On Time Keeping- From Octavia's Attic
In the opening scene of the seminal 1969 movie Easy Rider, which my parents screened for me at a scandalously young age, Wyatt (Peter Fonda) and Billy (Dennis Hopper) remove their watches, leaving them behind in the gravel. The same abandonment of measured time is a ritual followed by the Trippers who lead canoe trips at Camp White Pine; they have the campers remove their watches (then placed in a water-proof bag till the end of the trip). On my first trip, I was unable to participate: I was watch-less. I’d never considered the possibility of keeping time. Before the next summer my Dad bought me a Timex Expedition watch, a grey face, with lumed numbers and hands, on a stitched, uncoated leather strap. As I recall, I managed to complete the ritual time abandonment just once before I lost the watch all together. My next watch was a Victorinox with a totally superfluous divers bezel that I received for my Bar Mitzvah and wore for a number of years before also losing it. I had other, cheap, battery-powered quartz watches up till college, which I also lost, at which point my first cellphone replaced watches all together. It was only in my first full-time professional job, when I tried to check the time and found that my phone was dead, that I began earnestly seeking a new watch, for practical reasons. After trawling through the vast offerings of cheap and expensive mass-produced items, I found that while quartz watches offered the greatest accuracy and affordability, I was drawn to vintage mechanical timepieces. There I found a different philosophy of timekeeping, available to those who are willing to trade a small amount of accuracy in time prediction in favor of physicality, craftsmanship, and history, such that I doubt I will ever wear a quartz watch again.
Seiko produced the first quartz watch, the Astron, in 1969, the completion of a literal race against time. It was not the first electronic watch, which was sold by Hamilton, a venerable Lancaster, PA watchmaking company in 1957, or even the first watch that relied on something other than the resonant frequency of a balance spring (the dominant mechanical regulator since it was added to the balance wheel in 1657). Bulova released the Accutron in 1960, which used a 360 hertz tuning fork (visible in their “spaceview” editions) instead of a balance wheel to achieve accuracy that blew away even the finest mechanical watches—guaranteed to lose no more than a minute a month. In a way, the Accutron was a transitional moment, between mechanical timekeeping and quartz. You could see the inner-workings, and it was a literal, visible tuning fork: producing a distinct humming sound. By contrast, the quartz movement works invisibly, silently, and with uncanny accuracy: 32768 hertz, compared to the Accutron’s 360 hertz. And while it was initially a luxury good, right down to a somewhat traditionally finished ¾ plate movement, with the battery taking the visual place of the balance wheel, the process of producing the absurdly precise, hidden quartz tuning fork was largely automated, and the cost of quartz watches soon fell well below that of mechanical watches. This sparked what many refer to as the “Quartz Crisis”, as for over a decade Swiss companies shed the skilled craftsmen responsible for hand-finishing mechanical movements, and eventually worked to save their industry through the “Swatch”, a mass-produced quartz watch encased in plastic, making what was once a luxury the sort of disposable good that I lost repeatedly from middle-school through the beginning of college.
When I determined I needed a watch, I went and looked in earnest at the watch selection at the Macy’s at Downtown Crossing in Boston. Usually this was a section I glanced at as I walked through quickly, trying to avoid the hungry eyes of the experts of the watch section, but I was on a mission. All the watches gleamed as though rubbed lightly in oil, from within a perfectly lit, hermetically sealed glass display case, as I recall. When I asked to see a particular model of an ultra-thin Skagen on a matte gray rubber bracelet, the sales associate, with what I’m sure portended a future drone-racing league dexterity, presented it to me in its lacquered-plastic, and pillowed coffin. Instead of a purposeful timepiece, I appraised the flimsy gray herring of the future I would wear on my wrist. This was not, I realized, an heirloom. My Dad, who is a watch-wearer, has a late 60s, stainless steel Omega watch, in simplistic modern style, given to him by my Mother’s parents when he and my mother got engaged. I know he has enjoyed wearing it, except when it was broken, which seemed fairly often. I realized in looking at the Skagen that I’d always coveted this watch. When it works, it ticks. If it’s quiet, and you’re close, you can hear the result of gears pronouncing time with soothing continuity. Meanwhile, the second hand sweeps comfortably around the face of the watch, as though enjoying smooth travel in a canoe across a flat lake, so unlike the excruciating herky-jerky of quartz watches, every second a unique struggle, that you fear may be its last. If it is, you can just get the battery changed, buy a new one, but as with the loss of any watch, it feels inconvenient at best, and sometimes scary to spend time without knowing how you’re spending it and to potentially spend it unwisely. But a mechanical watch must be serviced periodically, like preventative medicine, or more accurately, like a clean and oil change, since it’s often dried out oils, and the resulting friction, that causes the watch to break in expensive ways. A battery is cheap, and if a quartz watch breaks, you look hopefully at the fine-print of your warranty and then just go get another one. I realized, standing in that Macy’s that I did not want to keep disposable time.
Macy’s also carries some automatic watches, but there seemed to be only two options, sometimes combined in the same watch, which lead me to explore the secondary market. The defining aesthetic of many of the watches seemed to be “chunky”: enormous oversized faces that dwarfed my slender wrist, adorned with divers bezels that were functional, but seemed inappropriate on a watch that was only “Water Resistant to 25 meters”. Many had finishes so glossy I worried that a fingernail would scratch them, and I’d need to somehow wax, or make time every week to polish them. Meanwhile, Hamilton timepieces, such as the Jazzmaster, were over $500—I wasn’t totally naïve; I’d been studying pocket-watches on Ebay for several months, and thought I might enjoy carrying one, an affectation for which I had virtually no explanation, but through which I had gained a basic understanding both of the mechanics at the heart of a watch movement, and the mechanics of the watch-collecting scene, which seemed at least in part to be defined by a bizarre range in the cost of different watches. A late vintage Ingersoll “Yankee Dollar” watch (originally released in 1896, by a company whose assets would later be bought by the Waterbury Clock Company in 1922, which later morphed into Timex), keeping time within a couple minutes a day, and in relatively good visual condition could be had for around $50, whereas a broken Patek Phillipe pocket-watch, in an after-market gold-filled Keystone case (as an old luxury brand, it probably started in at least a 14K solid-gold watch, which must have been scrapped by someone unfamiliar with the brand, and eager to get quick cash-for-gold) regularly reached over $500. Cheap ones that worked in the original case could be had for around $3000. Meanwhile, I had become infatuated with the Howard watch company, which operated in Boston in the 19th century. Mostly, since I lived and worked in Roxbury, I thought the provenance of the watch was cool, but since they made watches for a relatively brief period, before being bought by the Keystone Watch Case Company, who produced an inferior product labeled “E. Howard Boston”, the originals commanded a premium. Still, these old pocket-watches would occasionally go for less than a Hamilton Jazzmaster, which featured the most retro designs, and sold for around $500 at Macy’s; I’d of course seen many Hamilton pocket-watches, and thus knew they were a venerable, and originally American company, based out of Lancaster, PA. As a compromise, I sought out a Hamilton timepiece, and though their Thin-o-matic line offered the modern look I craved in a very slim package, my time pining after American-made pocket-watches left me wishing for an American-made watch. American watch making had mostly petered out by the time automatic watches were coming into vogue. Elgin made a couple fat “bumper” models, which was essentially a manual movement with a pivoting weight that swung back and forth as the wearer moved, powering the mainspring. Eventually, I added one of these to my collection, but it was an earlier, manual wind Hamilton, that was the first I felt fulfilled my need to keep time, while paying it the proper respect.
I had been watching different watches for some time and manage to snipe this one, a 25-years of service watch inscribed to a cement company worker in 1948, for just $37. According to the listing, it had been serviced, (though that seemed unlikely, since on any given day it would lose a couple minutes or more). It was 14K gold-filled, with a small amount of brassing, where the gold had been rubbed away on the lugs, and featured solid, though incredibly thin 18K gold numbers on the rectangular face. By today’s standards it’s small, smaller than many women’s’ watches, but it fit my wrist perfectly. Its dimensions make it unobtrusive, but the patina on the face, and the wear, make it instantly recognizable as an antique: a watch that had been dutifully keeping a version of time for many years. And at its heart is the 982 tonneau movement (based on an E. Howard design!), which provides its own testament to the value of time: a high-grade movement designed for small scale production, each watch likely taking hundreds of hours to make, all made in America, where the ore was mined, smelted, and then made into a special alloy for the hand-pulled and wound Breguet mainspring, the nickel of the plate was machined and then hand-finished with Geneva Waves (parallel lines brushed into the flat metal of the plate), an escapement wheel in a gold setting, and 19 ruby boules, grown in the Hamilton laboratories, four visible in gold settings, each numbered. This level of American craftsmanship and direct sourcing of materials (even including lubricants specially made by Hamilton) probably doesn’t exist anywhere anymore. By contrast, Shinola’s “Made in Detroit” watches are hand-assembled in Detroit; all the parts of the movement are made in Switzerland. Meanwhile, the level of finish, while below that of the later 982M (featuring rhodium plating, gold inscription, and an inset gold medallion on the bridge), is now only available in high-end luxury watches. The closest modern analogue is probably RGM Watch Co, which carries on Hamilton’s tradition, operating out of Lancaster, PA, hand-making and machining beautiful watches, inside and out. But these watches, and many other luxury brands, feature a sapphire viewing crystal in the back. Before these became de rigueur, most owners would never have seen the beautiful secret heart of time inside the case. Finally, in addition to the belief in the inner-workings of time, the most important aspect of the vintage Hamilton I bought, unlike an automatic, or the battery powered watches that most wear carelessly on their wrists, is that the time keeping cannot be taken for granted: after almost two days, it needs to be wound—a ritual, like giving up a watch for a canoe trip, that makes one stop and consider time faithfully, if not perfectly kept, and anticipate time and events yet to arrive.