Hands-On With The New Airain Type 21 — Subtle Tweaks Make A Difference
When you bring back a lost watch brand and want to restore it to its former glory, you are not just a watch geek. No, you’re also part custodian and part historian. At Fratello, we appreciate it when someone does this with passion and attention to detail. Tom van Wijlick is such a guy, so we follow him with great interest. Today, he released the Airain Type 21.
I have had a chance to go hands-on with the new watch as well as the latest update to the Type 20. This is how we got along.
Type 20 versus Type 21
To see this new release in the proper context, we need to go back to the 1950s. As you probably know, the French Air Force issued specifications for a watch for its pilots. Dave described the process and specs in detail in this previous article, so I will keep it short and sweet. The bottom line is that several watch brands ended up supplying these watches, collectively known as Type 20.
Airain was one of them, alongside others like Breguet, Dodane, Auricoste, and Vixa. Then, during the 1960s, improved reliability and a longer service interval were demanded. The resulting watches are known as Type 21. They followed largely the same recipe as the Type 20 but with a more rugged build and minor aesthetic changes.
Not too long ago, Van Wijlick saw an original Airain Type 21 come up for auction. With not much historical data and images to go by otherwise, this provided a unique opportunity to recreate the subtle aesthetic changes that characterize the Type 21.
The new Airain Type 21
Now, the above poses a bit of a challenge for modern-day Airain. The Type 20 is already a well-built watch powered by a reliable AMT AM2 flyback caliber (if that sounds unfamiliar, AMT is the high-end division of Sellita). Thus, to follow the original path and make a more reliable version isn’t necessary or “worth it” at this point.
So what Airain has done is create a modified Type 20 with all the aesthetic changes as seen on the auctioned model. Under the hood (Lex would kill me), this is the same watch. You get the same case, same caliber, same crown, same everything. This, then, is something for the Type 20/Type 21 connoisseurs with an eye for the finer details.
Whereas the Type 20 features a matte dial, the Airain Type 21 is fitted with a glossy black dial. The Airain logo, like on the Sous-Marine, also has a crown rather than just a wordmark. The “Type 21” signature is moved from 12 to 6 o’clock, replacing the jewel count and “Incabloc” text. It is a cleaner dial layout overall. Lastly, the lume is slightly darker in color, and there is a matching lume triangle in the bezel now. The changes are small, but they do provide the watch with a different overall feel. I can imagine it will be hard to choose between Type 20 and Type 21 now.
Airain Type 21 specifications
The new Airain Type 21 has a 39.5mm bezel, slightly overhanging the 39mm case. This stainless steel case is capped off with a solid steel case back and a domed sapphire crystal on top. The Type 21 measures 47.7mm long and 14.7mm thick, and it offers a 50m water resistance rating
As mentioned, inside we find the AMT caliber AM2. It is based on Valoux architecture and, crucially, features a flyback chronograph complication. The power reserve comes in at around 63 hours after manually winding it. Airain switched to this from a La Joux-Perret movement when the company could no longer offer flyback functionality due to changes to its base chronograph caliber. Luckily, the architecture is similar, so only minor tweaks to the original Type 20 reissue were necessary.
Wearing the Airain Type 21
I was lucky enough to wear an original vintage Type 20 from Dodane a few years back. That was a while before I even knew that Tom was rebuilding Airain. I loved that watch and made an effort to acquire it. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get the funds in order quickly enough, and someone else snatched it away. Long story short, this watch speaks to me, and I look at any reissue with an extra-critical eye.
And that eye is pleasantly surprised every time I see a new iteration from Tom. Overall, these capture the vibe of the original almost perfectly. The new ones are, however, significantly more refined. I particularly love the finishing on the bezel. The brushing with a polished chamfer adds refinement to the original style. The dial also strikes me as particularly refined. I have to say, the glossy black looks great on the Airain Type 21. In most lighting conditions, it looks a tad warmer than pure black.
The fit on the wrist is also great. Admittedly, I prefer the smaller case of the vintage originals, but some upsizing was inevitable for a viable modern-day release. It does still feel like a vintage watch, which is great. Airain elected to go for “authentic” rather than “updated,” and that shines through. Yes, the Type 21 also feels solid like a modern watch (which the vintage Dodane that I considered earlier did not), and there are some modern refinements. Generally, though, it still very much exudes the vibe of a mid-century military chronograph.
Some updates on the existing Airain Type 20
The Airain Type 20 also underwent a minor aesthetic update, although I feel it makes a big difference. The bezel markings are now filled with matte black lacquer, making the numerals and hash marks stand out against the steel. Again, it is a subtle change, but it gives the bezel a lot more presence. It boosts the legibility of the bezel too.
Perhaps more importantly, deliveries for the Type 20 and the Type 20 Furtivité are expected to commence shortly. The first people who pre-ordered can even expect their watches this year. The watches are now available to order on the Airain website for delivery early next year. This means the non-limited models are becoming available for relatively short-term delivery.
Closing thoughts on the Airain Type 21
Admittedly, I had to look twice when the new Airain Type 21 came in. As you can see, this isn’t a radical new introduction from the brand. To dismiss it as uninteresting because of that would be a mistake, though. It is commendable that Airain makes an effort to offer aficionados the choice, even if it is a choice between tiny details. It only cements my view of Tom van Wijlick as a passionate custodian of the brand. Furthermore, it shows his intention to bring the brand back, including all the subtleties that only the nerdiest collectors (in the positive sense) will spot.
After all, it is the tiny details like these that keep us fascinated with watches. I can see a future in which some more original Airains might surface and Tom recreates each in perfect detail. To me, that is an exceptionally cool way to run a reissue brand. How focused on the hardcore aficionados can you be?
So, which would I pick for myself? Tough one! I think I have a mild preference for the slightly cleaner dial layout of the Airain Type 21 over the Type 20. But, in all fairness, I wouldn’t boot either one out of my watch box.
Pricing and availability
Airain opted to keep the Type 21’s price the same as the Type 20’s. I am glad about this as it becomes purely a matter of what little details you prefer. After all, the differences are aesthetic only and quite small, for that matter.
The Airain Type 21 comes in at €2,950, which includes 21% Dutch VAT. Naturally, prices will vary based on your region and import regulations. As mentioned, orders placed on the Airain website now can be expected to arrive in early 2024.
What do you think of the new Airain Type 21? And how do you like the brand recreating small variations found in original watches? Let us know in the comments below.