Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The reason watches are jewellery

This week, we prove that watches are jewellery.

The watch of the week is water resistant to 50 metres. It has a backlight so it can be seen in any light. Analog hands so it's easy to read at a glance. And a digital display that will tell you the time in every time zone on the planet, by city name. It has 5 different alarms, and a stopwatch. It's got a "perpetual date" which accounts for leap years. It remembers Daylight Savings Time.

It is the most accurate watch in the world. It never needs to be set. Ever.

Oh - and it costs about $25.

It's the Casio wave ceptor.
It has a radio receiver that automatically dials in the frequency of the US Military atomic clock in Boulder, Colorado every night. It receives this time signal (generated by an atomic clock - which works by counting the radioactive decay of a molecule, I think, of Cesium) and automatically resets the hands and the digital time. Keep in mind that this is a quartz movement anyway - so it only gains or loses a second or two a day. But it receives this time signal and adjusts, automatically. Every night. Using the same clock that's used to calibrate satellites, stealth bombers, and the like.
Pretty neat.
Yes, I have fancy watches (like the Breitling discussed below). And that watch is a "COSC certified chronometer". And it's quartz, so the criteria to be a COSC certified chronometer is even more arduous. But this Casio is the watch I use to set the Breitling, because it's more accurate.
Anything costing more than $25 is a piece of jewellery. Its function is incidental. Since this watch is a better, more complete timekeeper and costs $25.
The interesting thing is that (these days) most men will only wear jewellery that has a soupcon of function to it. A watch. Cuff links. A wedding band. Anything else is "gaudy" because real men don't wear jewellery. But that's just a fancy excuse. Your $5000 Rolex? Jewellery. Your $100 Fossil? Jewellery. Because this watch has them beat in terms of function.
I'd go on about the esthetics of this watch, but I won't. It's well laid out. Easy to read (though the digital screen sometimes gets obstructed by the minute hand). Easy to use, with labels for each of the buttons, both on the front and (more detailed) on the back of the watch. It's fairly light and comfortable to wear. The blue strip running around the bezel from 9 to 12 is a nice detail; not sure why it's there or even if it's intentional. More than that, you don't need to know. It's main objective is function, and it's the most functional watch I've ever seen.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Universal Geneve Tri-Compax

This week's watch isn't in my collection.  It's a watch I've wished I owned for at least two decades now.  About 6 years ago, I could finally start looking for one, but a lot of people warned me away - "those are finicky" or "unreliable" were comments I often received from knowledgeable vendors trying to sell me other, similar watches.

Well, what do you expect from a highly complicated movement from the 40's??????

Of course, now, they're so expensive I can't afford one.  But I keep 
looking - you never know.  Maybe one will get missed by all the other afficionados.  Maybe the economic crisis has hit Universal fans harder than others.  From the prices I've been seeing lately, it looks like it's hit Rolex collectors pretty hard...  but I digress...

The Universal Tri-Compax is a super-underrated watch.  A watch collector's watch.  A watch repair guy's watch.  No real status symbols here - most people in North America have never even heard of Universal.  But Universal Geneve is a watch company with a distinctive and honourable past.  Apparently they make (or, at least, made) every part in-house - no ETA movement here!  Their newer watches I don't quite get - they look nice, but there's something about their design that's not quite right.  Not so with the tri-compax - this is as close as it gets to a perfect watch face.

Even among Universals, this one is special.  Universal called it "the Glorious"...  I think it was their most complicated watch movement, and probably remains so.  This is a watch with a history.  The close-ups of Harry Truman signing the Potsdam declaration (the terms of the Japanese surrender in 1945) revealed that he wore one on special occasions (maybe he wore one all the time, who knows).  OK, his was gold, not stainless steel like the one I'm profiling this week, but pretty close. 

So what makes this watch special?

First, the movement.  Highly complex.  Triple date.  Two of the three dates are apertures.  You can see these at about 10:00 and at about 2:00 (in the picture, they show "Wed" and "Feb".  They look pretty simple, but think about it - each is a rotating
 wheel.  One has seven settings, the other has 12.  And I guess they have to overlap (or maybe they don't... I've never seen one without a dial on it).  But from their position, and from the size the disc would have to be, it seems to me that they would have to overlap.  Which means they're slightly angled (think about it - they need to be at the same depth when indicating, but can be at different depths on the other side of the disc).  Think about the (pre-CAD) engineering that had to go into this!

 Between the two apertures, at the 12:00 position, there's a dial that shows numbers 1-31.  These indicate the day of the month.  The top half of this dial is another aperture, indicating the phase of the moon.  Not sure why the phase of the moon was so important in watch design, but people seemed to want it on their watches.  

Add to these complications a "standard" 12 hour chronograph with dials just like the watch we profiled last week (second hand at the 9, 12 hour counter for the chronograph at the 12, 30 minute counter for the chronograph at the 3).  Oh - and you've got the standard hands at the centre of the watch - the chronograph second hand, the time minute hand, and the time hour hand.

So if you think about it, you've got hands or dials that rotate at the following time intervals:

-once a minute (second hand)
-once a minute (chrono second hand)
-once a half hour (chrono minute hand)
-once an hour (minute hand)
-once every 12 hours (hour hand)
-once every 12 hours (chrono hour hand)
-once every 24 hours (day aperture)
-once every 29 days (moon phase aperture)
-once every 31 days (date)
-once every year (month aperture)

Three of these (chrono second, minute, and hour hands) can be started and stopped, and reset.

Most watches just have once a minute, once an hour, and once every 12 hours.

If you think about all the gears that allow this to happen, you'll probably get a headache.  But part of the beauty of this watch is that it's fairly thin, too.  Complex?  check.  Engineering marvel? you bet.  Something you'd want to take apart?  Not if you ever wanted to see it working again.

What makes this watch so special is that it's so complex, but that it looks clean and simple.  This is in part due to the apertures and hidden dials (rather than having hands for each of the features).  If you look at the watch, there's a lot of "white space".  The huge, gold triangular hands make it clear that the main function of the watch is telling the time.  No messing about here -you're always going to be able to read the time.  The minute hand has its own register, around the outside of the dial, making it easy to see exactly what the time is.  Minutes are indicated in 20 second intervals, with arabic numerals for each 5 minute interval.  The hour markers (shown at 1, 2, 4, 5, 7, 8, 10 and 11) are triangular, nicely complementing the main hands.  As you'd expect, the chrono second hand is quite thin, and the blued finish add a bit of color, complementing the moon phase - everything ties together on this watch.  The chrono registers also have blued hands, with the exception of the day indicator, which, for some odd reason, is red.  You can tell that, with all the apertures and dials, they had trouble figuring out where to put "universal geneve" and "tri-compax", but they manage to do an excellent job of picking a place and a font.  Simple.  Yet complicated.

This particular watch has a gorgeous patina to the dial - it looks like it has never been re-done, and is in amazing shape for a watch over 60 years old.  The stainless steel case looks original, as do the chrono pushers (though they are quite different from the chrono pushers on the Truman tri-compax, which were rectangular).  Not sure if the crown is original, but it looks great.  Some fading on the finish, as would be expected - remember, you have to wind this watch every day!  

The case also has pushers on the left hand side, which can't be seen in this photo, but which are used to set the date, day, moon phase, etc.  The back is stainless steel.  

Thanks to the Watch Man for giving me permission to use his pictures of the watch - it's up for sale on ebay and can be seen at

Update:  As expected, it sold for a lot of money - $4250 CDN.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Leonidas Chronograph

It's wednesday again... So soon! Got to work today and realized I'm wearing the Breitling Aerospace again! Which means I can't use last week's criteria for figuring out which watch I'm going to talk about today.

So, instead, I'm going to describe my most recent acquisition. My Leonidas chronograph.

I bought this at a local auction, for very little. I think part of the reason is the face - which shows a LOT of oxidation (i.e. rust) coming through. You can barely read the name of the watch. In fact, the auction house had it wrong, listing it as a Leonadas or something. Not that many people going to that particular auction would think a Leonidas is something to write home about...

I love the way this watch looks. There's something about the oxidation that adds to the character of the dial. I was thinking about refinishing it, or putting a new dial on it (something NOS from Heuer would probably be most appropriate, for reasons I'll get to later) but the more I think about this, the more I think I'm keeping the dial as is.

The most impressive thing about this watch is that, despite the oxidation on the dial, it's in immaculate shape. The movement is running very strongly, and the chronograph registers snap back exactly to where they should, immediately and precisely. The ticking is even and strong. I've never seen a chronograph this old act this way - either it was worn regularly or it has recently been cleaned and serviced. I think the watch was pampered over the last 50 plus years - the case is in great shape, as are the crown and buttons. The acrylic crystal doesn't have a single scratch on it, and the hands look great. Maybe this was a project watch for someone who really knew what they were doing? Who knows. If it was a project watch, they had a lot of class - keeping the dial as is, and the speidel band... Some people would have changed both.

But let me get to a description of the watch itself, rather than its condition... Leonidas was a well known, well reputed Swiss house; they were bought by Heuer; I think in the 50's. Heuer continued to use the Leonidas name for a while, as a "second tier" brand (kind of like Rolex/Tudor) but after a while dropped it. Heuer itself was purchased by Tag in the 80's, and became the marketing marvel it is today (though it's just a marketing house today - Tag's are only gorgeous because they re-issue some of their watches from the 60s and 70s. I can't think of a single modern Tag I'd want in my collection - even the "ana-digi" Tags are less desirable than the ones from other companies... And don't get me started on the French Champagne and canvas bag company that bought Tag in 1999... But I digress).

So this watch is either a pre-Heuer Leonidas (from the 40's), or a Leonidas made recently after the Heuer purchase (50's, possibly 60's). I really can't tell. If anyone has seen this watch before, or can provide more information about its origins, year of manufacture, or anything else, it would be appreciated - just post it to the comments section and I'll edit the post to add.

Based on the hand placement and approximate year of manufacture, I would guess this has a Valjoux 72 in it. I haven't opened the watch up yet to confirm. The three registers are a second hand register (at 9), a thirty minute register for the chronograph (at 3), and a 12 hour register for the chronograph (at 6). The second hand acts as the chronograph second hand register, and stays at 12 when the chronograph is not in use. Many, many watches have a similar register pattern - the Omega Speedmaster, the Rolex Daytona, etc., though they may have used other movements (the Daytona famously was based on a modified Zenith el primero movement). I doubt the movement in my watch is a Zenith, though that would be an amazing find.

The minute register "clicks" into place, rather than sweeping, making it very easy to read. The watch also has tachymeter markings (in blue) and telemeter markings (in red) around the outside of the dial. The tachymeter is used to determine conversion of distance to speed, based on the time it takes for travelling one unit of distance. For example, you would start the chronograph at a mile marker on the road, stop the chronograph at the next mile marker, and read the tachymeter dial. It would tell you how fast you were going, in miles per hour. By using a km marker instead of a mile marker, you would find out how fast you were going in km/hr. You can use it for any unit of distance - for example, if you were measuring parsecs, it would tell you how many parsecs you were travelling per hour. Unfortunately, it only works for distances travelled in 60 seconds or less, since the tachymeter marker only goes around the dial once.

The telemeter converts speed of sound into distance. Basically, you use this to determine how far the German cannons are (or, more mundanely, how far away the lightning is striking). Start the chronograph when you see the lightning; stop it when you hear the thunder. The telemeter will tell you how far away the lightning strike was, in miles. It's an approximate reading, I think it assumes the speed of light is instantaneous and the speed of sound is 330 ft/sec (which, I think, is the speed of sound at 20 degrees celcius). But I'm not entirely sure what the exact assumptions are. The only downside to the telemeter is that it gives you markings that go to 12.5 - which are easily confused with the hour hand markings, especially if there are no hour hand markings, such as on this watch (well, it does have hour hand markings for 11, 12, and 1, but that's about it). No big deal - I don't think it affects time reading, but it's a bit annoying.

Inside the telemeter register is a minute hand register with markings in arabic at 5 minute intervals, and line markings, at 20 second intervals (5 per minute).

The dial is just drop dead gorgeous. The interplay and overlap between the chrono subsidiary dials and the telemeter/minute hand registers is a work of art - it took a lot of time and effort to get this right. The minute register is amazingly fine and accurate. The hands complement the dial perfectly - simple stick hands with tapered ends for the chronograph registers; the same, with a luminescent insert, for the minute and hour hands; and a simple thin hand, extending beyond the centre of the dial, for the second hand.

The case is nice too, though nothing to write home about. The part of the case that holds the crystal, and the back of the case, are polished stainless steel; the rest (i.e. middle part) of the case also appears to be stainless steel, but not as polished (possibly cast?). The lugs are simple and functional.

The watch is complemented, I think, by the vintage Speidel stainless steel band, which is in great shape. I always thought bands like this (stretchy, spring loaded bands) would pinch, or, at the very least, catch the hairs on my wrist, but for some reason, these older ones don't. It's remarkably comfortable to wear, even on a relatively hairy wrist like mine. I might eventually replace the band with something in leather, but I haven't quite decided yet.

Anyway, there it is! My Leonidas chronograph.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

First Blog is the Deepest

OK, so the concept here is a new watch profiled, every week. An interesting exercise. But where to start. There are so many watches, and the first post had better be good. Do I pick the watch I like the most? The most complex? The one I like the most from my collection? My most recent acquisition? Or the one I'd like to buy if I had the cash?

So many different ways of doing this. And yet, the answer came to me as I was, well, checking the time.

I'm going to start this "watch of the week" site with a comment on the watch I'm wearing today: A Breitling Aerospace "Repetition Minutes"

Breitling has been designing watches, primarily for marine or aviation use, since 1884. They are well known, and a bit of a "poseur" watch if you don't have a flying license. Great branding, but not all that common. The most common and well known Breitling is the Navitimer, which has a circular slide rule as a rotating bezel - so people who know how to use a slide rule can do essential flight calculations at the drop of a hat - pounds of fuel to litres, anyone?

The Breitling “flying B” is a scripted B incorporated into an anchor, having wings. This way, the Breitlings appeal to both flight professionals and sailors, though they're really more known as a flight watch. Richard Branson's solo flight around the world in a hot air baloon was sponsored by Breitling, and you don't get tougher (or more "poseur") than that... Imagine a big silver hot air balloon with BREITLING in huge letters and you'll understand what I mean.

The Breitling aerospace is one of my favorite watches, and a perfect example of an “ana-digi” watch. I've got a bit of a weakness for ana-digi watches, as you'll learn over time if you follow this site. By perfect example: it's thin, lightweight (because it is made of titanium), water resistant, and simple to use. It has an easy to read analog dial with two apertures containing digital readouts. The digital readouts can be used to display time, date, a second time zone, a countdown timer, an alarm, or a chronograph. Or, the digital readouts can be left blank. All functions are operated through the crown: rotate to change the readout from one feature to the next; press to start the chronograph, timer, or toggle the alarm; pull out to set; hold down to reset.

The watch is a “repeater” (hence the “repetition minutes” in its name) - though this isn’t as complicated a feature as it would be on a mechanical watch. Pushing down the crown in "time", "date", or "blank" mode and the watch will count off hours, quarter hours, and minutes, using three different ‘chimes’. This allows you to tell the time without looking at the watch.

The watch is a COSC certified swiss chronometer. This is a bit of a gimmick, I think, for digital watches - they're all pretty accurate. Apparently, the COSC has a different accuracy tolerance for digital watches, so these are "really, really accurate", but I've never really noticed any digital watch gaining or losing more than a second or two a month. I guess when you make expensive watches that take batteries, you need to justify it somehow - a COSC certification is one way of doing that.

The watch features an all titanium watch body and band. The band is a premium band, with a double clasp, screw-type pins, and a wetsuit extension. I really like the look of the band - something about the brushed titanium looks really good. I think it has something to do with the bevelling around each rectangular piece. Nice integration with the face, too. Only one little annoyance - it's not the most comfortable band on the planet. The curvature on the double clasp is a bit wrong for my wrist, which makes that part of the band dig into my wrist. also, the "double clasp" part tends to dig in as well. Maybe I need to adjust the links so that more are on one side?

The watch features a gray dial that is exactly the same color as the body and band (other dials, such as blue and black, were also available for this watch, but I really like the monochromatic look). The dial features green luminescent hour markings with arabic numerals at 12, 3, 6 and 9. Hands are matching with green luminescence. The two digital apertures feature greenish LCDs on a black background. The top aperture indicates the mode (CHR=chronograph; T2 = second time zone, etc.) where the bottom aperture indicates 3 sets of two numbers from 0-9. The hands are gorgeous, simple, also titanium colored (though a little lighter than the face). I love how the minute hand extends beyond the middle of the watch, but the hour hand doesn't. the tapering on the hands make for very precise reading of the minute. Hands move once every thirty seconds, or 120 times an hour.

The dial is surrounded with the characteristic Breitling rotating bezel engraved from 0-59, with inserts at 0, 15, 30 and 45, and a luminescent dot in the insert at 0. The bezel, and inserts, are all titanium (the watch was also available with gold inserts). Rotation is bidirectional. There are screws on the side of the bezel, every 5 minutes. Part of me likes the look of this (since it's very different than any other watch), but something simpler might have been nicer. The inserts on the bezel, especially the one at 12, have a tendancy to catch thin pieces of clothing, and I worry that one day I'm going to bend it or break it. Hasn't happened yet, though.

Dial is covered in a sapphire crystal with an anti-reflective coating. Mine has a tiny imperfection or scratch in the anti-reflective coating, close to the 6. I'm not sure how it got there - it was there when I bought the watch (I bought it used). I'm pretty hard on my watches, and the sapphire hasn't got a single other scratch on it, so the last owner must have banged it pretty hard to get this scratch.

Original crown, of course, marked with Breitling “B”. Not the flying wings or anchor, but just the scripted B.

Interestingly, the back of the watch contains metric conversion information purportedly useful for pilots. for example, it tells me that 2.54 cm = 1 inch, 1 cm = 0.39 inches. I guess this is a holdover from the Navitimers - I'm not sure how useful it is on this watch, since the watch doesn't have a slide rule.

Strangely, the back is a pop-off (I would expect a screw back on a watch of this quality). Probably because of the titanium - not sure how easy it is to machine a titanium screw back. Watch is considered waterproof to 50 m.

I love this watch. It's a "no excuses" watch. I can wear it anywhere - it's never "too good" (the titanium finish and the digital dials downplay it to a certain extent - no bling here); it's never "not enough" (it's a Breitling. Completely respectable in just about every circle). I can wear it in the shower, it'll wake me up in the morning (though the alarm isn't all that loud - maybe the titanium doesn't resonate as well as stainless steel?). I like the redundancy of a chronograph function and a rotating bezel. Just love this watch.

Watch of the Week

Featuring a new watch every Wednesday.