Tuesday, June 19, 2018

The Timex Mechanical Watch

Timex is one of those watch companies that has been around seemingly forever (they started back in the 1870s as the Waterbury Clock Company). Despite this enviable pedigree, most watch collector types typically ignore the brand as they have traditionally catered to regular folks, not the high end of the market. I think that's a shame but it does allow for some amazing bargain hunting. 

I started down this train of thought when my wife and her sister bought a pair of new Timex Expedition models. Her sister wanted a rugged watch for a  safari (as in a real African safari) that she was taking and didn't want to bring her fancy IWC. My wife liked her sister's model so much that she got her own.  I took a good look at my wife's example, a nifty blue field watch with a leather and nylon band and Timex's Indiglo lume system, and was frankly impressed. This was a lot of watch for the $40 it cost her. Good water resistance, mineral glass crystal, solid watch case, great lume, etc. It really checked all the boxes for a watch that should last for years and years.

That's when I remembered that I had an old Timex. A 1978 vintage hand wound model that had been sitting at the bottom of my dresser drawer for decades. (You can tell the year of manufacture and the movement model on old Timex watches from the last four digits of the number at the base of the dial btw. 24 78 on mine means a model 24 movement built in 1978) I picked it up used at a flea market in Greenwich Village back in the mid-eighties, wore it for a good ten years and then moved on to newer watches. So, I dug the watch you see out of that drawer, set it and wound it up, and it's been keeping time perfectly for the last two weeks. 

Old mechanical Timex watches like this (Their Marlin is most well known) are pretty small by today's standards. This one is all of 36mm wide with the crown. The tall domed crystal does give it a bit more presence but a small watch with an 18mm band is definitely not the style these days. It does make a perfectly good business/dress watch though which is how I've been wearing it. 

Just out of curiosity, I took a peek at the world wide tag sale and saw not only this model but many others for very reasonable prices. Some of the new old stock examples were running at over $100 but there were plenty of clean looking used ones for $20-$30. (One of which is on the way to me. Couldn't resist...) That's hard to argue with price wise for a well made, durable mechanical watch. 

The Timex mechanical movement is an interesting little engine. Unfinished metal and usually with no jewels, the movement is the picture of utilitarian. Despite this, there is some pretty fancy engineering in there. To make up for the lack of jewels, Timex used a very hard alloy (Called Armalloy, it is mentioned in this old ad) on it's pivot points to keep the moving parts from wearing out. They also cleverly substituted a part called a pin pallet (also referred to as a pin lever) in place of a typical and expensive jeweled pallet fork (the part that regulates the ticking in a mechanical watch). The result is an inexpensive, rugged movement that still keeps excellent time. The old "It takes a licking and keeps on ticking" ad line was pretty true. 

Interestingly, it looks like Timex itself is dipping it's foot back into the mechanical watch world. They recently released a re-issue of their old classy Marlin model. This one uses a more sophisticated jeweled movement but at about $200, it's hard to argue with the price. I think it looks terrific. Here's hoping for more of these revivals. 

The bottom line here is that if you want to take a crack at owning a vintage mechanical watch, and don't have a pile of cash to spend, give Timex a look. It's hard to go very wrong at the prices out there now and the payoff is a good looking mechanical watch with a lot of history behind it. 

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Molnija Golden Duke edition

I've lately gotten interested in pocket watches again and a nice Molnija is an inexpensive way to scratch that itch.  The model being discussed here was made in 1994 for the Golden Duke Awards, which is sort of the Oscars of the Ukraine.  The watch is in most respects an ordinary Molnija pocket watch.  It has the nickel plated 3602 movement that is derived from an old Swiss Cortebert movement and a German silver hunter style case.  (Molnija watches were either made of German silver, which is an alloy of nickel, copper and zinc that looks like silver or chrome plated brass).

What makes this one interesting is that it was apparently made especially for the attendees of that award show.  The watch, in addition to the Golden Duke decoration, also honors the 200th anniversary of the founding of the city of Odessa in 1994.

This particular Molnija has one detail that I've never seen on the other models that I have encountered or read about.  This one has an engraved message under the case-back.  In other words, if you never opened up the watch, you would never see it.  I believe that it says something to the effect of "Spectator's Gallery-Golden Duke Awards".   The case-back is interesting too.  It's inscribed with the phrase Aspetto La Hora-I await the hour.  That has to be the most appropriate phrase I can think of for a watch.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Shinola Watches-The Mackinaw Field Watch

As a US based watch collector it has always been something of a bummer to me that the US has had no domestic watch industry beyond very limited production high end pieces for decades now.  That situation is thankfully changing a bit due to the introduction of Detroit based Shinola into the marketplace.

Before I get into a discussion about Shinola though, let's introduce today's contestant. The Filson Mackinaw Field Watch. Shinola, in addition to making watches under its own name also produces models for Filson, the outdoor clothing and accessory company known for its very tough fabrics. The watches are available through both Shinola and Filson. This model measures 43mm in width, 51mm lug to lug, 12mm in thickness and has a 20mm band lug width.  The crystal is synthetic sapphire with an anti-reflective coating.  Water resistance is rated at 200 meters and the crown screws down. (In a nod to Filson's history, the crown is decorated like a shotgun shell. They still make bags for such ammo.) The movement can be hacked if that feature matters to you.  The case back is secured by six screws and is really nicely done.  The movement, called by Shinola an Argonite 715 is a US assembled Ronda Swiss quartz engine with a date function. I believe that it has a five year battery life. The lume on the face and hands is very good, remaining visible for at least six hours in darkness by my observation. It probably lasts longer than that but I had to get out of bed regrettably. It is almost Seiko diver quality lume and that is saying something. The band included with this model is very nice by the way.  It is a nato style strap that is appears to be made from Filson's own Tin Cloth material which is super strong stuff.  The band has a roller buckle to keep it from being chafed and the color matches the face perfectly. All in all, it is a very attractive watch.

Shinola got its start in 2013 with the idea that it should be possible to build quality things, like watches, in the US again. The company selected Detroit as its base in an effort to help kick start a revitalization of that depressed city. Shinola has three production lines there,  leather goods, bicycles and, their largest line, watches. To the extent possible, production or assembly is carried out on site for these products. For more on the Shinola story see this article and here as well. 
Shinola's watches are all quartz powered.  The movements are based on Swiss Ronda models that are supposedly hand assembled in the Detroit factory.  Case production is in China, I believe, and the dial printing and final assembly are done in Detroit.  The watches are then put through an extensive inspection process before being cleared for final sale. That's a pretty typical way to assemble good watches these days and it's encouraging to see someone giving it a shot here. 

Price wise,  Shinola is a bit on the high side as quartz watches go.  The list price of the Mackinaw model above is $650 which, while not the most expensive quartz watch out there by a long shot, is still not cheap by any means.  A lot of that cost comes from the reality of doing business in the US and paying US wages of course. And, frankly, that's not a bad thing in my mind. That being said though, this is a high quality product and you do get something for your money.  In the example above,  the crystal is synthetic sapphire, water resistance is 200 meters, the lume appears to be superluminova, the case back and crown are well decorated and the watch carries an almost unheard of lifetime warranty.  That warranty alone gives you some idea of how well built this watch is. 

As an aside and for what it's worth,  I used to be one of those guys who wouldn't give the time of day (pardon the pun)  to a watch with a quartz movement.  If it wasn't mechanical,  preferably automatic, it wasn't a collectible.  That didn't mean that a quartz watch was no good in my eyes mind you.  If you want a reliable and accurate watch, quartz conquers all mechanical models in reality.  It's just that mechanical watches always seemed the better choice from a collector's standpoint.
I recently got a big reality check when it comes to mechanical watches though that made me realize that the times, they are a changing.  The reality check in question had a name too-servicing.  One of my nicer autos,  I won't divulge the name,  needed a stripped crown tube replaced and a movement service.  I got two price quotes for the work, both on the high side of four hundred dollars.  Given the age and overall condition of this watch, that price was more than the watch was worth.  So, in effect,  this very nice Swiss auto just became disposable thanks to the cost of keeping it going.  It's a sad truth I'm afraid that the days when any jeweler could service a mechanical watch for a low price are over. That's something to keep in mind when buying a watch these days. Sooner or later it will need fixing. 

And that made me think of how much less expensive it is to keep a quartz watch running.  Say what you will about a quartz movement, they rarely need more than an inexpensive battery change every few years. And that means that the conundrum above, service costing more than the watch is worth,  is not likely to happen to a quartz watch. 

The inherent reliability of quartz movements coupled with the high level of workmanship in the Shinola watch above strongly suggest to me that the company's lifetime warranty isn't something they are going to lose money on.  This is one very solid watch that should last for a long time. And for that reason, along with its made in the USA rarity, I think it's worth its price.

I really wish Shinola luck in this endeavor. It would be great to see a US watch company become firmly established in the industry again. It would also be nice to see Detroit become known as the watchmaking capital of the US. That city could really use some good news. 

The Shinola Filson is one of those watches that goes well with a variety of different watch bands. It is pictured here on one of Johnny Torrez's (JStraps) wonderful creations. As an aside, if you want to treat yourself to a really superior watch band, check out Johnny's site.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

The Wristlet-The Beginning of the Man's Wristwatch

This review is more of a history lesson than it is a true review. The reason for that is because the subject of this post is a watch band, not the watch itself.  I got the idea for this review while idly searching on the world wide tag sale for Russian Molnija pocket watches. I have something of a soft spot for a nice pocket watch on an Albert chain and the old Russian Molnijas are, in my experience, rugged, affordable and pretty good looking too. (As an aside, for those folks who believe that Russian watchmakers could make only crude, undecorated movements, have a gander at the 1949 Molnija in the pic above. To my eye, it doesn't get much nicer than that. Pretty good work for a country that had been devastated just a few years earlier in the war and had not yet even remotely recovered. And it still keeps perfect time by the way) Anyway, while clicking around on ebay and gawking at the wares, I came across a Polish watch band maker who was selling some very strange looking watch bands for Molnija pocket watches. At first, I thought I was looking at some sort of strange bund style strap (the kind with the leather pad under the watch) Upon closer examination though, I saw that the band was really a sort of wrist mounted case for a pocket watch. Intrigued, I ordered one up and began to do some research about the design.

Long ago, before the 1870s, a wrist watch was considered a ladies accessory only.  Women, or women of means more likely,  had been wearing wrist watches apparently as far back as the days of Queen Elizabeth I. For men though, the situation was very different.  The notion of a wrist watch for a man was considered effeminate and thus completely inappropriate. Men were supposed to carry a proper pocket watch on a chain. Pocket watches were considered more accurate than a ladies wrist watch (which was probably true in the past given the nature of watch making) and a pocket watch was much safer in a man's vest pocket where it would be less subject to being banged around (this was in the days before shock, water and dust protected movements after all).

Where things began to change when it came to a man's wrist watch was in the area of combat.  At one time, coordinating a cavalry charge meant getting all the horses and men into position and then sounding a horn or making some other sort of loud noise as the signal for the attack to begin.  As time keeping technology improved though, soldiers realized that it was possible to coordinate complex attacks by designating the exact time for the armies to engage.  This had the advantage of keeping the element of surprise for the attacker by eliminating the need for sounding a horn and thus tipping off the other side that trouble was coming.  There was one problem though. Fumbling around with a pocket watch on a chain while on horse back (you are holding the horse's reins, and a weapon after all) was not a great idea.  The solution was the leather contraption that you see in the pictures above, the wristlet.

The basic idea for the wristlet was certainly simple enough.  Stitch a tough leather pocket to a leather strap. Leave one end of the pocket open so a pocket watch could be squeezed in and put a slot on the other side for the band to fit through to hold the watch in place. This way, a mounted soldier (either a cavalryman or a dragoon) could see the time easily without having to stop his horse and pull out a pocket watch.  Another plus, from a soldier of that time's perspective, was that you could take your pocket watch out of the wristlet and return it to your chain and vest pocket where it properly belonged (and thus not be though of as effeminate, God forbid).  The first instance where this was used, to my knowledge, was during the Third Burma War of 1885.  (For more historical background on this whole subject, see The Evolution of the Wristwatch and A Brief History of the Wristwatch.

From the field of battle, the wristlet got its introduction to the civilian world in the 1890s when people discovered the joys of bicycling. Bicycles were a lot cheaper than horses for getting around and, as a novelty, were very popular at the time. However, like the mounted soldiers before them, a pocket watch was quickly found to be unwieldy when used while riding a bicycle.  A military style wristlet was perfect though. And so, through cyclists, a second exception to the notion of a man's wrist watch being effeminate was made.  However, also like the soldiers before them, a cyclist was expected to return one's pocket watch to its proper chain after a ride.  It was not until WWI, where millions of soldiers, sailors and airmen strapped on wrist watches, that the idea of a man's wrist watch for regular wear took hold.  As such, the half step solution of the wristlet was now unneeded as modern wrist watches were now built for men with fixed lugs for permanently attached bands.

I find this odd timekeeping accessory fascinating.  It is another little window into the past that history fans like me cannot resist. The wristlet also gives me another way to wear my Molnija pocket watches beyond using a fob or chain.  I wouldn't recommend using a wristlet as a daily wearer as it is certainly a little odd looking. And there is no getting around the reality that an errant knock while wearing this could put a pocket watch out of action pretty quickly.  Still, I'm glad I have a wristlet now. It is a nice addition to my collection with an interesting story behind it.

Friday, May 20, 2016

The Vostok Amphibian SE GMT

I haven't been as active on this site lately as I was in past years.  Part of that is just life getting the way and part of it was simply finances.  After the fall of our economy in 2009 and the non-recovery that has followed for the past few years, I was hurt financially as were many others.  I didn't lose my job thankfully but times were not what I would call great.  Between that and seemingly nonstop demands on my time, I had to step back from this hobby.

While I cannot promise a large number of reviews per year, I do plan to try to be more active now.  And with that thought in mind, I present you with a new Vostok model, the GMT. The official designation for this model according to Meranom, a good online vendor for Russian watches, is the Amphibian SE 150520S.  I'm sticking with just calling it the GMT though. 

This watch is very much a traditional vostok model in most respects.  The typical Vostok heavy stainless steel case, complete with their signature two-part case back is still used.  The thick, domed acrylic crystal is still here as well.  Vostok's traditional "wobbly" (it is supposed to do that) screw-down crown is employed. And the Vostok luminous paint on the hands and face is still inadequate. All pretty well known stuff. 

There are a few departures from the usual Vostok way of doing things though.  The first addresses one of the complaints that many Vostok owners have had over the years.  The bezel on the GMT, while still bi-directional, is now made of stainless steel instead of the old chrome plated brass. That's a big plus that should allow the bezel to look nice and shiny for a long time. Another welcome change is that the watch actually ships with a good quality rubber diver's band. This is, quite possibly, the first Vostok I have encountered whose stock band did not need to be switched out and immediately disposed of. They are definitely learning. 

The big news with this watch, of course, is the movement.  The GMT is fitted with Vostok's 32 jewel 2426 automatic movement.  This is a derivation of the workhorse 2416b automatic movement that Vostok has built and relied upon for decades.  The big difference is that now, in place of a date function, Vostok has added a fourth hand to allow for simultaneous time keeping in two time zones.  

The 24 hour GMT hand on this watch is not independently settable.  That means that in order to use it, the wearer must rely on the 24 hour bezel to set the time in a different time zone.  As such, this is not a "true GMT" as watch collectors would say. However, this is a well known method for GMT watches to be used and it does work just fine here too. For a good explanation as to how to use a GMT btw, see here.  I am personally finding this feature to be really useful of late as my son now lives overseas.  It's great to be able to see what time it is for him with just a glance at my wrist before calling or texting him.

In terms of style, Vostok brought back its old 1970's version paddle hands for the GMT.  I think it looks terrific. Additionally, the watch now has a subdial at the 10 o'clock position for the seconds hand.  The case back has the image of a cosmonaut, possibly Yuri Gagarin, wearing a spacesuit helmet with the letters CCCP (the Russian way of saying USSR) across the top.

As for the detailed specs, the watch is 42mm in width (45mm with the crown), 14mm in thickness, 46mm lug to lug and has a 22mm band lug width.  The 32 jewel automatic movement has an approximate power reserve of 33 hours and is rated as accurate from -20 to +40 seconds daily.  In my experience, Vostok movements usually do better than that out of the box.  Water resistance is rated at 200 meters and the watch can be hand wound, in addition to using the automatic mechanism, but not hacked.  

Visually, the bezel is polished stainless steel while the watch case has a brushed finish. The hands appear chromed and the crystal is domed acrylic. It should be noted that while acrylic crystals can scratch easily, it is also very easy to polish out even big scratches with a cotton ball and some toothpaste. 

All in all, the GMT is a good looking and well made watch that should give many years of service. It works equally well on the stock rubber band or on an aftermarket bracelet as shown in the pictures above. It is also a very good buy.  $140 for an automatic GMT with high water resistance is really hard to argue with.     

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

The Brathwait Classic Slim Wristwatch Review

Brathwait is not a household name in the watch industry. They are, in fact, a recent start up with an unusual idea. Transparency.

Brathwait makes mens dress watches.  They have a quartz model (in gold plate and stainless) and an automatic model.  On their website, they give a detailed breakdown of the parts and prices that they pay to put together a watch. Their idea is this, you will get a watch from them that uses substantially the same components as watches that cost significantly more for a low price.  You will enjoy this benefit by dealing directly with the manufacturer and avoiding the various levels of retail markup that other good watches are subject to.

This is obviously not a new idea when it comes to product marketing. It is the first time I've seen it in the watch industry though.   Few people, even watch collectors, really know what the component costs are in a watch.  The bottom line is that the markup is pretty steep in most cases. And, while that is not a surprise, seeing the numbers in black and white on the Brathwait page is illuminating nonetheless.

Now as interesting as the business end of putting a watch together is, it wouldn't really matter much if the final product was not appealing.  Fortunately, that isn't an issue with the Classic Slim model. Visually, the Brathwait is a very clean and attractive design. The face is easy to read and the overall look of the watch suggests high quality. It is hard to quantify it but this watch has that certain feel that you get when you are holding something that is really well done.

By the numbers, the watch measures 40mm in diameter (but wears much larger thanks to the slim bezel), 7.5mm high and has a 20mm band lug width.  The crystal is domed anti-reflective sapphire fitted to a gold plated stainless steel case (Brathwait explains that their gold plating is 6 microns thick which should last a very long time).  There is no lume on the face or hands which is fine for a dress watch. Internally, this model is powered by a Swiss Ronda quartz movement, something of an industry standard that should work for a long time. Water resistance is rated at 100 meters which is honestly more than any dress watch needs but is nice to have anyway.  Brathwait sells this model on a pretty nice leather band (pictured above) with a matching gold plated deployment clasp or on a nylon band (which you might think wouldn't work with a dress watch and yet it does).

All told, for $150 to $185, the Brathwait Classic Slim is a pretty good deal. It is very handsome and made from quality components. Google around a bit and you will see that Brathwait has gotten some favorable press coverage for its efforts so far.  By the way, the company is named after Richard Brathwait, the 1631 author of The Complete Guide to the English Gentleman.

Thursday, July 09, 2015

LIP Nautic-Ski Electronic 1967 (2014 Reissue) Review

Most watch collectors when asked what a diver's watch looks like would have no trouble answering. Why they look like a Rolex Submariner, a Seiko SKX007, or an Omega Seamaster is what you would likely hear.  And for the most part these days, that is perfectly true.  A typical diver's watch has a heavy stainless steel case, a stainless steel bracelet or rubber diver's watch band and features a large bezel that rotates around the watch crystal. It doesn't really matter who makes them, from ten feet away they all look pretty much the same.

There was a time, however, when diver watches could look quite different from the typical example of today. Back in the mid 1950s, a diver watch design that looks very much like the example in the pictures above was created.  This type of diver watch was collectively known at the time as a compressor (or super compressor) watch.

Rather than go into a long-winded discussion of what constitutes a compressor watch, take a look at this excellent post over at Worn & Wound.  The gist is pretty straightforward. In a compressor, the rotating bezel is generally under the crystal and is operated by the second crown.  The watch type gets its name, compressor, because it uses water pressure itself to increase its water resistance by compressing the case seals. In a nutshell, a compressor's water resistance increases as the water pressure increases (up to the point of case failure of course).

At one time there were a dozen or so brands that manufactured compressor style diver watches. Today though, they are both pretty rare and not very wallet friendly.  The one exception (To the wallet friendly part at least. They are still hard to find) is the Lip Nautic-Ski.  First released in 1967, Fred Lip (then the head of Lip) named the watch after both water sports (Nautic) and his daughter Muriel's love of skiing (Ski).

The watch itself is available in both quartz and automatic versions.  While most watch collectors, myself included, would go for the automatic version of any watch if available, this is one of the rare occasions when the quartz version is closer to the original 1967 design and thus preferable in my view.  The original Nautic-Ski of the sixties used an unusual battery powered electro-mechanical movement that sort of split the difference between a modern quartz watch and a conventional spring driven movement.

The original 1967 Nautic-Ski measured 36mm in diameter, not including the crowns.  The re-issue you see above has been increased in size to 38mm in diameter (40mm including the crowns).  That may sound small by today's big-watch standards but the Nautic-Ski wears much larger than it is thanks to the narrow bezel (almost an all-dial design) and the 14.25mm case thickness which makes for a pretty tall watch.  The band lug width is 18mm, also narrow by today's standards but in keeping with the original design.

Internally, the Nautic-Ski is powered by a Ronda 515 quartz movement, a single jewel movement with a 45 month battery life and a day indicator. The crowns have cross-hatch decoration (like the original) and screw down.  The watch hands and face indicators are lumed but the duration of the lume in the dark is not great.  Not Vostok terrible mind you but the lume could be better. The crystal is a thick, domed mineral glass type and the case back screws down.

Visually, the Nautic-Ski is very attractive to my eye.  The combination of the domed crystal, the rotating bezel/chapter ring and the raised face markings create a watch with a lot depth to its look. It is available from Lip with the striped nato band pictured above or a leather band.  I think it would work well on a rubber diver band as well.

Finding a Nautic-Ski on this side of the pond is a bit tricky.  I picked up this example at a jewelry store on Rue de Commerce in Paris on a recent vacation.  The retail price was 350 Euros but my seller was willing to bargain that day so you may do better as well.

I really like the Nautic-Ski.  It is a very unique looking watch combining old style design elements with modern manufacturing. It appears to be solidly made and should make a good daily wearer.

As an aside, Lip has an interesting history as a watch company.  It was founded in 1867 by Emmanuel Issac Lippman in Besancon, France.  They were the first company in France to offer paid holidays to their employees.  Lip is supposedly the originator of the world's first electric watch. During the war, when France was occupied and the factories were seized, Fred Lip continued to develop new watches in the unoccupied southern half of France and was apparently very active in the French resistance. His parents, sadly, were arrested and deported to Auschwitz. Lip played a large role in getting the Russian watch industry off the ground by providing the Russians with the designs to what would become the movements for the Pobeda, Szvesda and Molnija watch models. The company was doubly battered by both the arrival of quartz watch technology in the seventies along with some very tumultuous labor problems.  In 1990, after going through a number of different reorganizations and bankruptcies, the company was purchased and is now apparently stable.  They are still located in Besancon despite all the ups and downs.  More about Lip is available here, here and here.

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