As Gruppo Gamma celebrates their 5th birthday this year, its astounding to see just how far the Singaporean brand has come. In a relatively short amount of time, Gruppo Gamma has transformed themselves into one of the foremost darlings of the microbrand world. Their watches, each produced in limited quantities only, sell out in a flash; their Club Gamma Facebook page (started by an early customer as an owners club) numbers over 1.6K members currently. Their customers are also fiercely loyal – in fact, this level of brand loyalty may be unparalleled on the microbrand level.
Some collectors (yes, they can only be described as collectors) have over 40 timepieces from Gruppo Gamma. On the re-sale market, Gruppo Gamma’s watches are the anomalies – their watches actually appreciate in value over time, with some second-hand models being sold at hundreds above their original retail price.
What is it about Gruppo Gamma that inspires this level of fanaticism? Unlike other brands, they do not splash cash on advertising – you hardly see a Gruppo Gamma advertisement on Facebook or in print. Yet, against all odds, this tiny microbrand from the little red dot has managed to achieve a cult-like status amongst even the most seasoned watch buyers.
The journey and evolution of Gruppo Gamma is a compelling one – one that deserves to be explored in detail.
The birth of Gruppo Gamma, debut of the Genesis and the Ascent
Over a decade ago, founder Naoki Tsukumo was introduced to Panerai watches. His wife, Christine, practically dragged him to a Panerai boutique and implored for him to finally get a “proper” watch. Like all good husbands do, Naoki acquiesced, and bought himself a PAM 111.
It was not love at first sight – Naoki thought that he was spending an absurd amount of money for an instrument that simply tells time. Naturally, he decided to read up on Panerai watches and tried to understand what it was that he paid for. After reading up about the history of Panerai watches and their heritage with the Italian Navy, Naoki was hooked. He purchased multiple Panerais thereafter (at which point his wife probably regretted introducing him to Panerai), and simply fell in love with the military heritage behind the watches.
However, the more Naoki read about the dive watches that were issued during World War 2, the more dissatisfied he became with Panerai’s existing designs. He felt that their current designs weren’t true to the original tool watches (then supplied by Rolex to Panerai, who was not a watch manufacturer then) of old. In a bid to recreate the legendary tool watches issued to Italian frogmen (named Gruppo Gamma), Naoki started tinkering around with the idea of creating his own watches from commercially available parts (Parnis dials, Seagull movements). And thus, Gruppo Gamma was born.
Gruppo Gamma’s debut model was the Genesis. Introduced in 2013, the Genesis’s case and design was based upon the Rolex Reference 6152. Made for the Italian Royal Navy, these early Panerai watches utilised Rolex cases and movements in a chunky 47mm case.
A 1955 Rolex – Panerai Reference 6152-1. Credit: PaneraiMagazine.com
The Genesis took a lot of design cues from the Rolex Reference 6152, but fitted it in a smaller 44mm case (as compared to 47mm on the vintage model) and updated the case size slightly to achieve a more ergonomic fit. The Mk I (version 1.0 – terminology inspired by the Iron Man movies) of the Genesis had Seagull movements and mineral crystals, and the earliest releases didn’t have serial numbers engraved on the caseback. Manual winding models were offered with Arabic and California dials, while self-winding models had the historically accurate dial configuration comprising Arabic numerals at 12, 3, 6 and 9 and small seconds. Gruppo Gamma were the first to offer this dial configuration with a 44mm case and self-winding movement.
Mk I Genesis G-01
The debut of the Genesis Mk I flew off the shelves. Yes, early critics dismissed them as “Panerai rip-offs”, due to the Genesis’ close likeliness to current Panerai models. Yet, this buoyed rather than sunk Gruppo Gamma. They began to carve a name for themselves in the Panerai homages forums. For consumers who liked the military, masculine look of Panerai watches, but found the prices exorbitant, Gruppo Gamma presented themselves as a credible alternative.
Mk I Ascent A-01
Shortly after the early success of the Genesis, Gruppo Gamma introduced the Ascent. While the Genesis was based upon the Rolex Reference 6152, the Ascent was inspired by the Rolex Reference 6154. The Genesis was beefier, flashier - the Ascent was the more understated, workhorse sibling. Gruppo Gamma’s vision was for the Ascent to be an improved tool watch over the Genesis, with a slimmer profile and use of materials (brass case) that was meant to stand the trials and tribulations of time. The Mk I Ascent, produced between 2013 and 2014, had Seagull manual winding movements, mineral crystals and came in two dial configurations; Arabic and California. The original Ascent lineup also featured the use of a military green dial that reinforced the “improved tool watch” image of the Ascent. With the Ascent, Gruppo Gamma envisioned a vintage-looking military tool watch, akin to the original tool watches issued to the Italian Navy divers of old – something that was lacking in Panerai’s lineup (one may even argue even today) at that time.
Upgraded Genesis MkII and Ascent MkII; revamp and introduction of the Vanguard MkIII
The original MkI variants of the Genesis and the Ascent sold out almost immediately. Gruppo Gamma realised that they hit gold – there were many out there who desired the look and feel of Panerai watches, but were unable (or unwilling) to afford them.
For Mk II, Gruppo Gamma improved the specifications of the Genesis and Ascent significantly. Gone were the manual winding Seagull movements – in its place were Japanese automatic movements, either the Miyota 8215 or the venerable Seiko NH35A. Sapphire crystals were also introduced, making the watches tougher and more robust than before, therefore more fitting of the title “The Ultimate Tool Watch” - Gruppo Gamma’s motto. Later versions of the Genesis Mk II even had double-domed sapphire, which has less optical distortion and is more shatter resistant. For the Ascent, later models had brass-sleeved crowns, as compared to ion-plated stainless steel crowns in later versions. In many senses, just like the Mk II version of Iron Man, the Mk II editions of the Genesis and Ascent contain reliability and durability upgrades over the originals.
The Genesis and Ascent models were selling incredibly well, yet criticism about Gruppo Gamma’s design similarities with Panerai continue to dog them. Some comments on Facebook watch groups and watch forums were vicious, to say the least. “Blatant rip-offs”, one commented. “Panerai watches for the poor”, proclaimed another. After establishing a profitable business selling affordable, well-made Panerai inspired watches, Gruppo Gamma faced a conundrum: Do they continue doing what they were doing (and make a tidy profit in the process) or push themselves out of their comfort zone to evolve their designs?
Fortunately for us, Gruppo Gamma chose the latter route. Naoki said: “I didn’t want others to know us as merely makers of Panerai homages (albeit well-built, affordable ones) any longer. We wanted to be known for who we are – Gruppo Gamma, makers of reliable tool watches inspired by Italian diving heritage.” To kickstart this revamp, Gruppo Gamma introduced the Vanguard Mk III towards the end of 2014.
Retrospective but contemporary, Gruppo Gamma billed the Vanguard as “a re-imagination of what the Rolex Ref. 6152 could have been if it had continued to evolve.” As compared to the preceding Genesis and Ascent, the Vanguard sports a more muscular profile, with strong military and maritime undertones. With the Vanguard, the lugs are no longer bolted onto the cushion shaped case. Instead, the lugs are now more angular, reminiscent of Mille Metri prototypes of the 1980s. A crown guard is added to the Vanguard as well, boosting its tool watch status even further with increased crown protection. Symbolically, the Vanguard illustrates Gruppo Gamma’s first steps in their journey to redefine their brand identity.
Introduction of first bronze model, the Vanguard “Bronzo”; Release of the Genesis Mk III – the Genesis’ Swansong; the birth of a new collection, the Divemaster.
This was a hectic period for Gruppo Gamma as they attempted to reposition themselves as “makers of the ultimate tool watch”, yet remain steeped in Italian navy heritage at the same time.
Vanguard Mk III N-19V
Firsly, the Vanguard was reintroduced, this time in a bronze case. It represented many firsts for Gruppo Gamma – it was their first model using bronze cases, their first watch to be equipped with an unidirectional 120 click rotating bezel to tell elasped time, and also their first (and till date only) timepiece to be offered with the Roman dial, a tribute to the Italian origins of the Vanguard’s source of inspiration. This bronze version of the Vanguard was affectionately termed the “Bronzo” by collectors, and even today is one of the most sought after Gruppo Gamma watches in the resale market.
Genesis Mk III G-04
The Mk III version of the Genesis was intended as a swansong for the Genesis and Ascent series. Before discontinuing the Genesis and Ascent lines, Naoki wanted to tick two items off – the use of a Swiss movement, as well as a “supernova dial” (dot minute markers). By then, Gruppo Gamma had already planned to discontinue the Genesis and Ascent line (in favour for new lines with more distinct designs). However, the Genesis and Ascent lines were what brought recognition to Gruppo Gamma as a brand in the beginning, and therefore were historically important to the brand. Naoki wanted to send the Genesis and Ascent lines off with a bang – and what better way to do that then with a Swiss movement, and a new dial configuration?
Divemaster Mk I D-03L "Russian Exclusive"
As one chapter closes, another open. After sending the Genesis and Ascent line off with the Genesis Mk III, Gruppo Gamma introduced a new line of watches – the Divemaster. The 1950s was one of the most exciting periods in dive watch history - in 1953 Blancpain introduced the Fifty Fathoms which was issued to the US and French naval divers, Zodiac introduced the Sea Wolf, and in 1954 Rolex introduced the Submariner. Ironically, it was also in the 1950s that Panerai stopped producing dive watches for the Italian frogmen. The Divemaster is meant as Gruppo Gamma’s reimagination of what a Panerai dive watch would have looked like if they had continued to produce them in the 1950s. With the Divemaster, Gruppo Gamma took further strides towards emerging from Panerai’s shadow – while the Divemaster was still very much inspired by the heritage of the Italian Navy, the design looks distinct from any current Panerai production models. Finally, it seems as if Gruppo Gamma is coming into its own.
Update to the Vanguard, Introduction of the Chrononaut
From then on, it was full steam ahead. Gruppo Gamma continued to evolve in terms of both build quality and design, and there was no looking back.
Vanguard Mk IV- A-04D
For starters, Gruppo Gamma released an update to the Vanguard, the Vanguard IV. Compared to its predecessor, the Vanguard IV has better build quality and visibility in the dark. The Mk IV models features a SuperSandwich™ dial that's filled to the brim with Swiss Superluminova (painted an astounding 24 times!) to achieve the best darkness visibility ever on a Gruppo Gamma timepiece. Also for very first time, the rotor - visible through the sapphire display caseback - is signed, and the crown guard is now constructed as a separate piece and bolted onto the case. Boosting the Vanguard’s reputation as a tool watch, a newly-designed mechanism is used for the unidirectional 120-click bezel. In many senses, the Vanguard is Gruppo Gamma’s iteration of the “ultimate” tool watch, constructed to withstand abuse from the elements. Design-wise, the Vanguard took another step towards coming into its own with more distinctive styling cues, such as a red arrow-tipped seconds hand, minute markers, and a black PVD bezel.
Chrononaut Mk I Chrononaut C-01
Going from strength to strength, Gruppo Gamma next introduced a new line of dive watches – the Chrononaut. Staying true to their Italian Navy heritage inspiration, the Chrononaut is Gruppo Gamma’s interpretation of a super compressor watch. Twin-crown dive watches with rotatable chapter rings were the rage in the 1960s – a point in history where Panerai had already ceased producing watches for the Italian Navy. Naoki felt that had Panerai continued supplying tool watches for the Italian Navy, they would no doubt have came up with a super compressor model – popular with soldiers then due to the ability to keep track of two time zones, which would have been paramount for troops stationed overseas. Although the Chrononaut is the smallest and slimmest of Gruppo Gamma’s offerings to date, it is is no less a capable tool watch. Powering the timepiece is a Swiss automatic movement (STP 1-11), while the surgical grade stainless steel case with box-shaped sapphire crystal is engineered to a depth rating of 300 m/1000 ft. With the Chrononaut, Gruppo Gamma stayed true to their course – developing robust tool watches with designs inspired by naval/diving styling cues, while remaining distinct in looks to current Panerai offerings. It is a tough nuance to balance, but with the Chrononaut, Gruppo Gamma seems to have found the solution.
Introduction of the Peacemaker, and the exclusive collaboration with Watch Wonderland named Peacekeeper
2018 marks 5 years since the founding of Gruppo Gamma. This year, Gruppo Gamma has decided to up the ante by introducing yet another line, as well as an exclusive collaboration.
Peacemaker Mk I P-02
The design of the Peacemaker was actually based off the initial design of the Vanguard (MkI). Due to “a series of unexpected events”, the Vanguard MkI never hit the shelves. For 2018, Gruppo Gamma decided to reintroduce this design as a new line – the Peacemaker. The Peacemaker, with its strong retro vibe, has vivid vintage-colored lume and a vintage-style domed sapphire crystal. It has also brought back the California dial after a hiatus of more than 2 years, by way of a 'Semi-Cali' dial (comprising of Arabic numerals only). Consistent with Gruppo Gamma’s naval design undertones, the text on their signature 'Supernova' dial are in military stencil typeface. The Peacemaker, though the line bearing the closest resemblence to Panerai’s current offerings, encompasses subtle design elements that makes it distinctly Gruppo Gamma. Compared to early Genesis and Ascent models, the Peacemaker perhaps best exemplifies the design evolution of Gruppo Gamma.
Peacekeeper "Return to Base" Exclusive Edition for Watch Wonderland - Tobacco Brown and Trench Green
By now, Gruppo Gamma has developed a reputation as one of Singapore’s most alluring microbrands. The attraction that Gruppo Gamma timepieces have world-wide was not lost on Watch Wonderland, a local microbrand-focused retailer who approached Gruppo Gamma for an exclusive collaboration piece. Watch Wonderland took the design concept of the Peacemaker, and upgraded both the design and specifications to make it more unique. For the first time in Gruppo Gamma’s history, a Swiss ETA movement was used to power the watch. Meanwhile, the case is forged out of aged steel, the dial a fume green or tobacco, with Eastern Arabic numerials used in a semi-Cali format. Compared to the regular Peacemaker, it was an upgrade in every way, from the internals to the look. The Peacekeeper has a story behind it too, as it was intended as a message for soldiers to “Return to Base” and for governments to end all conflicts. The Peacekeeper might arguably be not only Gruppo Gamma’s most unique design so far, but also the most important.
From the birth of the Genesis to the introduction of the Peacekeeper, Gruppo Gamma’s design language have evolved and matured throughout the years. While early Genesis and Ascent models could be criticized for bearing more than a passing resemblence to current Panerai models, that accusation definitely should not, and cannot, be levelled at current Gruppo Gamma offerings. Today, Gruppo Gamma has 4 distinct lines: the Vanguard, designed as the ultimate tool/field watch; the Divemaster, billed as the professional dive option; the Chrononaut, a twin-crowned dive model; and the Peacemaker, the latest iteration of Gruppo Gamma’s reinterpretation of the original Rolex-Panerai reference 6152 issued to Italian frogmen in the 1950s. Winston Churchill once said: “To improve is to change; to be perfect is to change often.” Only time will tell if Gruppo Gamma will continue to innovate and evolve in the next 5 years, but in this short span of time, they have definitely came a long way.
Legacy GG watches owned by Liong Ong
Original Text by Wah Qile
Photography by Ben Ng
Additional Thanks to Naoki and Christine from Gruppo Gamma