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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