As one of the few remaining Swiss “tool watch brands” Fortis still manages to almost entirely focus on functional timepieces. Like most traditional Swiss watchmakers, Fortis heavily emphasizes its heritage in both how it talks about its watches as well as what they look like. This review is of the Fortis Classic Cosmonauts Steel a.m. watch. It comes in a few versions and it isn’t entirely unlike other watches Fortis produces – though this newer model does possess its own distinctive character.
What initially caught my eye about the Classic Cosmonauts Steel a.m was the silver-colored dial as well as the healthy conservative look and feel, which I know appeals to a lot of consumers. Depending on how you look at it, Fortis is in a sense to the historic USSR space program what Omega was to NASA. I personally know of a lot less Fortis-on-cosmonaut stories as I do Omega-on-astronaut stories, but there are some interesting ones out there.
The collection I am really reviewing here is the Fortis Classic Cosmonauts. The “Steel” part of the model’s name refers to the bezel color (and material), while the “a.m.” part of the name refers to the light-toned steel dial color. Outside of the various strap options, this same watch comes with a steel or black ceramic dial (“Ceramic” versus “Steel”) and the black-dialed “p.m.” version (versus the a.m. dial). Thus, the Classic Cosmonauts with the black dial and bezel would be the Fortis Classic Cosmonauts Ceramic p.m. watch. Anyhow, let’s get back to the Steel a.m. model.
Even though I would probably argue that Fortis sells more of the black-dialed “p.m.” versions, I think the silver-dialed a.m. version is a bit more eye-catching. It is more distinctive at the least and still offers good legibility thanks to the high-contrast black hands. One issue that seasoned collectors might have with the Classic Cosmonauts is the lack of distinctive design features. While the curation of design elements on the dial and case of the Classic Cosmonauts watches is effective and handsome, in the abstract, there isn’t too much here to tell this watch apart from others.
The Classic Cosmonaut’s case for example is basically what a 42mm wide Rolex Daytona case might look like. From the design of the bezel, lugs, crown guard, and pushers… this case is clearly an homage to the Daytona. The dial isn’t Rolex inspired, but it is inspired by military/pilot watches of the 1960s through the 1970s. Clean and effective, there is nothing wrong at all with Fortis’ particular expression of how to best render the information offered as part of the Swiss ETA Valjoux 7750 automatic chronograph movement. Though again, it doesn’t feel like Fortis is trying to break and new ground here.
If a pursuit of originality isn’t as important to you, and the assembly of design details and features appeal to you in this watch, then you’ll have a lot to look forward to. Fortis does the right thing and uses applied hour markers which are painted with luminant. This is a small element which seems to add a lot of perceived value since it upgrades the overall look and feel of the Classic Cosmonauts watch. A bit more depth is given as the sub-dials are just slightly recessed. Again, a flat dial (no depth) would have really made it hard for a timepiece like this to look as nice.
Use of the Valjoux 7750 means that the case can’t be that thin. Despite good wearing comfort thanks to the shorter lugs, the Classic Cosmonaut’s case is nearly 15mm thick. The screw-down pushers and crown likely contribute to overall durability as well as the case’s 100m of water resistance. Fortis makes use of a great sapphire crystal over the dial that despite being just a bit curved, doesn’t suffer from any glare (Fortis claims AR-coating on both sides, which is correct for a watch like this). The clear (glare-free) view of the dial is a testament to the tool-watch nature of the Fortis Classic Cosmonauts Steel a.m. timepiece.
Another crystal shows a view to the movement through the caseback. This feature has nothing to do with the tool-watch spirit of the Classic Cosmonauts and appears to be directly related to the understandable modern trend of showing off mechanical movements in mechanical watches. A mechanical movement almost always commands a price premium over a quartz watch, which means that owners (and the people they show their watches too) appreciate the reassurance of seeing the movement inside of the case. Fortis uses a mostly undecorated version of the 7750, which is a bit of a shame at this price point. I think it would have helped the value proposition of a watch like this to have a decorated movement inside of it.
What makes me the happiest about the Fortis Classic Cosmonauts Steel a.m. watch is the dial quality. Sure it isn’t groundbreaking in terms of design, but it is well-made and straightforward. Fortis is even able to add a bit of polished sheen in the form of the dial’s slight sunray finishing. The hands are all matte and the orange parts on the chronograph hands assist with legibility. Dial information includes all the features of the 7750 movement (4Hz/28,800bph with about 42 hours of power reserve) being the time, 12-hour chronograph, day of the week, and date. In terms of overall looks, the design of the Classic Cosmonauts watch is totally retro – but offered in the convenience of a new watch package.
Personally, I would have preferred the black Ceramic bezel to this steel one in terms of material choice. With that said, I felt that the matching steel tones of the Steel a.m. made for a handsome look – so I chose style over substance in this case. I also chose the steel bracelet option that Fortis offers with the Classic Cosmonauts. The three-link steel bracelet with a polished center-link is another nod to Rolex (and the Daytona). Being a bracelet guy I like this choice from a style perspective, but I have to say that the bracelet quality is not on par with the case quality.
Fortis relies on suppliers for these parts, and it is extremely common for the case and bracelet of any given timepiece to be produced by separate suppliers. It isn’t that the bracelet isn’t good, but it doesn’t feel as high-end as it should for a watch at this price. If you prefer bracelets to straps, then the Classic Cosmonaut’s bracelet will be comfortable and hassle-free. If you aren’t sure what case-attachment option to choose from, then I would advise you consider the strap options based on the fact that the bracelet simply doesn’t offer anything special.
I call the Fortis Classic Cosmonauts a good “dad watch” because it asserts itself as handsome, conservative, strong, soft-spoken, inoffensive, and versatile. Fortis claims the visual design of this model is based on “the first chronograph being in open space.” Again, I don’t know the history of that – and that story alone doesn’t sell watches to a consumer like me. The fact that the dial-style has been tried and tested over many years has more value to me.
Moving forward, Fortis should focus on asserting the value proposition of a product like this a bit more since the circa $3,000 price market is very competitive. No, you can’t get a brand new Omega or Rolex for this money, but there is a lot out there for this money and less with the same movement and overall componentry. Fortis does a few things very well in the Classic Cosmonauts – and those things help keep this classic going and going. Though to be truly competitive with many of the brands who have been staying traditional, Fortis needs to ensure that today’s consumers form a personal relationship with their products first, and then the brand. Price for the reference 401.21.12 Fortis Classic Cosmonauts Steel a.m. watch is 3,360 CHF on a strap and 3,630 CHF on a steel bracelet. fortis-watchshop.com
>Model: Classic Cosmonauts Steel a.m. reference 401.21.12 as tested
>Price: 3,630 CHF as tested
>Size: 42mm wide
>Would reviewer personally wear it: Yes, as a conservative tool watch with a modern size and light-colored dial.
>Friend we’d recommend it to first: Someone with a soft spot for Russian space exploration history and the lifestyle to accommodate an easy-to-live-with Swiss sports watch from a brand with real tool watch history.
>Best characteristic of watch: Fortis gets the dial mostly right, which means that the watch looks and performs well. Comfortable wearability and style along with features that are very familiar.
>Worst characteristic of watch: Fortis was light on adding original aesthetic elements to the overall design. Bracelet quality isn’t as good as case and dial quality. For the money the movement could have likely been decorated. Case looks too much like a ballooned Rolex Daytona (though some people are after that).