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

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