Sangin Instruments - The Marine Owned “Raider Rolex”
I first heard of Sangin Instruments during TDY travel to a WarZone while at CIA. At the time I was responsible for a counterterrorism Covert Action program in the Middle East and I was traveling to visit the program on a flight with other CIA officers.
The atmosphere on the plane was a Star Wars bar vibe, with bearded paramilitary officers, support personnel and analysts, all dressed in civilian clothing that varied from business casual to a college campus look and of course the obligatory new camping gear from REI. Like most things at CIA, rules were relaxed and the plane filled with professionals who didn’t need to be told which rules actually mattered.
During a refuel stop in a European country, I struck up a conversation with the individual sitting next to me who I assessed (correctly) was a GRS (Global Response Staff) contractor reading a book on the Rhodesian Bush War. The conversation moved from evolution counterterrorism tactics, the ongoing conflict in our destination country and finally watches. The operator asked about the Rolex Submariner on my wrist, and was quick to interject that he used to wear his Sub during deployments but lost it in a recent divorce, so now wears a Sangin watch. He then launched into a passionate pitch for the company and an overview of what the Sangin brand represents.
Sangin in the wild during Orion space capsule recovery (Sangin community photo)
At the time, my interest in watches was surface level. But during that trip and following deployments I began to notice Sangin Instruments on the wrists of SpecOps personnel, CIA paramilitary officers, and other case officers. In the business we call this a pattern. Like many watch companies, Sangin was a subculture in itself. Very much a “if you know, you know” type thing.
I wanted to learn more about the watch that seemed to keep appearing on the wrist of professionals in this world. So I reached out to one of the two founders, Jacob Servantes to learn about how the company came to be.
(Sangin community photo)
Watches are a medium for stories, but for Jacob Servantes, Marine Raider and founder of Sangin Instruments, they provided even more. “You come out of the military depressed as hell. At the professional level we were at, a lot of what you do becomes who you are. And when you leave, the machine just keeps going . . . so Sangin gave me a lot of purpose out of the military.”
Servantes enlisted in 2008 as the economy was crumbling, hoping to earn some money for college on the other side of his service. The goal was to follow his father’s footsteps and become a Reconnaissance Marine. At the time, he wasn't aware that a restructuring in 2006 would mean that elements of the Marine Corps would participate in SOCOM, resulting in MARSOC.
He ended up squarely in the special operations community.
A rare photo of Jacob on deployment in Afghanistan.
It was during selection that he walked away with his first lesson that he would incorporate into Sangin Instruments–become the new standard.
Become the New Standard
Not much was publicly known about the Raider selection process, and that’s by design. But Servantes recounted the biggest takeaway was that the standard to be selected by the instructors only moved in one direction: it became harder and harder. When Marines rose to the standard, and exceeded it, their standard became the new standard.
“We used to joke that the mattress fairy would take people away at night, because every night you would see fewer and fewer people,” Servantes recalled. In his class, a group of 120 hopeful Marines were deposited in an undisclosed location somewhere in North Carolina. 25 people were selected after a grueling three weeks and countless miles of rucking/team events. Each class sets the standard for the next class, meaning that the standard is constantly being raised. It always gets harder, and that idea is something Servantes has incorporated into the way Sangin Instruments does things, “selection is continuous.”
(Sangin community photo)
The name of Servantes’ company comes from Sangin, in Afghanistan’s Helmand province, an area along the Helmand River Valley where the Commando team he worked on spent much of their deployment. Sangin is a place that many who served during the GWOT will be familiar with, and it was known as “the most dangerous place in the world for multiple years running–the hospital on base was the busiest hospital, anywhere, at the time.” Servantes says. That’s part of why he chose the name Sangin Instruments. “Sangin is a horrible place in the world–many guys attribute awful memories to Sangin, but they’ll carry this name with them and hopefully have a positive memory about breaking down barriers, and their own sacrifices and achievements.”
(Photo Credit: James Rupley)
Building a watch company is not for the fainthearted and bringing the brand to life was an achievement in itself. It almost didn’t happen. But the can-do attitude prevailed. He got back from a deployment and told his wife that he’d put in his time with special operations. During his time in the Middle East and the Philippines, he wore a M-1 Breitling Chrono Avenger (sketchy) and several Digital Tool Watches. While deployed, he'd been thinking about watch designs based on the work he was doing. He tested the market among his friends and colleagues in the military and conceptualized a watch that would be affordable and capable. A watch that would stand up to the type of work they were doing while also speaking to the community.
Watches Built For Warriors
Servantes’ wife, Paris, bought the idea. This was 2017. After some help from his mentor, Bill Yao of popular watch microbrand MK II, they had a prototype. And following the evaluation of the prototype, Sangin launched a successful pre-sale that would help fund the initial batch of 250 watches called the Kinetic 1. The only problem was that Paypal held the funding without explanation and would not release it to obtain the watches. Paris reached into her savings and a small inheritance; Servantes had his bonus from his last Afghanistan deployment. Between them, they scraped together the cash and bet big on Sangin Instruments working out. They were in a squeeze, but Servantes had a steadfast partner in his wife, who learned how to do Quality Control on all the watches and packaged them up and answered customer emails while he was in business school.
W.O.E.’s personal Sangin Overlord
Believing in Sangin Instruments paid off, but it was never the plan–the primary objective was to take care of the community and make a product to be proud of. The first round of watches was delivered and the phones haven’t stopped ringing since.
“Part of the culture of watches in general is wanting to have a part of something you’ve done. So when these guys leave the military, they can take a piece of that experience with them,” Servantes says of his watches.
(Sangin community photo)
Today, Sangin boasts an impressive line of watches, from the entry level quartz Overlord to the premium newly released Hydra, Sangin’s interpretation of a mid-century compressor-style diver's watch. The community remains an important part of Sangin’s identity with customers demonstrating a near religious fervor as they wait for the next release. Sangin also offers several watches that must be earned. The “Para” Overlord is only available to members of the airborne community and would-be customers must submit a certification verification. The green bezel Atlas and Neptune are available only to those who have completed a SOF selection course, red for first responders and blue for law enforcement personnel. They are tools for professionals.
Jacob was mum on the ongoing special projects “unit watches” but a custom Professional made for the CIA Directors Protective Staff (DPS) was recently for sale on Ebay (but quickly disappeared without explanation). Suffice to say, we are aware of several special projects for units in the IC and SpecOps community but cannot go into details at this time.
Ebay listing of Sangin Professional for the CIA’s Directors Protective Staff. (Ebay)
Sangin Instruments - “With You”
As Sangin grows, Servantes makes sure that giving back and taking care of the community he comes from is part of it. Servantes has developed watches that specifically speak to a community of men and women who serve. As he grew the business, an unlikely presence in the watch world supercharged the number of people interested in Sangin. “Rolex helped us out with their price point and availability. You have a lot of Green Berets who finally could afford a Rolex but just couldn't get them. And here we were offering something specifically for them,” he says. Informally, many refer to Sangin watches as the “Raider Rolex.”
Now Servantes will run into guys who tell him that they have a few deployments on their watch, and the memories of service are imbued into the timepiece. That’s exactly what makes Servantes and Paris continue to push Sangin forward. A part of the Sangin Instruments mission that Servantes doesn’t publicly put forward is his support of important nonprofits contributing to those in the veteran community, including HunterSeven Foundation, Special Operations Care Fund (SOC-F) and Vigilant Torch.
One of the altruistic motivations of the W.O.E. platform is preserving watch culture in the NatSec community. No one has done more to further this end than the team at Sangin Instruments. Many of us came up in the GWOT days where digital watches were the norm. Sangin offers a great way for professionals to get into watches in an unpretentious manner.
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This Dispatch has been reviewed by the CIA’s Prepublication Classification Review Board to prevent the disclosure of classified information.