If you're looking for a traditional Flieger watch, there are two brands that won't stop coming up. Laco and Stowa are two German watchmakers with a deep history that make high-quality pilot watches.
However, Stowa timepieces always seem to come out on top when the two brands are put head-to-head. Is there a reason for this unbalanced preference for Stowa over Laco, or is it simply a question of better marketing?
Let's find out!
A bit of history
Laco and Stowa are two German companies that originate from the early 20th century (1925 and 1927, respectively).
While both businesses were pretty successful before WW II, the war really took their production numbers up to the next level. Indeed, Laco and Stowa were part of the 5 companies appointed by the Luftwaffe to make watches for the army.
However, the war also marked a tedious period in their history since the main factory of the two watchmakers got destroyed during the bombardment on Pforzheim.
Although this tragedy hit hard, both companies quickly recovered from this disaster and went on to be important parts of German watchmaking history.
The two watchmakers had a pretty good run up until 2009, where Laco had to go into insolvency after being unable to make a steady profit. In 2010, new owners bought the company and started new operations with 8 employees.
For this reason, some watch enthusiasts have more respect for Stowa, which has an uninterrupted run of production since 1927. Conversely, there's a "gap" in Laco's history, which tarnished the brand's reputation.
What is different between Laco and Stowa?
1. Faithfulness to the original model
The main difference between Laco and Stowa is that Laco produces watches that are much more representative of the original B-Uhr watch, whereas Stowa creates a modern interpretation of the original watch.
This means that Stowa watches are smaller, have a smoother finish, and are usually a bit more comfortable (curved lugs, softer edges, etc.). Although this makes Stowa the prefered brand, this is not historically accurate at all.
On the other hand, Laco watches are more rugged, square, sharp, and a bit less comfortable than Stowa. However, they truly give the experience of what wearing the original B-Uhr was like (huge case, sharper ends, straight lugs, etc.).
2. Origins of the movement
In the European watch industry, it's a big no-no to source your movement from somewhere outside Europe. For this reason, German watchmakers that can't afford to produce in-house calibers usually source their movements from Switzerland.
Laco's new ownership and management thought it would be a good idea to introduce Miyota movements as a cost-effective alternative to the usual ETA movement. This turned a lot of people away from the Laco brand since using a Japanese movement in a European watch is blasphemous to them.
Conversely, Stowa followed the European watchmaking etiquette to the letter and stuck with ETA (Swiss) for its timepieces. This is yet another reason why Stowa is preferred to Laco by a lot of collectors.
The two watchmakers have quite a big offering filled with lots of different watches, but they each focus on different markets. For example, Laco's centerpiece is certainly the Pilot Watch category, and the great majority of their watches are Fliegers.
On the other hand, Stowa has now expanded its horizons and sells lots of watch categories including Flieger, but also dress, sports, dive, and chronograph watches. Over time, this might dilute Stowa's brand, but they still seem to be the preferred Flieger watch provider for now.
After their 2010 rebranding, Laco introduced a 3-tier pricing strategy for their offering. For instance, you can get their cheaper Miyota 8215-equipped watches for $4-500, their mid-range Miyota 9015-equipped watches for around $7-800, and finally, their high-end Elaborated ETA-equipped pieces for $1000-1500+.
On the other hand, Stowa uses ETA movements for all its collection, so the great majority of Stowa timepieces will be sold for €800-€1200.
Once again, the 3-tier pricing strategy of Laco dilutes the brand's name, whereas Stowa's consistency gives them a better reputation.
5. Printing, Finish, and Small details
The other differences between Laco and Stowa come down to small tweaks that are up to personal preferences. These small details include the paint color of the indices, brushed case (Stowa) vs bead-blasted case (Laco), lume color, crown shape, etc..
Do Laco and Stowa watches have the same specs?
The differences noted above are mostly aesthetical, and they don't pertain directly to the components used in the watch.
I know some of you guys place a lot of importance on the specs & components when choosing a watch. For this reason, I decided to compare the specs of 2 similar pieces in the same price range: The Laco Pilot Munster and the Stowa Flieger Classic sport.
Stowa Flieger 43
50m / 5 bar
200m / 20 bar
ETA 2824-2 (Elaborated)
ETA 2824-2 (Top)
I've listed most of the important components of each watch above. For comparison, it's good to note that the Laco Munster retails at $1,190 and the Stowa Flieger Sports retails at €1,135 ($1,275).
First, both watchmakers use sapphire crystals with inside anti-reflective coating, which is expected at this price point.
Stowa boasts an "extra thick" sapphire glass, which should be a bit more shatter-resistant than average.
Conversely, Laco's crystal isn't thicker than your average sapphire glass. However, they offer the possibility to add a layer of AR-coating to the outer side of the crystal for an extra $120.
This proposition boggles my mind considering most people hate outer AR-Coating (easy to scratch, defeats the purpose of getting sapphire). Also, AR-coating isn't that important for flat sapphire, so this $120 option is preposterous.
While the cheaper (€925) Stowa Flieger 40 only offers 50m of water resistance, the 43mm Sports version is bumped up to 200m of WR. This figure means that you could technically take your Flieger for a dive, but it's not recommended since it uses a push-pull crown.
The Laco Munster also uses a push-pull crown and only offers 50m of water resistance. Technically, this is enough to go for a swim with your watch, but most people tend to be cautious and avoid water around their Laco Munster.
Another key difference between the two is that Laco uses a flat-top diamond crown which is reminiscent of the original B-Uhr watch, but is a bit sharper and might dig into the wrist. Conversely, Stowa uses a rounded onion crown that's usually more comfortable.
For this price range, the two watchmakers use an ETA 2824-2 caliber. However, Laco's movement is rated at "Elaboré" (0 to +14 sec/day) whereas the Stowa has a "Top" rating (0 to +8 sec/day).
The rest of the movement's specs are the same for the two watches, so Stowa is the clear winner here. Nonetheless, the Top ETA 2824-2 is also available for the Laco Munster, but you'll have to fork out an extra $150.
With this $150 markup, the Laco gets more expensive than the Stowa, meaning that the latter is the best bang-for-the-buck.
The rest of the specs are on par with each other. The two brands make temperature-blued hands, use Superluminova C3 lume (brightest available), use a perforated leather strap, etc..
Another small difference is the case back, which is plain stainless steel for Laco and sapphire crystal for the Stowa. This is really a matter of preference and I can't say that one's better than the other.
Laco and Stowa both offer a certain level of customization with their respective watch, but it's not the same kind.
For example, Laco's customization focuses on actual components like an upgraded movement, an additional layer of anti-reflective coating, the crown's position, etc..
On the other hand, Stowa's customization focuses more on aesthetics. For instance, you can decide between logo/no logo, date or no date, etc.. They also offer to add the hand-winding function for an extra €17.
In summary, Laco offers watches that are truer to the original B-Uhr watch (rougher finish, straight lugs, etc.), whereas Stowa watches are modern interpretations that are more comfortable and better finished.
Also, Stowa seems to offer better specs for the same amount of money, and their brand is more respected (no Miyota movements, no bankruptcy, no cheaper models, etc.).
Let me know in the comments below which is your favorite brand between the two!