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Review: Less is More – The Arnold & Son Nebula 38

by Frank Chuo on July 8, 2019

Arnold & Son Nebula 38

Arnold & Son are best known for their well-finished, contemporary take on watchmaking. Some of the manufacturer’s best work include the Constant Force Tourbillon and the Tourbillon Chronometer No. 36. It isn’t just about the sophisticated nature of the movements of these watches that impresses; it also has plenty to do with their symmetrical, openworked design. Of course, being tourbillon timepieces, their accessibility is limited. In Baselworld 2016, Arnold & Son introduced the Nebula, a pared down analog of its tourbillon watches. The Nebula features the beloved openworked symmetry of the Constant Force Tourbillon and Tourbillon Chronometer No. 36 minus the technical complication(s). With the stainless steel variant priced under USD15,000, the Nebula remains one of the brand’s most desirable watches. This year, the brand reintroduces the very same watch, but in a smaller form. Here, we bring you the details and our thoughts on the new Nebula 38.

The Case, Dial, and Hands

Watch case sizes, on average, have never been bigger than at any point in the past. But recently, there have been plenty of calls for smaller case dimensions – a return to the golden days of watchmaking when watches were mostly elegant. The folks at Arnold & Son have apparently heard our cries and have reworked the popular Nebula into a smaller 38 mm case. To achieve this, the chapter ring has been remade narrower and fitted at a steeper slope. This way, it takes up fewer millimeters of case diameter, only at the expense of an extra 0.21 mm in thickness compared to the original Nebula. The change to the chapter ring also means that the various elements on it – the applied hour markers, the printed minute track, and the printed marquee – have been downsized to fit.

No other alterations were made to the watch. The case remains the same in design, nuanced and beautifully polished, with a large crown for enhanced grip. The dial – though technically there is no dial – still looks the same with its skeletonised, balanced design. The signature sword (for the hours and minutes) and lancet (for the seconds) hands are unchanged as well.

Watches with modern designs hardly come in classic sizes these days. The reduced case size will mostly benefit those with average to small wrists

The Movement

Driving the Nebula 38 is the same Calibre A&S5101 found inside the seminal Nebula. Worth noting is how well the movement fits in the case, utilising 83% of the case diameter compared to 76% in the first Nebula. Two mainspring barrels, each located at the 10:30 and 1:30 positions, respectively, provide a superb 90-hour power reserve to the movement, which beats at a traditional 3 Hz. To balance out the two barrels at the top, the small seconds display and the balance wheel are placed on the opposite sides. With four round components in each corner, symmetry is attained.

Every nook and cranny of the Calibre A&S5101 is superbly finished. The seven bridges seen on the dial-side are not only skeletonised, their edges are beveled and polished as well. The brand’s signature three-spoke wheels – visible from the back – also feature polished bevels. The surface treatment of choice for the skeletonised and blackened main plate (as well as the bridges) is a simple satin-brushed finish. This confers an industrial look that is fitting of the contemporary style of the Nebula 38. What’s regrettably missing – although we understand why – is interior angling, which would have elevated the timepiece (and subsequently it’s pricing) to the top of the pecking order.

The Calibre A&S5101 as seen through the sapphire crystal case back.

The Competitive Landscape

Openworked watches are a dime a dozen these days, but the ones that are executed thoughtfully and tastefully are a rarefied bunch. The Nebula 38, without a shadow of a doubt, belongs in that esteemed category. Limited to 50 pieces only, the Nebula 38 is priced at a fair CHF23,300.

The new 38 mm case size sits elegantly on the wrist and has no problem sliding under sleeves or dress cuffs.

Other noteworthy skeletonised watches include the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Double Balance Wheel Openworked. As the name would suggest, the watch is fitted with two balance wheels on each side of the balance staff, an innovation that improves timekeeping precision. The movement, case and bracelet offer a masterclass in the art of fine finishing. One could go on singing praises forever, but suffice to say, the Royal Oak Double Balance Wheel Openworked has the Nebula 38 beat in both the watchmaking and finishing department (read all about it here). Of course, such excellence comes with a price, and that price is a hefty USD44,100 for the stainless steel variant and USD76,800 for the gold variant. Make no mistake, the Nebula 38 is still fantastically finished by any standard. In the end, it boils down to your budget and the type of watch you’re looking for.

The Royal Oak Double Balance Wheel Openworked showcases the finishing capabilities of Audemars Piguet to the fullest extent.

The Jaquet Droz Grande Seconde Skelet-One perhaps offers a more meaningful comparison to the Nebula 38. With a highly skeletonised movement and an eight-shaped sapphire crystal plate for the two sub-dials, nothing is left to the imagination. It bears mentioning, though, that the finishing on the movement is not quite on par with the Calibre A&S5101. Interestingly, the version in red gold is priced at CHF34,600, a fair bit higher than the Nebula 38. This is likely down – in part – to the milling costs of the sapphire crystal plate. Our pick here would be the Nebula 38 for its design and finissage, but the novelty and aesthetics of the Jaquet Droz’s sapphire crystal displays will entice many.

The Jaquet Droz Grande Seconde Skelet-One
The Jaquet Droz Grande Seconde Skelet-One also comes in a ceramic casing at a lower price.

Final Thoughts

The new Nebula timepiece from Arnold & Son is hardly new. The only thing that’s changed from the original is the case size, going from a modern 41.5 mm to an elegant 38 mm. While a mere size change isn’t much to be excited for, it still is an overall positive move by the brand. Option is always a good thing in catering to a diverse clientele.

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