The world of watches is a strange place. The best watches tend to be relatively inexpensive, while some rather poor watches are priced out of range of all but the very wealthy. By “best” and “poor”, I’m referring not to subjective things like aesthetics. I’m not even going to bother thinking about whether a Gucci watch is “better” than a Prada watch. I don’t give a rat’s ass about either of them. I mean the qualities that watchmakers have striven for centuries to achieve: accuracy, reliability, and useful features.
It’s pretty common knowledge that a $20 Timex is much more accurate than a $20,000 Patek Phillipe. From a purely practical point of view, the Timex is a better watch in almost every respect. So why is it that I am so drawn to look at these crazy expensive mechanical watches?
How is a modern quartz watch superior to a mechanical watch? Let us count the ways:
- More accurate.
- Many, many features can be added at little additional cost. Perpetual calendar, chronograph, multiple alarms, time zones, countdown-timer, the list goes on and on. All in one $20 watch. Even that stupid moon-phase complication that mechanical watchmakers are so inexplicably fond of (I mean, who cares?) could be thrown in easily.
- No periodic cleaning or lubrication required.
- Some quartz watches don’t even need regular battery replacement. They use solar or kinetic power. (They do still have an internal rechargeable battery that does eventually wear out.)
- Rugged, insensitive to shock, vibration, or strong magnetic fields.
- Can be made pretty much as small as you like, limited only by your ability to operate the tiny little controls.
- A tiny fraction of the cost.
- If replacing batteries is a pain, just buy 1000 Timexes instead of one Patek Phillipe, and you’ll never have to replace a battery.
To be sure, the mechanical movement has a few advantages of its own:
- Many wind themselves, so no need to replace batteries.
- Immune to the effects of Nuclear Magnetic Pulse (for what it’s worth.)
- If civilization collapses into a primitive post-apocalyptic chaos, smart people may be able to figure out how it works and fix it for you.
- Probably will operate over a wider range of temperature than a quartz watch (batteries and LCDs are affected by temperature.) Certainly much wider you’d care to be subjected to.
I was thinking of adding that mechanical watches can be repaired when they break down. But really, that’s true of quartz watches too. They can be repaired… in theory. But nobody does. It’s cheaper to replace them. And far cheaper to replace a quartz watch than to repair a mechanical one.
And yet, despite all their weaknesses, I find myself drawn to them. I admire them, not because they are good watches, but for the skill and craftsmanship it takes to make them do what they do, as well as they do it, despite the huge handicap of not having any modern electronics.
There is a lot of great human ingenuity in those mechanical watches. The beating heart of even the earliest mechanical watches, the escapement, is a wonderfully clever invention. The way it releases tiny bursts of power from the mainspring, at precise intervals, to drive the rest of the gear train. And it’s still the heart of a mechanical watch today, after hundreds of years of refinements.
Other developments have impressed me. The column wheel mechanism that controls the operation of chronographs (stopwatches). And the tourbillon escapement, invented by Breguet in 1795, is amazing. It minimizes the effect of gravity on the escapement by putting the entire escapement inside a cage that slowly revolves, so that the gravitational pull on the escapement averages out, over time, to zero. (There’s some debate as to whether the complicated tourbillon really make any difference, but still, you have admire the ingenuity.)
This video shows an amazing three-axis tourbillon that just blows my mind (normal tourbillons work in only one axis):
So, I admire many of these mechanical watches.
They cost much more to manufacture than quartz watches. Yet I still find them way overpriced. Back when there were no quartz watches, mechanical watches were expensive, but not like they are now. Their practical value is very small, so instead they have become jewellery. A fashion statement. In many cases, that statement is “I have money to burn, and very refined tastes upon which to burn it. Envy me.” In the world of jewellery, the higher the price, the more desirable it becomes.
Yet nobody wants to be ripped off. Not even Bill Gates wants to be ripped off. He doesn’t want to pay $100/sq.ft. to reshingle his roof when Joe Average pays $10. He probably will, because he can, and because it’s not worth his time to sort that shit out. But if he finds out he’s been scammed, he’ll still be pissed off. Nobody wants to be made a fool.
I feel people buying Audemars Piguet watches are being exploited in exactly that way.
To make people willing, even eager, participants in their own exploitation takes some kind of serious marketing. That’s why you see James Bond wearing an Omega watch. If James Bond was real, why would he want to wear an Omega mechanical watch? It’s a crap watch. Maybe because it will impress the wealthy (and equally vain) villain he’s trying to bring down, but there’s no other good reason. Maybe he just admires the craftsmanship, like I do.
A big chunk of your money must be going into paying for all that marketing. Full page ads in the glossiest and most-expensive magazines. Lavish Flash-based web-sites full of gorgeous slow-motion videos. All so obviously designed to extract large sums of money from people who can afford any high-priced doodad that comes along.
The most insultingly transparent marketing I’ve seen is for the Bell & Ross “instruments” . Yes, they actually call them “instruments”. Their instruments look they were unscrewed from the cockpit of an F-117 and shrunk to wrist-size. Their marketing is all about extreme men who must endure extreme conditions: fighter pilots, astronauts, Navy SEALs. These kinds of extreme men demand extreme time instruments. They demand Bell & Ross.
What a crock of shit. Their customers aren’t Navy SEALs; they’re hedge fund managers. The most extreme conditions they’ll face is a surprise shower on the back nine. If those extreme guys’ lives really depended on their wristwatch, they’d have to have rocks in their head to go into battle with an inaccurate and unreliable hunk of steam-engine technology on their wrist. I kind of like the look of these Bell & Ross watches, but I wouldn’t want to wear one after reading that. People might think I actually swallowed that shit.
So, I know all the reasons why these watches are a useless waste of money, priced in a way that make me question the intelligence of anyone caught wearing one. And yet, I still admire these watches, and enjoy reading about them. I’m particularly fond of the Timezone site, a wealth of detailed technical information.
I most like the watches that are really innovative in some way. Like these ones:
The first electronic watch. Still had lots of gears, but instead of a mainspring and escapement driving them, it was a battery and tuning fork. You could actually hear the tuning fork quietly humming away inside. The tuning fork wasn’t just a stable frequency reference used to regulate the speed of an electric motor like it is in regular quartz watches. They actually had a clever mechanism so that the vibration of the tuning fork was mechanically coupled to the gear train.
Ok, these aren’t actually all mechanical watches. Their thing is the illumination of the dials and hands. Most watch makers use some kind of phosphorous paint, which has to be “recharged” by exposure to bright light. I’ve never had much luck with these phosphorous paints. They glow for about 10 minutes after the lights go out, then you’re out of luck.
Luminox watches use tiny glass vials containing tritium gas and a phosphorous coating. Tritium is a slightly radioactive isotope of hydrogen. The radiation is very weak, won’t even penetrate the dead outermost layers of skin. But it is enough to stimulate the phosphorous to glow. All day, all night, year after year. That’s pretty cool.
Their marketing is all that fighter pilot and Navy SEAL crap again, like Bell & Ross. But apparently they do actually supply watches to the military, for real. They have both quartz and automatic mechanical models. I hope the military is buying the quartz ones…
These are pretty interesting. Power comes from a mainspring, like any traditional mechanical watch. But there is no balance-wheel and escapement to release the power in small bursts at regular intervals. The mainspring is connected directly to the gear train. You would think that the hands would just spin really fast and unwind the spring at top speed.
But no. In place of the escapement there is the rotor of a generator. When the rotor spins up the first time after winding, it generates a small voltage (in the process slowing down the unwinding.) The generated electricity powers a very small and simple quartz oscillator. Quartz-accurate timing is then used to electromagnetically brake the rotor, loading it down so that it turns at exactly 8 revolutions per second. But unlike a regular escapement, the rotation is smooth and continuous, not pulsed. The hands of a Springdrive run smoothly, not in discrete ticks.
Following that electronic pseudo-escapement you have a regular gear train and mechanical watch mechanism, with all the usual bells and whistles (column-wheel chronograph, moon-phase crap, whatever.)
Add a weighted-wheel automatic winder, and you have a watch you don’t have to worry much about. It’s really the best of both worlds:
- Will never need winding.
- Will never need a battery.
- Quartz accuracy.
- No traditional escapement, so maintenance, cleaning and lubrication requirements are similar to quartz watches.
- If you put it in a drawer for 10 years, it will still work when you take it out. Not even self-powered quartz watches, such as Seiko Kinetic (powered by a rotating weight and generator) and Citizen Eco-Drive (solar cells on the face) can claim that. Their internal rechargeable batteries which will eventually wear out and need replacing, especially if allowed to go dead for 10 years.