Sunday, November 30, 2008

Seiko Reviews I: Diving Watches

The best values in watches today are produced by Japan's Big Three: Casio, Citizen and Seiko. Casio never strays far from its special niche, digital watches, and stays in the bottom end of the consumer market. Citizen and Seiko produce far more diverse product ranges, in terms both of style and price. I pay a lot of attention to these two companies, as do all affordable watch enthusiasts. They produce a lot of interesting watches at great prices.

I would introduce you here to six Seiko diving watches (divers). All are currently in production and are among the more popular entry to upper-mid level models. Note that the Seiko SKX031 is not an ISO-rated dive watch. Many would consider it, strictly speaking, a sports watch with diver styling. But this is not of practical importance to most owners, who will use them only for "desk diving." Most divers prefer dive computers over simple diving watches.

Seiko SKX007 200m Professional Diver

Seiko SKX031 “Submariner”

Seiko SKX779/781 "Black/Orange Monster"

Seiko SBDA001/SNM011 "Samurai"

Seiko SBDC001 "Sumo"
Bonus: See now the review by Quartzimodo of the new sports versions of the Black/Orange Monster, which offer several variations of the Monster in a 100m sports watch.

Addendum [12/01/2010]: The Seiko SKX031 has apparently gone out of production. There are still some remaining in stock at a number of vendors, but prices have gone up. For smaller Seiko divers, there remains the SKX013, a 38mm version of the SKX007, and the SKX023, which is identical to SKX031 but 2mm smaller in diameter (38mm).

Thursday, November 27, 2008

The Watches of James Bond

No single movie movie character has shaped taste in men's watches more than James Bond. Now, to be sure, in the movies Bond has worn some wristkitsch from time to time. The Hamilton Pulsar P2 2900 LED watch in "Live and Let Die" (1973) was an understandable expression of high-tech enthusiasm, but all the Seikos of the 70s and 80s were just lucrative product placements. And all of the gadget watches, and Bond's spy gadgets generally, have been very appropriately satirized. Admit it—both the movies and the gadgets could get really silly. (Statement of disclosure: This Bond fan refuses to recognize any Bond movies not starring Connery or Craig. Well, there may be a couple of exceptions.)

But the primeval and archetypal Bond watch was merely a functional timekeeper. It is described specifically in Ian Fleming's books as a “Rolex Oyster Perpetual Chronometer on an expanding metal bracelet.” So it was a Rolex. But the rest of that description does not pin down a precise model. One watch enthusiast has recently done some serious sleuthing and arrived at the likely answer: a Rolex 6350 (Dress) (Proto) Explorer I. Or at least, this is most likely the watch Fleming was wearing while writing his first Bond novel, and we know Fleming closely modeled Bond on himself and other Naval Intelligence operatives he knew.

But this is not the Bond Rolex as everyone knows it. From the very first movie ("Dr. No" [1962]) Bond wears a Rolex Ref. 6538 or 5508, commonly called the Rolex Submariner. It is a professional diver's watch, really the first, depth rated for 200m. It came on a stainless steel bracelet, like most Rolexes, but in the first two Bond movies Connery wore it on a leather strap. That watch was actually the personal Rolex of director Terence Young. Upon arriving in Jamaica, it was discovered that Connery was wearing a white-faced dress watch, and no Rolex had been sourced by wardrobe. Bond had to wear a Rolex, so Young handed over his own watch. That simple response to exigency made his watch one of the most famous in the world of horology.

By the third movie, "Goldfinger" (1964), the Bond Rolex appears in its first close-up, sporting a new band, a gray and black NATO-style wraparound strap that is still today called a "Bond strap." These straps were commonly used in the early 60s and apparently Connery himself was still wearing his watch on a similar one in the 80s.

Seiko SKX009 Bond 1
NATO "Bond" strap on Seiko SKX009

The original Bond Rolex was not a product placement, but rather a detail carried over from the books. From the 70s until today the watches appearing on Bond's wrist have been placed there at great expense to their manufacturers. The 70s Seiko digitals are of no interest to lovers of fine watches. But after a brief reappearance from Rolex, the latest Bond watches have been Omegas, either a Seamaster Professional or a Planet Ocean. While the Seamaster Pro is similar to the Rolex Submariner, the Planet Ocean in somewhat more distinctive, especially the usual orange-bezeled models. I think these are great Bond watches, and for Omega, this has been money well spent. There is no question that the iconic popularity of the Rolex Submariner has been driven enormously by its association with the world's greatest spy. I think Omega has now captured for itself a little of that magic.

Omega Seamaster ProfessionalOmega Seamaster Professional

Omega Planet OceanOmega Planet Ocean

Omega 007

More on the Bond watches:

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Horological Topography I: The Price Ladder

It is difficult to talk about "fine" or "quality" watches in general, since the meaning of such descriptive terms is very relative. So to make this all a bit more specific, I'm going to start by breaking down watches into three major categories, by price, with some additional subcategories. This is fairly arbitrary, I admit, but it will provide one clear reference point when discussing the many variables of watch quality. Prices are street.
    Consumer Watches ($50 or less)
    Affordable Watches
    • Entry level ($50-$300)
    • Mid-range ($300-$800)
    • High end ($800-$2000)
    Luxury Watches
    • Entry level ($2000-$6000)
    • Mid-range ($6000-$20,000)
    • High end ($20,000 and up)
Consumer Watches: These are your basic Wal-Mart watches, brands like Timex, Casio and Armitron, and all those countless fashion watch brands that do not actually make watches themselves, but know people with factories in China that do. If your only interest is keeping time, they are by far the best value. They are also the only watches that the vast majority of people will ever wear. But they are cheaply made and do not much interest us here.

Affordable Watches: These are the watches that interest here, because they are generally fine, quality watches. And among quality watches, they offer the best value for price. They are constructed from high-grade materials, with smart designs (many of them, anyway), and built by very capable robots. Actually, most will receive some personal attention from human watchmakers as well, and overall quality is high. This segment is dominated by the Japanese giants Citizen and Seiko, though both also have some entry level luxury lines as well. They are your typical jewelry store watch. There are also a few Swiss brands in the low end, like Swatch and the various Swiss army brands, but especially in the mid-range and high end one also finds Swiss makers like Ball, Hamilton, Fortis, Glycine, Oris, Tissot and numerous smaller concerns. These are all good brands.

There are also a number of upscale fashion brands in the low end of this category, many owned by Fossil, Movado, and other fashion conglomerates, or OEMd by Timex, or made by contract in unguessable Chinese factories. These are less interesting. There is also the very popular Invicta brand, a Florida company that manufactures in Asia. There is much debate about Invicta, in part because their quality and service is uneven, but the brand has its fans. Finally, Russia has a rich tradition of watchmaking and has recently started marketing its better products to the West, especially under the Vostok Europe brand. Even more interesting are the high-end Russia-only brand watches, made by companies like Buran and Poljot, with mechanical chronograph movements of Swiss design made on Swiss machinery. All of these fall comfortably into affordable watch territory.

Luxury Watches: These watches are very interesting, but not to me, since I will never own one. This is the domain of the manufactures of the Swiss canton of Jura and the German craftsmen of Glasshütte. In the low end one starts to find the familiar Swiss brands of Omega, Rolex and TAG Heuer. Then in the mid-range and high end are found the handcrafted, micro-mechanical wonders of world-famous manufactures like Patek Philippe, Audemars Piguet, and Vacheron Constantine, as well as the work of smaller "independents" like F.P. Journe. If this is what interests you, browse on over to The Purists. If they sound elitist, well, they can afford to be.

This blog is devoted to affordable watches, and skewed somewhat to the lower end. These are fine watches any middle-class person can afford. They do not receive as much attention from many watch collectors for that same reason. But their value is excellent. In subsequent posts we'll take a closer look at just what makes a fine watch fine.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Wristwatch Art

Many aficionados regard fine watches as functional art, especially mechanical watches. These watches are now enjoying a renaissance, in large part due to the aesthetic pleasure their owners derive from these marvels of mechanical miniaturization. But watches are also being turned into other forms of art far removed from their original purpose.

The round dials, bezels and cases of most watches naturally suggest wheels, even steering wheels.

And there has long been a connection between watches and racing, which is now even expressing itself in race-car inspired watches by manufacturers like TAG-Heuer and Richard Mille. So perhaps it's natural that someone would eventually repurpose watches as the raw materials for creating motorcycle sculptures.

While watch sculpture is quite unique and rare, wearable watch art is comparatively common. Cufflinks, rings, broaches, necklaces and more are easily found online at auctions and handicraft vendors like Etsy.

Aside from watch cufflinks and tietacs, which are really aimed at the lawyer who has everything, much of the popularity of watch jewellery seems to be driven by interest in the artistic and literary genre of Steampunk, or more precisely by a Steampunk subgenre called Clockpunk (see here, here and here). That is why so much of it has a Victorian character, a central motif of that genre. Now Clockpunk, there is a topic worth blogging about . . . another day.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Presidential Watches

American presidents receive an enormous amount of scrutiny, which may extend, yes, even to their watches. I wish that I could attend the exhibit "Time in Office: An Exhibit of Presidential Timepieces," at the National Watch and Clock Museum in Columbia, PA. It runs through December, if you are local. The watch a president wears just may say something about him.

When it was reported that someone had stolen George W. Bush's Timex, it left many of us scratching our heads. Given the security detail surrounding him, it seemed like a lot of risk for a watch that can be had for $30 and trip to Wal-Mart. But it turns out he pocketed it before a round of glad-handing so that no Timex thieves would be tempted. (To be fair, it was a Special Presidential Timex.) Nevertheless, it turned the puditocracy's attention to the fact that the leader of the free world wore the cheapest of watches, and led to some speculation about what that may say about a man. Earlier, Pravda noted Bush's watch inferiority when compared to Vladimir Putin, who wears a $60,000 Patek Philippe. Western capitalism, hah!

Unfortunately for Putin and the proud Russian pundits, the head of state with the most expensive timepiece is Italy's Silvio Berlusconi, who wears a Vacheron Constantin Patrimony Minute Repeater Perpetual Calendar (whew!) that retails for a staggering $540,000. Apparently pitying Bush and his Timex, Berlusconi gave W. a comparatively modest $13,000 Franck Muller, which the soon-to-be-ex-president wears, it is said, on special occasions.

Other presidents, and presidential candidates, have not shown much more taste in watches. Or at least, their tastes strongly run to Timex. John Edwards liked $400 haircuts, but when not wearing a Timex Ironman, his extravagance in watches only ran to a $100 Casio G-Shock GW-300. John Kerry, during his presidential run, wore a very modest Freestyle Tide. John McCain was more likely to be seen with an interesting memorial bracelet than an interesting watch, but his twentysomething daughter Meghan sports a rare Glycine Chronometer. Perhaps a gift from mom and dad?

Clinton wore a Timex in office, which he is reported to have given to the Smithsonian. But now he has moved considerably uptown, being seen wearing Cartier watches (both a Santos-Dumont and Balon Bleu), a Panerai Luminor (great anecdote here), a Kobold (four, actually), and even teaming up with luxury watchmaker Audemars Piguet to raise money for his anti-poverty Clinton Foundation with special Presidential Edition timepieces. Carol Felsenthal reports that he has over 50 luxury watches in his collection, one of which is valued at $100,000.

Where were these when Clinton was in office? Cold storage, for political reasons that go back to his days as governer of Arkansas. You see, Timex has extensive operations in Arkansas, and it is the last large American watch manufacturer. This, and the need appeal to Joe Sixpack, may explain the political predilection for Wal-Mart wrist gear. As Levine and Milk put it, "Read my wrist." But are all politicos really that insecure?

Not any more! President-elect Barack Obama proudly wore a Swiss TAG Heuer Series 1500 two-tone dress diver, on a brown leather strap, for most of his campaign. While not the priciest of TAGs, it is a fine quality watch that is appropriate to his sartorial style. It seems Obama bought or received it after graduating from law school, or perhaps when he got married. He has at any rate worn it consistently for 10 or 15 years.
This has now been replaced by a Secret Service Chronograph that was a gift from the agents who protected him during his campaign. While it is a step down in quality (Chinese-made with a Japanese Citizen movement), it is certainly a step up in exclusivity. These may only be purchased at the Secret Service employees' store by agents ($210). Do not expect to see the genuine article at a retailer near you. Replicas? A definite possibility.

Update 05/20/2011: In Sept. 2010, the Financial Times did an article on Obama's Secret Service watch. Why the Financial Times? Because the maker of the watch, Jorg Gray, has received a huge boost in sales from admirers of the president and his timekeeper. In fact, sales "have grown from zero in retail sales 18 months ago, to close to $1m a month now [September 2010]." The basic Commemorative Edition of the watch retails for $350.

Update 05/30/2011: I just came across an article in the WatchTime archives (December 2008 [pdf]) on presidential watches. Well worth the read.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Indiglo Factor

In my last post I observed that men and women often regard watches very differently. While women will purchase and enjoy fine watches just as men do, very often these are fashion or jewellery watches. Large segments of the men's watch market are filled with watch types that are rarely produced for women (divers, radio controlled, chronographs, etc.). And it is a fact that there are comparatively few women who collect wristwatches or who would consider themselves watch enthusiasts.

My wife always wears a watch, even when sleeping. Her watches get used hard and are quickly destroyed. I bought her an inexpensive but sturdy diver-style watch that she loves, and it has held up well. Her only regret? That it does not have Indiglo, a feature of Timexes. As a watch enthusiast I of course find this a little discouraging. She wants a Timex? Not a great brand, not fine watches.

But I came across a recent post on Outhouse Opines that offers almost poetic insight into one woman's relationship to her wristwatch. I think my wife would be in full sympathy. I reproduce part of it here but recommend the entire post:
I am a simple girl and I like simple things. Thus my favorite watch brand is Timex. I am very picky about watches, which makes me difficult to buy a nice expensive watch for as a gift. I want a plain black band (or white for summer) not a bracelet style band. I do not want Roman numerals or little dots where the numbers are supposed to be. I want my numbers, people! I either want my numbers and hands to glow in the dark or I want an indiglow dial. And most importantly, I want my watch to tick.

The watch of my choice was my watch as a child. I remember the nights I spent with my grandparents on the farm. There was no air conditioning so in the summer the windows were open. I could hear the wind blowing in the cottonwood trees that shaded their house. I could hear the horns of tug boats coming down the river occasionally. I could hear my uncle snoring in the other room. And I could hear my watch ticking.

I slept in my watch and I would lay in a position so that my watch was close to my ear. The rhythmic ticking of my watch was soothing. I would fall asleep to the ticking of my watch.

Monday, November 10, 2008

What Is a Man's Wristwatch?

A wristwatch may be much more than a portable timekeeper. It may have a great deal of personal and cultural significance. A fine, brief survey of that significance is found in the introduction to Gene Stone's The Watch. Stone offers a male perspective, and in my experience men and women do regard the wristwatch very differently (I'll discuss that in another post).
What is a man's wristwatch? Is it a piece of jewelry? A mechanical marvel? A fashion accessory? Or a fashion necessity?

It all depends on its owner. For many men, a wristwatch is the only piece of jewelry they'll ever own. It's a chance for those who disdain a chain or an earring to wear a precious metal–gold silver, or platinum. Men who feel uncomfortable even with a bland school ring will wear a huge solid-gold Audemars Piguet or Vacheron Constantin.

Then again, many men will tell you that a watch isn't a piece of jewelry at all. It is a practical device worn for a sole reason: to tell the time. Jewelry is a trifle, whereas a watch is a necessity. Many of these men are fond of quartz watches because of their accuracy, and opt for Japanese brands such as Citizen and Seiko, or the German Junghans, which manufactures radio-controlled timepieces.

For others, the wristwatch is a complicated piece of machinery. And the more complicated, the better. These are men who want the newest innovations in chronographs, calendars, power reserves, repeaters, and tourbillons. IWC's Il Destriero Scafusia is a split-seconds chronograph with a tourbillon that tells hours, minutes, seconds, day , date, moon phases, year, and also contains an hour, quarter-hour, and minute repeater. This model sold out. And watches with even more complications have been introduced.

Given that the watch is often the only item a discreet man can wear that shows off his wealth, some consider a watch the equivalent of a fancy sports car for the wrist. In these circles, a watch offers men the chance to roll up their sleeves and prove their worth with a huge piece of glitter, such as a Franck Muller or a Roger Dubuis.

And then there are those for whom wearing a watch is a chance to prove that they possess the latest, hippest invention: a device that not only tells time, but also features accessories like a temperature measurement function, a heart-rate monitor, and tidal information, such as the Casio G-Shock model line, whose instruction manuals are thicker than many books.

A watch is also a piece of history. To own a watch is to own the latest evolution of a record of timekeeping dating back to water clocks and sundials–it's a tiny replica of the same mechanism used by medieval clocks six hundred years ago. Some of the watches from companies like Jaquet Droz or A. Lange & Sohne purposefully look like timepieces of yore–and these, too, often sell out.

A watch can represent a slice of family history, too. A friend of mine has a gold Patek Philippe that his grandfather bought in 1925. Then his father wore it (only on special occasions–he considered his Longines more useful for day-to-day wear). Now my friend owns the Patek Philippe–but as the company's own advertising slogan boasts, you don't own a Patek Philippe as much as you pass it along to the next generation.

But of course, if you don't want to pass the watch along, you can sell it. That's yet another category of watch: the appreciable investment. Unlike a refrigerator, which loses value the moment it's purchased, a well-bought watch can gain value. A 14-karat-gold Hamilton Otis that cost $67.50 in 1938 can fetch $10,000 today.

For the less financially minded, a watch is a fashion accessory to be matched with a belt and shoes. Such men disparage the notion that one can wear a brown leather band with black shoes and belt, or vice versa. A watch, whatever its brand or price, is a detail in an outfit, and at times a $50 vintage watch can be more correct than a $10,000 Rolex if the rest of the attire complements it.

Finally, a watch is an aesthetic pleasure. What do you look at more often each day than your watch? Why not wear on your wrist something that makes you happy whenever you see it? Aesthetes aren't interested in its movement, or how it corresponds to their clothes, or even whether it keeps good time. For them, the face is everything.

For all watch wearers, the timepiece is something else. Everyone finds himself alone at some point, in an unfamiliar environment or in a strange place: the terrible hotel room you’re given when a flight is canceled, the motel room that’s never been cleaned. These are the times when you know that, even if your clothes are rumpled, the phones aren’t working, and the lighting is ominous, you have a companion. You take out your small piece of metallic genius and gaze at it. You feel a sense of pride in its workmanship, a sense of familiarity with its face, a sense of attachment to its touch.

A wristwatch is a universe of possibilities. It is a metaphor for the cosmos or a hunk of gold. It is anything and everything you want it to be. Wear it, stare at it, love it, repair it, open it, time it: Your watch represents a small part of you, wherever you go.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Raison d'être / Raison de la montre

As a young child, sitting in church services, bored as a child at church may be, my father would often pass me whatever he had at hand that might provide some small entertainment value. I counted the coins in his coin purse (remember those?), ate his breath mints, played with his watch. His watch was nothing special, I don't think. A working man's Timex on a Twist-O-Flex band. But putting it on my wrist gave me a small thrill of manhood, like sitting behind the wheel of his truck or putting on his Hai Karate aftershave.

I would not have known or cared then, in the mid-70s, that watchmaking was undergoing a revolution, with the advent of highly accurate, highly affordable quartz watches. By the close of the 1970s one could buy for $20 a watch more accurate than those Swiss marvels still given to retirees just ten years prior as high expressions of collegial esteem.

I care very much about a second, contemporary revolution in portable timekeeping: cellphones. My father no longer wears a watch. His cellphone fills that function, as it does for so many. When I graduated from high school I purchased my first watch, both out of practical need as I entered into adult pursuits, but also because wearing a wristwatch still served for me as a symbol of manhood. For most boys today, when they cross that threshold into manhood, the wristwatch will not have for them the same utility or symbolism. They may see a watch as an item of jewelery, or maybe as just a relic, but owning one will not be the rite of passage it was for me, or even more so, for young men the world over in the 1960s and earlier.

Perhaps this is progress, a happy convergence of technologies. But in fact, contrary to expectations, watch sales remains robust and, in particular, the market for fine watches is seeing stout growth. Swiss mechanical watch manufacturing, which was almost wiped out in the 1970s by the Japanese quartz watch, has seen dramatic growth since the 1990s and can scarcely keep up with worldwide demand. It seems that wristwatches still retain much utility, and even much symbolic and stylistic force, in today's world. My father aside, most men I know still wear watches. Even Dad admits there are times when having a clock on his wrist, instead of in his pocket, would be useful.

I have started this blog as a public service. Really! I am myself a wristwatch enthusiast and am involved with several online communities and forums that serve that interest. Like all enthusiasts, I feel a kind of evangelical zeal. A passion must be shared to be fully enjoyed. And it is true that with this blog I want to promote, in some modest way, what I call watch culture. But my hope here also is to do something more basic and useful for a much broader constituency. I want to create in blog form something like a Consumers Report, or a Dummies Guide to Wristwatches. This is less another blog for enthusiasts (though it will be that too, in part) than a guide for the wristwatch perplexed.

Why buy a watch? Why buy a nice watch? Why buy an expensive watch? What is a nice watch? Are nice watches necessarily expensive? Are expensive watches worth the money? What exactly are you paying for? Where are the cheapest places to buy nice watches? What are the best brands? How does one navigate all the different watch styles? What watches are appropriate for which activities and styles of dress? What is the difference between mechanical and quartz? What is an "atomic" watch? Eco-drive? Kinetic? A tourbillon? Etc., etc., and etc.

I will try to address these and similar questions, in one form or another, in the usual blog fashion, by aggregating relevant content from other sites. But I will also author a glossary of terms, profile brands, review specific watches or lines of watches, and offer mini-primers on watch history, style, and related topics. I will, as best I can, let feedback on my posts shape content. Oh, and there will be the occasional off-topic post, just 'cause I can!

Welcome to the Wrist Watcher!