Sunday, October 30, 2011

An interview with Tom Ashton, whose watchmaking 'blog is currently following the development of Tom's second watch - the Ashton A2 - using a re-worked Unitas movement.

#theWatchnerd: Tom. Thanks for talking to me and providing some insight into your extraordinary plan to build an Australian wristwatch. If I may start at the beginning: why watchmaking?

TA: Purely accidental, though it seems to have worked out well. I have always had a bit of the tinkerer in me; ever since I can remember, I've relished pulling things to bits and even occasionally fixing or having them work again. Not always, but more often than not! I had been working as a clerk with a two hour commute, when my wife spotted the advertisement for a watchmaking apprenticeship, and the rest, as they say, is history. I was lucky enough to do my apprenticeship with someone who valued the repair of mechanical watches over quartz.

#theWatchnerd: What are the best parts and worst parts of the job?

TA: The best part is returning something to life that has been broken or damaged - often seemingly beyond repair - and returning something that a person cares about in as new a condition as possible. In short, it's making a set of inanimate parts "tick" into being. 

The worst is when we receive an abused timepiece, bring it back to life, only to see it returned again, broken. Another less than pleasant element is the state that some people let their watches reach. Any watchmaker should be able to tell you about the "watch cheese" they have seen in bracelets or otherwise attached to watches in the nooks and crannies: not a pretty sight - or smell.

#theWatchnerd: Who do you admire most in the history of horology and with whom would you most like to work?

Historically, I would love to have worked with Harrison, though he does come across a bit grumpy. In a contemporary setting, I think everyone wanted to work with George Daniels, though I think realistically I would love to work with Roger Smith. My original watch design included a co-axial escapement, and hopefully I will get to a point where I have the necessary skills or work experience that I could be useful to him. Although by the time I do I hope to have my own pieces in production, so perhaps a collaboration would be more of an option, like an English/Australia version of Maitre de Temps. I do admire all of the independents for going out on their own, especially people like Peter Speake-Marin, Vianney Halter and others that have really stamped their own style on the watchmaking world in an unmistakable way. 

#theWatchnerd: Which brings us nicely to your watch. Can you talk us through the A2?

The Ashton Watch A1 (right) and A2
The A2 is the result of over seven years of design, though the original design was for a barrel/tonneau shaped case, this proved unfeasible at the time I started working on a physical watch and making a complete watch from scratch wheels and all was going to be very expensive to do. The A1 was the first incarnation of this watch, but apart from being just a little large (based on a Unitas 6497) the case design had a few issues also, so instead of trying to improve the design I decided to start from the beginning with a smaller movement and case. (The A in A1 & A2 is from Ashton, I had originally thought of using T for Tom, but the font I had used to engrave the dial on the A1 looked too much like an existing companies previous logo).

#theWatchnerd: What's the most interesting horological advance / trend of recent years?

I tend to think that there is not a lot of really new things that will have a long-lasting effect in the horological world, though I would love to see the combination of George Daniels' co-axial escapement, and Steven Phillips' EWS [Eternal Winding System]. Most of the things that the major manufacturers are coming out with seem to me to be refinements of old ideas, new materials for doing old jobs, or re-makes of their past glories. Not saying I don't like what they come out with each year, and the work involved in the production of these is certainly impressive. I see it as a bit of a disappointment that the market expects new and better things every year, it reduces the development time available to the manufacturers, the Harry Winston Opus series are a great example of this where it can be some time between the initial release of the concept, but some years before they actually have time to work out how to make it work.

#theWatchnerd: The A2 has a very distinctive bridge - can you explain a bit about it?

Render of the A1 movement
The original design for my watch was that all I wanted people to see was the barrel and balance of the movement, to add mystery to the mechanism, definitely with some inspiration from Girard Perregaux's Three Bridges Tourbillon. The bridge design is shaped to maximise the view of the barrel and balance, while allowing support for the centre wheel and rest of the wheels in the watch, though not the most effective use of the space, it has a great visual impact, and by complimenting the curves of the main bridge with similarly shaped barrel and balance bridges, it does become very distinctive. It does create some interesting problems though and when I started to use the Unitas movements for parts rather than trying to machine all of the wheels etc to start with, I also had to include the centre wheel in the visuals, as remaking the pinion is not feasible at the moment.. while this isn't as clean as the original design, it still has some of the mystery about the workings. 

#theWatchnerd: Are you a collector? What is your favourite piece?

Omega Dynamic Chrono
TA: I'm a collector when my budget allows, though recently any money I'd like to spend on watches gets spent on tools or parts for prototypes of my watches, so my watch collection mainly consists of watches I've been able to buy cheap and restore, or that I haven't been able to pass up.  I have two favourites, both Omegas (apart from my A2 of course). One is a c.2000 Omega Dynamic chronograph, it is just a clean looking, yet still very effective and highly undervalued watch. My other favourite is an Omega steel manual wind watch, containing their stunning 30mm movement, regarded by some (including me) as possibly the best mass produced manual wind movement ever made.. again, a very clean looking watch, with no frills (also no water resistance) though this doesn't get half the wrist time it deserves, my brother had worn it for almost 3 years solid with no ill effects, including doing handyman work.

#theWatchnerd:  What's your next purchase?

TA: Watch-wise I'm currently looking at a vintage Tudor Submariner, to restore and probably wear. I have my eye on another watch as well, but that may not happen. Otherwise I am looking to upgrade some of my workshop to make producing multiples of the A2 parts a little less convoluted.

#theWatchnerd:  What's next for the A2?

Bronze case
TA: I have a 2nd model A2 that I am working on, with a bronze case and sterling silver back that I'll be putting a hand-skeletonised Unitas movement in. Ideally in the near future I'd like to pre-sell some of the A2's, though my initial run will have automatic Soprod A10 movements (as used by Stepan Sarpaneva), this initial run will hopefully pay for the equipment that I need to purchase to finish the "proper" A2, with the re-worked Unitas movement. I plan to do a series of 10 with the 30mm Unitas 6310 I have, and once I run out of those, will see what happens. 

#theWatchnerd: Would you ever buy a digital watch?

Casing up an A2
Definitely! I own three digital watches, though I have bought only one of them. A Breitling B-1 which is the most accurate watch I own, an IO binary watch (more for the gimmick than anything else) I also own a Ripcurl tide watch. I think that digital watches definitely have their place, and have no issue recommending digital watches if the circumstances warrant it, I still think Casio G-shocks are one of the best watches out there for durability and reliability, 

#theWatchnerd: How important is the movement to a watch?

I think the movement really is the watch: the case can be worn out and be replaced; the dial can be damaged and re-finished; but the movement (unless something really bad happens) can stay the same. I have been guilty of opening a watch, taking pictures of the movement and completely forgetting to make a record of the dial side of the watch. It should be noted however that without a decent designed case and dial the movement will never be distributed enough for people to ever see.

#theWatchnerd:  And finally, watchnerd or WIS? 

TA: Watchnerd, in my mind WIS's tend to get more obsessive than I do, while I appreciate differences in models/years of manufacture for some watches, some just go a little bit nuts ;-)

Tom's 'blog can be found here, and you can follow him on Twitter here

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Breitling Extreme 800 - Herbert Nitsch, No Limits Freediving

Breitling have been sponsoring Herbert Nitsch, the world's deepest man on a single breath, for a while, and even created a watch for him - the Chronomat 44mm Flying Fish. Herbert, of course, is famous for reaching the extraordinary depth of 214m, using a weighted sled and a coke bottle. What? A coke bottle? Yes. If you watch Herbert's incredible video (linked below), you'll see him stop at c.22m to exhale the air from his lungs into a plastic bottle. He used this "external lung" to allow him to equalise on his trip down to 214m (702ft). You'll also see him releasing the bottle, allowing precious air to escape. Amazing that he didn't feel the need to use it all... 

Herbert has recently announced on his 'blog that he is attempting to break this record next June - by going to 800ft, and from there, he plans to attempt 900 and 1,000ft dives in due course. The first part of this is called Extreme 800, and is exclusively sponsored by Breitling. In order to break the record, he intends to use a specially-designed "Rocket-sled" (see render opposite and video below). This is currently (20th-30th October 2011) being tested in Santorini, Greece. No word yet on what external equalisation device he intends to use - but I doubt it'll be another coke bottle!

I hope to have some photos of Herbert, his sled and his watch shortly!

Herbert's WR No Limits Dive to 214m can be seen here.

And a new video of the "Rocket-sled" here:

Real World Tests: Bremont Supermarine SM500

I recently signed up for a week's diving in the Red Sea, and decided that it would be a useful opportunity to road test a watch. In this instance, I chose the Bremont Supermarine SM500, as I'd previously conducted a similar test on a Seiko SBDC005 "Sumo". I also thought it would be a good opportunity to compare the results in key areas. I'd previously taken the SM500 freediving in Egypt with Sara Campbell, but never bubble-blowing. This was also my opportunity to take it a little bit deeper than my freediving personal best (approx. 55ft). So, I packed full dive kit (ex-tanks), dusted off the Nitrox C-cards, changed the batteries on my Aladdin Pro Ultra, re-checked all the o-rings on the underwater housing and dragged our luggage down to London Gatwick's salubrious South Terminal. 

The diving we'd chosen was a week aboard a boat in the Southern Red Sea, visiting some of the less accessible reefs and hoping to see Oceanic Whitetip sharks. Of course, when diving the Brothers, Daedalus and Elphinstone, there's also the chance to see other pelagic sharks, such as Scalloped Hammerheads, Grey Reefs, Silvertips, etc. All in all, a pretty exciting opportunity, and one I was very much looking forward to. Liveaboard boats are interesting places. The lower deck is usually reserved as a diving platform and is the only wet area on the boat. Large numbers of aluminium / steel tanks are dotted around, usually in rows to allow for easy donning / doffing. Wetsuits hang from beams. Cameras and housings litter the tables. For watches, it's a place lurking with dangers - whether it's being smacked by a wayward tank, knocked against a railing, scratched, dinged, or otherwise abused by a host of metal objects, D-rings, strobes, torches and regs. Of course, the diving is predominantly on reefs, often with strong currents which may differ at the surface from the watwers below. Negative entries are common, and Zodiac diving is de rigeur. Of course, these small boats are also littered with hazards for the unwary watch. All in all, a perfect lace to test the toughness of the Supermarine.

The Supermarine (SM500) is named for the "British racing seaplane developed by R.J. Mitchell for theSupermarine company to take part in the Schneider Trophy competition of 1931. The S.6B marked the culmination of Mitchell's quest to "perfect the design of the racing seaplane" and was the last in the line of racing seaplanes developed by Supermarine." While not a true "diver's watch" (the Bremont is not tested to ISO 6245), the SM500 appears to meet, and exceed all the requirements that one would expect for an underwater timing device:
  • Patented Bremont Trip-Tick case design, with toughened upper and coated mid-barrel
  • WR to 500m and tested to deformation at +1400m equivalent
  • Sapphire, uni-directional bezel
  • SuperLuminova liberally applied to the dial, hands and bezel but the seconds hand remains unlumed
  • Anti-magnetic and anti-shock protection (uses the same movement and mounting as the Bremont MB2)
All in all, a not unimpressive piece of kit, and it certainly looks the part above water. But how did it do under the water?

Saturday, October 22, 2011

George Daniels, CBE 1926 – 2011

We are sorry to hear of the passing of George Daniels, CBE aged 85. Truly a master watchmaker, I only briefly saw Mr Daniels once, at SalonQP in 2010, and wrote about the experience here. An honour.

An obituary has been published here in the Telegraph.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Charming things come in small packages...

Dezeen Watch Store has commissioned a series of watch sculptures from Dominic Wilcox ( entitled Moments in Time. Taking Smiths / Ingersoll pocket watches and Sekonda watches as his base, he has created miniature scenes that are enacted on the face of each watch, using the hands to great kinetic effect. The piece is contemporary, reflecting recent troubles, such as the rioting in London over the summer: In one, called London Looter, a hooded youth on the second hand carries away an LCD TV while a riot policeman looks on passively. “I had to walk across Mare Street in Hackney to get home during the riots. I remember seeing a boy carrying an LCD TV down a back street. I noticed how the police seemed unsure how to react, holding their circular shields while the boy held a rectangular TV.”

At once charming and touching, while exhibiting a wicked sense of humour, the pieces can be seen at the Dezeen Design Space on Rivington St, which also houses a decent selection of watches. While purists may sneer, the Dezeen Watch Store actually stocks some of the more interesting quartz "designer watch" designs, such as Uniform Wares, Ziiro and Denis Guidone...