Monday, February 27, 2006

First eBay watch...

My first watch on eBay, a Poljot Strela. This was perhaps my best purchase: with postage and handling, €104.60.

Damn did I luck out. I remember that it ended at a strange time, something like 11 AM on a Sunday. I hadn't started using sniper software and my reserve was €127.76, so I was very happy to not have spent that much.

The story behind this watch is a bit more complex than my previous Poljot.

The movement is the Poljot 3017, which is based on the classic Venus 175. It's a very smooth operating chronograph.

But the real story is that this is one of two watches that is/were certified for space walks. There are a number of watches that are space-certified, from the absolutely classic and immortal Omega Speedster Professional to a lowly but technically perfect plastic Casio.

But only the Strelas and the Speedsters were certified for extra-vehicular activity. Not that this particular watch left the planet, but you get the idea.

However, this watch has got a few problems.

First, the hands are not "right". They are the original hands, but Poljot has the infuriating habit of mixing up some of its products. These hands - straight batons, no lume - are for the civilian market. There are paddle hands - the same as these, but with a long rectangle about 2/3rds of the way up the hand, filled with lume, and with red tips from there on - that are the classic hands of this watch. You can see a good picture of the proper hands here. It's from a Sekonda, but that is just a name difference. The watch is the same. The watch came basically in at least 8 versions: black and white (creme) dial, paddle hands or not, Poljot or Sekonda, and English or Cyrillic inscriptions.

Why would they make a watch with different hands? The answer lies in the Soviet planned economy: in all likelihood, they simply ran out of the correct paddle hands and in order to meet their production norms, substituted the simple hands you see here. No planned model differentiation, simply planned economies.

The perfect Strela would be a black or white face, paddle hands, Poljot with Cyrillic inscription on the face. These are as rare as hen's teeth and they go for, in excellent condition, for 3-4 times what I paid for mine.

So what's the big deal on space watches?

Like I said, there are only two watches that have been actually used for space walks. This and the Speedster. The reason is that space is one hell of an environment for anything: extremes of hot and cold, the watch moves from a pressure environment to a no-pressure environment, and vacuum means that the oils and lubricants start to outgas what little volatiles they have, changing their nature and shortening their useful lives. Add to that the fact that metals mesh differently under atmosphere and in vacuum (since there is no atmosphere to act as a microlubricant to prevent molecular bonding), and you can see the kind of challenges that face any watch that wants to be certified for extra-vehicular excursions.

The Omega Speedmaster was the only watch that met these specifications without any modifications. We don't know if the Strela was modified in any way.

The other problem that this watch has is that it has a slight tendency to "stick" when it's been lying in the watch case for a couple of months: you can wind it up and it won't start ticking. If you give the case a little tap on the side, it starts right up.

This means one of two things: either the watch needs a complete disassembly, cleaning and reassembly, possibly replacing either the balance wheel spring - the heart of any watch - and costing significant money (it's a chronograph, a complication, which means that it's harder to take apart), or that it's an old watch that needs just a little help to get started.

I took it to the master watchmaker that does most of the work on my watches. He's a guy who likes to lecture me on why I shouldn't be buying such cheap watches - he's right, of course, but explain that to my wife - and who has done some real wonders getting my old Gruens to run so beautifully.

His opinion: it's an old watch. It needs a little love tap to get started - those were his words, "Liebesstoss" or love tap - like many older watches. The balance wheel spring is fine, the gear train is fine, the lubrication is fine: it's just an old watch. It was last worked on just a couple of years ago, he said, and after looking at the watch for about 3 minutes, including a minute under the microscope, he said that it was clean and running very well.

Sure, he could tear it apart and rebuild it. Would cost probably around €200 for him to do it - he's expensive, but very, very good - but he didn't want to. Why?

He gave two reasons. First, the kind of chronograph it is - based on the Venus 175 - is a classic pillar-wheel chronograph. These are not the simplest of designs, as can be seen here (Hi, Velociphile). Couldn't find a schematic of the 175, let alone the 3017, but here is a picture of the 175 from Ranfft, and here the 3017.

Since the watch keeps excellent time - had a mean variance of +7 seconds/day over 1 month - there was, in his opinion, little reason to fiddle with something that was working so well. Hence his recommendation of not wearing it too much and when it really starts sticking, such that it's not a question of a love tap but more a slap in the face, then it's time to take it apart and put it all back together again.

But his opinion was that these chronographs are often very problematic, since they tend to "settle" into a working mode that gets disrupted when you introduce new parts: they then must find a new equilibrium, as it were, that more often than not means that when you repair the watch, it will not perform as well until everything meshes back together, and that getting the complications to work properly is not a trivial task.

So I'll enjoy this space-rated watch while I can.
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Sunday, February 26, 2006

My First Poljot...

Sorry, got sidetracked for a few days.

And this post got delayed as well from last night.

The Poljot above is a very basic Poljot, which I bought from ChronoNet. No longer there, unfortunately. But you can find it here.

What was I doing buying a Russian watch?

Very simple. The Fortis is, for me, still one of the more expensive watches I own (I'm a tightwad when it comes to my hobbies), and I didn't want to take it with me on vacation to the US.

So I was looking for what I would now call a beater watch, one that if you beat it to death, you don't get all upset about. I had set a strict, very strict, budget of €100 maximum, and was looking to see what kind of watch you could get for that price that had at least a small modicum of style/panache/whatever.

Why? Well, even someone who is as stingy about things like this as I am wants to have a modicum of style. In other words, there are watches that I simply won't wear, since they either remind me of times when I was so broke that I couldn't afford anything better than the cheapest no-name, or simply weren't my style.

I was searching for something that would have a certain style without breaking my budget and for the very, very first time did the search on the Internet. We are talking, what, 2002 or so.

The watch is built around the classic Poljot 2614 caliber, 17 jewels, with calendar, 21'600 bph, officially -20/+40s per day, power reserve 42 hours, manual wind.

Identifying the pedigree of this caliber is both simple and hard: on the one hand, it is the workhouse caliber of the Russian watch industry (well, what is left of it); on the other hand, a cursory search on more information on the caliber doesn't lead to much. I remember speculation that it is based on the French LIP movement of the 1950s, but what with the WUS database crash, that thread may be lost forever. Will have to check on that.

It came originally with your bog-standard aviator strap, black leather with white stitching, and I was very pleased with it: solid, screw-down crown, very assertive watch.

And then the troubles began. I had dealt with screw-down crowns before, since the Fortis has one, and thought I knew what I had to do: unscrew it mornings, wind the watch, screw it back down and that's it.

Three days after the watch arrived, the problems started. It was just a tiny, tiny smidge of condensation on the inside of the crystal, the tiniest of smudges. The weather was a typical German end-of-winter/begin-of-spring kind of weather: cold and rainy. And very, very humid.

I decided that I didn't want to have to send the watch back and instead wore the watch with the crown unscrewed in the hope that the humidity levels in the watch would adjust to ambient and the condensation would cease. It did, just took a couple of days to do so.

The watch kept very decent time, not as good as the Fortis, but very decent nonetheless. After wearing it for 2-3 weeks it was within 15 seconds +/- a day, usually on the fast side.

I wore it on our 2002 trip to the US, where we spent time in New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona and Utah.

The condensation problem came back with a vengeance. The climate in these states is so dry that you really do need to drink 2-3 gallons of water/day to avoid exhaustion and getting run down, and the high temperatures there increased the evaporation of whatever the moisture source was significantly. Undoing the crown and letting the watch more or less bake in the sun for a couple of hours a day (on the dashboard of our rental car) didn't really help all that much.

But the watch kept on ticking and keeping time very well. So I kept on wearing it, despite it being fairly hard to read through the collection of water drops on the inside of the crystal.

When we got back, I contacted ChronoNet and sent the watch back. He sent me back pictures of what the water condensation had done to the watch (I have no idea of where those pictures are...) , which, given the severity of the condensation and the amount of time that the watch was subjected to water in the works, was fairly minimal.

The connection rod between the crown and the winding mechanism was rusted, as was the sleeve. It wasn't that bad, but rust and watches don't get along real well in general.

He repaired it under warranty, despite feeling that the problem was on my side. Good dealer.

Since then: no problems. None whatsoever, zilch, nada. The only thing that I notice is that he didn'l clean, when he had the chance, the inside of the crystal, which, if you look really carefully - the above picture is useless for that purpose - has some drying marks where the condensation was particularly bad.

So what is the moral of the story?

Russian watches can take an incredible amount of abuse and keep on working under conditions where their more sophisticated counterparts would have given up the ghost. It is one of the two watches I wear when I go to the sauna: the other is a quartz watch that my youngest daughter persuaded me to buy when on eBay for much too much money (but still under €100), but that is another story.

This watch simply kept on working. The rust was limited to the parts mentioned above: the 2614 was completely unaffected by the condensation problems.

Today I have it on an original Poljot band which unfortunately is a bit of a hair-puller, which means that it doesn't get all that much wrist time. But once a week isn't bad: despite the terrible abuse that a sauna means for a watch (temperature of +100°C for 15 minutes, followed by 17° water immersion, repeat, then 20 minutes at 70° C with a 22° water immersion, etc etc), the Poljot deals with it as if it were nothing.
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Sunday, February 19, 2006


So this is the next watch I acquired. A bog-standard Fortis Aviator, 34mm in size. I've got small wrists, so I chose this one over a 38mm version because it looks better on the wrist.

I bought it after looking for a new watch for about 3 months during the last year I worked in Basel, Switzerland. I had been there for over 6 years and it was becoming clear to me that it was time to move on; I wanted a bit of a souvenir as well. This is back in 1996.

Fortis is one of the smaller Swiss makers that has specialized on aviation and aerospace watches, and are a supplier to the Russian cosmonauts for their official mission watches. This particular model is the 620.10.41.

Why this particular watch?

Well, first of all it fit my budget. Alway important, that.

Second, I had done some research and found that there were simply so many watches made with the ETA 2824-2. Hence I wanted something different, something that not everyone would have.

Companies like Tissot make fine watches, but they're simply, for me, too easily available. There's no sense of uniqueness, since they're mainstream watch makers.

Fortis, on the other hand, has a long history of supplying aviator watches. The company started up in 1912 (all info from their website) and were the makers of the very first automatic watch, the Harwood, in 1926. They won a design award at the Hannover fair in 1987 for their modern automatic flyer chronographs, and in 1994 the Russians chose Fortis to supply the Chronographs of the Russian space missions.

This means that Fortis has joined that relatively small circle of manufacturers that make watches that are technically able to handle space flight: Omega and Bulova are two others, and while the Russians used Shturmanskies and Strela watches from the 1st Moscow Watch Factory, they didn't make the grade in 1994 (there's a long story there).

Anyway, I've had this particular watch for almost 10 years. I wore it almost all the time from 1996 to 2004, a full 8 years, with virtually no problems. I went through a total of 5 straps, all original Fortis - and these were usually pretty hard to find - black with white stitching.

The strap you see here is not original, but rather a Poljot strap that I thinks works fine with the watch.

The accuracy of the classic 2824-2 is excellent: I usually would set the watch on Sunday morning, and it would rarely be off more than 1-2 minutes per week, which is excellent performance from such a basic caliber.

I started to wear it less when I began to collect watches.

After letting it gather some dust in the drawer, I started to wear it on and off, and noticed the first problem: setting the date got a little difficult, and I had to start setting it not by the quick date method, but by running the hands past midnight for each day.

So I sorta stopped wearing it, because it became more trouble than it was worth. But every once in a while I'd realize that the date was set (the month had turned) and I'd wear it a couple of days for old time's sake.

At some point I thought I'd give my oldest daughter a treat and let her wear it. She really, really liked the idea and wore the watch for a couple of weeks. One day, though, I noticed that she wasn't wearing it and asked why: she said that she had worn it while playing volleyball and that it had stopped working.

Uh oh, I thought. Sure enough, heavily scuffed and battered, and the tiny little ding you see between 9 and 10 in the casing was there. In addition, the watch really wasn't working; you could feel the automatic mechanism, the winding mechanism, sort of rolling around in the back, but no energy was being fed into the main spring, so of course it wasn't keeping time, and when I tried winding it by hand nothing happened.

So I took it to the watchmakers, a new one, to see what could be done.

Broken balance wheel post; winding mechanism stripped (gear teeth broken and twisted), winding post broken.

My dear, sweet daughter, all of 14, had slammed the watch. The glass was severely scratched up as well (mineral glass).

Now, this meant severe repairs. New balance wheel post, new winding mechanism, plus cleaning and oiling. Ouch.

But it was the watch I bought to commemorate my six years in Basel, and I knew that fixing the watch would be cheaper than replacing it.

I paid 398 Swiss France for the Watch in 1996, ca €160 with the exchange rate back then (to DM and then to €). I paid €200 to have the 2824-2 taken apart, repaired, cleaned, oiled and regulated; they also replaced the glass and put on a new crown.

But the case itself has been distorted from true round and the watch could not be made water resistant to 10m again: it is, at best, nicely protected against rain and dust, but given that the case opening is now slightly oval (never underestimate what a 14-year old can do to a watch!) and the glass is round, any sort of real pressure would break the seal.

It was the first and the last time for the watchmaker in question: they could have asked if I wanted to replace the 2824-2 with a new one instead of repairing the old one, since a new 2824-2 would've dropped the cost considerably: instead of taking the watch apart (removal of the watchworks from the case, removal of hands, removal of face, complete disassembly for cleaning and replacement, reassembly with new parts and oiling, reattachment of face and hands, reassembly in case) they could've skipped the disassembly and repair work and simply replaced the 2824-2 entirely. I've looked on eBay and found them going for as low as €69 for the basic caliber, which is what is inside the Fortis.

The repair would've been almost as expensive, but I would've had a better repair job. That's why I won't use them again: they didn't give me the option, which, given the damage to the watch, is something that should've been an option.

The watch gets fair wrist time, probably about 10% of the time. It's got two problems, even after the repair (and probably a function of the repair): it still has troubles setting the date (the winding post, when pulled out to set the date, tends to slip, meaning that setting the date isn't as smooth as it should be), and I have the subjective feel that the winding post is somehow wobbly. It's got two years' guarantee on the repair work, so I might take it back in at some point, but fear that all I would end up having is yet more repair work done.

The time-keeping qualities haven't changed significantly, so it's still a keeper and one well worth wearing.

Would I buy it again?

Certainly. It's a great watch.

As an aside, Fortis sued Poljot, the Russian maker of watches, and won an injunction against Poljot selling its Aviator series of watches in Germany and Switzerland. The reason? The design was too similiar, according to the court, to the watch that won the design award in 1987. How close?

Not that close. What set off the lawsuit were two watch resellers, one on eBay and one on the web, who advertised the Poljot Aviator I as being the same design as the Fortis.

While there certainly are some similiarities - I'll post them tomorrow - the differences between the two are, in my opinion, large enough that the comparison isn't fair: the Fortis wins hands down. But the real bone of contention was the marketing of the Poljot as being functionally a Fortis: this is what got the Aviator I banned. Didn't have anything to do with Poljot - except that resellers really should learn how to market something on its own qualities, rather than based on something that it isn't - and Fortis was certainly within its rights to nail the resellers.

More tomorrow on Fortis - which one I'd buy today - and Poljot... Posted by Picasa

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Mechanical Watches...

So why mechanical watches?

After all, quartz watches are generally more accurate, have become dirt cheap - Walmart sells 'em for only a couple of bucks, hardly more than the batteries cost - and you can get them almost anywhere. Broken? Throw it away. Stop working right? Throw it away. Scratched up and battered? Throw it away.

Mechanical watches are something completely different.

There is no logical reason to buy a mechanical watch. There is nothing that a quartz can't do better.

But a quartz watch is like the Terminator: relentless, heartless, inexhaustible, and doesn't need people. Put in the right battery and it'll keep on ticking until doomsday. OK, let's hope you need a battery the size of the empire state building, but you get the idea.

A mechanical watch shouldn't be anthromorphised into some sort of living thing: it isn't.

But a mechanical watch needs people: it will stop working if the owner doesn't take care of it. Now. I'm a father, I know all about that sort of stuff.

But what makes a mechanical watch different from a quartz is that mechanical watches are perhaps the ultimate in mechanical engineering, with extremely high levels of precision and intricate design. The fundamentals of horology, the science of time keeping equipment, aren't all that difficult: you've got a power source that is released in a controlled manner, thus measuring time. In the basic watch, without any complications, there are no wasted parts, no unnecessary stuff going on: the mechanical watch is a highly evolved time-measuring device.

The key is in the details.

I'll be posting links here in the next couple of days regarding how watches really work.

So why a mechanical watch, once again?

While I said that a watch isn't a living thing, in some ways it's about as close as you are going to find for a purely mechanical device. The balance of a modern watch - and it took a long time to get to that - oscillates around a central point, almost absent-mindedly ticking the beats away as it swings first one way and then the other. This is the heart, so to speak, of the watch: if your balance isn't running smoothly, then everything else in the watch, even if perfectly ok, isn't going to help you keep time worth a darn.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Breil Quartz, ca. 1984

This is a picture of the Breil, a recent one. The band is different from the original one, which I was never really able to find again. The crown has also been replaced, as the original was very much worn, and it's not the best replacement, since the original was better rounded, while this one would have been better on a more business-like watch. However, it is in the original size, which is better than having some monster crown that would've been entirely out of place. This was done sometime in the late 1980s in Washington, DC.

It's an unusual watch for a quartz: decentral second hand, fixed band lugs (that's right, the watch band is glued into place, meaning it's both expensive and reltivaly hard to find) and it's a fairly small watch, around 33mm.

But it's quite a homage to classic manual wind Swiss watches of the 1950s and before. Just like many watches of these days, the lume is non-existent. But look at the dimensions of the watch and its design: there's a lot of harmony on the face of the watch. The hour hand is clearly shorter than the minute hand; the pointer doesn't quite reach the inner circle. The numbers - 12, 2, 4, 6, 8, 10 - are in raised gold with angles cut into the letters to maximize their legibility, using reflection to capture light. The minute hand reaches exactly the middle of the dot at 1, 3, 5, 7, 9 and 11, adding to the harmonic dimensions of the watch.

What sorta kinda ruins the face is the name of the model (Bartholemy) in the cursive script at the bottom of the decentral second hand. On the top third of the watch face you have a strong serif font for the company name and the movement, nicely spaced; the writing of the model name is in some sort of silly cursive font. If they had avoided this completely, putting the model name on the back of the watch, then it'd be okay. As is, it always annoyed me, deep down inside, as being out of place with the rest of the watch face. Posted by Picasa


Well, this blog has been very pathetic to date. I spend most of my blogging time, scant as it is, on my other blog.

So this post marks a change to the blog as a whole: it's now my watch blog. :-)

I've always been fascinated by watches. My grandfather, a very successful sheet-metal engineer, was a watch freak. My father says he would rarely walk into a jewelry store without coming out with a new watch, usually trading in the old one for some (probably imagined, given the kind of watches he bought) imperfection. Didn't inherit any of his watches, I was too young when he died. He did give my father a marvelous Omega when he got his PhD, but my father is left-handed and it was always irritating for him to more or less have to wear the watch on the "wrong" side, and it usually languished in his desk drawer, while my father wore inexpensive watches. I always remember the feel of the Omega, with its feel of incredible quality and seriousness: this wasn't merely a instrument to measure time, but went beyond that to have its own qualities.

I started collecting only a few years ago. Before then I would occasionally acquire a new watch when I broke one, or when the wear and tear and scratches made it too scuzzy to wear. I recently found one of these ancient beasts, a Casio from the mid-1970s, with a broken plastic band and no way to replace it. I think the first watch that I consciously made an effort to buy that was more than just an instrument to tell time with was when I was studying in Germany. My girlfriend of the time (and now my wife for the last 16 years and counting) and I went to Basel with some friends (Christoph and Bärbel, if I remember correctly) and I had more money than I thought I had due to a better exchange rate, and decided to get a nice watch instead of a simple watch.

I bought a Breil quartz watch. It was down to that or a Tissot mechanical, which one I can't remember. Breil had just gone through one of its rebirthings as a watch company and had abandoned its mechanical background (not much of one, admittedly), and came out with a very retro line of watches. The one I bought had a wonderful calf-skin band of light beige leather that set off the gold plating of the watch beautifully, and the back was smooth and polished. It had a seconds dial at the 6, which was - and is - very unusual for a quartz watch and I thought it was the cat's meow. Cost me something like CHF 200 back when, and I think I wore it for the next 4 or 5 years.

As a result, of course, the watch is a now a disaster: while the gold plating has held up, the crown was rubbed down seriously and the glass is unsightly due to scratching. Haven't worn in it years now.

But getting back to why I collect watches: it started when I was working in Basel. I worked there for 6 years and when I realized I needed to move on, I bought a new watch as a souvenir. Swiss watches, of course, range in price from the practical to the ridiculous, and given that I didn't have *that* much money to spend, I bought a Fortis 34 mm Aviator, blasted stainless steel, with an ETA 2824-2 hacking caliber inside, for around CHF 480 from a small jeweller near the Theater. I wore that watch every day for around 6 years as well, going through about 5 bands during that time period. It got scratched and needed to be repaired, but I never got around to bringing it in. I admired other watches, but always from afar, never thinking of buying a watch for a couple of thousand because I had a wife and kids to take care of first.

Then one day my wife and I decided that we were going to go the States with my daughters. I decided that I didn't want to take the Fortis with me, but rather wanted to get what I would now call a beater watch, one that can take a beating and which wouldn't upset me if it was destroyed or stolen whilst on vacation. I looked at Casios and whatever kind of electronic watches, and came across Poljot and realized that for my budget - 100 DM - I could get a mechanical watch that while not as elegant or refined as the Fortis, certainly looked good.

But why a mechanical watch? Stay tuned and I'll tell y'all...