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 – 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 it 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

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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