Why You Would | A Brief History of Mechanical Timepieces
Words and Photos: Reef Gaha |
Model: Yuka Suzuki |
A History of Mechanical Watches and Review of Five Current Examples |
Caramel Animals presents; the mechanical wristwatch. For years supplanted by its battery powered counterparts then relegated to further obscurity by cell phones, at one stage its complete disappearance seemed imminent.
We’ve put together five attainable examples imbued with horological significance, for even the most budget conscious wearer. Some are faithful homages to rare classics. Others are obtainable classics themselves.
First though, a brief history of wearable clockwork.
Swiss watchmaking flourished through WWI and II under the cover of military neutrality. As American, German and Japanese clockwork factories were re-tooled to produce munitions, Switzerland maintained the techniques and facilities required to keep timepieces in production. This included the accurate chronometers and water resistance required to keep the war effort synchronised. Some of the most coveted pieces available today are descendants of (or homages to) the ‘tool’ watches used in conflict. As WWII ended, the Swiss once again emerged as the world’s horological chieftain.
This dominance continued largely unchallenged til the late 1960’s, when things began to change. Hitherto not-so-haute horologists in the USA and Japan were beginning to produce the battery powered watches that would precipitate the infamous ‘quartz crisis’.
The world flocked to more affordable and accurate electronic time-pieces. Where manual or automatically wound watches from Switzerland were once the apex of reliable time-keeping, their production was intricate and labour intensive. Economies of scale shrank as market share receded. The quartz invaders were unerringly precise. Where even chronometer certified mechanical pieces may lose or gain a few seconds per day, a little quartz cheapie will vary in the order of mere seconds per month. The Swiss watchmaking industry saw a decline in popularity. A new pop-culture icon was about to emerge in the form of the digital wristwatch.
Advancing circuit-board technology saw simple analogue models joined by increasingly complex digitised models. Calculator, databank and programmable pieces offered complications that mechanical clockwork couldn’t match. It wasn’t until a group of industrialists got together in the early 1980s to develop an affordable Swiss alternative to the quartz peril, that the downward slide was arrested. That ‘group of industrialists’ are now the biggest watch company in the world, and the affordable alternative they created was called (you guessed it) the Swatch.
As the market for consumer electronic timepieces grew, haute horology and bespoke luxury Swiss items became an increasingly specialised concern, though a hard core of enthusiasts and collectors remained faithful. Meanwhile, names like Swatch, Casio, Seiko, Citizen and Timex thrived.
The next step change in ‘everyday carry’ arrived with the gradual infiltration of the mobile phone. Now, many quartz wearers would abandon their watches, but this time on the proviso that ‘my phone tells the time just fine’.
Eventually though, science fiction became fact as Apple and a slew of other gadget manufacturers began marketing Dick Tracy style smart watches, causing many who’d abandoned watches to adopt them again, if only as a companion to the applications running on their increasingly smart phones.
What of maverick individuals wanting to avoid the constant distraction of smart gadgets?
Do you take out your phone to glance at the time only to be lured by notifications, messages and the intrigue of social media? You’re not alone.
Reading the time need only be the business of a split second glance.
Flying in the face of pervasive digital technology, a growing subculture are strapping mechanical timepieces back onto their wrists. Parallels can be drawn with audiophiles and rev-heads who often find themselves in the thrall of analogue technology. Under the spectre of mpeg compression, vinyl holds a tangible imprint software just can’t match. Chrome bumpers and butterfy carburetors seem to embody soul in a way that moulded plastics and electronic fuel injection just can’t. Some folk regard old technology as superior. Others simply have a penchant for nostalgia.
For many, mechanical timekeeping has always been a passion. As 20th century ephemera will show, clockwork has never been far from the wrists of the good or the great.
Accordingly, Caramel Animals presents a collection of reliable pieces that deliver automatic, mechanical movements affordably. They’ll wind themselves with the merest gesture of your wrist, spinning little weighted rotors and spooling tension into tiny springs, to be released in the form of ticking time measurement.
Some were designed with high altitude in mind, while others would be at home on the floor of the ocean. With counters set to zero, let’s begin.
| Ginault Ocean Rover |
Think of this watch as an open love letter to the military issue Submariners of old. This dive watch is perhaps truer to the original Rolex ‘form follows function’ ethos than even contemporary Rolex models. Yes, the Ginault Ocean Rover (GOR) pays homage but does so faithfully, with heart emojis in its eyes. You can’t help but appreciate its fawning adoration. What’s even nicer about the Ginault is that it’s not simply paying lip service; pains were taken to reproduce the steel-hewn solidity and true 300m submersibility of the original. There are comparable Sub homages available from Steinhart and Squale, but they lack the perfect proportions and incredible bracelet configuration of the Ginault. With stunningly executed solid end links and an adjustable ‘glide-lock’ clasp, it wears better than anything you’ll find this side of well, a genuine Submariner.
The American built Ocean Rover is resolved in all its fine details. The USA assembled in-house movement is ‘chronometer certified’ by Ginault and comes with papers documenting its accuracy. While the long-term reliability of this relative newcomer’s movement may be an open question for some the calibre is, in architecture, a clone of the venerated ETA 2824 movement that powers many of the world’s most loved watches. The GOR also comes with a beautifully broached dive bezel and features a super legible dial, illuminated with stunning ‘gold sand lume’ indices that lend the watch a hint of vintage patina.
Are Ginault attempting to re-create or celebrate Rolex’s past design achievements? You bet. Are they allowing the execution of the Ocean Rover to rest on anyone else’s laurels? Heck no. This is anything but a mere imitation.
Variants of the Ocean Rover (including some with date) are available from http://www.ginault.com and it’s rumoured that if you ask them nicely, you may receive a discount on the $1300 USD asking price (but don’t quote us on that).
| Tiger Concept GMT Pilot |
The original GMT Master was developed by Rolex in collaboration with Pan-Am. The jet age gave rise to frequent crossings of longitude, latitude and dateline, evincing the need for a Pilot’s watch that could display several time zones at a glance. This Tiger Concept GMT pays modernised homage to the early 6542 reference from Rolex with slender case design, chamfered lugs, gilt indices and the prototypical ‘Pepsi’ blue and red bezel. In this instance, the bezel has been given a slightly faded look in a nod to the way vintage GMT bezels fade over time.
At this price point, the Tiger Concept is arguably the best GMT ‘Pepsi’ homage available. While it’s a relative cheapie, its execution of case, dial and bezel would be more than acceptable at several times the money. The original GMT is perhaps one of the most subliminally recognisable timepieces available, thanks to being seen on Hollywood wrists of stars such as Tom Selleck, Keanu Reeves, Dustin Hoffman, Marlon Brando. Indeed, enough names to fill a Fantales wrapper.
A domed mineral crystal and pressed steel bracelet end links complete the nostalgic look. Being a true GMT, the Tiger possesses a fourth ‘GMT’ hand used to chart time in remote zones. For the uninitiated, the blue segment of the bezel is used to indicate night time hours along its 24-hour scale. Red is used to indicate daylight hours. The bezel can be rotated to allow indexing of a third time-zone if you’re cluey and simply ‘double’ the hourly increments of the standard dial when reading from the GMT hand. Like the original, a quick-set date is featured at 3.
Available directly from http://www.tiger-concept.com for $189 USD.
| Oris Big Crown Chronograph |
Moving on from the homages, here’s something unique you might affordably pick up on the second-hand market. Want something reminiscent of 1930’s era aviation, with more than a hint of art deco?
A multi-dial chronograph, this Oris is the only truly Swiss timepiece in our little line-up today. With flieger style legibility and retro mid-century styling, this piece is both elegant and purposeful. Its large crown and indices hark to the classic pilot watches it references while a coined bezel, cathedral hands and Bauhaus style numerals give the watch an ornate, vintage feeling. This is complemented by a ‘guilloche’ patterned dial, making it equally appropriate for casual or formal settings. Its slightly larger 42mm scale allows it to house a powerful ETA 7750 (stopwatch) calibre. As such, it’s the only chronograph we’ll pay attention to today, though the Omega Speedmaster must rate honourable mention. Some say not many chronograph watches can be worn with a suit, yet the Oris seems to share this versatile twist with the Speedmaster. Its multi-piece stainless steel case is polished almost exotically, while the curved Plexiglas acrylic crystal gives off a warm, vintage feeling (whilst also lending itself to the easy buffing-out of scratches). SuperLuminova C3 ensures legibility in darkness. The quick-set date at 3 is a convenient inclusion.
Being a genuine Swiss piece, this Oris is one of our dearer inclusions, but expect to pay a minimum of $1000 USD on the used market.
| Seiko SKX009 |
If you’re someone who frequents watch forums, this little ISO certified diver won’t come as news to you. Popular because of their simplicity and hard-wearing affordability, Seiko’s line of automatic dive watches can be traced back to the Vietnam war era. This SKX009 is a direct descendant of the Seiko 6105 worn by Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now and by Kiefer Sutherland in A Soldier’s Sweetheart. More modern references can also be seen in James Cameron’s The Abyss (Cameron is an accomplished diver himself), and elevated almost to the status of co-star on the wrist of Robert Redford in All Is Lost.
Rated for 200 metres of water resistance, folklore has it that a watch forum member once pressure tested an SKX007 for the sake of finding out just how many atmospheres the case could withstand. A commenter on authoritative watch blog Worn and Wound reported that the tester backed out at 42 atmospheres (420 metres) ‘because he was afraid of the crystal cracking if he pushed the test further. The watch itself took over 200% of its indicated [depth] rating without failure’.
These watches are available in several different sizes, colourways and dials, but we’ve chosen the SKX009. Its contrasting blue and red dive bezel recalls the classic ‘Pepsi’ GMT pairing, and its indices bear Seiko’s proprietary Lumibrite luminescent paint, known for being among the brightest available at any price point. While the 7S26 movement can’t be hand wound, it’ll start right up with a gentle shake and is the only watch here which features both quickset date and day complications – handy on long vacations where days just bleed into one.
A cursory search of reputable watch outlets online will net you an SKX for circa $200 USD.
| Vostok Amphibia |
While the Swiss had waterproof case technologies sewn up, Russian watchmakers had access to no such patents, and in many cases, materials were scarce. If they were to produce a dive watch capable of operating at extreme depth, they’d have to come up with their own solution. Because of this, the Amphibia stands as an authentic example of Soviet design and ingenuity. The story goes that the name ‘Amphibia’ was chosen from a competition among Vostok factory employees.
Where Swiss watches use gaskets as crystal seals, the Amphibia uses a 3mm thick Lucite (plexiglass) that deforms slightly under pressure, allowing it to push into the case, gradually providing a stronger seal at greater depths. Such distortion of glass or sapphire crystals would simply cause them to crack. Where traditional screw-down case backs use rubber O-ring seals, Vostok devised a much wider sintered gasket combined with a bayonet mount as a unique way of sealing the back case against water pressure.
While the Amphibia we’ve chosen here features a sober ‘sonar wave’ motif, collectors often remark on the toy-like, cartoonish dials of some variants. Some bear the image of a scuba diver (the famous ‘Scuba Dude’), a galleon. or even breaching whales (among others).
The other great thing about the Vostok is its price. You’ll easily find an original through highly-rated eBay sellers, for well under $100 USD shipped.
| Conclusions |
There’s a lot of variety, and plenty to love about these affordable mechanical watches. We’ve only shown you a few, but what’s not to like about battery-free timekeeping on a shoestring, all running on the flick of your wrist? Okay granted, my grandmother once told me that her idea of heaven is a place without telephones or clocks. For many though, the convenience of viewing time at a glance (in a variety of extreme conditions) is preferable to the potential distraction of notifications. Then, let’s not forget the unmistakable style and craftsmanship that goes along with traditional watchmaking, and the never-ending pop culture associations that abound.
Is there a greater significance to these trinkets?
Perhaps watches aren’t merely about telling time, but also our relationship with it? Einstein famously declared that ‘time is an illusion’ but in any event, ours is temporary. Some of the best watches are built to withstand extremes of pressure and altitude. With a little maintenance, they may even outlive us. Because of this, these objects (and some spectre of the relationship we have with them) may someday be passed down in heirloom-like fashion (though hopefully not in a way that recalls the ‘uncomfortable hunk of metal’ from Christopher Walken’s infamous Pulp Fiction scene) something an iPhone X will never quite achieve.