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…

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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

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.

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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.

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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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Musings, Watches

Episode 1 – Living on the plastic – for a month.

Episode 1 – July 9, 2013

And so it begins…

As a self-confessed watch addict, I know I spend too much time, money and effort pursuing the latest Ideal Watch.  I spend hours talking with watchie friends, comparing ideas and thoughts on new and vintage watches. I even spend too much time in the morning deciding which one to wear.  It’s not unknown for me to take a spare along in the briefcase just in case I fancy a change half way through the morning.

This is an addiction. Clearly.

So I have a plan.  An experiment, if you like.

I’m going to see what happens when I lock the watchbox (toybox?) and put my metaphorical chequebook away.

I’m going to be a one-watch chap for the next month.

But not just any watch.  Oh no.  That would be no good at all.  It needs to be the antithesis of everything that’s currently in the collection.

My thing is for classical, clean-lined and vintage.  So a Reverso sits alongside a 1964 gilt-dial 1016, an early GMT II, an Exp I, an HEQ Grand Seiko and a hunting pair of Nomoses (Nomoi?) along with a few others.

The ideal foil?  A Casio, clearly.  And not just any Casio either.  It must be cheap, resin and digital.  The complete opposite of the current mob.

So it’s going to be a Casio F-91W.

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And it’s not in the spirit of the the thing to buy my new, plastic Casio from a proper shop either.  Again, this needs to be the opposite of my usual watch transactions.  These are usually either over a glass of wine with a fellow watchnerd in a country pub, a London hotel or in a smart, vintage watch dealer.

So, with barely two clicks of a mouse, I’ve ordered a brand-new Casio F-91 from Amazon.  It arrives, courtesy of Royal Mail any day now.  And I’ll be turning the key in the watchbox, giving it to Pip for safekeeping, and strapping on, er, a plastic Casio F-91W-1YER. Snappy.  And I’ll be wearing it – no matter what the occasion – for a month.

Fellow watchies will understand the magnitude of the task.  Non-watchies will simply have confirmed their views on my sanity.

I’ll keep you posted.

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Musings, Watches

Old watches, old bikes and a bit of soul

It had been quite a day. We’d only ridden just over 160 miles, but through winding, high-banked lanes, over moors and finally down a flaky, clacky shale track that would have given a mountain goat vertigo. And now we’d made it. Tintagel. I climbed off the bike, helped Pip out of the sidecar and leaned back to drink in the view from the clifftop over the Atlantic. The bike ticked and pinged as it cooled in the breeze off the sea.

As I usually do on a trip like this, riding done, I unrolled the Ural’s toolkit on the ground beside the bike, opened a beer and started checking the machine over, part by part. This is therapy and my favourite part of the day. Miles covered, supper and another beer earned and in view and a chance to tinker with the bike as the sun goes down over the sea.

Continue reading

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