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A Month on the Wrist: The Ball Engineer Hydrocarbon Original 43mm

Though unofficially, the proof is there with my experience with the Hydrocarbon. What I will admit is that Ball is a brand that I certainly underrated and dismissed too soon, and has now become a new favorite of mine. 
Jun 24, 2024

For the past month, I’ve had the wonderful opportunity to wear a Ball Engineer Hydrocarbon Original, loaned to me by GnomonWatches. This model was 43mm, as opposed to the near-identical 40mm version. Upon pulling it out of the parcel it shipped in, I was taken aback by how large and heavy the watch seemed. Dense and chunky are good descriptors. My wrist measures 6.5 inches (16.5cm). I usually deny myself entertaining the thought of wearing watches over 42mm. However, after sizing the bracelet (and getting used to the increase in size and weight from my daily driver), I found the Hydrocarbon Original to be a delight to wear.

It took me a long time to discover Ball after embarking on my watch enthusiast journey. Even then, somehow Ball quickly became relegated in my mind as an old man’s watch. Isn’t that the brand that’s crazy about trains? The ornate seconds hand (which I’ve come to love) and the strong leaning into its railroad history was enough for me to quickly pass on Ball for other brands that were more seductive to me at the time.

Then I grew up some. My tastes and desires in watches changed and — dare I say — matured, at least on a personal level. Many brands and watches that brought me into the fold lost their gleam and shimmer. I began revisiting brands that I had only glossed over previously. Ball was one such brand. I’m older now (not quite an old man), and I must say, after spending some time with this watch, and spending time learning more about Ball’s catalog, designs, and technologies, I’m a convert. As good as Ball is, it’s done some real harm in shaking my resolution to save up for other watches I thought I wanted. I see a Ball watch in my future.

Ball Engineer Hydrocarbon Original 43mm

If there is one thing that Ball is lacking, it’s simple, easy-to-remember names. Engineer Hydrocarbon Original 43mm is a mouthful, so I’ll be referring to it from here on out as the Hydrocarbon Original. Just know that I’m referring to the 43mm size, not the 40mm, which Ball also makes.

Indeed, I was intimidated strapping such a large and heavy (200 grams) watch onto my wrist initially. I think, were it up to me, I would’ve chosen the 40mm Hydrocarbon Original for myself. But after wearing the watch for a month I was very pleased to learn that the 43mm and other dimensions of the Hydrocarbon Original work just fine for me. The watch’s geometries, coupled with its black dial (remember, black is slimming) and look of the sloping lugs and bracelet end links combine for a watch that is tall and wide, but not unwieldy, even when strapped to a smaller wrist.

In fact, with the bracelet sized just right, the Hydrocarbon Original became much more comfortable than expected. The watch does a good job of staying where it’s meant to. That said, this is no svelte dress watch. The Hydrocarbon Original is a robust tool watch and makes no effort to hide that. At 15.3mm tall, good luck sliding it under any but the most elastic cuffs. But a tool watch such as this is meant to be easily accessed at any moment. The bracelet extensions, notably not referred to as a “diver’s extension”, allow for the watch to be easily strapped over most outerwear, whether that’s a wetsuit or the cuff of a parka.

Tough as nails

And this would be the watch I’d want strapped to my parka if I found myself in some wilderness scenario. As it were, I didn’t have the opportunity to take the Hydrocarbon Original out into the field. It had a docile experience relative to the standards it’s built to. And those standards are formidable. 7,500Gs of shock resistance, 80,000A/m of magnetic resistance, and 200m of water resistance make for a watch that is resistant to just about anything you can stomach putting yourself through.

The patented crown protection system looked exaggerated and a little funny to me at first. It’s the same way I feel about U-Boat’s crown protection system. But considering the real-world chops the Hydrocarbon Original is equipped with, it quickly dawned on me that the crown protection system was not only merited but necessary. How else is the crown side of the watch supposed to handle 7,500Gs of impact? The protection system serves the additional function of ensuring the crown is screwed down to the point of full 200m water resistance.

On the wrist, I found the bulk of the crown protection system to hardly interfere with the back of my hand. I prefer to wear my watches as tight as is comfortable and behind the wrist bone. At that position, there were no problems. Considering the incredible accuracy of the caliber within, certified to within COSC standards, I’d be interested in a destro (left-sided) crown orientation. I hardly found a need to fiddle with the crown with the -4 per day accuracy I was getting with the watch sent to me.

A tough movement as well

In the Hydrocarbon Original is the Ball RR1102-CSL caliber. It is a heavily modified ETA 2836-2 base caliber. Within it are further Ball patented technologies. The SpringSEAL® and SpringLOCK® systems protect the regulator assembly and hairspring from impacts. The Amortiser® anti-shock system encompasses the entire movement and protects it as a whole from impacts as well.

Other specs are a little more normal: 28,800BPH and 38-hour power reserve. Ball has done about the most that can be done with an ETA movement as its foundation, but I find the 38-hour power reserve limiting for this kind of watch. The Ball Hydrocarbon Original is pushing the boundaries on what I’d consider a “daily beater” if just only for its size and weight. 38 hours of power reserve leaves little time for the watch to be off the wrist before it stops ticking. This would not be as much of an issue if it were a time-only watch. But present on the dial are both the date and the day. The excellent accuracy and presence of a day/date function in such a robust tool watch almost necessitate a longer power reserve, or a watch winder, which I don’t own.

As a dedicated tool watch, the power reserve is not as much of a limitation. The Hydrocarbon series watches are dependable and tough enough that they can be strapped to the wrist, set, and forgotten about until the end of the adventure. But I expect many of us interested in Ball watches appreciate them for what they *can do and are perhaps not as interested in personally testing their (and our own) limits. Ball does have a series of manufacture movement-equipped watches, with 80 hours of power reserve. I hope to see that movement find its way into other Ball series, including the Hydrocarbon.

Read also: History of Ball Watches: The Timeless Legacy in Horology

And it looks good too!

The Hydrocarbon Original very well could be a daily beater for someone dedicated enough. Unlike the rest of the Hydrocarbon lineup, the Hydrocarbon Original is designed with a simple classiness that compliments and perhaps even softens its toolish nature. The reserved dial design is textbook classic diver, giving space to the ornate seconds hand. Present, too, are Ball’s sword-style minute and hour hands. And the color-matched bezel insert is a glossy sapphire, like the crystal, which is reminiscent of vintage bakelite bezel inserts.

Every informational element excluding the day/date window is adorned with Ball’s trademark tritium illumination. This is different than the lume typically found on watches, as it does not use external light to charge. Instead, tritium particles in small glass tubes interact with phosphorous coatings on the inner walls of the tubes. This interaction produces a steady glow, that shines brightly in the dark and is unnoticeable during the day. This style of illumination is good for at least 20 years, making it (in my mind) superior to lume, if not more labor-intensive to incorporate. You can actually see three of such tiny glass tubes affixed to the top of each of the watch hands, giving one an idea of how precise a manufacturing process is required to produce them. the rest of the tubes are hidden beneath the dial and bezel insert. I found the green glow from the tritium tubes to be one of my favorite features of the watch, unlike any other watch’s illumination I’ve interacted with so far.

The Hydrocarbon Original’s case and bezel are stainless steel in a mix of polished and brushed surfaces. The top of the case (essentially the lugs) is brushed, and the sides polished. This includes the protruding crown guards and protective flap. The bracelet end links match the brushed finish of the lugs, and the shape of the end link imparts an almost integrated bracelet looking fit with the case. The way the bracelet attaches to the case speaks to the Hydrocarbon’s overengineering. Eight(!) screws — two to each lug — visible from the sides of the watch make sure that the bracelet and case remain connected, no matter what. The solid steel bracelet has brushed H-links, with slightly raised polished squares. This is a design element found in many other Ball watches, and one I quite like.

Adjustment of the bracelet was easy enough for me with a micro flathead screwdriver, with plenty of partial links to dial in the fit. Interacting with the screw-in pins and the links in this way only further affirmed the robustness of the Hydrocarbon. The crowning feature of the bracelet is the precisely machined butterfly clasp. it is improbable to me how perfectly the two flaps of the closure come together, forming a thin line across the brushed steel when closed. Present here is the stylized Ball “RR” found on the seconds hand and dial for RailRoad. Releasing the clasp when facing up on the wrist allows the weight of the watch to pop the clasp open dramatically, revealing a cheeky “Ball Design” spanning the interior “wings” of the clasp. Of course, it’s a Ball design. Once the clasp is open, one can deploy one or both of the extensions on either side, gaining about a total of 2cm to the bracelet’s circumference.

On the wrist

As I’ve indicated, the Hydrocarbon Original 43mm is a big watch that certainly wears big. People notice it immediately. I was met many times with “that’s a big watch.” Not long after, after more obvious glances, everyone that said that eventually said something along the lines of: “it looks good though.” And I have to agree. 43mm in diameter and over 15mm in height was definitely outside of my comfort zone before the Ball. But it’s grown on me. The Hydrocarbon Original is a classy, comfortable tool watch, that packs quite an impressive specs sheet into its good looks. Perhaps if Gnomon had sent me the 40mm version I might’ve been tempted enough to keep it and pay them for their trouble. For that reason, I’m thankful they didn’t. But the 43mm is just big enough to become a watch that I can’t slip on and forget about. That may be a good quality for some, but I need a little less presence in a watch I’m going to wear regularly.

If I were scaling mountains or cave diving (constant illumination makes it perfect for that) the Hydrocarbon would be an ideal pick for me. As it is, I don’t need quite as much from a tool watch, as I’m typically only climbing trees and building things. But the incredible build quality and unique design of the Hydrocarbon Original now has me seriously shopping from the rest of Ball’s catalog. I won’t admit to myself that I can officially pull off wearing 43mm watches, as that would open too large a door of options for me. Though unofficially, the proof is there with my experience with the Hydrocarbon. What I will admit is that Ball is a brand that I certainly underrated and dismissed too soon, and has now become a new favorite of mine. Time will tell if I will become a happy Ball watch owner.

Read also: Top Picks: Ball Dive Watch Collections that Offer You Quality

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