Friday, August 19, 2011

Five Benjamins

The question: "How much do you have to spend before an affordable [watch] is comparable to a more expensive watch?" This was posed by mrsamsa on a watch forum this week. To rephrase, at what price point does the quality curve really start to flatten out? Beyond what price do you increasingly pay for style and branding rather than higher quality? A rough majority would say, about $500. Quoth midshipman01:
    A $500 watch running an ETA 2824 is going to be, for all practical purpose, as good at being a watch as one costing 10x's as much. It'll probably be made of the same materials, the movements will be well-established and high quality, and quality control at least has a chance of being somewhat comparable from the end-user's perspective. . . . But, as we say here time and again, watches (especially mechanical and high end types) aren't really about tangible qualities. People pay Rolex prices to get piece of the Rolex pedigree. They don't want a watch, they want a Rolex. They find some sense of satisfaction in it that's worth a cost far beyond what functionality or even "craftmanship" is actually offered.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Movie Night: How a Watch Works

I love this old movie, produced in 1949 by the Hamilton Watch Co. It explains perfectly the basic operation of mechanical watch movements. I put it up on YouTube, but better quality versions are available on the Internet Archive.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Loafing at the Mall

I took my daughter and her friend school shopping this week and, at loose ends for a couple of hours, browsed watches at the mall. I never do this; I'm just not a mall shopper. But it was, well, not entirely uninteresting.

Except for one jewelry store that carried TAG Heuer, and another with Movado (blech), there were mostly just consumer and entry level affordable watches on offer. The brands were the usual suspects: Citizen, Seiko, Pulsar, Invicta, Skagen, Armitron, Bulova, Kenneth Cole, Fossil, etc. Turns our that JCPenney also carries Elgin, behind glass, which places my new Chinese watch somewhere on the cheap American jewelry scale. I guess that's something. Maybe.

It's interesting to see fashion brands (Fossil, Kenneth Cole) next to jewelery brands (Bulova, Movado) next to full-blooded watch brands (Citizen, Seiko). I'm a little surprised to say that, dollar for dollar, I don't think there is a lot of difference in quality between them all. Ignoring consumer-grade watches, most were otherwise equally well-made, all-stainless watches with Japanese quartz movements. Most are OEMed from the same factories in Singapore, Hong Kong, and China. I tried on a $50 Fossil, and the quality was honestly great. It's principally their superior aesthetics and design that makes some Citizens and Seikos stand out so strongly against their competitors.

But only some. I'm disappointed to say that Citizen and Seiko apparently have special branches dedicated to designing ugly watches for tasteless Americans. On the low end, many of their best watches are only offered in foreign markets. And on their high end, I think Citizen beats Seiko handily with their stateside offerings. (This a not the case in Europe and Asia.) The only surprise was to see a number of (regrettably, ugly) Seiko solar-powered watches. Seiko has traditionally ignored solar, which Citizen has embraced and dominated with their extensive Ecotech offerings. Not sure what to make of this.

Other trends? Watches continue to get bigger, especially in the fashion brands. I saw many 50mm and larger watches. A lot of watches still look very blingy, though there seemed to be fewer saucer-sized, "diamond" encrusted hip-hop models. Still, the number of watches sporting fake diamonds were legion. Ugly and baffling. Who wears such things?

I was very pleased to see many mechanical watches, mainly in the fashion segment. Most all were using Chinese movements (some Invictas used Miyota/Citizen movements), and most were of skeleton or open heart design. You pay a premium for them, but at least everyone can see you're wearing mechanical. In this sense, these mechanical movements are being employed for aesthetics as well as exclusivity, which is a new trend in itself. I hope their popularity continues to rise, not only because I love mechanicals, but also so that Seiko and Citizen may be incentivized to expand their mechanical offerings. Both make very high quality movements, but they are plain and dull and, at least in American models, used very rarely.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Chinese Skeleton #3

I just received my third Chinese skeleton watch, this time from DealExtreme, a Wilon model 968-1. It's a fairly large watch (42mm) on a light-weight folded link bracelet, but it still balances well on the wrist. Really, it's very comfortable. The display case back and probably the bracelet, too, are stainless, though the case is plated base metal. The hands are thick and lumed, which makes it very readable. Many skeleton watches, like my Elgin, are not; the hands get lost against the busyness of the movement. And it seems to keep decent time.

But the watch did not come with the engraved movement that the listing pictured. That was one of the main reasons I ordered it. Instead it has a very plain skeletonized Chinese standard movement. Also, the bracelet has rough sides and the sizing pins are so loose you can push them out with your fingers; the dial is misaligned, rotated slightly clockwise; the winding stem is a bit stiff; and I'm not sure it really autowinds. With most of these cheap Chinese autos, the rotors just do not turn like they should (too light).

I'm very disappointed that it came without the engraved movement. But it has a catchy Breitling Navitimer style, and is very light and comfortable. I like it enough, in fact, that may it may just get a turn as my new favorite beater.

Monday, August 8, 2011


Wearing a watch with a long-sleeved shirt is problematic for me, and I wear long-sleeved shirts most of the time. I have 8.5 inch wrists, quite large, and I like my watches sized loose. Consequently, most of my watches won't fit comfortably, or won't fit at all, under most of my cuffs. Many other men must have this same problem. What to do?

Style guru Alan Flusser maintains that only thin and inconspicuous watches should be worn with formal dress. A bulky sports watch worn with a dress shirt, he says, is a gaff. Well into the 90s, most men wore very small and thin watches, compared to those of today. They fit under cuffs just fine. But that looks stylistically to a past era.

Big sports watches are the predominant style now, even with dress
shirts. It takes confidence today for a thick-wristed man to wear a vintage 32mm watch. Many of my vintage watches look girly compared to my new ones, even though I don't really have or like overly big watches (say, over 42mm).

In the high-style era of the 30s through 60s, as men transitioned from pocket to wrist watches, watchmakers competed to see who could make the thinnest watch. At the same time, men often wore generous French cuffs and had shirts tailored to fit, including bespoke cuff sizing. Fitting a watch under you cuff was not at all an issue. The Italians introduced tight-fitting cannon cuffs, but style mavens like Gianni Agnelli just took to wearing their watches over them. You still see this occasionally, but it's hardly conventional. GQ says that the "only cuff [a watch] should be worn over is that of a wet suit."

The clothier Luciano Barbera, with watch worn over shirt cuff.

Most men, it seems, just bunch their sleeve up above their watch. I can't stand this myself. I either roll up my sleeves or leave my left cuff unbuttoned. But these are workarounds, not solutions. The real solution is of course to have your cuffs tailored to size. If that's not in your budget (it's not in mine), some men just relocate the left sleeve button out further toward the cuff edge, and may also have it shanked (hung from a longer, knotted thread). This can give you an extra half inch or more.

But frankly, as an ideal, Flusser certainly has it right. If you're dressing up, just go thin.

Addendum:  The photo above is many years old, but I just came across a recent one that shows Luciano still wearing his watch over the cuff.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Took Lemonhead for a Walk Tonight

My most expensive watches I rarely wear, and therefore my Seiko Kinetic 200m diver (SKA367P1) almost never leaves my watch drawer. But I decided it needed some exercise, so I took it along on my evening constitutional tonight. Seiko's kinetic movements are quartz, but derive their power from a mechanical autowinder, so it needed a good walk just to get its heart beating. It's a big chunk 'o steel (216g), and just lugging it around is mild exercise in itself. But it's not too nice to wear, even just exercising, I've decided. Rather it's too nice not to wear.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Elgin Skeleton Watch: Round Two

I sent back the DOA Elgin watch I received about two weeks ago, and the seller refunded my money. But he also sent me a replacement. I ate almost $10 in shipping on the return, plus the time and grief, but this was more than fair. So, round two (with prettier pictures).

This unit works perfectly. I've described it before, but to expand a bit: the watch is heavy. More than 50g (=ca. 40%) heavier than my Seiko 6309-7290. Fortunately it balances well on its solid bracelet. Still, I wish it were a bit lighter. My second gripe is that it honestly looks about as cheap as it is. A bit blingy, a bit overdesigned, a bit Wal-mart. My third gripe is that the silver hands get lost against the busy silver skeleton movement. This a common problem with skeleton watches.

But I'm still glad this watch came back. I bought it for its skeletonized Sea-gull ST-16 movement, and it is indeed a beautiful movement, beautifully displayed. Many mechanical watches have display backs but few merit them. This one most certainly does.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Hai Fuyate!

Yes, a third Fuyate has landed. These Fuyate watches may be churned out of the same junk watch factories as all the other bottom-feeding Chinese brands, but they tend to be somewhat smarter looking. I purchased this one on the whimsiest of whims, because it was the least ugly open heart design I've come across lately. Perhaps not a great commendation, but there you have it.

Yes, I finally broke out my DSLR and light tent.

An open heart watch is one with the balance wheel exposed to view through the front of the dial. It's great fun to watch it beating away, just as with a skeleton watch, but because they are otherwise normally dialed, open heart watches are easier to read and a bit less blingy. But I find most fairly unappealing. The open heart is often called a tourbillon in listings (including the one for this watch), but that is incorrect. Even cheap Chinese versions of real tourbillon watches usually start about $1000. This watch was $21 shipped.

It measures about 44mm across and is perhaps 18mm in thickness. Quite chunky. The hands and indices are blued, which looks nice against the white dial, and all the hands are (weakly) lumed. It has three sub-dials. At 3:00 is a 24hr sub, at 6:00 a day-night indicator, and at 9:00 the open heart. It has a solid stainless back (no gasket), which is fine, since the unbranded movement is nothing to look at. But here it is anyway:

The movement seems to run well, but the quality otherwise is not great. The plating of the mystery metal case is poor and pitted, the case back very thin, and dial and surround look cheap. The hands are less bad, and it all looks fine if you do not scrutinize. The only glaring oddity is that a very large opening has been machined into the 9:00 side of the case, and then filled with black epoxy. Perhaps it's a misguided attempt at decoration. More likely is that this same case is used for other models where it serves a function, but here is just filled in. Not sure, but it still looks fine at a distance, especially with the strap I'm using.

The watch came on the usual PU leather croco-grain strap, but I purchased a cheap rubber strap separately to replace it. It's great and suits the watch, which is very comfortable on it. The watch I like, but this strap I love.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Fuyate #2

I received another direct-from-China watch, once again branded Fuyate. I've found several Fuyate-branded watches on eBay that are more stylish (or at least, less ugly) than most of their kin, and they're very inexpensive. This one was $12.50 shipped.

Seller pic.

It is flieger-styled, with a fluted coin-edge bezel, black dial, medium-large numerals, and upright triangle index at 12:00. It's just 40mm across but feels a bit larger, probably because the bezel is thin and the dial large. An unadorned automatic Chinese standard movement may be seen through the display back. The timekeeping is decent. It winds perfectly and the date quick-set works, though the autowinder is dodgy. I actually like that the rotor is marked with a small Chinese communist star, which others have found as well in watches from this brand.

It looks good from a distance, but is a very cheap watch. The crystal and case back window are both plastic, and the base-metal case is not well finished. The dial looks cheap. The indices have some spots and marks, and the triangle at 12:00 has a slightly bent corner, though the hands are decent and even lumed. It came on the standard Chinese croco-grain PU leather strap, which I replaced with a Bond NATO from my parts box. It's a fetching combo, really, and makes for a fine-looking beater. It's not perfect, but it's really not bad. Not bad at all.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011


I made mention the other week of WW2-era aviator watches, the most classical and pure examples being those used by the Germans and called Beobachtungsurhen. I linked out before to one short description, but here is a fuller overview from an old watch review on Equation of Time by Mort Schwartz (now archived on PMWF):
    The Beogachtungsuhr model, often referred to as the “B-Uhr,” used a design specified for the German Luftwaffe and was produced by IWC, Lacher & Co. (Laco), Stowa, A. Lange, and Gerhard Wempe. A standard common movement was not used by the contractors. Stowa, for example, utilized a movement based on Unitas that included a swan neck regulator. Lacher used a Durowe cal. D5 movement, while Lange used its own cal. 48/1 movement and Wempe used a Thommen (Waldenburg) cal. 31 movement. And all of these watches were manual wind.

    The translation of the term, Beogachtungsuhr, strictly, is “Observer’s” or “Observation Watch,” but many collectors agree that a more descriptive label is “Navigator’s Watch,” and I have seen some mention of it as a bombardier’s watch. Interestingly, the watch was not issued to navigators and possibly to other members of the air crew, as part of their regular uniforms and equipment allotment, but, instead, “loaned” to them just before they went out on a mission. The watch then had to be returned if they returned. One can wonder how the watches faired in plane crashes. The watches were fitted with extra long leather straps because they were often strapped over the sleeves of leather jackets just as has been done more recently for the same kind of reason with some of the watches provided to astronauts. They, of course, would strap their watches over the bulky sleeve of a space suit.

    The model most commonly referred to in my research is the mammoth IWC “Large 52 S.C. Calibre Pilot’s Watch.” S.C. is the abbreviation for “second au centre,” central seconds hand, or what we usually term a sweep seconds hand. I have never seen the actual model, but the literature indicates that the size of this watch was about 55mm, which is the same size as the watches produced by the other four suppliers. IWC took its manual wind Cal. 52 pocket watch movement, with 16 jewels and 18,000 beats per hour, and a swan neck regulator, to produce this wristwatch. As just indicated, the conversion also included adding a center sweep seconds hand.

    Other features, as with the ones produced by the other four suppliers, included an extra large crown to facilitate setting time and winding and hacking. IWC added an inner plate to shield the movement against magnetic fields. The history of this model does not end here. This same movement was used in wrist watches made for the British forces, and I have read that they were used by the British navy as a deck watch. The models made for British use were designated with “Mark”, and we see that same label used in early and current production runs of IWC, such as the Mark X and XV. Jaeger-LeCoultre also produced these or similar watches for the British armed forces.