If you follow MONOCHROME, even occasionally, you know that we’re all about mechanical watches. It takes something really special to get us excited about something battery-powered, but every now and then, that something comes along. The retro Hamilton PSR is a recent example, along with the quartz Citizen Calibre 0100 that’s accurate to +/-1 second per year. Also, we sometimes dig into our own collections to highlight a special piece, like Frank’s vintage Audemars Piguet Royal Oak and Brice’s Breguet Type XX. So, in this hands-on review, I’m going to talk about my own Ventura V-Tec Sigma, an unconventional luxury digital watch that once guest-starred in a Nicolas Cage movie.
Ventura was founded by Pierre Nobs in 1987, who left the “mainstream” watch industry to find something more meaningful. Disheartened by the “fake nostalgia” coming from well-known brands, he wanted to create unique, avant-garde watches in collaboration with renowned industrial designers. It wasn’t long until Ventura hit a design home run with WATCH, conceived by Danish designer Flemming Bo Hansen in 1989. The simple, rectangular digital watch had oversized hours at the top and minutes at the bottom, with a stainless steel case and sapphire crystal. At a time when digital watches were thought of as cheap and disposable, Hansen’s WATCH became an overnight sensation. It won countless international design awards and became a permanent piece in the Museum of Modern Art’s contemporary design collection in New York.
In 2000, the Ventura SPARC became the world’s first automatic digital watch, using a rotor to power a generator instead of a mainspring (think Seiko Kinetic). Created by Zurich designer Hannes Wettstein (known for his work with NOMOS), the SPARC paid homage to Hansen’s WATCH with a similar rectangular aesthetic and simple time display. Fellow Swiss designer Paolo Fancelli brought a more radical and organic aesthetic to Ventura with watches like the V-Tec Sigma and SPARC Sigma MGS, a version with a visible automatic charging rotor at the top. Although best known for these luxury digital watches, Ventura produced mechanical watches as well in nitrogen-hardened titanium and all were certified chronometers. And if “Ventura” sounds familiar – Pierre was in a lengthy legal battle with SMH (now Swatch Group) about the registered name “Ventura.” For a time, they had to go by “segments by Ventura” in the US market. He happened to watch the movie Men in Black on a flight to Asia and saw Hamilton’s reissued Ventura being promoted to audiences outside of the US, which resulted in a settlement allowing the company to drop “segments by Ventura” and go with “Ventura design on time”. I also live a few blocks from Ventura Boulevard in Los Angeles, but I digress.
My Paolo Fancelli designed V-Tec Sigma W25 R1 has a long, arching organic case in Durinox (scratch-resistant stainless steel), reminding me of the alien head in the aptly named 1979 movie, Alien (designed by Swiss artist H. R. Giger). The digital screen in front sits near the side of the wrist as the case flows around the top, where a dial would traditionally be. It sounds awkward, but works surprisingly well and is both comfortable and positively futuristic. Dimensions are 60mm long x 39.5mm wide. And while on the subject of movies, it had a significant amount of screen time in the 2008 Nicolas Cage action movie, Bangkok Dangerous. So much, in fact, that it almost became a character itself. Its exotic appearance suited Cage’s professional assassin character well and he frequently put the chronograph functions to good use.
The case has a satin finish with distinct brushed lines running vertically and around the screen. Ventura’s V logo is engraved at the top. Functionality is as exotic as the design with a scroll wheel/pusher – EasySkroll – on the right to control all functions. A button on the left briefly activates the backlight. Using the wheel is intuitive enough, but requires a strong flick with a finger to engage, more so than I’d like. Once you get the hang of it, however, it’s easy enough to operate and the design is to prevent accidental settings. Flip the watch over and there’s a form-fitted caseback secured with six screws (for battery access). At the bottom, directly opposite the display, is a polished plaque with the slogan, “Ventura design on time”. It also names Paolo Fancelli as the designer. The display is covered by a sapphire crystal and the case is water-resistant to 30 metres.
DISPLAY AND “MOVEMENT”
Like all digital Venturas, the display is simple and straightforward with time at the top and the date at the bottom. You have the choice of either 12 or 24-hour time and three different date formats. With (sharp) turns and pushes of the scroll wheel, functions cycle between a chronograph, alarm, calendar, two time zones and a count-down timer. The display itself is liquid crystal in negative (light numbers on a dark background) and looks cool and certainly unique, but also a bit dim. In bright light, it’s easy to see, but harder than it should be in lower light (even indoors), although the backlight does an adequate job.
Powering the watch is Ventura’s Calibre VEN_03 quartz module, developed in-house for the V-Tec series. Battery life is around three years, which is on par with comparable designs. The newer, aforementioned SPARC Sigma MGS with its automatic rotor never needs a battery change, but the rotor window at the top disrupts the clean lines. In practice, I tend to use the chronograph a lot, whether it’s timing a pizza in the oven or a long bike ride. I also sometimes rotate the date formats just to change things up. The V-Tec Sigma is genuinely fun to wear, never gets old and is equal parts form and function, and unlike any digital watch you’ve had.
My watch came with the black natural rubber (caoutchouc) strap with Durinox folding clasp, which looks perfect for the watch with a black on silver contrast. Red and orange straps were also available. The spring bars attach under the case, leaving no visible lugs for a clean, stealthy vibe. Unfortunately, the strap didn’t fit my (almost) 6 ½ inch wrist as it widens toward the case and can only adjust so far. I found a black leather strap with a pin buckle that worked, but I preferred the original design as envisioned by Fancelli. Here’s the good news – Ventura Watches in Germany sent me a smaller strap that worked with the original folding clasp (thank you, Sophie Mentzel, for the help). A Durinox five-row bracelet with folding clasp is also an option and provides the most “complete” aesthetic, but I went with the setup Cage had in Bangkok Dangerous. What can I say…
At the end of the day, we’re left with a very cool, avant-garde digital watch that definitely does its own thing. It’s a unique package of futuristic design, unusual physical controls and simplistic yet functional display with digits larger than the norm. There’s never been anything quite like it – not the steel G-Shock or new Hamilton PSR – it’s in a class of its own. That’s a double-edged sword, tragically, as Ventura’s designs may have been a bit too eccentric for the long haul. The brand ceased production years ago, but Ventura Watches in Germany continues to sell virtually the entire range at significant discounts compared to original retail prices. These are all new/old stock watches and come with a one-year warranty, and the company provides service and parts as well. You can also find digital Venturas scattered around the world at prior authorized retailers and online. I bought my piece from Marc Lange Jewelers in The Netherlands, again at a significant discount from the original price (and thanks again Marc!).
If you’re looking for a new Ventura V-Tec Sigma, they start at around EUR 535, which is a real value proposition as it originally sold for over EUR 1,400. Interestingly, the brand is enjoying something of a resurgence with a titanium three-hand mechanical piece, the V-Matic EGO. It features an ETA 2892-A2 and has design elements from the first V-Matic piece from the 1990s. Stephan Hürlemann, a close friend of the late Hannes Wettstein who designed the original, is leading the company’s revival. You can find more information about the new V-Matic EGO here. For me, Ventura is all about avant-garde luxury digital watches, regardless of how nice their mechanical counterparts may be. If you grew up with Casio or Timex digital watches, this can really scratch that nostalgic itch, but now with a proper enthusiast’s angle.