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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Watches

How to start collecting watches.

Starting a watch collection is a dangerous thing.  Like most addictions (for it is just that) it sneaks up on you.  That first step – from having just one utility watch that tells the time to buying the second – seems simple.  “Just one,” you say, “I’ll get one good watch. I only need one. Just one. That’ll do me.”

That’s how everyone starts.  Soon, you’ll have Chrono24, Worn & Wound, Hodinkee and several watch dealers on bookmark.  You’ll have downloaded the WatchVille app to every device you own.  And you’ll be sneaking glances at the wrists of perfect strangers.  And, clearly, you’ll have burned a smoking, ragged hole in your chequebook.

This is normal.  At least, it is for a watch addict.  So, save some time.  Don’t kid yourself that ‘one watch is enough’.  It’s not.  The optimum number of watches is always n+1.  To save a little more time, here’s my list of the classics that every watchie should own at least once.

Rolex Submariner

1966 Rolex 5513 "metres first" Sub. From Oakleigh Watches.

1966 Rolex 5513 “metres first” Sub. From Oakleigh Watches.

 

Yes, I know it’s a cliche.  I know it’s the most faked watch in the known universe.  It’s also the second most splendid piece of form following function in watchworld.  Subs are lovely because they weren’t designed to be.  Before they ended up on the wrist of almost photocopier rep, they were proper diving tools.  So they’re instantly legible, hard to damage, waterproof (clearly) and never need winding up.

Mind you, given the life expectancy of a watch in most collections, perhaps their most endearing feature is their exceptional ease of re-sale.

Yours for anywhere between £2,500 and “HOW MUCH?! I could buy a house for that!”

Rolex Explorer I

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Rolex Explorer 1016, 1964, gilt dial.

 

If the Sub is the second most splendid piece of form following function, the Exp I is the first.  Designed to survive pretty much anything, the Exp is plain, clean and built like a safe.  Unlike the Sub, you won’t spend your life saying “Yes, it is real actually…” because no-one will ever spot it on your wrist. Except a fellow watchie.  And there are enough variants of the Exp 1, from gilt-dialed to modern, that you’ll never be bored.

Yours for anywhere between £2,400 and £20,000+

 

 

Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso

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JLC Reverso Classique, 2001

 

More refined but no less robust is the Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso.  So called because the entire body of the watch flips over to present its caseback to the world.  Handy to protect your watchface when you’re playing polo, apparently.  Again, plenty of variants to choose.  There’s the smaller Classique (handy if you don’t have wrists like Herman Munster) right the way through to the socking great Répétition Minutes à Rideau.  You’ll see rather fewer of these around than their Rolex brethren.

Yours for anywhere between £1,500 and £150,000+

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Breitling Navitimer 01, with many thanks to Patrick Carr.

Breitling Navitimer

Another unashamed choice of a watch that had a job to do – keep ‘planes in the air.  The Navitimer was intended as a navigational aid for airmen, hence the sliderule on the bezel and dial.  They’re not small watches, but they do seem a lot smaller on the wrist than they should.  There’s a lot of history to enjoy too; from the 1952 806 right up to the “is that a clock on your wrist?” 48mm GMT Navitimer 01.

Yours for anywhere between £600 (quartz) and £1,800 (mech) to £40,000

Omega Speedmaster

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Omega Speedmaster 175.0032, 1990.

 

If the Navi kept aircraft up there, the Speedmaster kept Apollo 11 on track and helped get Apollo 13 back down again.  That’s reason enough to own one.  But add in the range of variations from model to model and there’s enough interest to keep you engaged for years.  And the Speedie is another reliable, robust, no-babying sort of watch that you can happily put on your wrist every day.

Yours for anywhere between £1,200 and £60,000 (limited editions)

IWC Mk XII

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IWC MkXII. Year unknown.

 

Another aviation watch, the Mk XII holds one of the most beautifully made movements in a watch you don’t need to sell your soul for.  It’s IWC’s reworked Jaeger LeCoultre 889/2.  And that horological gem alone is worth putting your hand in your pocket for.  XII’s are far from common, so if you want to own almost the opposite of the Sub, this one’s for you.  A wonderful, classic piece of watchmaking.

Yours for anywhere between £1,800 (stainless steel) to £5,000 (gold)

Grand Seiko

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Grand Seiko SBGX083.

 

OK. Calm down.  GS are about as far removed from the £40 Seikos you see in H Samuel as a Mitsuoka Viewt is from a MkII Jag.  GS are, in fact, the watch world’s inside secret.  The quality of Grand Seiko makes a lot of other far, far more expensive makers look a little red and shuffly as they stare at the floor.  Take a proper look at a GS and you’ll wonder how some other makers charge so much for poorer quality.  And, at the risk of kicking off a controversy match, a GS will have a proper authentic in-house movement.

Yours for anywhere between £700 (eye-wateringly accurate quartz) to £22,000 (platinum)

The main thing with watches is ‘buy what you like and what interests you’. I have a thing for functional things, don’t like bling and don’t buy new (so the prices above are all for secondhand kit).  Someone who’s into bling will steer you towards makers like Hublot and some of the more, er, ornamented Breitlings.

Someone with rather deeper pockets will head towards the rarified horological wonders of Patek Philippe. Someone with bottomless ones will snare Richard Mille‘s creations or Roger Smith‘s works of genius.  Someone with shallower ones will look at vintage Longines or perhaps some Heuers.  But even trawling the charity shops and Fleabay for £5 tickers will turn up something interesting.

The only problem is stopping once you’ve started.

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Watches

Well, it’s certainly an Apple, but is it a watch?

The world’s gearheads were gathered around their laptops this evening as Apple unveiled their new Apple Watch. It’s a remarkable piece of kit. It’ll tell you if your heart’s beating (handy) and how fast. It’ll tell you where you are, how quickly you’re running and even the reason – an incoming email from your boss telling you to get her coffee.

It’s a pretty neat technological innovation. But it has a completely different function from the watches I write about here. OK, that’s not true – it actually has about fifty different functions. And that’s the point.

 

The face of the new Apple Watch

The new Apple Watch

Screen shot 2014-09-09 at 9.34.56 PM

 

The Apple Watch is wearable communication and monitoring technology that happens to tell the time, apparently accurate to within a few milliseconds. The sort of watches I’m concerned with just tell the time. That’s it. And that’s why I like them so much.

Paradoxically, it’s not the time they tell, it’s the way they do it. That very visible complexity of gears and springs, of hands and wheels. It’s the accessible face of engineering. You can understand it – at least, to a point. You can see, hear and sometimes even feel the movement – think Valjoux 7750. It’s a tiny engine that’s attractive because it’s simultaneously very clever indeed yet still accessible.

And accessibility is just what the Apple Watch doesn’t have. It’s about as accessible as the reactor on a nuclear submarine. You can’t see what makes it tick. It just works and does things that reach into almost every area of your life. That means it’s splendidly functional – just like a fridge. But have you ever met a fridge collector? Quite.

Finally, proper watches are self contained. They’re little universes of cogs and levers entirely unto themselves. The Apple Watch is their antithesis. It’s networked, connected, live, always on. It needs data to make it go and it’s a constant reminder that our time is not our own. All our watches need is us to shake a wrist or twist a crown. And they’ll never nag you to go for a run or get coffee.

Clever? Hell, yes. Something that will change the way we use technology? Quite probably. But a watch – in the sense of a self-contained machine with which we interact? No. Not at all.

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Watches

The one watch I’ll never sell.

Gun to your head… which watch would you never sell?

Unless you have Harrison’s H5 marine chronometer or George Daniels’ Space Traveller stashed in your watchbox (and if you do, an invitation to tea would be splendid), every watch you own is utterly replaceable.  And if they’re all replaceable, it doesn’t actually matter a damn which one you keep.

That means the choice has to be a very personal one. The watch you choose needs to carry as many irreplaceable memories as minutes.  That’s a problem though.  Which one do I choose?  Most of my watches have memories ticking around the dial.  My first Rolex, an ‘89 GMTII, bought as a graduation present to myself 20-odd years after I’d picked up my degree.  My Breitling Aerospace has seen travel adventures and thousands of motorcycle miles.  My El Primero; that realised an ambition I’d had to own one since 1978, when I first cut out its picture from the Zenith catalogue and stuck it to my wrist.   Nearly every watch I own has a story and memories of some sort.

The watch I'll never sell.

The watch I’ll never sell.

But I’m being disingenuous.  I have a clear choice.  And, on the surface,  it’s about as horologically interesting as a Swatch.  It’s a very simple Seiko SNA141P1.

Dark green dial, three sub-dials, cal. 7T62 alarm/chrono movement.  The case is scratched from wear and hawking about inside old car and motorcycle engines. The strap is old, bashed about and well-worn cordovan leather, the original green NATO long gone.  The crystal has a selection of scars across it, some deep enough to feel with your fingernail.  This is not a prepossessing watch.  If you saw it in a watch dealer’s window you’d wonder if someone had left it there by mistake.

But it’s the only watch I’d never, ever sell and the only one I could never replace.

It was December 2002, and my (now) partner, Pip and I had been together just a matter of a few months.  My birthday was imminent and she asked me what I’d like.  I knew exactly what I wanted – a Seiko 7a28-7120 military spec.

I described it to Pip and left it there.  I didn’t realise that, as a junior BBC radio presenter, there were church mice with fatter payslips.  And she’d never even worn a watch, so a slightly wafty brief to find an obscure military, issued-only Seiko was like asking Mother Teresa to track down a Ferrari 250GTO and raid Sunday morning’s collection to pay for it.

What I didn’t bet on was Pip’s sheer damn determination to find me my watch.  I only learned later that she’d trekked round pretty much every jeweller in Oxfordshire to hunt it down.  She’d asked and hunted and asked.  Of course, the 7a28-7120 was a watch that had never even reached a high street window.  It was an impossible task – there was no way she could do it.

But, on my birthday, I unwraped a square, watchbox-shaped parcel and found my SNA141P1 inside.  It wasn’t a military-issue 7a28.  It was something far more precious.  It was my first birthday present from Pip. Twelve years later, it’s still on my wrist as I type this.  It’s my favourite watch and the only one I can never replace.  Memories beat money.  Every time.

The real irony? Despite all my faffing about with Rolex and Zenith and JLC, very quietly, the little Seiko Pip bought me has quietly become a bit of a classic.

 

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Watches

Episode 4 – and so it ends

So, my month of self-imposed watch austerity is up.  I’ve done it.  No watch but the F has passed my wrist in the last 31 days.  What have I achieved?  Well, clearly absolutely nothing.  This is first-world stuff.  Wearing a £7 Casio is not deprivation in even the remotest sense.  However, a glass of decent malt is clearly called for in celebration.  Don’t mind if I do.

In the real world I may have achieved nowt, but I’ve learned a few things…

There’s an F-91 near you

First, these things are everywhere.  I’d wager that, as you read this, you’re no more than 3 metres away from an F-91.  Casio weren’t able to tell me how many they’ve precision-glued together since 1991, but it’s got to be a few million.  They’re abandoned in office drawers, forgotten in bags, Blu-tacked to the dashboards of cars, on wrists and even (I saw it) on a string around someone’s neck.

f-91W plus 1

Sitting in a local coffee shop, looking idly out of the window, I saw ten Fs in as many minutes.  Is there a more ubiquitous watch?  I doubt it.  They’re just there, quietly getting on with the job with only an hourly ‘beep’ to remind you of their presence.  And the fact you can’t work out how to turn it off.

The classless watch?

Sitting in a meeting last week with some of the board of a UK utility company, I spotted one under the cuff of one of the directors.  He knew how to turn off the beep.  On the same day, I picked up a parcel (yes, another watch) from the local Post Office. The postie behind the counter was wearing – you guessed it – an F-91 – on a battered and faded NATO.  On that coffee shop visit I saw them on the wrists of super-trendy hipster types, the guy who emptied the street bins and the barista. It really is Everywatch.

They don’t give in – or give up

They’re near-as-dammit indestructible too.  Who needs a G-Shock?  I’ve worn mine on the Real Tennis court and it’s been belted with a heavy wooden racquet.  It’s fine.  It got dropped on the stone tile floor in the office.  Not a mark.  It’s survived the teeth-loosening, pneumatic-drill vibration of the flat-twin engine on my Ural 650 combo.  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.

P1000872

Am I about to give up my collection, ditch the vintage and declare unending loyalty to my F?  Well, no.  But there is a rather freeing simplicity to an F-91.  It does the job of telling the time, waking me up, timing my run all without fuss, bother or drama.  In fact, it does it so simply and effectively that I’m going to open the wormcan and say it’s firmly A Classic.

The ultimate cheap classic?

I’ll stick my neck out here. In my view, it does the whole ‘form and function’ thing just as well as any other classic watch. It’s the best kind of classic too – 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.

F91 and collection

And, if it gets trashed in the process of everyday life (unlikely as that is), you can just shrug and buy another with the change in your car’s ashtray.  You can’t say that about a Nomos a Breitling or a Rolex.

So what started out as a bit of a joke has been great fun.  It’s started conversations with new watchie friends, made me think and reminded me that a watch doesn’t have to cost the GDP of a small central European country to be engaging.  But it certainly does say something for my affection for the F that it’s on my wrist as I write this.  And it’ll be there, every so often, for a long time to come.  I’ve come not just to admire, but like, the F-91 hugely.  Beep.

By the way, in that parcel was a cal.1620 Omega LCD Speedmaster from 1977.  Yup, they made digital Speedies.  But that’s a whole other story…

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Watches

Episode 3 – The Devil’s Watch?

A little over a week ago, I decided to lock my watchbox and forsake my usual vintage mechanical, and high-end quartz serious tickers for just one watch.  And not any old watch at that – I chose, from Amazon, a £7, resin-cased Casio F-91W, the cheapest of the cheap.  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.  The plan?  To wear this single watch for a month.  No changes, no backsliding into Breitlingdom or Rolex City, not even for an evening.

It’s been fascinating watching watchie people’s reactions to my ‘one watch for a month’ experiment.  It’s been almost as fascinating watching the complete non-reaction of normal (i.e. non watchie) people.

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Watchland reaction has ranged from the horrified to the puzzled.  You see, to most watchies, quartz is what powers Satan’s nastiest wristwatch.  But even he wouldn’t allow a digital quartz into the seventh circle.  Digitals are no watchie’s friend.  Apart from a very select few of us who either obstinately believe function matters as much as form or are just plain contrarian.

Normal people simply don’t care.  Let’s face it, apart from muggers, no-one is really fussed what you’re wearing on your wrist.  Unless, perhaps, it’s so truly hideous that people can’t help spot it.  Or it’s a Rolex day-date or Sub.  If you wear one of the more obvious Rolexes (Rolexi?), you will spend some time answering the “is it real?” question from observers, never very satisfactorily and always with a slight blush of embarrassment.

No, the F-91W is a stealth watch.  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.

But, as utility-based as it is, I think I chose the wrong watch for my (admittedly lighthearted) experiment.

I’ve discovered, the F-91W, despite its unashamed utility background (or maybe because of it), achieves rather more than just timekeeping status.  It seems to have that indefinable thing that marks a watch out as remarkable.  It may even be (pace fellow watchnerds) a bit of a classic.

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I’d wanted a sort of antiwatch.  A watch that ticked all the opposite boxes from the usual contents of my watchbox.  But the Casio isn’t it.  An antiwatch, under my definition, would have been a watch that pretended to be something it isn’t. A plastic gold Armani thing would have been a better trial.  Or maybe even a fake.  But the Casio makes just as much of a statement as an IWC Ingenieur.  It is what it is.  Plain, no messing, no pretence.  It’s not – as I suggested – a sort of horological Toyota Pious.  No, the Pious is a car for people who have principles, but not enough of them to get a bicycle instead.  The F-91 is a watch for people who want something that tells the time as simply, cheaply and clearly as possible.  It makes a statement by completely not giving a tuppeny toss about making a statement.

Given all that, I shouldn’t really have been surprised by people’s affection for the watch.  I’ve had a few emails from 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.

It’s currently doing something rather more domestic – timing one of Pip’s world-class culinary creations in the oven.  And I shall be sad when my month with the F is up. It’s not only earned a place in the watchbox, but my affections too.  I’ve actually grown fond of the damn thing’s sheer unassailable, unbustable, unapologetic functionality.  It’s the watch equivalent of a mongrel terrier.  It ain’t pretty, but by God it makes you smile and just plain works.

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Watches

Episode 2 – The Arrival

One thing is guaranteed to brighten up a standard, nose-to-desk sort of day.  The arrival of a new watch.  Our postman (for we still have such things in Burford as ‘our’ postie) handed over a package this morning, with his usual grin.

“Another five mill thinner and it’d have gone through the letterbox,” he said.  “Shame you’re in today.  I usually stamp on ‘em to make ‘em fit otherwise.”

Fortunately, I suspect my new arrival would have survived perfectly well.  I’d have been a little less relaxed had a vintage Reverso been in the box.  See, there are already advantages to F-91 ownership.

So, my first watch – ever – to arrive in an Amazon box.  Downloadable wristwear.  Whatever next?

Time to unwrap, clearly.

A new watch is always an exciting thing.  I was interested to see if the usual frisson was there with my the F-91 Antiwatch.  And it was.  OK, so it’s not the sort of thrill that comes from a unpacking a vintage Explorer or an IWC MkXII, but it’s a thrill all the same.  A sort of middle-of-the-road Muscat in comparison with Sauternes, maybe cheaper and less refined, but definitely worth a swig.

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And I have to say, in spite of my usual watch snobbery that would make Margo Leadbetter (google it if you’re too young) start thinking fondly of low slung jeans and baseball caps, I’m impressed.

I like lots of things to read with my watches.  I want instructions, guarantees, history, information, service bits and bobs.  I like bumf.  And the F-91 didn’t let me down.

The instruction leaflet was clearly designed by a particularly devious, wizened and ancient origami master at the very top of his game.  Although it was tiny, it unfolded to the size of an OS map of Europe. Chaps, 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.

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There’s another leaflet – presumably also in Catalan – catchily entitled “Disposal of Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment of Products for Household use (applicable in the European Union only)”  Not quite sure I understand what that means, but I can see it catching on as bedtime reading at Mrs Flangespindler’s Home for the Criminally Insomniac.  I couldn’t manage to read any more than the title though.

This too is printed on a piece of paper that makes a postage stamp look dangerously large, then folded by Origami San – clearly on a day where he really fancied a challenge.

The warranty card was probably in Linear B, but my electron microscope was out of battery by now.  The lovely people at Casio clearly don’t believe in stinting watchbuyers who like a bit of bumf.  And 3pt Sanskrit type too.  Bit of history of Casio watches would have been good though.

But what about the watch?  Well, it’s the Toyota Pious of the watchworld; a watch for people who don’t like watches but still need to tell the time.  And it does it all beautifully simply.  I had it set in under a minute and on my wrist.  Once there, you might as well have strapped on a gnat – there’s no weight to its resin case at all.  It makes my Timefactors Speedbird III feel like an Olympic discus.

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There’s something rather pleasing about the digits.  Clear, simple and, just like the watch, absolutely economical.  In fact, the whole concept of something this cheap that’s this effective and well-designed is really rather attractive.  I think we may get on…

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