Behind The Lens: 3 Watches From Massena Lab
It seems these days that I’m unable to escape the topic of collaboration, both within and beyond the watch industry. Media, music, manufacturing, you name it: the Silicon Valley model of engaging allies and even competitors in convenient combinations to create better goods and services has become a big part of mainstream practice.
I’m dying to see the Voutilainen/De Bethune two-sided collaboration watch Kind of Magic at this year’s Only Watch, but that’s for a separate time. For now, let’s turn our attention to three watches developed by collector and industry veteran William Massena, two of which are co-branded collaborations and the third a piece with origins in a conversation among a bunch of friends.
Massena Lab Habring2 Erwin LAB02
To get started, I think it’s fitting to look at 2020’s Erwin LAB02, a joint effort between Massena and the team at Austrian independent watchmaker Habring2.
Before there was such a thing as Massena Lab, Massena had developed two co-branded watches with Maria and Richard Habring as part of his role heading watch forum Timezone.com: 2015’s TZ20 chronograph and 2016’s sector-dial jumping seconds watch, the Erwin 21 Jumping Seconds Reference TZ21.
And the first watch under the Massena Lab name was another collaboration with the Austrians: the black-dialed Erwin LAB01.
This fourth collaboration, the second Habring2 under the Massena Lab name, builds from the earlier jumping seconds watches and extends their sector-dial look into a pink gold and rhodium color combination, with a raised, vertically brushed central portion and a radially grooved ring beneath the hour indices.
On the reverse of the watch, we’re greeted with a view of Caliber A11MS, an in-house Habring2 development with the jumping seconds mechanism set at the center of the movement. Finishing is in the no-nonsense Habring style, and I for one like the idea of putting the “something special” stopworks of the movement at the center of our field of view.
The case construction is what I would call “classic Habring” as well with a crisp look and solid quality that, at least to my eye, makes the attractive dial the star of the show and a stepped, brushed bezel that helps to ensure that you won’t use the term “scratch magnet” when talking about this watch.
As far as shooting goes, I found the LAB02 good fun against both dark and light backgrounds. The combination of steel, pink, rhodium, and blue elements provides some real pop, and the brushed and grooved surfaces both caught the light in interesting ways.
The (sort of) mystery watch: Massena Lab Archetype 0.0
Like many watch fanatics, I’m a member of several private discussion groups – in some ways the limited-edition successors to the big historical forums like Timezone.com.
Most of these groups are built very much along the Fight Club model (first rule: don’t talk about Fight Club), so I won’t divulge any details other than to say that I may or may not be a member of a group whose discussions either did or didn’t include the idea of Massena Lab building a very small number of traditional gilt-dial chronographs for friends of the brand.
I’d heard the term “gilt dial,” but wasn’t aware of the intricate process involved in creating a true gilt watch face. The quick summary: a base plate is mirror polished, then gold plated. Next, the desired indices are printed with a soluble ink, and then the dial is plated with its final color (in this case black) before the soluble ink is washed away to reveal the gold below.
The resulting look of gold letters and numbers emerging from beneath a black or colored surface is striking, but the number of remaining practitioners of the art is so small and the cost is so high that the technique has largely fallen into disuse.
In the photo above, you can see how brilliant the gilt work is on the Archetype 0.0, as well as the contrast with the “Massena” name, chronograph minutes and running seconds indices, which are pad printed in gold on top of the colored surface of the dial.
This makes for some interesting visual effects, not only in the light tent but also in natural light and on the wrist: at some angles, the gilt and printed indices look almost identical, while in other light the brand name and subdial printing seem fairly faint.
This led to some interesting challenges in shooting, and I utilized more than a few of my teacher’s top-secret tricks to capture photos of the piece that on one hand were faithful to what I saw with the naked eye while at the same time avoiding a contrasted mess in which the gilt areas were blown out and the printed sections vanishingly dull.
I think Massena did a great job building a watch that complements the design and vintage look of the dial with a prominently domed crystal, clean angles, and substantial crown. The faceted case band/lug sections with their brushed surfaces and polished edge angles are in particular very much to my taste.
If you’re getting the sense that I regret not buying one of these when I had the chance, you’d be right! My rationale at the time was that I had two substantial black/gold watches incoming (the A. Lange & Söhne 1815 Rattrapante Honeygold and one that is still pending) and that, after all, you can’t buy them all.
Still, seeing this watch in person does leave me envious of my friends who stepped up and bought one.
Ming x Massena Lab Honey
As the old saying goes, nothing succeeds like success! Then again, there’s that other dictum about the possibility of there being too much of a good thing.
Both were in evidence recently as Ming and Massena Lab brought out their first collaboration, the 17.09 Ming x Massena Lab in a unique edition that included 150 black-dialed watches and 50 watches with honey-colored dials.
Both the black- and honey-dialed variants feature dial designs inspired by vintage Rolex honeycomb-dial references. While in general I’m more inclined to choose subdued colors for my watch dials, in this case the look of the specific hue and the honey/honeycomb connection would have been too much for me to resist had I made the cut for one of the 50 examples on offer.
If the numerals appear to be floating above the dial in the image above, it’s because they are: the Super-LumiNova-filled markers are printed on the underside of the crystal.
The honeycomb theme continues on the back side of the watch with a deep relief etching surrounding the Massena Lab logo at center. In practice, the hexagonal cavities are apparently prone to filling up with assorted gunk, making me especially grateful that my pal did a thorough cleaning job before dropping the watch off with me.
Elsewhere, the watch exhibits the same Ming-level quality we’ve become accustomed to, from smooth case shapes to one of my favorite features, the cutout teardrop-shaped clasp.
I’m a fan of this watch, and every owner I’ve communicated with seems happy at this point as well, but the sale process and early customer service responses to some customers were, to be blunt, a bit of a mess.
First, the “too much of a good thing” curse set in when the public order window opened as the sale server shut down not once, but on two separate occasions as it was overwhelmed with traffic.
Then, once deliveries were underway, some owners noticed something odd: the alignment of the hour hand was several degrees askew from where it should have been given the position of the minute hand.
The source of the problem: an ostensible improvement to the 2021 versions of the Ming 17.09 reference that incorporated a movement based on the Sellita SW330-2 to provide a feature labeled as “independent hours.”
In short, what’s going on here is that the base SW330 has a GMT hour hand, adjustable independently through the crown, that can be snapped forward in one-hour increments while the underlying movement continues to tick away and the main hour and minute hands continue their journeys undisturbed.
In the 17.09, the main hour hand has been removed and the GMT function used for the hour display. So far so good, but as it turns out the GMT function on this movement has a tendency to get somewhat out of whack – not so bad when all you are trying to see is whether home time is approximately 6:00 pm or 4:00 am, but not so great when your eye is telling you that there’s something wrong with your two-hand watch.
I was able to figure all of this out because the phenomenon rang a bell with me: recently, I’d purchased at auction a neo-vintage (more about that label another time, to be sure) Alain Silberstein GMT watch whose home time hand seemed to have an indefinite sense of placement until I jiggled it just so.
On a hunch, I checked out the movement in the Silberstein and found that it was an ETA 2893-2, a movement that Sellita basically cloned to create the SW330.
The resulting customer complaints led to quite a kerfuffle, with Ming at first trying to avoid blame and a variety of pearl-clutching keyboard warriors proclaiming it the customer service disaster of the century before an apparently satisfactory service solution was found – but not without some damage to Ming Watches’ reputation and a bit of bruising to the Massena Lab brand from the initial ordering woes.
From my experience with my wife’s Silberstein, anyone who has ever jiggled a toilet handle to stop the valve from leaking could remedy the issue themselves. But never mind.
Live by the hype, die by the hype! In the buzz-driven world of small-brand, limited-edition marketing, it’s great to have demand that far exceeds the available supply and the cleverness to add that one little extra feature or complication to a watch to burnish your image further – until it’s not.
The recent ado about the 17.09 aside, my sense is that Massena Lab’s collaboration-based, small-edition model has a great deal to recommend it. Massena himself seems to have a great eye for the aesthetic tuning of timepieces, and his deep, longstanding relationships in the industry should mean that we can expect a string of exciting new pieces in the months and years to come.
I’ve already heard from many owners of the references featured here but would certainly welcome additional thoughts from customers and other enthusiasts in the comments below!
For more information, please visit www.massenalab.com.
Quick Facts Habring2/Massena LAB Erwin LAB02
Case: 38.5 x 10.5 mm, stainless steel with brushed, stepped case band; flat sapphire crystals front and back with antiglare on both sides; water resistant to 50 m
Dial: two level with vertically brushed silver center section and pink gold-toned, radially grooved outer ring; rhodium-plated applied hour indices and hour and minute hands
Movement: manually wound Caliber A11s; 48-hour power reserve; 28,800 vph/4 Hz frequency
Functions: hours, minutes, central jumping seconds
Limitation: 50 pieces, individually numbered
Production year: 2020
Quick Facts Massena LAB Archetype 0.0
Case: 42 x 13.5 mm, polished and brushed stainless steel; double-domed front sapphire crystal; water resistant to 100 m
Dial: black gilt dial with printed logo and subdial indices
Movement: manually wound Sellita Caliber SW510 BH M Elaboré chronograph movement; 58-hour power reserve; 28,800 vph/4 Hz frequency; regulated to chronometer standard
Functions: hours, minutes, (hacking) seconds; chronograph
Limitation: undisclosed number of pre-production prototypes for friends and family only
Production year: 2021
Quick Facts 17.09 Ming x Massena Lab
Case: 38 x 10 mm, polished and brushed stainless steel; domed front sapphire crystal with Super-LumiNova-filled laser etched indices; solid case back with honeycomb relief etching; 100 m water resistance and triple crown gaskets
Dial and hands: composite, two-part dial with honeycomb-form central area; hands coated in Super-LumiNova X1
Movement: automatic Caliber 330.M1 (based on Sellita SW330-2 and modified by Schwarz Etienne); 42-hour power reserve; 28,800 vph/4 Hz frequency
Functions: independent hours, minutes
Limitation: 150 (black dial); 50 (honey dial)
Price: $2,795 (honey); $2,595 (black)
Production year: 2021