Typically, someone who designs a dive watch is a diver or at least has some kind of affinity for the sea and the world beneath the surface. I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t think that the founder of the Marin Instruments brand—of which the first model is a diver—lives in the deserts of New Mexico and isn’t the most comfortable in water. He’s actually afraid of it. Bizarre, I know, but let me explain how Justin Walters came to design what I consider to be one of the best dive watches of the past few years.
I realize that this is a big statement to make, but if you read the full article, you may be surprised to find that it is true. Or maybe not, but you will have to read and see for yourself.
What will not surprise you, however, is the fact that Justin is an experienced watchmaker and worked in the industry for several years, and that creating a watch brand is not an idea that suddenly came to him but something that he thought about for a long time. In this article, then, we will look at how his personal taste for things and his expertise as a watchmaker brought him to create purposeful tool watches that are equally well made and unique looking. As is often the case, it takes a unique blend of experience and personal preferences to create something unique.
Justin Walters, Founder
It Starts with Parts, Lots and Lots of Parts
When I was a kid, I developed a passion for disassembling electronics—small radios, VHS recorders, electric tools, things like that—but I had no concept or interest in putting them back together. I only liked to take them apart and then organize the individual parts in properly labeled containers. I guess that the process of taking things apart was soothing, but as you can imagine, my parents would have appreciated me putting them back together. By contrast, Justin always liked to take things apart, but he created a system to put them back in one piece. Even better, he figured out how to fix watches!
In fact, Justin bought old watches and repaired them without having any concept of what it meant to service a watch. He memorized where each part of the movement was before taking it apart, and although he couldn't name any of the parts, he could put them back together and taught himself how a movement works. At the time, he was living in Kansas City and thought that maybe he could get paid to do this. So he looked for a watchmaker in his town and started working as an apprentice, working there for two years.
Before working on the watches, he started designing them. In the past, he had designed skateboards and liked to see his name written in small letters on them. Since he always liked watches, he thought he would try his hand at designing them, but he didn't know how movements worked or that most watches were designed around the movement (or in other words, that the placement of the hands and registers depends on how the movement is made). So his early sketches showed hands where they could not be placed, and he mixed design elements in a way that was not humanly possible.
Interestingly, however, Marin's second model has several design elements that are rarely, if ever, seen together (more on that later).
He then worked for different watchmakers that serviced all sorts of brands like Rolex and Omega. Working on so many different types of watches helped Justin in fine-tuning his personal tastes in design and to get a better sense of where things go. Imagine a young painter who had no formal training in the art and who studied on the job for a few years under the watchful eyes of a master. Although this story sounds too much like one from a bygone era, they do still exist, and to me, it makes Justin’s story even more interesting.
After more than six years working for watchmakers, Justin moved to New Mexico to work in a lab on government projects. Although he couldn’t give me details, it involves taking things apart and building them anew. What generally happens after a few years thinking about creating a brand and designing watches is that one eventually takes the plunge. Justin is a careful man, though, and he took his time to create connections within the watch industry to figure out how to get his designs to become physical objects (watches, in other words).
When the Parts Become Watches
I hope I never make what follows sound simple, because it isn’t. Going from an idea of creating a watch brand to actually making the brand is no small feat. It took me 20 years to figure out how to make a living writing so I sympathize with anyone trying to create their own thing. The early quarantine period during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 gave many people the time and space to create a brand or become influencers. Following suit, Justin, who himself was out of work at the time and full of ideas, took the plunge.
Most manufacturers that independent brands work with are located in Asia, Hong Kong to be more specific. The latter has become the epicenter for watchmaking because Hong Kong provides high-quality products at reasonable prices and is more accessible to foreigners since Hong Kong is an international hub and most people there speak English. Like many others I’ve interviewed, Justin narrowed down his search for a manufacturer to Hong Kong. To be honest, most brands that sell good watches for less than €1,000 get them made in Hong Kong.
He zeroed in on one particular manufacturer that runs an incubator program to assist new brands in getting their business going. Something strange happened to Justin, though. As we know, Justin is the guy who is afraid of water but was adamant about making a dive watch. When he spoke of his project to the people in charge of the incubator, they actually laughed, claiming that nobody was interested in dive watches anymore and that his project would fail. Justin didn’t take their response as the last word, so he started doing research to find a better path forward.
He ended up doing the exact opposite of what most new brand owners do: he left Asia and went to Switzerland.
Before we continue exploring Justin’s story, let’s talk about camaraderie, or rather the lack of camaraderie between professionals in the watch industry. Whether one is a writer, a photographer, or a watchmaker, one tends to hold on to his secrets and not share them with others who are interested in the same thing. People do that because they are afraid of enabling the competition. This is actually true of any industry, unfortunately, and it is certainly the case in the horology field. There are, however, a few outliers. A big one is Farer, the British watch brand that lists on its website the name of the manufacturer they partner with (Roventa Henex).
It was easy, then, for Justin to figure out where to start his search for a new manufacturer in Switzerland. As I see it, the fact that Justin was inadvertently helped by Farer influenced his approach to creating his brand and talking about it. What I mean is that Justin has always been very approachable and never shied away from sharing his “secrets” with me. Mentioning multiple times that he’s afraid of water might have come across as mockery on my part, but it wasn’t. By relating this fact about Justin, I was trying to show indirectly that Justin is very transparent.
When Justin described his experience working with Roventa Henex, it reminded me of my own experience going to a private clinic in New York City, the type of clinic that now charges a monthly membership fee for us to receive what we used to consider basic services—kindness and professionalism. While Justin was mocked by the Hong Kong manufacturer, he was welcomed with open arms by Roventa Henex. Roventa is a Swiss watch manufacturer that makes components and assembles watches. As we will see below, the first model of the brand came out rather nicely.
A Little Bit About Justin
I feel I owe it to Justin to talk more about him before talking about the first model he released, the Skin Diver, because once you see photos of this watch, you might think it was created by a seasoned designer, rather by someone who just started his brand three years ago. As we know, Justin has been designing watches for a while, but there is a world of difference between designing a watch for fun and designing a watch with the intent of getting it manufactured. Having gained several years of experience as a watchmaker, Justin felt confident that he knew enough about the mechanical side of watches to get started.
And yes, Justin now lives in the middle of the desert and doesn’t dive, but he has always been attracted by the practicality and robustness of dive watches. They are, after all, built to be submerged to hundreds of meters, repel dust and dirt, and be comfortable to wear in many different environments. Justin himself finds the dive-time bezel practical for daily living to time events, more so than a chronograph (I feel the same and often use the bezel to time all sorts of things). Dive watches, in fact, constitute the perfect watch type for many people for these kinds of reasons.
Like all designers, Justin has been influenced by certain models, some that he owns, and others that he saw while working as a watchmaker. When he debuted his watchmaker career in Kansas City, he felt he should own a proper mechanical watch, so he bought himself a Starina field watch made in the 1940s, a brand I had never heard of before. Then, many years later, Justin acquired a Seiko 7s26-0030, which he bought off eBay for $50. He also developed a slight obsession for the Rolex Submariner reference 16610. These two watches constituted the basis for the visual language of the Marin Instrument Skin Diver: robustness, legibility, and simplicity.
Justin said that he sees life in black and white. He further indicated that his brain works in black and white, meaning that he functions on either sides of two spectrums, two absolutes. He doesn't see gray and he doesn’t think in colors that much, something that he reflects in his daily life by wearing mostly black and white clothes. What he loves about the Submariner 16610 is the classic black-on-white theme that is extremely legible and purpose-driven. When he set out to design the first model for Marin Instrument, then, he decided to stick to making a simple tool watch.
By the way, the name Marin Instrument comes from his desire to create a suite of practical, field-ready tool watches.
A Seiko 7s26-0030
A Rolex Submariner 16610
His First Model: The Skin Diver
One couldn't have found a simpler name for a first watch: Skin Diver. There is no confusion as to what kind of watch this is, although few brands make skin divers nowadays. Skin divers are toned-down versions of professional divers—at least they used to be—in that they have less water resistance than regular divers, generally 100 meters, but Justin was inspired by the style, dimensions, and the no-nonsense approach of skin divers to design his first model. As we know, Justin thinks in black and white and this led to the creation of two versions of the watch: a black dial with white accents and a white dial with black accents.
From a technical perspective, the Skin Diver is a proper tool watch. With reasonable dimensions of 39 x 48 x 11.5mm (diameter x lug-to-lug x thickness), it fits most wrist sizes and is rather compact as a proper skin diver should be. It is powered by a Sellita SW200-1 movement, it has a 60-click unidirectional bezel (of which action reminds me of Sinn divers), and a flat piece of sapphire crystal. What’s more, it comes with a rubber strap that fits the case design perfectly and is practical to wear.
When looking at the Skin Diver, we notice a few unique details that show how much attention Justin put into designing this watch. In particular, the graduation of the bezel and the indication of the first 15 minutes by a line instead of dots makes it easier to read the elapsed time at a glance. The alternation of triangular, circular, and square hour markers also makes it easier to tell apart the sections of the dial (note the little tails on the markers at the 6 and 9 o’clock positions). Being a tool watch, the date window at the 3 o’clock position is discreet, and although many would argue otherwise, I feel that a diver should have a date aperture.
My favorite part of the Skin Diver is the case design. It’s angular and simple, has no polished chamfers, and provides the adequate amount of details and functionality for its intended purpose: slab crown guards and drilled lug holes. The Skin Diver is a solid tool watch, which is exactly what Justin intended to create. To him, it’s becoming harder and harder to find proper tool watches that are clean and simple. This explains why the Skin Diver has good specifications and doesn’t use precious metals or top-grade movements to keep the cost reasonable and to make watches easy to service.
Conclusion: The Rebirth of Tool Watches
I borrowed the Skin Diver a few weeks before speaking to Justin, which gave me ample time to form my own opinion of the watch before hearing his story. I found the Skin Diver very attractive and different from many other divers I’ve seen in the past few years. More than anything else, I was smitten with its straightforwardness, the simplicity of its looks, the feeling of purposefulness it creates when you wear it on your wrist. Now that you know about Justin and the way he sees things, perhaps you better understand why the Skin Diver looks the way it does. Justin wanted to create a proper tool watch, and I believe he has succeeded.
His second model, the Fieldmaster, is even more of a tool watch than the Skin Diver. It combines a GMT and chronograph complications, a dive-time bezel, and a date aperture. The Fieldmaster preserves the visual DNA of the Skin Diver, further explaining the meaning—perhaps I should say the intention—behind the brand name of Marin Instruments. Justin liked how the word “Marine” sounded and removed the “e” and added “Instruments” because he intends to create a vast catalog of instrument watches.
To learn more about Justin’s brand, check out his website here. Thanks for reading.