely honest with me on at least one of those counts. Nonetheless, it's a step in the right direction, as there are some original elements. However, I'm sure that route will be difficult to justify, given that their profitability may suffer, as is evident from one of their earliest emails to me.
That's the second question sorted.
To answer the first question, no, I don't think San Martin is 'overrated.' Moreso, I think the consensus needs shifting. There's a little too much focus on these watches resembling certain Rolex models for less money and not enough focus on how remarkable the fit and finish and QC are for the retail price. I'm not talking about the raw specifications here. As I've mentioned before, it's easy to cram high specs into dirt-cheap watches.
Instead, San Martin has clawed its way to a position analogous to modern realistic CGI, sitting in an uncanny valley where luxury seems just over the horizon yet may continue to remain just out of reach.