Hands-On: The Vario 1945 D12 — Dirty Dozen Done Right
We all know about the Dirty Dozen, the mil-spec group of watches produced in 1945, many of which never saw combat. While collectors scour online auctions to find vintage examples in good condition, we humble watch enthusiasts are presented with a few modern options. First is the Timor Heritage Field WWW, which is perhaps the most legitimate heir to the original Dirty Dozen. Then there’s Vertex — another one of the 12 — that took the path of modernizing the original with the M100A. While the Timor retails for €955 and the Vertex for just under €2,100, there’s plenty of space in the middle for other modern interpretations that also are more affordable. These range from Christopher Ward’s Sandhurst and CWC’s Mellor-72 to today’s contestant, the Vario 1945 D12
Vario is not entirely new to the Fratello community as I reviewed the Versa earlier this year. The brand also makes homages to WWI trench watches which, alongside the Versa, make for affordable alternatives to the originals. However, more than being a homage, the 1945 D12 is a fun take on the Dirty Dozen. It mixes classical design codes from the 1940s military era with modern quirks, as we will see below.
Vario 1945 D12: Paying homage to the important features of the Dirty Dozen
I won’t rehash the history of the Dirty Dozen since Thomas did such a fine job already. Let’s address the most crucial thing that Vario adopted from the original designs. In a nutshell, the 1945 D12 has excellent legibility. The chief task of the Dirty Dozen was, as it has always been for any military watch, to be highly legible. One had to be able to tell the time quickly in all sorts of scenarios, from synchronizing intricate military operations and keeping track of daily tasks to catching a train on time. This is any watch’s main function, whether military or civilian, and it’s still the case today. There is no chronograph complication, no date, and no bezel. There are just three hands on a black dial, large Arabic numerals, and a legible railroad minute track. Telling the time on the Vario 1945 D12 is as easy as it gets.
The other thing Vario had to replicate was the intrinsic robustness of the Dirty Dozen. At least at the time, they were considered reliable. Of the 12, only seven had cases made of steel (the others were made of plated brass), but all had shock-resistant crystals, lots of lume, and reliable movements. Vario managed to replicate the robustness of the original Dirty Dozen, all the while keeping the price tag well below $1K — US$368, to be exact. Although we will dissect the specs of the 1945 D12 later, know this: you get a lot of watch for your money. I couldn’t find information about how much the Dirty Dozen watches cost in 1945, but I imagine they were relatively affordable (if anyone knows about this, please comment below). All of this is to say that in 2023, one can acquire a solid and legible Vario 1945 D12 for just $368.
What makes the Vario 1945 D12 fun
When I first opened the package that the Vario 1945 D12 came in, I was overcome with joy. I even felt a little giddy, like a child opening a long-awaited Christmas present. I immediately found the 1945 D12 to be fun, and I just couldn’t wait to strap it on my wrist. It’s the combination of its looks and price tag that made me feel like I could bang this one around and not worry about it. Since it has an 18mm lug spacing, I had to shop for a new collection of “shoes” as I didn’t own any straps in that size. To be frank, I went the easy route. I grabbed a bunch of $10 NATO-style and single-pass straps from a popular online retailer. Spending ten bucks on each strap for a $368 watch felt right. It felt fun and easy, and that’s all I need sometimes.
Perhaps this is just me, but I do generally feel it to be easier to walk around wearing affordable watches. There is, of course, nothing wrong with wearing expensive timepieces. I mean, I do it sometimes too. But strapping on something like the 1945 D12 just makes the day even easier and better. I feel I’m having a light-hearted horological experience swapping straps every hour and being mesmerized by how legible the dial is. And here’s a bonus point: your spouse won’t notice you are checking the time while shopping because it takes a fraction of a second to do so.
As we will see, the design of the dial and case on the Vario greatly contribute to the fun factor.
Superlative legibility and quirks
It goes without saying that the Vario 1945 D12 is extremely legible. The brand mixed a few design traits of the various Dirty Dozen models to achieve this result. First are the syringe hour and minute hands, which are complete with white surrounds and set against a matte and textured black dial. The hour hand reaches most of the way to the period-correct Arabic numerals painted in white. The minute hand has a tip that lands exactly at the outer edge of the railroad track. Therefore, setting and reading the time is extremely easy. Next up are yellow accents, which mark each five-minute increment on the minute track, while a triangle sandwiched between two yellow dots points upward at 12 o’clock. A sub-seconds register sits at 6 o’clock, with a small white seconds hand matching white hash marks.
The first quirk can be found here. Vario opted for a mostly lacquered black disc for the sub-seconds register while the originals had a circular, grained finish. The 1945 D12 does show a bit of that as well behind the seconds track, though one must have very good eyesight (or a macro lens) to spot it. This, however, means the seconds hand is easy to see at any distance. And while I don’t see myself coordinating a precise military operation any time soon, I know I could do so with great accuracy with this watch. The second quirk is the crown at 4 o’clock, which explains the questionable subtitle I wrote at the beginning.
To me, putting the crown there is a very Seiko thing to do, and I like it here. It makes the watch look like a grenade of sorts or another kind of military gadget. And the lumed, incised logo on the crown is plain fun.
One last quirk (or two)
The third quirk is the case. It is not a direct copy of the original Dirty Dozen or the modern Timor Heritage Field WWW cases. Again, it reminds me of many a Seiko I’ve seen in the recent past. The Vario 1945 D12 has short, downturned lugs, straight sides, and a chamfered bezel. That bezel is entirely polished and angles up towards the crystal. A polished chamfer can be found on each lug, while the rest of the case is finely brushed. Also, note the cutout to make space for the crown. In my opinion, all of these quirks put together make the 1945 D12 comfortable to wear, great to look at, and, most importantly, fun.
Hidden quirk: did you notice the embossed logo underneath the 12 o’clock marker?
Specs, dimensions, and availability
At last, we get to the full spec list. The Vario 1945 D12 has more or less period-correct dimensions as well. The case measures 37mm in diameter, 45mm long, 10.5mm thick, and as we know, it has an 18mm lug spacing. By the way, the lugs have drilled holes to make swapping straps easy. The watch is powered by an automatic Miyota 82S5, which beats at a 21,600vph (3Hz) frequency and has a 40-hour power reserve. The caliber is protected from water ingress to 10 ATM thanks to a screw-down crown and case back. And you can easily read the time in the darkest conditions thanks to generous applications of two types of lume — BGW9 on the Arabic numerals and C3 on the hands, lume plots on the minute track, and the signed crown.
The Vario 1945 D12 features four dial options — Raven Black (the one here), Sand Beige, Army Green, and Shadow Grey. All colors are readily available on Vario’s website for US$368, and the watch comes on a black Cordura strap.
As celebrated as the original Dirty Dozen watches are, one must dish out considerable cash to acquire one in good condition. This means that they are not in reach of many watch enthusiasts. So we can either turn to the offerings of one of the few remaining brands or to homages. Looking at the latter option, the Vario 1945 D12 is one of the most affordable ones I know of. For less than $370, you get a solid tool watch that’s legible and — in case you didn’t get it — fun to wear. I wouldn’t wear a 1945 D12 for a business meeting or a date (though one should never say “never”). I would, however, wear it in many other situations, and I have done just that. Lastly, what makes it fun is not that it’s relatively affordable but that it’s well made and quirky.
Anyway, these are just my thoughts. What are yours? Please share them in the comments below.