It might seem counterintuitive or obvious, but dive watches aren’t just for diving. Take the UNDONE Basecamp, for example. While the striking design is inspired by military designs from the golden age of watchmaking, the Basecamp is a versatile beast. As its name implies it’s a watch well suited to outdoor activities and adventures of all types. It’s also snappy enough to keep pace with a discerning workplace, easily styling up or down as the occasion demands. But it’s a watch that will never hide in the background, thanks mainly to that California dial.
The so-called California dial is one of those interesting side streets in watch design where things get a little hazy. At its heart, a California dial is a watch dial that uses both Arabic and Roman Numerals. Typically, the layout involves Romans at the top and Arabics at the bottom of the dial, with the cardinal hours often being shown as hash marks. But sometimes a brand will flip the order around. So that’s the ‘what’ of the dial, but how about the ‘why’? Well, the answer there is less obvious and requires us to take a little detour into history.
No single brand lays complete claim to the California dial, but it is most frequently associated with Rolex and Panerai. ‘California’ dials appear on Rolex Bubblebacks dating back to the mid-1930s (more on that later), as well as on Panerai’s early dive watches which were made, coincidently, by Rolex. It’s thought that, in the context of WWII-era military dive watches, the Roman/Arabic division was a design choice aimed at allowing divers to quickly and accurately determine the time in dark and uncertain underwater environments. For this reason, the California dial is sometimes called the ‘error-proof’ dial.
So where does California come into it? No one really knows, but there are theories. Most of these theories date back to the 70s and 80s when Rolex Bubblebacks where the hype pieces of the time. It’s this time when the great state of California comes into the picture. Two interwoven arguments for the name are that people from California loved the layout — or, more specifically, that Cali-based watch dealers were hot for them. Either way, the connection makes sense. One evolution of this line of reasoning is that LA-based dial refinisher Kirk Rich was well-known for the style. Whichever way you slice it, the unique combination of numerals is now firmly ensconced in watch lore as the California dial.
At the end of the day though, the origins of the dial and its nomenclature don’t matter. What does matter is that the dial has become a stylistic shorthand for a type of casual cool that is equal parts Venice Beach and Venice, Italy.
A Splash of Sprezzatura
The history of this standout dial brings us to UNDONE’s Basecamp Cali. The California style dial is the star of the show here, with variants featuring the classic style dial in an olive green, black or blue colour — with warm creamy, luminous markers and Mercedes-style handset. The configuration of the numerals isn’t the only standout aspect of the Basecamp Cali. The dial texture itself is a nod to the wonderful textures found on vintage watch dials — in this case, a diamond-like waffle pattern that adds richness to what could otherwise work out to be a somewhat spartan, utilitarian diver. More than richness, the well-executed dial of the UNDONE adds a sense of playfulness to the equation, ensuring that the Basecamp Cali is as leisurely as it is purposeful.
Built for the Daily Drive
The military inspiration of the Basecamp isn’t just an aesthetic decision, UNDONE have been careful to make a watch that is solid and hard-wearing. The 40mm wide, 48mm lug-to-lug case of the watch is made from 316L steel and finished with radial brush on top and nicely contrasted polished chamfers. At 15mm tall it’s got presence but doesn’t overpower. The faceted crown is easy to grip, and screws down, which, along with the screw-down caseback and the usual array of gaskets ensures the watch has 100m of water resistance. The crystal is Lexan Polycarbonate, giving that high vintage dome and wonderful retro glow. The bezel insert adds to the glossy heritage feel — it’s K1 mineral glass. Beating away in the back is one of the go-to movements for this market segment, the Seiko Instruments NH35a. This proven automatic movement can, to borrow a famous marketing phrase, take a licking and keep on ticking.
As an exercise in neo-vintage design, the Basecamp Cali is clean, smart design. Taking much-loved design elements like the California dial, the waffle-style dial pattern and even the ever-popular plain leather strap with contrasting reinforced stitching and putting them on a quality 40mm steel case makes for a compelling watch, especially at the price point.
This is what UNDONE does well. The brand has been around since, and their heritage-inspired daily designs are what they’re best known for (along with fun and colourful collaborative pieces with brands like … Sriracha?). And of all these models, the Basecamp is among the most popular, and this personality-filled Cali model is no exception.