Hands-On: The Aera D-1 Diver Makes A Strong Case For The Renaissance Of Big Tool Watches
My love of watches moves in mysteriously lateral ways, especially this year. I don’t know why, but I seem to be jinxed, with size preferences, consolidation, and plans going astray. The Aera D-1 frustratingly proves it by making a big-wristed point. I won’t even go into my failed third attempt at consolidation since that includes a love of small-diameter cool, which has been turned on its head lately.
This is all good and a part of life. Otherwise, where would the excitement be? Previously, I had decided that the 44mm Seiko Marinemaster 300 was the only “master of big,” embodying 44mm goodness with its innate ergonomics. But it might not be the last big one in my box since a very different take on the big tool watch has me all confused. Honestly, Aera is a brand that has been on my radar since its launch last year. I enjoy small brands with a different take on watchmaking and an emphasis on design through innovation rather than nostalgia. After all, we don’t live in the ’60s, do we? In Aera’s case, the positives seem to be threefold — clarity, materiality, and comfort.
Simple details with a studied execution
After a chat with Aera’s co-founder Jas in the most unlikely of places (amid the bustling crowds at the exhibition halls of the Milan Design Week), a box with the D-1 inside arrived. A box that set a pretty high standard, mind you, beating big brands properly. Fit, finish, and materials are something we talk about for the actual watch, I know. But the thoughtful details in the heavy-gauge cardboard multi-level box were a treat. It included two extra straps of the same form-fitting nature as the FKM rubber (more on that later). The watch itself is inexcusably BIG, and with its intense graphic monochrome nature, it seemed almost intimidating. “Purposeful” is the word — and chock full of surprises.
Aera D-1 — an instinctive, soft fit
Similar to its 43mm P-1 Pilot sibling, the D-1’s case itself is a rounded 42mm with a sleek-fit, man-size 44mm bezel. I’ll even admit to trepidation when I slipped it on. But the D-1 exhibited instant psychological shrinkage through design. It felt like wearing a 40–41mm watch, not a whopper, so what’s the secret? It simply felt at home and reminded me of the crisp, sharp legibility of another shrink-fit cult icon, the titanium Seiko Shogun. But the Aera D-1 is of our time, and despite its 134 grams, it feels sleek, earning a full set of stars in the book of ergonomics. The stainless steel alloy feels warmer to the touch and was once described by Rolex as a precious metal. Yes, 904L does feel different. Just like it does on an original Omega Ploprof, a Girard-Perragaux Laureato, or any steel Rolex.
A simple design with curated materials
Think of the word “simple” as a synonym for “succinct,” “pared back,” or even “essential.” Like a restaurant with a two-course set menu of select ingredients, the Aera D-1 has a feeling of “less is more.” First, let’s consider the case (pun unintended) for 904L. It might seem a ruse to catch your attention, but this hard-to-machine, top-tier stainless steel has a nickel-rich composition that makes it warmer on the wrist. Aera has managed to make the large case feel smaller with a narrow wrist footprint and, importantly, a good lug shape. The lugs have a Zenith-like angled end, but they curve downward to sit planted on the wrist and are softly brushed, without polishing or bevels. Sure, the glittery touch of a light-catching bevel and polishing looks great, but here is a chosen purity of line that works rather well.
Strap goals well and truly met
Aera does not leave much to chance with a proprietary FKM rubber strap of form-fitting curvature. This rubber is heavy, soft, and unlike the dust-magnet silicone. For summer, there’s a honeycomb pattern on the underside to avoid any sticky situations. The buckle is curved and perfectly shaped to fit around the strap. What elevates the package is its style punch, offered up by two more straps. I enjoy the soft hug of rubber, but the cheeky contrast of gray suede on a big dive watch appeals immensely to me. I’m not a diver (shock!), and it imbues the D-1 with great versatility. The third olive Cordura strap brings an outdoorsy vibe, and let’s face it, divers are the best overall sports watches. Who needs an Explorer to explore, right? So kudos to the Aera team for these tailored, quick-release fitted straps that tick another box on the comfort list.
A Leica-like feel with intense legibility
The thing that hits you and a big pro of the Aera D-1 is its legibility. I’m a big fan of the crafted feel of thick indices and a bit of polishing, but the spare design is crisp. And like the simple design of a Leica, the intention is clear, graphic, and modern. The dial is like the ABC of legibility. Big indices sporting liberal hand-applied Super-LumiNova sit on a dished one-piece dial with a soft black surface. This, along with the all-white details, allows you to read the time at ten paces. The blueish light of the lume lasts long after your nighttime mission has ended. The soft black of the dial surface makes the indices almost float while the fat sapphire crystal has a seamless transition with the bezel curve. Its ceramic insert is equally tool-matte with huge legibility and generous lume.
Aera has cheered up the monochrome with a cool blue tip on the seconds hand, matched by the 12 o’clock triangle and a dot in the screw-down crown. Small details that make the D-1 feel a lot more mature than its recent debut abound, like the fact that Aera has taken the time to engrave matching serial numbers on the case back and bottom-right lug. And the haptics of the 120-click bezel feels Sinn-like solid. It’s still a big watch with a 16mm total height, but it has the indefinable quality of making you forget the numbers. For me, the D-1 makes a comforting, personal connection. That’s rare and very subjective but says more than any spec list. That spec list includes a Swiss production line and the reliable Sellita SW200-1 movement with a decent 38-hour power reserve.
A chat with Jas Minhas
Chances had it that Jas, one of the founders of Aera, was in Milan for Design Week. We had an impromptu meeting during the fair in Rho, where I got to try on the D-1. I wanted to know what inspired Jas to embark on the watchmaking journey, and Jas told me: “Olof and I come from watchmaking families. Being brought up around watches/clocks, together with having entrepreneurial fathers, we both naturally joined the watch industry. Olof and I first met at a watch event in Sweden 20+ years ago, where we found that we both loved life, watches, design, and craft. It was a defining moment that brought us together as friends and sowed the seed of Aera’s birth. I ended up leaving the watch industry a few years later and told Olof that I would only come back to the industry to create our own company.
What makes Aera different?
I wanted to know how Jas defined the difference between the brand and others, and he told me more: “We took inspiration from the past and contemporized it so that it will feel relevant both today and in a hundred years. We designed everything ourselves except for the movement and the quick-release pins, with an emphasized ergonomic design, materials, and artisanal elements. Together with tech-advanced dial making and a compelling price provides us with our point of differentiation.”
I then asked when the D-1 and P-1 have had the success he imagined. Jas says: “The response has been overwhelmingly positive from our customers and the watch industry. We started with two quintessential tool watches, and our instinct thus far has proved correct with sales split about 50/50 between them. We also found a large majority of customers purchasing one and then coming back for the other, or even purchasing both together.”
A well-fitting conclusion
I had a suspicion that the Aera family would grow this year, so was I right? Jas spills the beans: “Your suspicions are correct. We’ll launch two new iterations of our P-1 and D-1 with Redbar Crew in NYC this week and have another three releases coming through the rest of the year.” And with that Fratello scoop (truth!), I segue into a final mention of this week’s launch of the new D-1 and P-1 versions released after this interview. The pilot’s watch P-1 was released yesterday in a soft gray tonal variation, giving me a vibe of the successful IWC ceramic Top Guns but with a strong Aera language.
The new pair houses the upgraded Elaboré Sellita SW200-1, with indexes and markers using Globolight lume to spice things up in the dark. The rest is still left to a simple, sharp aesthetic that is the essence of a tool watch. An all-blue version of the D-1 diver is the second release, with a color echoing the allure of the deep. So, do I feel like keeping D-1 on my wrist despite my vain attempts at consolidation? Well, I’ve not had a 42–44mm watch feel more at home in a long time. I might have to retract a few statements on size and wearability, but variety is the spice of life, right? The original D-1 (and P-1) is still available at Aera Instruments for £1,200, and the new D-1 Ocean Diver and P-1 Moon Pilot cost £1,350 and £1,250 respectively.
So, Fratelli, are big watches back? Have I been wrong all along, or have they simply snuck back into fashion? I’m confused and will happily back down on a few strong claims to avoid embarrassment. Let me know in the comments. The truth is probably in-between sizes, or there may not a set truth at all.
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