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Suunto Oy and the Elementum Terra

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The original Suunto logo (Pic from upload.wikimedia.com):




In 1932, Tuomas Vohlonen, a surveyor by profession who had long been dissatisfied with the inaccuracy and unsteady needle operation of traditional “dry” compasses, applied for a patent for a unique method of filling and sealing an all-celluloid compass housing – producing a liquid-filled compass that dampened the excessive movement of the needle and protecting the compass from shock. Vohlonen's patent was granted in 1935 and mass-production of the new compass – called the Suunto M-311 – began in 1936, the Suunto company being entered in the trade register on 4 February that year. Note that the Suunto name comes from the Finnish word, “suunta,” meaning “direction” or “path, or in navigation, “bearing” or “heading.”

Vohlonen's M-311 was not the first portable liquid-filled compass but it was distinguished by its compactness and light weight, enabling it to be easily worn on the wrist; with minor changes, it was adopted by the Finnish Army as the M-34.The M-34 wrist compass, which utilised an aluminium housing, was also produced by Physica of Helsinki, creating a long-running courtroom battle over the design rights that lasted until the early 1950s.



The Suunto M-311 compass (see text) (pic from upload.wikimedia.org):





During World War 2, Suunto had introduced a compact liquid-filled sighting compass - the M/40 – for artillery officers and other users as a means of obtaining accurate measurement of the azimuth, the horizontal angle of a bearing. Meanwhile, Tuomas Vohlonen had died in 1939 and Suunto was then run by his widow, Elli Vohlonen, who carried on the expanding business of supplying compasses and other navigational instruments until 1952 when she sold the company to Paavo Kajanne, Aarne Mahnala and Veli-Jussi Hölsö, who also owned Redox Oy. From the late 1930s until 1959, Suunto Oy (“Oy” meaning “Ltd”) was located in the backyard building of Laivanvarustajankatu 8, Ullanlinna, Helsinki. In 1959 the company address became, Itämerenkatu 52, Ruoholahti, Helsinki, moving in 1969 to Juvan Teollisuuskatu 8, Juvalmalmi, Espoo. Finally, in 2001, Suunto Oy's headquarters moved to its current location in Valimotie 7, Tammisto, Vantaa.

The ownership of Suunto Oy also changed over the years after Elli Vohlonen originally sold the Suunto concern in 1952. The co-owners of Redox Oy, who had bought Suunto from Elli Vohlonen, sold the company to the Niemistö family at the very end of the 1970s, who sold it to Sponsor Oy at the beginning of the 1990s. In 1995, Sponsor Oy listed Suunto on the stock exchange, and in 1999, Amer Sports acquired it and are still the parent company today. Suunto Oy currently employs more than 300 people worldwide, and its products are sold in over 100 countries. Although Suunto is a global concern, the headquarters are still next to the factory in Finland where some of the work is still executed. In addition to Suunto, Amer Sports Corporation is also responsible for the following brands: Wilson, Atomic, Sports Tracker, Saloman, Precor, Arc'teryx, and Mavic.

Suunto acquired its main claim to fame as a result of its compass designs, but although I have mentioned early Suunto compass products, I am not going to detail the progression of various Suunto compass models in the post-War period, nor Suunto navigational instruments. Needless to say, over the years up to and including the present time, Suunto has produced a variety of highly regarded compass designs for use by maritime professionals, the military, and civilian sailors and adventurers. Having indicated a need to move this topic on, I must just briefly discuss one other non-watch Suunto product type:

In 1965, a British sport diver noticed that Suunto's liquid-filled compass also worked underwater and following this realisation Suunto soon produced its first dive compass, the SK-4, which garnered praise for its durability and reliability, being used by explorers, ecologists, and Jacques Cousteau among other well-known diving figures. During the 1980s, Suunto became a leader in the manufacture of diving instruments, branching out from mechanical instruments to produce electronic dive computers, launching the SME-ML in 1987. Suunto's innovation in this area, including the Suunto Spyder, launched in 1997– the world's first watch-sized dive computer - assisted the transition of scuba diving to being a popular, even fashionable, sport, and probably influenced the incredible rise in the popularity of dive watches generally.




The innovative SME-ML dive computer (see text) (pic from idcthailand.net):

Suunto2BSME-ML2Bdive2Bcomputer-1.jpg :




The exact date of Suunto's entry into the wristwatch market is unclear, but the most sensible answer would seem to be in 1997 with the Suunto Spyder. This model combined a top-of-the-line multi-level dive computer with a high quality dive watch, but could also function as an everyday wristwatch. A later development of this device was the 2004 Suunto D9, the first all-in-one wristwatch-sized dive computer, combining advanced dive features with a digital compass and wireless air integration; this model being the first in the Suunto D series. Also in 2004 came the Suunto T6, an advanced physical training watch incorporating an advanced heart rate monitor and Olympic-level technology featuring rate-to-rate recording of heart rate, an altimeter based on air pressure, calculation of EPOC and training effect, and support for external POD devices measuring speed and distance. The T6, its successors, and its less expensive T series siblings went out of production in 2012 and most of these watches were replaced by the M series.

Going back to 1998, Suunto launched the Vector, which was the first ever outdoor watch with altimeter, barometer and compass (so-called “ABC”) functions. In addition, the watch had a thermometer, and became popular among mountaineers until it was finally discontinued (little changed from the original) in 2015. There was also an HR version which monitored heart rate. In terms of watches for outdoor sports and adventure, perhaps the most iconic of Suunto devices was the Core, unveiled in 2007 and combining the ABC functions with weather information. This model, with the same functions, has been produced in over 30 different versions differing mainly in external appearance and most of which are no longer in production. Most Core watches are cased in plastic but there are also aluminium as well as stainless steel examples, and there have been some limited, numbered editions of Core. Note that the Core All Black Military version was not officially designated as a military item and is purely a civilian piece. In 2015, Suunto released the Essential collection of premium watches, similar in functions to the Chinese-made Core watch but made in Finland from premium materials to Finnish design.

I do not propose to list all the Suunto wristwatch models and variants produced by the firm. I will, however, before reviewing the Suunto Elementum Terra, make a few remarks about Suunto watches generally. Firstly, I find it quite surprising that Suunto didn't enter the wristwatch market earlier than it did but I suppose that, leaving aside possible economic and marketing reasons, Suunto as a company has never been directly focused on timekeeping as such, right from the beginning. Instead, other more specialised functions and purposes (most of which had to wait until the development of micro-electronics and ICs) have been catered for directly - in areas where Suunto has been innovative and well-regarded, such as diving, marine activities, sports training and fitness tracking, and outdoor activities in extreme conditions. In meeting these needs, Suunto has also entered the field of computing and software, used to interpret data from, and to control, watches/wrist devices. Suunto Oy has always been concerned to serve the professional market for specialised watches and it has to be said that the watches, especially the premium products, are not cheap. Neverthess, they have inevitably crossed over into the more general lifestyle market, and Suunto has become aware of this and has catered accordingly. In terms of current manufacture, certain parts of watches and high-end items are still being manufactured by Suunto themselves in Finland; other than that, China is the main source of manufacturing for the firm.

Having now given a short history of Suunto Oy, we must now move on the the specific watch being discussed here – the Suunto Elementum Terra. The idea behind the launch of the premium handmade Elementum watches, some ten years ago, was to provide specialised functions and maximum reliability and survivability in the different extreme environments – with the Elementum Aqua coping with diving/water activities and the Elementum Terra being designed for the great outdoors. The Elementum Ventus, for the sailing community, was discontinued. If a watch was to deal with extreme environments and adventure, it would require to operate without relying on rechargeable batteries and be independent of reliance on connection with other devices. Thus, the Elementum Terra, which I am looking at in this topic, is a stand-alone device, utilising a CR2032 battery.



Plain steel Elementum Terra with silicon strap and, lower pic, with stainless steel bracelet (pics from suunto.com):





Before making a critical assessment of the Elementum Terra, it is important to get the specifications and functional details out of the way first, remembering that I am dealing here with the current version of the Elementum Terra, where some improvements have possibly been made since the original launch. Before providing the relevant information, I must say just how difficult it has been to extract the list of specifications from the various reviews and sales websites; there are inaccuracies and contradictions between sources that made my work (and that of a potential purchaser of an Elementum Terra) difficult. A good example of this concerns the chronograph feature of the watch where there are differences between sources over what fractions of a second are measured, and even the Manual for the watch does not give any details concerning the stopwatch. Having given that warning remark, here are the details for the Elementum Terra:


Basic Specs:

Case and bezel: 44.7mm X 51.5mm X 14.3mm 316Lstainless steel case; buttons and bezel also.

Crystal: Sapphire with anti-reflective coating.

Strap options: Three – leather, silicon rubber, or stainless steel.

Weight (with leather strap): 97 g.

Water resistance: 100 metres (according to ISO 6425).

Display Type: LCD matrix.

Operating Temperature: -10 degrees C to +60 degrees C.

Storage Temperature: -30 degrees C to +140 degrees C.

Height/depth limits: Operational display between -500 metres (-1640ft) to 9000 metres (29,527 feet).

UK Prices: Plain steel version with stainless steel bracelet, £685 in Watch Shop and The Watch Hut; plain steel version with leather strap, £515 from The Watch Hut; all black version with black silicone strap, £375.76 from Amazon UK; plain steel with stainless steel bracelet, £524.98 plus £18.10 shipping from Amazon UK. Also see "Stealth Gray" version with silicon rubber strap pictured at the end of this topic, priced at US$450 on Ebay.


Functions and Features:

Time and date display; Time is calibrated using the bottom button; the centre section of the dial is a permanent time display showing hours and minutes. The date is displayed in the lower section of the dial but is replaced by the chronograph display when the chronograph is activated.

Alarm clock – 1 daily alarm, lasts for 1 minute.

Stopwatch timer/chronograph; triggered by topmost button on side of case – measures seconds and milliseconds. Fractions of a second are only measured up to 60 seconds, after which chronograph increases in seconds.

Backlight: Bright electro-luminescent display triggered by central right-hand dial lights up the whole of the watch face.

Button lock.

Low battery indicator.

Metric and Imperial units.

3D digital compass with tilt compensation up to 45 degrees and direction scale in degrees with North “needle” indication; accurate to 5 degrees and with a resolution of 1. Compass is activated by lower button and requires initial calibration; when activated, the compass display replaces the barometric pressure display around the edge of the bezel.

Altimeter/Barometer: Barometer works in conjunction with the altimeter – barometric pressure is the measurement used to gauge altitude. Barometer measures atmospheric pressure every 1, 5, or 10 seconds depending on speed of any vertical ascent, with display from 950 to 1060 hPa (28.6-31 inHg) and resolution of 1 hPa.  Barometer requires initial calibration and depending on weather conditions, may need to be initialised again periodically. Cumulative ascent/descent measurement; and right-hand middle button can be used to log and then store 8 ascent/descent, max altitude, levels which can assist in calibration. Barometer can be recalibrated using the top button if necessary. Altitude is displayed in the top line on the dial, beneath the pressure trend arrow, when the watch is in Time mode (the default mode for the device).

Weather prediction: The calculated air pressure at sea level (based on altitude and local air pressure) is displayed graphically around the rim of the bezel. In addition, at the top of the dial is a barometric trend arrow. This shows the barometric trend over the last 6 hours; the left side of the arrow represents the last 6-3 hours whilst the right side of the arrow represents the last 3 hours.




Different colourways of the Elementum Terra (pic from activestride.com.au):



On the face of it, The Suunto Elementum Terra seems to be quite an awesome piece of kit, evidently designed to challenge the elements and be well-suited to rugged outdoor pursuits, especially hiking or mountaineering. According to most reviewers at least, the logistics and basic comfort of the watch are sound, although it might have been a good idea to have provided more than one watch size for this model. The functions and features are intuitively accessed through the three side buttons on the case, and these buttons are chunky and solid, which would seem to be a good idea for users in more extreme environmental conditions. Looking at the Elementum Terra on paper, it would seem that quality materials have been used and that the build and construction of the watch is suitable for the environments in which it is designated to interact.







(Above two pics from Lelong.my at c.76.my, and wrist shot below from Watch Huit at cloudfront.net)





Although my first impressions of the Suunto Elementum Terra were positive, I began to have doubts when I started to examine the various features and functions provided. The more I thought about this aspect of the watch, the more I questioned the high price and the omissions which I would really have wished for in a premium product such as this. I won't quibble over the stated water resistance, which could have been 200 metres instead of 100, but in many other respects, what should have been standard features just aren't present. This watch should have been equipped with a more sophisticated chronograph, a constant time display that includes running seconds, more than just a single daily alarm and alarms that sound for just one minute, a thermometer function, a power source that can last for more than the stated 12 months (in time mode), perhaps using a switchable power-save mode, and a battery that can easily be replaced rather than requiring the services of a professional. There is not even a “world time” facility, or provision for a second time zone. Finally, given the purposes for which this watch is designed, it might also have been nice, if possible, to have provision for the watch to be GPS located.

In addition to the lack of certain features necessary to really make the point that this is a top ranking outdoor watch, I have some concerns about the actual functioning of certain features that are included. For example, there have been complaints regarding the performance consistency of the barometer/altimeter; apparently, changes in barometric pressure can sometimes confuse the watch, leading to incorrect altimeter readings. This can be remedied by using the top button to recalibrate the barometer, but on a premium watch, this is an unwanted inconvenience. And further to this example, comes issues raised by the 2017 Forbes long-term review of the Elementum Terra by Francis Tapon, not least because the author had worn only Suunto watches for the previous twenty years. Not only does Tapon criticise basic features of the watch – including poor battery life, a face that is hard to read in low ambient light - so requiring more than sensible use of the backlight – and an alarm that is too soft to be heard, but he also damns the watch generally in his conclusion:

“The only reason to buy the Elementum is that you are totally in love with the look, you have money to burn, and that you're not bothered by the downsides.”

For me personally, the negatives were building up as I read more material concerning the Suunto Elementum Terra, but I still held on to the notion that this watch was a lesson in durability and ruggedness, and that rivals might fall at that last hurdle. However, even this idea was questioned by the April 2019 review of the Elementum, by “Steven,” in “Atomic811, The Outdoor Watch Guide.” In this review, it is concluded that, “...there is one thing at which the Suunto Elementum Terra doesn't really shine and that would be durability. While it most certainly will resist through any regular outdoors activities, when smashed or scratched the watch will fail. All I say is that this is not a G-Shock. If you know for sure that resistance is your top priority when it comes to deciding on an outdoors watch then you might want to look somewhere else,maybe for a ProTrek or a G-Shock.”

The Suunto Elementum Terra cannot be completely dismissed; after all, it has been in production now for about ten years and clearly has a following. I myself, however, err on the negative side in my opinion of this watch, even if it is styled and made in Finland. I just feel that for the price, it is under-specified and probably no more durable than equivalently rugged, but less expensive, G-Shocks.



 Plain steel Elementum Terra with "positive" dial display, above with leather strap, below with silicon strap. Most pictures of the Elementum Terra, as for retail currently, show a display with a "negative" face, that is with lighter figures against a black background. However, there was/is the option of a reversed "positive" display which might be easier to read, where dark figures are set against the lighter coloured backround. Unfortunately, there is no provision to switch between these two display modes shown in the watch manual, so I presume that the watch with this dial would need to be specified when purchasing (Pics from suunto.com, and below, assets.catawiki.nl):






Black dial Elementum Terra in Stealth Gray colourway with matching gray silicon rubber strap (Pics from i.ebayimg.com):








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  very good show.   that compas helped the Finns'  wipe out the Russian army in 1939.    vinn

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Superb round up and after having owned two of them (sold) and nearly bidding on a third this week I can attest to being equally enamored and bothered by them. The one I was going to bid on was a positive display example which is far more legible. 

Maybe it's that nordic execution of design that's so left field but they get under the skin and there's nothing else out there like them. Despite this they do frustrate from lacking basics and I concur on reliability. One of mine gave bother and reports are out there of other elementums doing likewise.

There is a small plastic gear wheel which interacts with the rotating toggle and this was a problem on mine but I replaced the part from a donor. 

Battery swop is a dealer affair to remain in warrenty which is a let down. I got 6 months out of a quality cr2032 but became proficient in changing them. The lead from the pressure sensor is thankfully long enough to allow the case back to sit aside the watch for battery swop. Having repaired a fair few non functioning Suunto Core buttons the layout was familiar. 

For me the big miss with the suunto elementum is the lack of the cores graphic bar chart pressure/altitude display which can be locked to either function if desired. The extent of a weather trends change is easier interpretated in this fashion. I considered the venus for this reason. 

I also refuse to own another core as they are very unreliable imo, having had two fail and had to fix many buttons. Shame as they are lovely to use. 

I have some early examples of Suunto compasses and they are still working perfectly. My suunto observer was a very nice watch but again a flawed interface that was not intuitive and I will not own a watch which must take a company strap.

I have an affinity for the company as I enjoy the fresh design and execution and still watch for elementum terra beaters on ebay. If I can pick one up sub 100 I will throw it on a grey nato and wear it out. 

Thanks for the review, a great read. 


Edited by doingtime
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