Thursday, June 30, 2011


By most accounts, Swatch saved the Swiss watch industry. "In a few short years [in the late 70s], the value of Swiss watch exports was cut in half, the Swiss share of the market dropped from over 50 to 15 percent, and competition from Asia slashed the number of watchmaking jobs in Switzerland from 90,000 to fewer than 25,000. Swiss watchmakers were suddenly an endangered species." Long story short, the Swiss watch industry hired a consultant name Nicholas Hayek to figure out how to save it; he proposed selling hip, plastic quartz watches for cheap to ramp up volume; and almost 400 million have been sold since 1983, spearheading a massive Swiss revival. The Swatch Group now also includes a number of Swiss brands that, all together, dominate the low- and mid-range Swiss watch market.

Swatch, of course, is thought by many people of as primarily a youth brand, since Swatches are wacky and plastic. That's not altogether wrong, but in fact, adults do most of the buying and a lot of the wearing. Ownership must taper off in the over-30 demographic, but many models, in both price and design, are squarely aimed at aging hipsters. I owned a fantastic Swatch mechanical a couple years ago. I ended up trading it off because it was too small for my fat wrist. But I've always expected more Swatches would find their way into my watch locker.

My most recent Swatch instead was purchased as a gift for my daughter. We got talking watches the other week, Swatches came up, we looked at a few online, and she fell in love with some striped models. Used Swatches are abundant and can be had cheap. This one is a vintage (1984) "Miss Pinstripe" kids/ladies model. Almost certainly someone in my high school was wearing it's sibling the year of it manufacture. Swatches were everywhere back then. This one cost me $14 shipped. The crystal is cracked at about 4:00, but it's not too visible, and my kid will put more cracks in it forthwith. But for a 27-year-old plastic watch, it's in great shape and keeps perfect time. And she loves it.

I'll probably pick up another Swatch or two for myself sometime. Just 'cause I'm a watch guy. But this Swatch I'll enjoy the most. Swatches and teens, they just go together.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Under the Knife

My favorite daily beater lately has been a Seiko 6309-7290 diver. I bought it well used but restored—new hands, dial, bezel insert and crystal, and heavily buffed. It came on a rubber dive strap, which I first changed out for a cheap and uncomfortable oyster bracelet, and more recently for the Jubilee bracelet that came on my Seiko SKX009. It's now very comfortable.

My 6309-7290, with its original shoes on.

I have low expectations of my mechanicals in terms of timekeeping. If they are no worse than +/- 1-2 minutes per day, they are usable. I've never had a mechanical that was worse than that, and most are much better. My 6309-7290 was easily doing that, until just lately. Now it seems to be loosing maybe 30 sec per hour. Completely unusable.

I have not found a local watchmaker, but anyway, I'm not keen to send it out for regulation. This is not an expensive watch. So I thought I'd try to regulate it myself. In theory, it's not that hard. But putting a watch under the knife for the first time caused me a few jitters. This is no longer the shallow end of the pool.

Luckily the case back, as with all divers, is a screw down, and easy to get off. The regulation lever was a bit stiff, but I gave it a good nudge. How far do I turn it? No way to know, without a timing machine. It's all trial and error. Watching it over the last couple hours, it still appears to be very slow. The lever cannot move that far. I'll give it another good tweak, but it's quite possible that my baby will need some professional attention. Hopefully it just needs to settle in.

I was interested to see that the case back had a number of inscriptions on the inside. They are light and hard to make out, but there are clearly some dates—Jan 8/94, and also the years '88, '89 (less certain) and '97. These might be service dates. Alas, one more may soon be added to them.

Addendum: Right now, the day after, my watch seems to be running about -1.5 minutes per day. That's decent. The only downside to my first home surgery is that I put two big scratches in the case back while tightening it down. The result of cheap case tools and my having five thumbs.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Shallow End of the Pool

I've always wanted to try my hand at watch repair and modification. I've been collecting projects for while, and even bought a little cheap (in every sense) watch tool kit. But up to now, I have not tried to do anything more complex than changing a battery or watchband, or shortening a bracelet. Definitely the shallow end of the pool.

Though changing watch batteries is, in some cases, no easy thing. On a good quality watch, snap on case backs may be fitted very tight. I have a couple different kinds of case opening tools, but even so, I've gouged some terrible gashes in watch backs in trying to pry them off. I have a couple of dead watches whose backs I just cannot remove. I'll either have to take them in to a proper watchmaker (I only know of one in state, not close) or buy me a case crab (not cheap).

Yesterday a simple battery change took me into whole new territory. I needed to put a new cell in my Zodiac Sea Dragon. The movement is a gilt ten-jewel Ronda 5012.D. The tricky bit was that the battery is held down by a metal tab secured by a watch screw. This screw is a typical watch screw, meaning, impossibly tiny. Meaning, one thousand per teaspoon tiny.

Five-jewel nickle version of the Ronda 5021.D.

Luckily I had a screwdriver that was small enough, though as soon as I unscrewed it, the springy metal tab it secured flipped the screw into the ether. A stab of panic. But it landed right by the watch. Long story short, trying to resecure it, I did the same thing three more times. One little screw, lots of trouble.

But I liked it. A simple little job, but I felt like this gave me my first real taste of what watchmaking requires. Slow and careful work with microscopic parts. A true craft. Let's call this a modest start.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Chinese Skeleton #1

A week behind my previous, a second Chinese mechanical just landed, this one a skeleton. My very first skeleton, in fact. Last post, I probably fudged a bit in saying that my first Chinese mechanical was just a buck, since in fact it was $18 shipped. But this watch, also a mechanical, was $6.50 shipped. Yowzah, my Chinese friends, how low can you go?

Click image to embiggen

My first Chinese mechanical was unbranded, but this one is branded Fuyate. It has a 38mm case—as big as I like for a dressy watch—and weighs a very modest 52g. The case is chromed mystery metal and the display caseback is stainless, badly polished. Otherwise the fit and finish is excellent for the money. It came on a black patent leather strap with contrasting white stitching. The strap is less crappy than that of the previous watch, and is surprisingly wearable. I think I'll stay with it.

A skeleton watch has a see-through dial and case back which reveal a movement that (usually) has been carved to reveal its escapement and train, and often is engraved or otherwise decorated. This watch is not highly skeletonized, but for its absurd price it is very nice, even sporting some blued screws. The movement is another Chinese standard, but compared to my previous, it lacks the date wheel and the auto-wind module actually appears to work. It seems to keep decent time, but the crown is stiff to wind and the stem very difficult to pull out. This is my only disappointment with it.

Click image to embiggen

I like this watch. Most cheap Chinese skeletons look tacky. Even expensive skeletons can often look like they are just trying too hard to be noticed. This one is comparatively restrained. Even the my wife and daughter dig it, which is a real seal of approval. Usually they could care less what's on my wrist. And watching that escapement working away, every time I glance at my wrist, is great fun.

And for the price of lunch at McDonalds? Yes, I'm already shopping for a second.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

A One Dollar Mechanical

I have some other watches made in China, but this is a Chinese Chinese watch, purchased straight from the mainland. (There is yet a third level of Chinese watch, but let's not get into that.) I bought it for £1 + £10 shipping (about $18 total).

Yes, I like fine watches. But I became intrigued by cheap Chinese mechanicals a while ago. Mechanicals typically demand a price premium. My cheapest new mechanical previous to this was $50. A dollar mechanical is in effect the talking dog of watches. That it works at all at that price is a wonder. I decided to buy the least ugly example I could score for a buck at auction. £1 seemed close enough, and the candidate actually looked decent. So I went for it.

Seller image

eBay sellers often refer to this model as an M-12, but it is unbranded. I might wish that the maker had also dropped the bogus dial copy that claims the watch has a co-axial escapement (an extremely exotic technology) and is a limited edition. Uh, sure it is. It is an automatic, true enough, but the auto-winder does not actually work. That's typical for this grade of watch.

It has a 40mm case that the watch back claims is all stainless. Possibly. And it's fairly substantial (66g). The dial is a black mil-style with surrounding tachymetre bezel, all looking very Speedmaster, though the skeleton hands and red-tipped sweep second are right off a Seamaster. Amazingly, they are lumed. It's weak, but it works. The crystal is nicely curved and made of quite thick glass, but is a fingerprint magnet.

Seller image

Through the display back you can see the basic Chinese standard ordinary-grade automatic movement that has been made by the millions. It has a date wheel (at 3 o'clock) and, as a minor cosmetic upgrade, the rotor is decorated with a cross-hatch design. It handwinds (alas, only handwinds) and has a quick-set date. It runs well and and keeps good time. For a buck, that it runs at all is a marvel.

The "Genuine Leather" strap that came on it went straight in the garbage. The lugs are 20mm. I put it on a black nylon Seiko "tough band" that really suits it. The band is a bit short and abrasive, though, and I may buy an olive drab NATO for it. The watch is not uncomfortable, otherwise, though it sits high on the wrist. Here is a (terrible) video of the ensemble.

Overall the fit and finish is not great, and the bezel is a low point. Very cheap. But it was a dollar, it's mechanical, and it's totally wearable. No complaints.