Today, we’ll take a look at a lovely vintage watch. An Eterna 852 has graced the pages of Fratello previously but in a different format. Our subject for this article isn’t a famous reference or even a military piece. Heck, it doesn’t even have a proper model name. It’s just a great-looking watch with a nice movement. It’s also a reminder that a wealth of under-the-radar opportunities still exist.

We often forget that within the world of vintage watches, wanting something and then making it happen isn’t a matter of snapping one’s fingers. Sure, it’s relatively simple to find a nice vintage Speedmaster or a Rolex 1675 due to their immense popularity and high production numbers. When it comes to something more obscure, though, the wait can be incredibly long. Almost four years ago, my podcast co-host Balazs posted a story about his Eterna 852 jumbo, and I knew that I had to have one. It was a good-looking watch with great proportions and a lovely movement. As we can see, it has taken me until now to finally land a decent one.

Eterna 852 movement

The Eterna 852 movement

It may sound odd to start an article by discussing a movement, but it’s truly the beating heart of today’s subject. The 1930s Eterna 852 caliber may not bring crazy specs to the party, but it’s notable for several reasons. First, it’s big! At 14 lignes or just below 32mm in diameter, the movement demands relatively large case sizes, attracting collectors. Also, it’s robust and relatively simple to repair. With just 15 jewels and an 18,000vph frequency, the movement doesn’t appear to be working very hard. To further support the reliability claim, Eterna made Czech Air Force “Majetek” watches with this caliber. Finally, the 852 was available in either center or sub-second variants. From the pictures above, the 852 isn’t the most ornately designed or decorated movement, yet it’s still nice to view.

Eterna 852 black dial

Finding a nice example

Once I expressed interest to Balazs regarding his Eterna 852, he began to help look for a nice reference. Along the way, he sent a couple of listings but later recanted those recommendations when it became clearer that the watches may have had issues. In one such instance, I was close to acquiring a similar piece to his with an inscribed case back. However, the hands didn’t seem correct for the reference. Of course, with a lack of catalog pictures, it was tough to tell. Still, I waited.

Many I had come across showed the telltale signs of falling somewhere between 60 and 80 years old. The watches were either redone, trashed, chrome plated, or priced much too optimistically. On the desirability and value front, Eterna is a well-known name, but it’s hardly Longines! So I watched and waited some more. Finally, the day came, and best of all, the targeted 852 happened to be at a show where I could see it in person.

Attending a watch show is fun!

My buddy Lawrence mentioned that the folks behind the Birmingham Watch and Clock Fair were coming to London in October to put on a similar event. It sounded like a fun morning out that saw me use the tube, a bus, and my feet to get there! The show was good fun, and I walked away with a few nice pieces.

The last one was the Eterna 852. I was, as always when it comes to watch-related events, leaving too late to get back home. On the way out, I was trying to find Lawrence within the show to say my goodbyes. I caught him ogling a vintage Movado within an Austrian dealer’s showcase. It was there that I first saw the 852, and it sang to me. I tried to give Balazs a call to ask some questions about its validity, but the reception was awful. I finally reached him and after a broken discussion, I decided to take a chance. Once inside, the seller and I came to a deal, and the 852 was on its way home.

After purchasing the Eterna 852, I did exactly what I had advised others not to do. Namely, I started to research my purchase. It turns out that Eterna used this general case style for a multitude of watches. There were pieces with chrome cases, larger cases, white dials, and dressier-looking versions. I even found an exact opposite model with a white dial. This dial was also used in similar and more traditional cases. My web sleuthing allowed me to date the watch to approximately 1946 through this helpful site (click the blue line at the bottom for a list of serial numbers).

Describing this Eterna 852

This Eterna 852 has a 36mm stainless steel case with a lug-to-lug distance of roughly 41mm. It’s a substantial-looking watch with a military vibe due to its incredibly thin bezel and thick lugs. Admittedly, the case isn’t a style that would normally attract me. It’s rather chunky at 11mm thick and certainly doesn’t shout elegance. It has a plain stainless snap-back with a serial number. As a note, I do think that the crown is a replacement. The watch does wear wonderfully, though, and the condition is nearly perfect. But we’re not here for the case, are we?

Eterna 852 dial patina

The dial on this Eterna 852 is (or was) black and contains bold radium numerals and large lume-filled hands. Time, however, has worked its magic on the combination to create something extraordinary. Like so many of these watches that have aged so gracefully, the color now reminds me of an old gelatin silver print. It’s rather magical in the sunlight and exhibits several shades and hues. A watch like this makes one begin to understand the appeal of patina.

Eterna 852 black dial wrist shot

Wearing a nearly 80-year-old watch

I own a lot of vintage watches, and some pieces feel quite flimsy, while others seem relatively stout. Weirdly, the Eterna 852 feels as though it can take a punch. Granted, it’s not water resistant, and I have no intention of testing its acrylic crystal, but it seems solid. I think it’s here that the robust simplicity of the 852 movement shines. Upon shaking the watch, there’s none of the customary rattling that plagues so many older watches. It’s a well-built runner, and I intend on wearing it frequently. As far as the pairing, the watch arrived on a natural leather strap, and it suits the dial perfectly. The combo picks up skin tones and suits a variety of clothing colors.

Advice and final thoughts

If watches from the ’60s often come with issues, I think the problems become exponential with every earlier decade. That’s probably why it was so hard for me to find a good Eterna 852. The positive news is that when I did find the one I wanted, it was far less expensive than I had envisioned. Figure on somewhere between €800–1,500 for a nice 852. The result of the expenditure is a watch that is far better in the metal than the dimensional specs may portray. Eterna may not have been at the level of JLC, Patek, or even Longines, but these are still highly rewarding watches to track down and, better yet, wear.

Watch specifications

Black with radium
Case Material
Stainless steel
Case Dimensions
36mm (diameter) × 41mm (lug-to-lug) × 11mm (thickness)
Case Back
Stainless steel, snap
Eterna 852 — manual winding, 18,000vph frequency, 50-hour power reserve, 15 jewels
Time (hours, minutes, sub-seconds)