Watches

Why you need a flieger

Even if you turn right when you climb aboard and aren’t allowed more than 100ml of anything, there’s still a romance to flying.  Originally made for wartime pilots and observers where precise navigation was a very important thing indeed, fliegers are part of watchmaking heritage.

Two aged pilots' watches

Two Laco Wien Venedig Erbstück watches

And plenty of makers want to claim a whiff of aviation fuel lingers about their watches.  But what makes a proper flieger?

Back in the days when all the best pilots flew red triplanes and had ‘von’ in front of their surnames, the pilots shooting at them used pocket watches to navigate.  The Mark IV.A and Mark V British pocket watches were the thing to have in the cockpit of your SE5.  Large enough to hold with gloves on, solid enough to survive and clear enough to read in a shaking aircraft.

Later, with typical precision, in WWII the German Imperial Air Ministry laid down their own very detailed criteria that still form the basis of flieger-spec today.

  • a hacking, chronometer movement with a Breguet balance spring, so an airman could set the time to the second and know it would stay there. Vital for accurate, long-distance navigation and making it back to the mess in time for cocktails
  • a clear, luminous dial with the 12 o’clock position clearly marked – and a big, 55mm case to put it in
  • a large crown, so you could set your watch with gloves on
  • a long, leather strap so you could wear your watch over your flight jacket sleeve.

And each watch had to be engraved on the caseback with “FL 23883”, indicating that it was a watch, airmen for the use of. 

“FL 23883”. This number stood for “navigation devices” and could also be seen on each watch on the opposite side of the winder.

Back then, only a very few makers were good enough to meet the standard.  Laco was one of them, and kept company with Lange & Söhne, Wempe, IWC and Stowa. IWC went on in WWII to make a watch that met the British WWW (Watches Wristlet Waterproof) spec – the MkX.

Things are a little more relaxed nowadays, but there are still really three sorts of flieger: 

– The big pilot, the “B-uhr” style

– The pilot chronograph

– The smaller ‘Fliegeruhr’

“B-uhr” style

Trying to find an original 1940s Laco will put something of a hole in your wallet.  And an original Luftwaffe watch is probably something you don’t want to wear every day.  But Laco are still making and you can pick up everything from a quartz beater flieger for under £200 to a full-on, 55mm-cased Model B replica for £2,200. 

This is serious watchmaking.  The original handwinding ETA 6497.1 is heavily modified and ends up with a centre-mounted second hand (just like the original) and a woodpecker-neck regulator to make sure it hits chronometer standards.  Then all you need is a Hartmann jacket, a Heinkel He 111 and somewhere to park it.

Pilot chronographs

The chronograph could have been invented for pilots (although it wasn’t – Moinet’s chronograph was for timing horse races 89 years before the Wright Brothers).  Using a conventional watch to run time/distance calculations in a cockpit is pretty inexact.  It makes much more sense to have a second hand you can start and stop easily.  So airmen quickly started adopting chronographs.

Hanhart Monocontrol

IWC were one of the first to make dedicated flying chronographs, but it’s cheaper to qualify as a pilot than buy an original 1936 IWC pilot chrono.  Instead, there are modern pilot chronos that you can wear happily even if you’re flying a desk. 

Hanhart also found their way onto the wrists of military pilots.  Again, the chances of tracking down an original from WWII are slimmer than finding a buried Spitfire in Burma, but you can adorn your cockpit with a modern, 44mm Hanhart Monocontrol that is almost identical.  Stop, start and seconds-zero – all on one button.  Cathedral hands.  The only major difference is that the modern version has a stainless steel case over the original’s non-magnetic brass. All you need to do is add your own patina.

Also at 44mm there’s the Laco Kiel – tricompax dials and self-winding.  Smaller at 38.5mm is the classic Sinn 356.  Again, tricompax, self-winding and a dial so clear you could see it even in a vertical spin, although you’ll probably have better things to do.  If 38mm is too small, Sinn helpfully offers the larger, but otherwise identical, 358.    Fortis will sell you an Aviatis Flieger Chronograph – 40mm, day/date and clarity you could read from a neighbouring cockpit.

Fliegeruhrs

If you’ve no need for a chronograph or just want a simpler, cleaner dial there’s plenty of choice.  Damasko have a somewhat more contemporary take on the flieger.  The DA30, 40 and 50 series all run the robust, accurate, 25 jewel ETA 2836-2 movement.  Clear, crisp classic flieger dials.  You could probably land your Lancaster on them too – Damasko don’t mess about when it comes to their cases.  These are ice-hardened to 710 Vickers and the movement is shockproof and antimagnetic to DIN standards.  The twin-chisel profile “12” marker on the dial is a more modern take on the trad flieger triangle.   

The Fortis Flieger Aviatis gives you the same sort of clarity and functionality with the classic “triangle and two dots” at 12 that’s marked out pilots’ watches since the Reichs-Luftfahrtministerium’s 1935 specifications. 

Why wear a Flieger? 

Well, the designed-in features that fit Fliegers for flying also make them perfect everyday watches. 

They often have soft iron inner cases and dials to prevent magnetism (in fact, modern watch metallurgy means you don’t really need this, even if your laptop does have a magnet for turning it on and off).  Mind you, the Sinn 856 will still shrug off 1k Gauss without breaking sweat.

They’ve all got clear, uncluttered faces that you can read without having to squint or look closely. Although you will, often, just for the hell of it.  They’ll have hacking movements, so you can set the exact time to a reference.  And ostentatiously starting a stopwatch is incredibly handy for limiting how long that tedious colleague yaps for in meetings.  And, let’s face it, how many of us haven’t slotted in behind that Nissan Micra stolidly planted in the middle lane and made machine gun noises?  It’s so much more satisfying with a Flieger on your wrist.

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Watches

The $18m watch they couldn’t give away

Daytona PhilipsGive a watchnerd the keys to Marty McFly’s De Lorean and you’d have a whole different film. Instead of all that faffing about with the Johnny-B-Goode-meets-Eddie-van-Halen thing, they’d set the dials to 1963 and start beating down the door of their nearest Rolex dealer to stock up on Paul Newman Daytonas.

Originally, the ref. 6239 Daytona, the “Paul Newman,” was a the Ford Edsel of watches. A complete sales flop.

Back in 1963 when the Daytona first shipped out of Geneva, Rolex dealers struggled to sell them. In fact, the ref. 6239 was the cheapest Daytona Rolex made at the time, yet they still hung around on the shelves longer than canned cockroach soup.

If you’d put down your Gibson for long enough, Marty, you could have had one for way less than $300; dealers often had to discount them to shift them. People simply preferred the standard-faced watches.

So why the rocketlike ascent from dealer dud to — without exception — the most expensive standard watch ever sold at auction? It’s quite a puzzle, even given Newman’s fame. It certainly isn’t the stuff on the inside that’s worth the staggering figure. And to give credence to the value inherent in such things, the last watch that sold for anywhere near this sort of money was a one-off, extraordinarily complicated solid gold Patek Philippe.

Watch collectors get excited about movements, but there is nothing remarkable or even rare about the movement ticking away inside the Newman’s case. The ref. 6239 was powered by a standard, 17 jewel Valjoux calibre 722, with a balance running at a lowly 18,000 beats per hour. Of course you had to wind it yourself every day, no automatic system here.

If you’d taken the trouble to open the caseback on a lowly Harvard chronograph made by the West End Watch Co., you’d have found the very same movement. Likewise, near as dammit, in the contemporary Heuer Carrera, for under $200. The point is that the Daytona was far from the only watch with the Valjoux under the hood. If you’re a vintage collector, rummage in your watch box and there’s a good chance you’ll find something running a Valjoux 72X series movement.

More basic makers like Eterna, Longines, Wakmann; all produced watches built around the Valjoux 72X series. This isn’t to say it’s anything but a fine, accurate, and robust motor, but to borrow an analogy, it’s far from the exotic heights of Lampredi V12-style rarity.

The case itself was unremarkable too; stainless steel, not gold. Just a tachymetre scale around the bezel and pump pushers for the chronometer. The crystal was cheap, serviceable plexiglass. It wouldn’t shatter like sapphire, and you could even polish out the scratches picked up from tweaking your carbs.

This was a functional tool of a watch, never destined to be a collectible. Back in the 1960s, it was just one of the other watches Rolex were known for making then. Waterproof Submariners for divers; everything-proof Explorers for, well, explorers; antimagnetic Milgausses for engineers; and chronograph Daytonas for racing drivers.

So, had you been standing outside our mythical Rolex dealer in October 1963, you’d be forgiven for passing over the Daytona just like everyone else. And even as late as the 1980s you could have snaffled a ref. 6239 Newman Daytona for under $4,000.

And, it’s probably worth pointing out, to further democratize the watch, that the ref.6239 is far from the only Newman Daytona. That’s because the term refers specifically to the dial rather than the watch as a whole. You can spot a Newman by the art deco numbers on the crosshair sub-dials, the tiny squares on the five-minute marks on the chronograph sub-dials, and the contrast between the sub-dials and the main dial.

Here’s where we start to see some real cases for value besides tacit celebrity endorsement. Made by Rolex’s dial suppliers at Singer, the value of a Newman is all in the dial. You’ll find Newman dials on refs. 6240 (rarer than an honest politician), 6241, 6262, 6264, 6265, and 6263.

Before attempting to explain what happened to first hurl the Daytona into the limelight, you need to understand something about Watchworld. It is, in absolutely no sense of the word, a rational place. It’s the place where a bit of red writing on the dial of a Rolex Submariner lifts the price from $6,000 to around more than five times that. A bit of white writing (specifically the word “Comex”) is even more powerful, and it can turn a $6,000 watch into a $132,000 collectors’ item. A cracked, “tropical” dial caused by a manufacturing fault sees a similarly irrational value hike.

If watch enthusiasts were rational, the place simply wouldn’t exist because we’d all be wearing ultra accurate, pennywise and reliable Casio F-91w’s or using our iPhones.

That’s why nobody really knows why these Daytonas have gone stratospheric, although plenty of people will assure you they do. There are few rational reasons behind its ascent, but it’s hard to pin a rise of this size on one thing. But what we do know is that towards the end of the 1980s, this dog got itself a pedigree, and a new name.

The stack of photographs showing Newman wearing his ref. 6239, particularly that shot by Douglas Kirkland, was the christening. The ref. 6239 quickly became known as The Paul Newman. Collectors love a Rolex with a name, so maybe this was really the whole reason; you’ll find BLNRs, Hulks, Gilts, Rootbeers, and Pepsis amongst other names affectionately given to certain pieces. But the association with racer and film star Newman propelled the ref. 6239 to a different level than any of those.

By the early 2000s, Newmans had leapt from sub $10,000 to $40,000 at auction. As the decade was drawing to a close, they’d risen to nearly $70,000. From there, the line on the graph is like looking up at the side of Mont Blanc. The other early Daytona references have been dragged up the slopes with it, but none has got anywhere near the Newman summit.

Funny enough, despite their common presence on untouched shelf space, now there’s intrinsic rarity in these watches. That’s because the singer-dial watches didn’t sell, and Rolex made relatively few of them to meet the relatively small demand. Collectors believe around only 2,000 were produced. Interestingly enough, whatever the true number may be, there are rather more Newmans on wrists and in watchboxes than ever were brought into existence in Geneva. Because the dial makes the watch, the unscrupulous but skilled among us can take a standard Daytona and graft on a Newman dial. They’re far from being the most-faked Rolex (that dubious prize probably goes to the Datejust or the Sub), but the rewards for successfully counterfeiting one are huge.

And that’s what makes Newman’s very own Newman even more special. Provenance does not come any better than this, but having a few fakes around doesn’t hurt the value of the real thing that’s provably so. The contemporary photographs, the engraving on the back, the family link and that wonderful story about Newman himself simply giving the watch away.

The watch that auctioneer extraordinaire Aurel Bacs declared is “history now” is the very peak of vintage Rolex collecting. Yes, the new owner has a beautiful, historic watch as well as a rather emptier bank account, nut what he or she has really bought with The Newman Newman more than anything is its perfect story.

Image courtesy of: Phillips

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Watches

One of the world’s classic watches. Yours for £8.

Chances are, as you read this, you’re no more than 3 metres away from a Casio F-91. It’s still the first watch for generations of children, the choice of half the British Army’s regiments (and practically standard issue for military training) and you’ll find them abandoned in office drawers, forgotten in bags, Blu-tacked to the dashboards of cars and even on wrists.

Casio wouldn’t tell me how many F91-Ws they’ve precision-glued together since 1991, but it’s got to be a few million. But this ubiquity is far from a bad thing. There’s an argument that the F91 is as much a Watchworld classic as the Rolex Submariner, the Omega Speedmaster or the Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso.

I’ll stick my neck out here. In my view, this £8 watch does the whole ‘form and function’ thing just as well as any other classic watch. But it’s the best kind of classic; a democratic one that pretty much anyone can afford and enjoy. No waiting lists, no buzz-to-enter heavy-carpeted boutiques, no sniffy watch salesmen. Just nip on line and your F will be beeping happily from a box on your doormat the next day.

When you unbox it, you’ll find you even get an instruction leaflet, clearly designed by a particularly devious, wizened and ancient origami master at the very top of his game. Although it’s tiny, it unfolds to the size of an OS map of Europe. Seriously, don’t bother with wallpaper – it’s cheaper to buy a crateful of F-91s and use the instruction leaflets. Two per wall should do you. I swear it’s even got a section in medieval Catalan.

This is a watch for less than the price of two pints of London Pride, a couple of Starbucks coffees (although I’d argue S’bucks has little to do with coffee) or a 3 minute parking ticket in central Oxford. Yet cheap doesn’t mean nasty. Not so much Sub as subfusc, it quietly and efficiently gets on with telling you the time (the date, the day and a few other useful things like when you need to wake up) without fuss. That’s what most people want a watch for.

And these things are practically indestructible. Check the wrist of your garage mechanic. Your builder… And there’s a guy in Spain who has even filled his with olive oil (seriously) and pressure tested it to depths that would have that Submariner weeping.

Talking with ex and serving soldiers, they remember their F-91s from their time in camo (or more likely No5 dress) and they remember them fondly. As one said, “Robust doesn’t do the F-91 justice.” Another one talked of how his F (see, the affection of an abbreviated nickname already) had done everything he’d asked of it through two tours in Afghanistan, all without failing once or even needing a new battery.

Believe me, when someone hits the big red button there’ll be three things left: Nissan Micras, smiling, smug cockroaches and F-91s. And the F-91s will still be going ‘beep’ every hour.

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Watches

A late graduation present

I knew I wanted a Submariner and a Lotus Elan by the time I was 10. If you were a kid in the 1970s, you’ll remember the Rothmans ad. You could stand, looking up at the billboard, and see the driver’s Sub just visible under his shirt cuff as he changed gear in his Lotus, presumably on the way to Le Mans with his gorgeous girlfriend in the passenger seat. I couldn’t have cared less about the ciggies, but who wouldn’t be hooked on that watch?

I’d press my nose against Mallory’s window in Bath and gaze longingly at the Subs, Datejusts and Explorers. But slowly, the more I looked the more I came to realise that the watch I really wanted was the GMTII.

The staff at Mallory’s were kind to a brassic, watch-obsessed brat. After being nose-to-glass for half an hour or so I’d eventually pull up enough courage to go in. As the door closed behind me, the noise of the traffic faded to the ticking of clocks and the smell of leather and expensive carpet. With 50p a week pocket money (earned the hard way from cleaning my somewhat OCD father’s car), it was an intimidating silence.

They seemed a little surprised at a 10 year old watch tyro asking if they could spare a Rolex catalogue, but they not only handed one over, they found a smart bag, added a few Omega brochures too and patiently answered my questions. The watches themselves seemed too remote, too special, to even ask to try on, but I was in heaven.

Image of Rolex GMT II - circa 1989 with 'Pepsi' bezel

Once at home, I’d carefully cut out the lifesize picture of the stainless (never the two-tone or 18ct) GMT II and try it on for size. Sitting at my desk in my bedroom I vowed that, one day, I would own the real thing.

It wasn’t a matter of “if” but a matter of “when”.

Sat there at my desk, I promised myself that I’d get my Rolex GMT-Master II when I graduated. But, after the A levels and degree work, that date came and went. With a nasty beer and guitar habit, I’d left college with something of a debt to pay off. I had barely enough to pay the rent, let alone buy expensive watches.

Then it was when I got my first pay cheque. Then my first promotion. Then when I realised I wasn’t cut out for being an employee and started my own business. Then it was when we’d survived a year. Then it was the first ‘real’ client we closed. Then it was the five year anniversary of the firm. Then it was surviving the recession. I kept rushing past the milestones but none seemed big enough for my GMT.

Finally, it was just because the right watch was there and I decided the time was right. I spotted ‘my’ Rolex GMT-Master II on a watch forum and dived in. No, the Oyster bracelet wasn’t original, but I’d have happily put it on a NATO and still grinned. I had the watch I’d dreamed of for 33 years.

In 1954, back when the first GMTs – the 6542s – rolled out of Rolex, they were the preserve of the smart set. Pre-cheap flights and package holidays, there was little point in a watch with a second time zone – the GMT’s reason for being – if you were travelling between Walsall and Eastbourne. Instead, GMTs were snaffled by pilots, aircrew and businessmen, lending them an almost unfeasible air of cool.

The second timezone worked with a typically Rolex simplicity. You set home time using the 24 hour hand and moved the 12 hour hand to local time. Then you simply read home time from the bezel and local time from the dial as usual. If you were terribly important and needed a third timezone, you could just adjust the bezel again to suit.

Image of Rolex GMT II - circa 1989 with black bezel

The original bezel – along with the 24 hour hand, the distinguishing feature of the Rolex GMT-Master II – was not only Bakelite but luminous, because of the radium-filled numerals. But Bakelite bezels didn’t survive the sort of abuse regular travellers can dish out, so in 1956 Rolex switched to aluminium. They only replaced the metal in 2007, giving the 116710 a practically indestructible Cerachrom insert. Not that anyone complained about the perfectly good aluminium bezel.

Over the years, the movements evolved. From the first 1036 that also featured in the Submariner, Air-King, Explorer and Oyster Perpetual through the hacking, quickset 3085 that powered the 16760 and, today, the modern 3186, running a parachrom hairspring with a Breguet overcoil.

Like every other sports Rolex, the GMT was designed to survive pretty much what any owner would throw at it. After all, 1954 aircraft cockpits weren’t exactly friendly places. So the oyster case is properly waterproof and cut from a block of 904L stainless. Unless you fancy a bit of bling, in which case you can have stainless and yellow gold, If sir or madam desires the full-on wrist-monument experience there are 18ct gold versions and even the Patriot; the equivalent of wearing a small Swiss bank account on your wrist. There have only ever been 20 Patriots; solid gold cases with pavé diamond-set dials, baguette diamond, sapphire and ruby bezels and gold President bracelets also diamond-set. Subtle they are not. But they are rather wonderful in a completely OTT “I’m so loaded I don’t care” way.

Image of Rolex GMT II - circa 1989 with 'Pepsi' bezel

Mine is altogether more subtle, although, to be fair, it would be hard to out-state a Patriot. It’s a 16710 with a cal.3185 movement, tritium dial and a rather beaten-up old Oyster bracelet. It arrived in a Rolex service box with a service certificate and that was it. And I was smitten as soon as I lifted the lid.

After a little research and checking serial numbers with reference tables I realised my GMT dated from 1989, the first year Rolex made the 16710. That explained the tritium dial, one of the last. But it was a date that had a rather more personal resonance for me. I’d graduated in 1989. So it seemed I finally – and quite unintentionally – had my graduation present GMT. It was just 20 years late.

I thought the Mallory’s story and this unintended coincidence might raise a chuckle or two even in such a serious place as Geneva’s Rue François-Dussaud, so I wrote a letter to Rolex’s chief exec at the time, Bruno Meier. I explained that I’d recently realised a dream, that I’d wanted a GMT since I was kid and that I was absolutely delighted with my watch.

Image of Rolex GMT II - circa 1989 with black bezel

And, in the meantime, I carried on enjoying my Rolex GMT-Master II; buying a black bezel to replace the Pepsi. It looked simple enough, but it’s pretty intimidating to be faced with a sharp, flat-bladed knife, a newly-beloved and rather valuable GMT and a replacement bezel. Then, once I’d realised that popping off the bezel to change it didn’t mean trashing my watch, it was fine. And I kept looking at my wrist even when I didn’t need to know the time.

When the phone rang at the office early one Tuesday morning, a couple of weeks later, I assumed a client needed something on a short deadline. Instead, a voice introduced himself as Rolex’s Marketing Director, explained that Mr Meier had passed my letter on and it had reached his desk. He said he was delighted to hear the story and suggested I hang onto my watch as, in his opinion, values were only heading one way. We chatted for a few minutes, then he wished me well and rang off.

I stood looking at my phone and wondering how many other marketing directors from the watch business would take the trouble to call a customer who’d bought a second-hand product and wish them well.

Since then other watches have come and gone but the Rolex GMT-Master II has always been somewhere in the watchbox. The second timezone has been very useful indeed and it’s done plenty of travelling. Watches are for wearing, so it’s done thousands of motorcycle miles, been on my wrist as I’ve rebuilt engines and never been babied or treated specially. But it looks no different today from the day I took it out of the box. It’s not the most exciting or valuable of Rolex’s offerings but it has a value to me well beyond its collectability.

Most mornings, the 10 year old and the present day me put on our watch and smile. Watches often tell a great deal more than the time.

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Watches, Writing

When a watch tells more than the time

Watches, perhaps because they are so much more personal than almost any other artefact, have a knack of telling stories that bring the past vividly into the present. Here’s one of them…

In the gathering darkness of the evening of September 28th 1944, a group of 12 German Kampfschwimmer (military frogmen) slipped into the Waal river in Holland and began swimming silently towards the road and rail bridges at Nijmegen.

Bridge at Nijmegen

Arnhem bridge. Photo credit: Fellows Auctions

Their intention? To lay explosive charges under the main supports of the bridges – key strategic objectives on the way to Arnhem – and deny their use to the allied forces. Continue reading

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Musings, Watches

The 241 year old pendulum clock that’s more accurate than your watch

241 years ago today, John Harrison, one of Britain’s finest clockmakers died.  He left behind designs for a clock that makes the accuracy of that quartz watch on your wrist look pretty average.

Harrison

John Harrison (thanks to http://www.inverse.com)

Chances are, your quartz will be be reasonably sharp.  Probably just +/- 15 seconds a month.  Not shabby, given the low price of a mainstream quartz.  If you have a modern mechanical watch, +/- 15 seconds a day would be normal.  Still impressive, particularly with a balance wheel inside that has to revolve nearly 700,000 times each day.

But how about John Harrison’s pendulum clock built from a set of 241 year old plans? How long would it take to gain or lose a second?  Just to make the question more interesting, imagine it was designed by a man who’d started life as a rural carpenter who made his first clock out of wood.  Then imagine he’d decided not to lubricate the mechanism either.

How accurate would a clock like that be over 100 days?

This is Clock B, made by clockmaker Martin Burgess from John Harrison’s pendulum clock theory. Harrison was the eighteenth century English clockmaker who should have won the Admiralty’s Longitude Prize and pretty much invented the accurate marine timekeeper.  In January this year Clock B finally vindicated its designer’s 1774 claim that he could design a pendulum timepiece that was accurate to within a second over 100 days.

Harrison was living proof that you need more than talent to get on in life.  He endured knockback after knockback throughout his 63 year career.  The British Admiralty picked fault with each of his chronometers. Rivals criticised his work and publicly undermined him.  And his final assertions that his pendulum clock with his own grasshopper escapement could be accurate to a second in a hundred days were met with derision.

Harrison's H5 Chronometer

Harrison’s H5 marine chronometer

Little wonder that his snappily titled final work, “A description concerning such mechanism as will afford a nice, or True mensuration of time”, was so bitter. Later clockmakers referred to it as “…the ramblings of superannuated dotage.”

Two things in Harrison’s background seem to have combined to make him a remarkable and innovative clockmaker.  First, he was – in effect – a natural materials scientist.  He’s often portrayed as ‘just’ a rural carpenter, but that understates his affinity for, and experience with, the materials he used.

Rory McEvoy, Curator of Horology at Greenwich and a Harrison expert, explains, “Take the way he used metals in H3, his third marine chronometer.  The brass gear wheels in the movement are wide and very lightly made, yet they’re perfectly true. If you or I tried to produce wheels like that, with the inherent tensions within an untreated sheet of brass, we’d end up with something shaped like a crisp.”

Not only this, but Harrison instinctively understood the need to reduce – and even remove – lubricants from clock mechanisms.   As McEvoy explains, “Oil was the Achilles heel of any clock or watch. Harrison did away with lubrication altogether in his pendulum clocks and large timekeepers.”  Modern watchmakers are still trying to find ways to do this.

Second, he was self-taught.  That meant that he was able to think outside contemporary clockmaking practice.  As McEvoy explains it, “Harrison came at things from a different angle, almost from first principles.  He wasn’t indoctrinated with current watchmaking ideas.”

It was this fresh thinking that led to the plans for Clock A, an ultra-accurate pendulum clock, being realised by clockmaker Martin Burgess.

Burgess B clock

The escapement of Harrison’s B clock

Clock A was commissioned from Burgess in 1975 by the Gurney family, a Norwich banking family.  Completed in 1987 (proving you can’t rush good clockmaking) they gave the clock as a gift to the city of Norwich where it ticked happily in a local shopping centre, the Castle Mall, until it was removed in 2015.  Burgess had also started another Harrison pendulum clock, Clock B, but not finished it.  The parts for the clock gathered dust on a shelf in Burgess’ workshop until 1993.

In 1993, he delivered a paper at a Harvard horology symposium where he talked about the ‘scandalous neglect’ of Harrison’s work in pendulum clock innovation – and, crucially, mentioned Clock B.  Art historian and clock collector Donald Saff read the paper, tracked him down and persuaded him to sell him the unassembled and unfinished Clock B.  Saff then commissioned English clockmaker Charles Frodsham to complete the project.

Once the clock was completed in 2014, it attracted the sort of attention from horologists that premier league footballers would be familiar with.  They began studying the clock in March 2014 and how it worked…

It quickly became clear that Clock B was something very special indeed. McEvoy continues, “We looked at the behaviour of Clock B very deeply, and we found that any fluctuations in its timekeeping were cyclical.  In other words, they weren’t a problem because they were wholly predictable.”  So although the clock’s timekeeping varied by a few fractions of a second, in effect, it evened itself out.

Finally, to determine whether Harrison’s words were indeed “…the symptoms of insanity” as The London Review of English and Foreign Literature suggested, Clock B was sealed in a perspex case in January 2014 and trialled for 100 days.  

To ensure there was no horological tinkering, the National Physical Laboratory and Worshipful Company of Clockmakers oversaw the trials.  At the start, Harrison’s B clock was running a quarter second behind GMT.  After 100 days of running, it was a mere 5/8ths of a second behind.

Harrison B clock 1

Harrison’s B clock – thanks to http://www.rmg.co.uk

Guinness World Records have confirmed Clock B as the “most accurate mechanical clock with a pendulum swinging in free air.”  But that bald description understates the achievements of both Harrison and Burgess.  This is a clock that is so accurate, its curator was able to measure the impact of barometric pressure on its going. “As the barometer moved up, so the clock slowed down with air density,” explains Rory McEvoy. ‘When we adjusted the clock to take barometric pressure into account, it was 96% accurate.  On most clocks, you wouldn’t even notice the error, let alone be able to correct it.  We don’t see this sort of accuracy until at least 150 years after Harrison’s death.”

You’d think that with pin-sharp accuracy like this,  Clock B would be a horological prima donna, throwing timekeeping tantrums if it was stopped or started.  But not so, says McEvoy, “Once it’s adjusted, Clock B is remarkably stable.  You can stop and start it without any problems.”   

So why did Harrison do it?  Why did he persist until almost the day he died in developing, defending and promoting pendulum clocks?  He had a vision that, one day, every port would have a public pendulum clock, accurate to within fractions of a second, for mariners to set their marine chronometers by.  This would mean they were able to calculate their position at sea to within a few nautical miles, thus missing shoals, sandbanks and rocks.  Harrison realised that accurate timekeeping wasn’t just a theory, it was a lifesaving practice.

So, today, the 24th of March, raise a glass to Mr Harrison’s 241st anniversary.  A remarkable man very much ahead of his time.  This year, take a trip to Greenwich and take a look at Harrison’s other remarkable marine chronometers – it’s well worth the visit.

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Watches, Writing

Happy Birthday, M. Breguet

Today will pass in most people’s diaries with never a thought for the man behind so many elements of the watch on their wrist.  Abraham Louis Breguet was born 270 years ago today in Neuchâtel, Switzerland.

Automatic winding, tourbillons, gong-repeaters, more accurate escapements, better hairsprings, shock-absorbing escapements, lubrication-free escapements… Breguet was responsible for either inventing or significantly improving them all.

Yet, for a man who brought such ordered beauty to watchmaking, he lived and worked through some of the most chaotic and ugly times in European history.

Imagine. It’s the 1780s, you’re a French watchmaker and your work is not only being bought by Marie Antoinette but the titled and wealthy glitterati of the day. Even better, the French Queen is – in modern parlance – your brand ambassador, telling anyone who’ll listen that you’re the finest watchmaker in France, if not the world.

Cut to May 5 1789 and the start of the French Revolution. Proof, if ever it was needed, that celebrity endorsement can end up being rather more of a burden than a boost.

Welcome to Breguet’s turbulent life. As watchmaker to the rich, royal and famous, hanging around in revolutionary France was likely to cut Breguet’s career short in more ways than one. Being both smart and commercial, he packed his tools and headed home to Switzerland.

And that’s where he conceived the idea of his single-handed Souscription watch. It was a perfect idea commercially, horologically and democratically. Anyone could make a down-payment (a souscription) for their watch which allowed Breguet to keep his cashflow running and start making it.

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Breguet’s Souscription No. 580 from 1800. Image from http://www.artcurial.com

The watches were simple (by Breguet’s standards), and were designed to be repaired by any watchmaker. You’d set the single hand with your finger or a sliver of wood and wind it through the hand’s centre. That’s because the barrel is in the middle of the watch with the balance and second wheel engineered symmetrically around it. No need for friction-generating motion work either. Genius.

You could even have your Souscription fitted with Breguet’s montre à tact system that allowed you to feel – rather than see – the time by touching tiny protrusions from the watch case.

62mm of simple, classical gorgeousness with so much history inside the case there’s barely room for that beautiful movement. The only thing better than owning one would be the chance to have met the man whose workshop made it.

Happy 270th birthday, M. Breguet.

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Watches

Rare vintage watch turns up in auction.

They always say ‘never meet your heroes’. The same often applies in Watchworld. That gorgeous IWC Portofino you thought was the pinnacle of refinement and gorgeousness turns out to look like an oversized Christmas chocolate coin on your wrist.

But sometimes it works out. Continue reading

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Watches

Seiko 7a28 – watchmaking history at pocket money prices

Fancy owning a little piece of horological history? Well, you could head over to Geneva’s Patek Philippe Museum museum with your jemmy, a striped shirt and a ‘swag’ bag and quietly remove their Rieussec Seconds Chronograph.  Feeling even braver?  How about the earliest chronograph yet discovered? The Louis Moinet, in St. Blaise in Switzerland?  Sadly, there are only two ways to get hold of watches like these – theft, – or complex midnight negotiations with a bloke with horns and a pitchfork at a remote rural crossroads.  Like nearly every other mile marker along the road of horological progress, neither the Rieussec nor the Moinet are for sale.

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There is, however, an easier way if you’re prepared to be a little less choosy.  You still get a timekeeping milestone, but not at the cost of time behind bars or eternity somewhere warm.

How about the very first analogue quartz chronograph?  You’d better get a move on though; prices are rising faster than a traffic-jammed Morris Marina’s temperature gauge.

Just think of the history…

It’s 1982.  The Commodore 64 8-bit home computer is launched in the USA.  Heuer are still making watches like the digital Chronosplit and the Swiss watch industry is being stabbed to death with pointy quartz crystals.  But, even though some people think it is acceptable to wear a watch that is also a calculator, a compass, a barometer and a TV combined, there is a sense that digital watches aren’t quite where it’s at anymore. And that’s where Seiko – as they so often do – come in.

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Now, I know some watchie people are sniffy about Seiko.  But it’s hard to be convincingly rude about a brand that makes one of the most accurate movements in the world (the 9F series – that’s +/- 10 sec pa) and that not only grows its own quartz crystals, but ages them for three months to maximise stability.  If that ain’t a manufacture movement, I don’t know what is.

Back in the early ‘80s, Seiko decided that all this LCD technology was splendid, but how about building an analogue quartz chronograph?  One that didn’t go ‘beep’ and flash a lot of scrolling numbers at you.  So, being Seiko, that’s what they did.  This, ladies and gentlemen, is the very first analogue quartz chronograph.

They weren’t shy either.  Contemporary ads proclaimed “Watch history being made” and with the watch photographed against the dashboards of Porsche 911s and Ur Quattros, it was clear Seiko were pitching it high.  And they didn’t mess about.  The 7a series does that wonderful Seiko thing of seeming simple but actually being eye-wateringly impressive.

Let’s start with the movement…

7a28 movement 2

Seiko planned to take on the Swiss at their own game.  So rather than a modular, disposable plastic movement, the 7a series had a proper, quasi-decorated 15 jewel metal movement that could be regulated, disassembled and repaired.  It even has a very traditional finger damper spring on the centre seconds pinion.  Seiko really threw investment, thinking and effort into this one.  This explains why, despite often impressive abuse, so many survive.

Notice those little rectangular plates over parts of the movement?  Each of those protects a tiny stepper motor – one for each of the chronograph functions. And that’s what this watch is all about.  Press the button at 2 o’clock and the chrono starts.  Instead of a blizzard of flickering digits, the centre seconds ticks off the seconds one at a time while the 1/10ths dial zips round. In fact, it’s moving at 1/20th second intervals.  The minutes total up over at the 9 o’clock subdial and there’s a running seconds at 6 o’clock.

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Today, that’s all pretty unremarkable.  But back in the early 1980s, when most watches had little grey, digital screens, this was serious stuff.  And it got better.  Hit the button at 10 o’clock and the chrono keeps running, but the hands stop.  So not only do you have a chrono, you have a split timer.

If you enjoy fiddling, you’ll discover something else about the 7a series… if you push and hold the 4 o’clock pusher, the two chrono subdials and centre seconds whizz round and reset themselves. And all this for around $250 back in the early ‘80s – that’s a blinding amount of watch technology for a mere $650 in today’s money.

The movement even found its way into watches carrying rather more upmarket logos, including the Ferrari ‘Cal. 531’.

But the lovely thing with the 7a series watches is that they have something for everyone…

If you like your complications, you’ll find something in the 7a series that suits you.  There are tide timers, moon-phases, Sports Quartz, fishing models (the 7A48-7050 Fishing Master with a moon phase and tide indicator), military versions (as supplied to the RAF and the South African Airforce).  If you fancy a military 7a though, you’ll need deep pockets.  Even a couple of years ago, you’d see these for around £300.  Now, they’re being posted on auction sites at up to £995 (although this one from’83 cost rather less).

Seiko 7a28 RAF

Movie fan? You can go after the 7A28-7001 Giugiaro-designed chrono that pops up (along with a few nasty critters) in Alien. Even Bond got in on the action and wore a 7A28-7020 in View to a Kill.

Like horological mythology?  You can happily spend time chasing the ‘Vulcan Flightcrew’, yellow-faced variant, the 7A38-701B.  The story goes that RAF aircrews on the Vulcan long-range nuclear bomber were issued these.  The yellow dial apparently made them easier to read in the Vulcan’s darkened cockpit. One of these went for nearly £600 back in 2011 despite there being no good evidence for the whole Vulcan thing actually being, you know, true.  They may never have been issued watches (the casebacks certainly don’t carry military markings), but they’re still indisputably handsome.

RAF Seiko 7a28 (2)

And because there were so many made – and made well – there is still the chance of turning one up at a boot sale, in a junk shop or on an auction site for pocket money.  Even if it’s not running too well, the proper, metal movement is perfectly serviceable and you can still get parts.  There’s a dedicated (and excellent) forum for the 7a series over at http://www.seiko7a38.com with plenty of help and information.

So, a piece of real horological history, plenty of variation, movie and military cred and robust enough for a (thoroughly repairable) daily wearer.  And change – if you buy well – from £100.  That’s got to be a serious bargain.  And a whole lot cheaper than spending the next twenty years in a Swiss jail.

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In my view, the prices on these are headed just one way.  Get one while you still can.

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Watches

My guilty secret. Vintage digitals.

In theory, we should all love digis. Ask a digi-wearer the time and assuming he’s not an actuary, he’ll tell you, precise to the minute. It’ll be “five-forty-seven”; none of this vague and analogue “about quarter to six”. Digis are robust, never need servicing and are ready to go as soon as you drag them from the watchbox. But for most, they’re the watch equivalent of the slightly seedy uncle who insists that bri-nylon shirts are a good idea.

A G-Shock may still be as socially acceptable as a cartoon character tie, but that distant bleeping you can hear is the start of the vintage digi revolution. While most watchnerds have been busy drooling over the latest ultra-mech innovations, vintage digitals have been quietly lifted out of the musty charity shop glass cabinet into the auction catalogue.

There was even an LCD Speedie.

There was even an LCD Speedie.

It’s started with the earliest LED (light-emitting diode) glowing-digit Pulsars from the 1970s. To get a P2 under your paisley cuff in 1973 would have cost you $395. That’s $10 more than a Sub. Today, apart from being sufficiently well-built to double as a lump hammer, a decent early Pulsar P2, even in stainless steel, will set you back around £350. OK, that’s nowhere near the stratospheric rise of the Sub, but five years ago the ladies at your local Cats’ Protection League shop would have turned up their noses at it. For horological history at pocket-money prices, vintage digital can’t be beat. And, yes, it was the one Roger Moore wore in Live and Let Die… Making it the coolest digital ever made by default.

For example, an Omega TC1 – the Time Computer – was Omega’s first venture into LED watches. Like the Pulsar (it shares much of the technology), its red LEDs peer out from an elegant case that feels as though it’s been hand-milled from billet stainless. But you set the time, not with a button on the side or a crown, but by unclipping a tiny magnet from the strap’s clasp and placing it in special slots on the caseback. And you’ll find one of these – the first prestige digis – for under a thousand today.

But LED is for the truly dedicated; the digi-faithful who want a watch with a firm place in history. They are practical everyday timekeepers in the same way that an Aston Martin Lagonda would make a good daily driver. Move to LCD (liquid-crystal display) and more established brands and you’ll get a watch that will stand up to being used and where you don’t need to press a button to find out the time.

The early Seiko M series LCDs are a fine bet. They share the robustness of the Pulsars, but with rather more style and a less bulimic attitude to batteries. A chunk of 1970s cool for around £100. This M159 even has the address of its previous Californian owner’s ‘70s, ice-cold plateglass and concrete Capistrano Beach house engraved on the clasp.IMG_6853

Omega weren’t slow in developing their own movements. The cal. 1620 powered a series of new watches from the mid 1970s including this 1977 Constellation. Omega only produced the Constellation with the cal.1620 quartz LCD movement for 18 months. Typically for vintage digi, the movements are exceptionally well made – this one even has a tiny circuit jumper to change the display from 12 to 24 hours. But they weren’t around long. Back then, quartz was still wallet-meltingly expensive. One like this barely makes a dent today at around £500, but they’re going up fast. A '77 Omega Constellation. More functions than anyone had a right to in the '70s

And it’s a fascinating field. Who knew there was a digi version of the iconic Speedmaster and Seamaster, each sharing a calibre with the Constellation above? There’s the jam factor too – for most people, vintage digitals are just ‘old watches’, so there are still plenty of bargains around. The market has started to get smart though… you’ll be lucky to find an Omega or a Pulsar at the local jumble sale, but you can pick something remarkable up before most people get wise.

Omega LCD Constellation

Omega LCD Constellation

Significant mechanical history pieces are out of almost every watchlovers’ reach. Fancy an early Louis Moinet chronograph? Best take up burglary then. One of Rieussec’s? Time for the jemmy, stripey jumper and swag bag. But an example of the world’s first digi quartz chronograph? Get on the web, two clicks and it’s yours for under £500.

Digitals won’t be like this for ever. They’re unlikely to reach the stratospheric heights of vintage Patek or Rolex, but the signs are the better known brands are already on the up. Digis are engaging, a real piece of horological history and they won’t cost you a fortune. In fact, just sell your watchwinder and you could probably pick up a couple of good ‘uns.

This article originally appeared on the splendid, but now sadly deceased, Prodigal Guide. Now – even more splendidly – to be found on Medium: https://medium.com/the-prodigal-guide  

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