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.     
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