Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The #watchnerd has moved

The #watchnerd is pleased to announce that he has a new 'site - www.thewatchnerd.co.uk. Please point your browsers at the new address in order to keep up-to-date with lots more watch-related blogging you can safely ignore.

This 'blog will no longer be updated.


the #watchnerd

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Six Small Words: Intellectual (2/6)

Intellectual (/ˌintlˈekCHo͞oəl/) Adj. Of or relating to the intellect: "intellectual stimulation"; an aspect of something where learning, erudition, and informed and critical thinking are the focus.

Garnier’s Escapement, taken from A Treatise on Modern Horology in Theory and Practice, translated from the French of Claudius Saunier, ex-Director of the School of Horology at Maçon, by Julien Tripplin, F.R.A.S. and Edward Rigg, M.A. Second Edition, 1887
I was talking recently to a watchmaker about timing, or rather about the different terminal ends applied to balance springs. The question had arisen as a result of a brief discussion of the multiple patents belonging to the Heritage Watch Manufactory. He immediately recited an equation that described the spring, using its length, height, thickness, mass. I nodded. Smiled. And realised that the maths was almost completely beyond me, although the basic principles remained within my grasp. Probably. Given watches are such a passion, it seemed odd that I’d not really delved into the study of watchmaking itself - true horology. I must admit to feeling more than a little inadequate.

Upon reflection, I also realised that the mathematics behind balance springs had begun with the discoveries of Hooke, Hautefeuille and Huyghens in the 17th century. Although technical advances abound, especially in the realms of materials and the application of them, the basics had probably remained largely unchanged. I had been thinking for a while that I should probably spend more time understanding the manufacture and mechanics of watches and less time writing about their looks and therefore asked for a list of reading material. The recommendations included de Carle’s Practical Watch Repairing, Daniels’ Watchmaking and Suanier’s Treatise on Modern Horology. The latter, first published in France in 1861, set out to document everything that was known at the time about clock and watchmaking. Saunier’s aim was “to make the volume useful to the greatest possible number of those who live by our delicate and difficult industry".

In many respects, the book is as relevant today as it was when first translated into English in 1877. The industry remains “delicate and difficult" and there are certainly many to whom the intellectual aspect of horology is less than important. Indeed, far more words are written each month on watch forums than are dedicated to the study of watchmaking. However, without such study, are we truly able to appreciate the watches about which we so obviously care? The answer, of course, is yes; one does not need to understand drag coefficient to board a ‘plane. But as I spend more time exploring the horological, the more interesting watches become.

Finally, and perhaps just as relevant now as it was then, is Pascal’s sentiment, quoted by Saunier in his Preface: “We should see no farther than those who have gone before us, did not their knowledge serve as a stepping stone to our own."

Six Small Words: Historic (1/6)

This is the first in a series of posts inspired by six words that are used by the late Dr George Daniels to describe watches in The Watchmaker’s Apprentice: historic; intellectual; technical; aesthetic; useful; and amusing. The Watchmaker's Apprentice is a documentary about the lives of Roger Smith and Dr George Daniels by DAM Productions. A version premiered at SalonQP last year.

Historic (/hiˈstôrik/) Adj. 1. Famous or important in history, or potentially so. 2. Of or concerning history; of the past. There are many historic watches; by their nature, watches record history by displaying the passing of time. Some watches have been central to historic events, such as the Omega Speedmaster worn by Apollo 13 astronaut Jack Swigert, which he used to successfully time the re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere. Many watches become historic by dint of their ownership: Abraham Lincoln’s William Ellery pocket watch, for example or Winston Churchill’s Breguet. Others have become part of history, such as the astrological mechanism that appears to have lain undisturbed off the island of Antikythera for the best part of 18 centuries. 

However, there is a group of watches that, for me at least, is truly historic. Their multi-branded iconic dials all show exactly the same thing and were the inspiration for the Memorial (pictured opposite). At least two are now on display at the Peace Memorial Museum in Hiroshima. A pocket watch, belonging to Mr Kengo Nikawa, stopped at 08:15 on the morning of August 6, 1945. Mr Nikawa was over a mile from the hypocentre of the blast; he died two weeks later. A similarly-stopped wristwatch tells the same story. These watches have no intrinsic value; their style, brand, movement, complications and finissage are irrelevant.

Peace Memorial Park and Museum, Hiroshima

These pieces recorded history. Permanently.











A version of this post first appeared on the #watchnerd Tumblr.

Tuesday, July 09, 2013

Keeping up with the Jones'...

MJW's Time Traveller (C) MJW
A few weeks ago I had dinner with an Australian Twitter pal who was wearing a watch called the Time Traveller from UK brand, Mr Jones Watches. It's a limited edition of 100 pieces with a rather ingenious 24hr world timer function, using a single rotating dial and powered by a one jewel Ronda quartz movement. The dial is marked with iconic buildings / landmarks from around the world, each of which represents a timezone: if you're in London, you use Big Ben as the hour hand; in Dubai, track the passing of time with the Burj Khalifa; or let the Golden Gate Bridge be your guide in San Francisco. It's rather cool, to be honest, and even has a small, red pigeon to mark the minutes. I also rather like the case design, with its slender, slightly bombé lugs and flush crown. It's elegant, rather modern, but with a vintage flourish. Each of the Mr Jones watches is (initially) limited to 100, with later (non-limited) editions being altered slightly, so as not to devalue the original version. 

The Mayfly-themed packaging for MJW (C) Fanny Shorter
To be honest, I hadn't thought much more about Mr Jones until the other week, when I was visiting Cockpit Arts in Clerkenwell. Cockpit is home to many extraordinary designer-makers, including jeweller Ruth Tomlinson, ceramicist Shan Annabelle Valla, Thornback & Peel, bespoke shoemakers CarréDucker and illustrator Fanny Shorter. Fanny's series of life size prints of the World's Smallest Birds has been a source of joy for some time, playing to my love of all things zoological as well as being quite charming pieces of art in their own right. It also turns out that she's also been designing 24-hour-themed packaging for Mr Jones: as Fanny explains, "the mayfly larvae emerge from the water, metamorphose into mayfly, mate, lay their eggs and die, all in a matter of 24 hours. The Day Lily blooms for only 24 hours and has to be pollinated within this period."

MJW's Tour du Monde Watch
However, the #watchnerd overlap doesn't stop there: Fanny has designed her first watches with Mr Jones, inspired (I believe) by Jules Verne's 20,000 League Under the Sea and Round the World in 80 Days. The latter depicts a balloon (minutes) and  steamship (hours) circling the globe, on separate, printed rotating dials, against a pointilist background - the Tour du Monde. This is, I believe, the first time that the dials have been printed by Mr Jones in London. The prototypes / early production models were on display yesterday so I took the opportunity to take a few photos of them. They look fantastic: ingenious and beautiful are words that are seldom used to describe watches, and (probably) even more rarely used to describe "fashion watches", but I'm willing to go out on a limb here and say that these, simple, 37mm, 5ATM WR, one jewel quartz watches are two of the most interesting, fun and desirable pieces I've seen all year (please see small set on Flickr, here).

The second watch is the Captain Nemo-themed Vingt Mille, replete with giant squid, in whose huge tentacles are clutched a hapless seaman (perhaps this chap from the original Verne drawings?) and an axe-wielding Nemo. 

A sea monster attacks a ship in an illustration for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne. Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Pierre-Jules Hetzel
MJW's Vingt Mille Watch
When speaking to Fanny about her design, it was clear that a great deal of thought goes into each of these seemingly simple creations: as the two discs rotate, the various tentacles move around the face of the watch, and in relation to the central body of the monster cephalopod mollusc, while never  completely covering the minute / hour hands. This kinetic design process is quite different to the (fairly) straightforward multi-colour screen prints of, for example, Pelvicachromis pulcher ('Kribensis') or the Common Wood Pigeon. As some of you may know, I'm a Zoologist by "training" and still have a slight love of most marine invertebrates (certain isopod sea lice excluded). To find a watch that arguably captures the spirit of 20,000 Leagues better than Thomas Prescher, Vianney Halter or Romain Jerome - and in such a playful, and artful manner - is extraordinary. That it should come from such an unexpected source is equally exciting. It may only be a quartz movement, but it demonstrates, to me at least, that design-led watches from British brands such as Mr Jones, Benjamin Hubert and Uniform Wares, even if they are, predominantly made in China, should not be ignored. The price of this slightly Cthulhu-esque cephalopod wonder? Approximately £175. Will the #watchnerd be buying one. Absolutely.

Note: this piece was written the weekend of the Cockpit Arts Open Studios. Since then, I note that Mr Jones has released a model called The Last Laugh, which features specially commissioned artwork by British tattoo artist Adrian Willard. The watch is a jump hour, powered by a Chinese ST1721, 20 jewel automatic movement. Not bad for a watch that costs £215.


the #watchnerd

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Breaking the Code

Rather impressed with this. Not only did Bremont put on an extremely fun (and generous) event*, but they failed to disappoint when it came to the big reveal. I was only able to see the watch though the various glass displays dotted around the grounds of Bletchley Park, but a few things stood out to this #watchnerd:

Bletchley Park (like the National Museum of the Royal Navy last year) seemed totally on board. They'd opened up the house, grounds and museum for the event, and seemed genuinely interested in the watch. At least three of the original BP staff were there at the event, along with Jerry Roberts MBE the last survivor of the cryptanalysts who worked on Tunny. Mr Roberts spoke for a few minutes about his time at Bletchley working with Bill Tutte and Tommy Flowers, as well as Alan Turing. He was particularly eloquent when it came to describing the impact of Flowers' endeavours: "He changed the way the world works..." 

The movement: Bremont have been "modifying" movements since the ALT1-C was released in late '07 (a DD module atop the 7750, if I remember correctly). The Victory watch from last year contains a little-used La Joux-Perret movement - the 8310 - which is definitely a step up in terms of innovation / inventiveness. The Codebreaker incorporates a module from (one presumes) the same manufacture, given the nomenclature (BE-83AR). This chrono movement moves the sub-dials from 3/9 to 4.30/7.30, while adding a flyback complication and GMT. From the back, it's quite familiar looking, although the Bomb-inspired rotor is quite clever. I like the way that the "rabbit ears**" have been ported across, as well as the bakelite-style movement spacer that echoes the colours of the drums. I'd like to get a little closer to this movement, and to see it operating. Bremont have received an undertaking from the manufacturer that no more than 300 of these movements are to be made, thus making it truly limited.

The dial: the dial is simple, black and has no nod to BP apart from a fairly subtle use of binary code on the two sub-dials. Each is ringed by a white rail-track motif (echoed on the main dial). The GMT track is clearly visible, and although the sub-dial markings are scarce, the 30-minute totaliser should be eminently usable. Three small, circular markers replace the numerals at four, six and eight, avoiding the need for "eaten" numbers. The date is nestled between the two sub-dials in an unobtrusive manner, balancing the dial nicely. To be honest, I'm not really a fan of off-centre sub-dials, preferring them to be based on a central line, but the bilateral symmetry of the Codebreaker dial is surprisingly pleasing to the eye. With its bright red-tipped GMT hand the only spot of colour on the dial, it's an austere nod to earlier watches, while maintaining Bremont's modern design cues.

The case and bezel: the tried and tested Trip-Tick® case is given a subtle facelift again. Like the Victory before it, the Codebreaker features Bremont's distinctive three-part design, with two notable changes: the addition of an external limited edition number, marked in coated pieces of original BP punchcards; and a slight rounding of the bezel. I've not yet been able to study the watch, nor seen it against the Victory, but it appears to have a slightly more rounded bezel than the Classic models, which seems to give it a softer look than, for example, the ALT1-C. The slimmed down crown incorporates a small piece of Hut 6 - the area of BP devoted to breaking German Air Force and Army Enigma codes. There's a good photo of it here, on Piers Berry's Alt1tude Forum. This is probably the one element of the watch that could have drifted over the line into parody. However, it actually seems to work rather well, and feels consistent with the rest of the design. 

The Codebreaker is available in both hardened stainless steel (240) and (non-hardened) rose gold (50) and costs approximately £11k or £18k, depending on the model. As with the Victory, a proportion of the profit from each watch will be donated to the Bletchley Park Trust. Finally, if you haven't already visited Bletchley Park, please do consider it. BP is under an hour from London Euston and just a couple of minutes from the station. 




the #watchnerd



*In the spirit of disclosure, we were guests of the Bremont Watch Company, and enjoyed their hospitality, as well as receiving a "goody bag" from them containing a white silk scarf, some fruit cake and some lemonade. We paid for our own transport.

**I do not believe that anyone else describes them as such - blame it on my Zoological training...

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Becoming a #smartwatchnerd

William Gibson's Pebble
I've been following the rise of the smart watch for a number of years; from early versions by Motorola and Sony Ericsson, through to the slightly odd, Japan-only models by NTT Docomo, watches have been becoming *smarter* since the turn of the noughties. However, we've not seen the explosion in smart watches / wearable tech that many have been predicting. In fact, it took a surprise entrant, the Pebble, to really ignite the concept of the smart watch in the minds of the watch-buying public. Today's market is probably dominated in unit terms by Pebble (even William Gibson has one), if only due to the monstrous success of its funding on Kickstarter.  Strangely, Kickstarter had also been the source of a slight false start in smart watches, when a number of Apple iPod Nano "strap" projects were funded, which had hoped to push the Nano towards becoming the first real piece of wearable tech. 

Kickstarter projects continue to fund - AGENT, for example, recently exceeded its target by a non inconsiderable margin, and appears to be the most *robust* of the smart watches produced so far, being manufactured from powder-coated aluminium. If there is to be a Sandbenders-style smart watch in the next few years, I'd say that the AGENT has the most potential: it has a rugged chassis, and *looks* as though the innards might be more swappable than, for example, the Pebble, Cookoo or I'm Watch. In addition, the AGENT is the first that (for me at least) bridges the design gap between watch and periphery.

Rather than buy a Pebble (I just didn't like the design, to be honest), the Sony SmartWatch (Android-only), or slap a Nano on a NATO-style strap, I started looking at the Frame from MetaWatch. I had briefly written about the MetaWatch in a post for the Prodigal Guide, having been intrigued by the hybrid analog-digital display. The range has since been expanded to include the MetaWatch Strata, a slightly more robust looking version of the original Frame, and the model for which I plumped. MetaWatch was purchased by group of investors back in 2011 from Fossil Watches / Sony Ericsson and is currently run by Bill Geiser and David Rosales, who previously led the Watch Technology Division at Fossil. Unlike many other smart watches, MetaWatch focuses on the App, rather than the watch, which effectively turns the smart watch into a dumb terminal on which content can be displayed. While limiting the "smartness" of the watch itself, this obviously comes with significant benefits, as long as the hardware is largely future-proof.

The first challenge when buying a MetaWatch is getting it into the UK: due to the somewhat over-zealous charges applied by the UK Post Office, you can expect to pay about £40 ($60) on top of the $179  $129 plus delivery (another $50). With the recent price drop, the shipping and taxes look even more silly, although it's hard to blame MetaWatch for this. The Strata is MetaWatch's sportier model, water-resistant to 5ATM; "double injection moulded PU, co-moulded with a tough PC poly case", the Strata looks tougher than the Frame, and when on the wrist, brings to mind the feeling of wearing a dive computer, rather than a digital (or indeed mechanical) watch. With six flush pushers (three along each side of the watch), this looks like a tool, not a fashion accessory.

Charging Clip (C) MetaWatch
The Strata ships with a standard microUSB charger and clip. No instructions (you're directed to their 'site for setup info) and no extraneous bumph. Some might call it "no frills", but I think that this paired back approach fits the MetaWatch ("MW") ethos. MW describes itself as a "platform-based wearable display for notifications, activity monitoring, and ambient light sensing", and might well be the geekiest of the smartwatches out there. The clip is possibly the most interesting element of the Strata's external design: four small, metal nubs are recessed into the caseback, allowing the clip to charge the battery. It's a clever design, providing a degree of water resistance without requiring ports to be covered (see Sony's Experia Z, for example). As a slight aside, it's interesting to note that AGENT have gone with Qi-charging, the inductive electrical power transfer method used by (for example) Nokia, rather than a clip / lead.

Charging the MetaWatch Strata
Pairing the watch with your 'phone is relatively straight forward: download an App (MetaWatch Manager, or MWM), install on your 'phone, turn on the Bluetooth and follow the instructions. Using MWM is simple and pleasant enough, allowing the user to customise up to four "faces" with up to four "widgets" that can be scrolled between using a button on the watch. These widgets are somewhat limited at the moment, but include time, weather, 'phone battery and calendar entries. The 'phone battery indicator is suprisingly useful and alerts yoi to a full charge, should your iPhone be plugged in elsewhere. Individual widgets can be slightly customised from the App, and the display can be inverted to provide a move visually arresting  experience, turning the 96x96 pixel "sunlight-readable", reflective mirror from silver to black. The display is, for me, one of the Strata's more unusual and engaging features despite some readability issues in very bright, and indeed very low light, conditions. The previous version of MWM (v1.30) included a rather fun koi carp graphic on the fullscreen clock display, and I must admit to being slightly disappointed that this was dropped in the latest update (v1.35). 

Widgets
I've been wearing the Strata on and off for four weeks now, including a solid two week period while holidaying in Scotland. The last time I wore a non-mechanical watch for that period of time was probably the late nineties, when I regularly wore a 200m Casio for diving. Unlike the Casio, the Strata required a lot of coddling, frequent re-charging and seemed to freeze at just about any opportunity. It was obvious that the Strata I received was faulty, not only containing a stray piece of something, which rattled about under the anti-glare-coated mineral glass, but also suffering from some kind of internal issues. However, MetaWatch responded promptly to my emails, and arranged for the watch to be replaced almost immediately, ensuring that customs charges were prepaid, and even refunding the cost of sending the watch back to them in Texas. Luckily these teething problems only slightly marred my nascent smartwatch experience: the Strata still vibrated when I had a text, and buzzed to tell me about an incoming 'phone call - all very useful when one's 'phone is tucked away in a pocket. In fact, it worked well as a tool to provide alerts: the display is clear; messages are relatively easy to read and re-read (the last alert is stored in the Strata and can be read by pushing the top right button); and another alert informs you of a break in the Bluetooth link. This doubles as a neat reminder, should you walk away from your 'phone.

Additional functionality means that the Strata operates as a Bluetooth remote for the default Apple music player, a feature I'd probably use more if my phone weren't stuffed full of photos instead of music. There's also a rather odd Chinese Lunar Calendar, which I would rarely, if ever, use. To be honest, I'm still not entirely sure that a "killer app" has been developed - although there are some very interesting thoughts from developers. Future MWM releases are expected to include support for email, Facebook and Twitter notifications, all of which appear key to future Hands Freedom™.

From reading about MW, and observing the Tweets from CEO Bill Geiser, it's clear that the concept behind the watches - Hands Freedom™ - is a driving force. Hands Freedom™ is how Bill describes the reduction in "friction" that, for example, an iPhone can cause: a simple glance at one's wrist is perceived to be less intrusive that reaching for one's 'phone to check a message. I understand the aim, and the philosophy, but I sometimes struggle with the *politeness* of the smart watch. Just because you *can* check your messages (or even Facebook updates) surreptitiously during a meeting, does this mean that you should? I must admit that I'm far more interested in potential developments in communications from the watch to MWM (e.g. pre-programmed messages in response to 'phone calls similar to those available from the Lock Screen). 

So. Am I going to continue on the road towards Hand Freedom™? Will you see me rebranding as a #smartwatchnerd? Possibly. Mechanical and "smart" watches are (in my mind) a world apart: the raison d'être of the former is to tell the time, while the latter aims to tell you almost everything else. Time is a secondary feature. Interestingly, the Tamagotchi Gesture so famously described by William Gibson continues with the MetaWatch; it requires a charge approximately every three to four days. When I wear the MetaWatch, my interactions with my 'phone change considerably: I'm far more inclined, for example, to use iCal to record upcoming events than when wearing a "normal" watch. I also find myself setting the Strata to display, for example, the weather (both current and a forecast for tomorrow). Why? I'm not sure. I think I'd better wear it a bit more and find out...

the #watchnerd

Monday, April 29, 2013

The great circle

Before I begin, I feel the need to apologise: this article has taken far too long to write, and also contains far too many hanging prepositions.

I write about watches because I want to, not because I need to or get paid to. It’s the same with all my social media interactions: when I first started ‘blogging in 2005, it was a stream of consciousness, a litany of songs, objects and observations. Nobody read it. Not a single soul. Many of my posts have still never been read by anyone other than me. It was a slightly cathartic response to a series of events, and, for a year or so, it worked. But it didn’t need an audience (and still doesn’t).

Then in 2007, I thought that I might actually start to do something a little more focused. Settling on watches was relatively easy; my interest had been piqued some time before, perhaps ignited by William Gibson’s 1999 Wired essay on eBay, but how to begin? I recalled the approach taken by Jeffrey Steingarten when he became a food critic for Vogue (documented so brilliantly in The Man Who Ate Everything): training. And list-making. Steingarten took his job as a food critic extremely seriously, concocting “a Six-Step Program to liberate [his] palate and [his] soul”. I did something similar, although my six steps were slightly simpler and required fewer bowls of kimchi.

I read. I searched the web. I joined Forums. I asked questions. I visited stores. I chatted. And the more I did these things, the more I found that I really enjoyed it. And more than that, I enjoyed the people behind the watches, and the stories behind the marques. While much of this may be attributed to marketing, no amount of anti-branding snark can detract from the wonder of horology, or the history of timekeeping. It’s the story of how we marked out our daily lives into discrete periods, learnt to navigate the globe with certainty and in safety, began to measure the world of the increasingly minute, and how some of the most extraordinarily beautiful micro-mechanical masterpieces were conceived, built and displayed. Of course, with the rise of the smartphone, all of this is almost entirely pointless, but, to me, mechanical watches remain amazing, if only for the fact that they are so precisely, and so very nearly completely, unnecessary.
A Meridian movement
However, I appear to be suffering from a malaise of sorts, possibly induced by the miasma that is the world of the “WIS”. When Chuck Maddox and other horo-pioneers started using the term WIS, it was, by all accounts, a very apt description: these guys knew their watches. Intimately and almost entirely. Chuck passed away five years ago, leaving behind something of a legacy; he was one of the first to ‘blog about watches, and to provide freely the kind of technical information that had, until then, been guarded jealously by long-term collectors and manufacturers. In doing so, he opened up the world of watch-collecting to hundreds of thousands of others, while simultaneously creating the modern “WIS”.

I’m not a WIS, I’m just a guy who likes watches. Someone who occasionally gets to meet cool people, see some cool stuff and (once in a while) even write about it. A few months ago, the opportunity arose to visit the workshops  of Meridian Watches, a new company set up by watchmaker Simon Michlmayr and collector Richard Baldwin. Richard also lent me a prototype watch to wear over a period of time, reporting back to them my thoughts and observations, but I’ve not yet written about the experience itself.
A partially-built Meridian movement
The watch I’ve been wearing is a prototype version of the Meridian Prime, tentatively  named the MP-12, and differing from all other Meridian watches, by being completely treated with a diamond-like carbon (DLC) coating. DLC, as you’ll recall, is a term used to describe a number of different materials that display various useful properties, including increased hardness, wear resistance and (perhaps least usefully) slickness. It’s this latter property that struck me first; the DLC coating provides a very tactile surface to the MP-12, as well as a very attractive one. The black is absolute, and contrasts markedly with other DLC watches I own, which chip easily and quite often appear dull. The surface of the dual-layer sandwich dial on the MP-12 is also new and appears to have an almost satin finish to it. With its bright white hands and massive domed crystal, the watch is not subtle – it’s a monochrome behemoth on the wrist, and is easily the largest watch I’ve worn at 46.5mm, excluding the prominent crown.

Meridian cases (C) Horologium
Meridian don’t cut corners, but if they did, they would cut them in-house, on a lathe, by hand, having first created a bespoke jig. Everything on these watches has been hand-machined, -polished, -edged, -engraved, -assembled or –coated. There’s a slightly obsessive focus on doing things themselves. My fellow #watchnerd Horologium accompanied me to Norfolk earlier this year, and commented on their “drive and desire” but it might go further than that. There’s an almost fanatical devotion to the production of watches that meet Simon and Richard’s ideals. This translates into processes that often stretch far beyond expected manufacturing norms. Take, for example, the production of a Meridian watch case. The back of each watch is engraved with a stylised globe and United Kingdom centred on Greenwich; in order to ensure that the Meridian remains vertical, and that the watch far exceeds the stated 1000ft WR, each screw-down caseback must be machined precisely to fit a corresponding case. In practice, this means that the case and back are milled in Norfolk from a single piece of metal, and must be numbered so as not to lose the pairing through the extensive treatment process. These numbers never make it to the finished watch, being removed before the final polish, but it illustrates the approach taken by Simon and his watchmakers.

The handwound movement, so callously covered by the caseback, is built from new old stock (NOS) ébauche parts. I’d never really considered what it means to assemble an ébauche Unitas movement before, but having spent some time with Meridian, I have a new-found respect for their watchmakers. Unlike the simple, “regulate and drop-in” approach taken by so many manufacturers, each part must be inspected, cleaned, polished, bevelled, treated, frosted, engraved and coated. It’s a lengthy process which includes the bevelling of the bridges by machine and by hand (the inside edges cannot be done any other way), the removal of the original plating and re-frosting in the traditional English style, hand-engraving of the "Meridian" lines (which then require a complete re-strip, clean and replate). The screws are meticulously cleaned and blued by hand, and the movement assembled and timed (max -1s / +4s per day overall). And all of this takes place in a few rooms in a large warehouse outside Norwich. The price of these watches reflects the work put into them, but there is an approach taken by Meridian that borders on the obsessive. There's a new 100 Hour Power Reserve model on the way (they're getting between 103 and 108 hours out of each movement at the moment), which is driven by two, end-on-end barrels, with the power being regulated by a hand-made differential. And then there's the in-house automatic... It's all rather impressive, to be honest.

When I was first loaned the MP-12 prototype, I really wasn’t sure that it was my kind of thing. It’s huge, for a start, and almost wilfully utilitarian; the hands are thickly lumed, and lack the finesse that one might expect from a watch that costs a shade under £5k; the massive crystal is treated with an anti-reflective coating that picks up every smudge, and therefore requires polishing almost constantly; the Gasgasbones canvas strap that is supplied as a secondary option doesn’t quite hold the watch in place on my wrist, perhaps due to almost excessive lug-to-lug dimensions. But I still wear it. And wear it a lot. It’s not perfect, but it is fun.  It’s tough, reliable and it makes me smile; from what I hear from Richard, there are quite a few others like me.

I’ll be sad to give it back, to be honest: I’d not expected to bond with it quite so much. But that’s one of the reasons I like watches – these mechanical marvels still have the capacity to surprise.

the #watchnerd

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Building the Grand Complication 5 "Concentrique"

Here, courtesy of Peter Roberts Watches, are a few photos of Peter's first production model, the Grand Complication 5 "Concentrique". As you can see, the dials, cases and bezels are coming along very nicely indeed, ready for their debut at BaselWorld 2013 later this week. As you may have gathered, I'm very attached to this watch already; it's not just the story, but the wonderful people behind this watch. We can sometimes get carried away by technical advances, new materials, obscure complications and bizarre designs, but for me, it's often the people, the watchmakers themselves, and the families that support them, that make this hobby such a pleasure. It's difficult to apply superlatives to watches; with the advent of social media, every post on Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook or the like, comes with exclamations, outlandish claims, capital letters or hyperbole.

We seem to be diminishing the impact of the words we write by their sheer overuse. But for me, this piece represents a truly wonderful occasion:  the release of a limited edition, hand-crafted, unique design, that was first developed by a WOSTEP student over forty years ago, and is now finally seeing the light of day. The price? Well, it remains high: £18k for one of the forty stainless steel-cased pieces; or £28k for one of the four gold-cased versions. I am incredibly sorry not to be at BaselWorld to see the unveiling of these cased-up prototypes, and I'd ask anyone who is visiting to pop in and see Peter if they can.

Here is a closer look at the bezel and case of the "Concentrique". As you can see, the twenty-four hour markers remain on the bezel, with the calendar markers being moved to the outer ring of the dial. The watch itself is 42mm across, and each hand-wound Valjoux 88** is being finished by Peter. I've not yet seen a close-up of the movement, but hope to be able to spend some time with Peter and his watches when he returns from Switzerland. Many thanks again to Peter, Marie-Louise and all involved in the "Concentrique" for the use of these photos. It's an honour to see these before the watches are revealed later this week. I hope you'll agree that this looks to be a very special watch indeed.


the #watchnerd 



**A #watchnerd fact for you: approximately 13,000 Valjoux 88 movements, or 88 VZHCL as they were more formally known, were made. This compares with over a quarter of a million 72/72C movements.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Near-exclusive: Peter Roberts Prototype Dial #3

Peter Roberts announced last year at SalonQP that he would finally be putting his WOSTEP watch into production as the Grand Complication 5. Here, in a near-exclusive (our friends Fratello Watches also have the story) is a first look at prototype dial #3, and I must say, it looks pretty good to me. While the dial still has quite a sombre feel to it, there are sparks of colour (for example, the orange calendar markers, the bright blue Complication 5 logo and the red accented surrounds). In addition, the subtlely guilloché-d sub-dials provide a degree of lightness that breaks up the matte black finish. The orange 1-31 calendar markers were originally on the bezel, but look rather good in their new position - although it's often difficult to tell from uncased dials exactly how the finished piece will look. Overall, I'd say it's rather an austere dial, that, while lacking some of the frivolity of the original, now feels like a more coherent design.

Prototype Dial #3
Prototype Dial #3 - the Grand Complication 5
For those of you wanting to compare this dial to the original WOSTEP watch, here's a snap I took at SalonQP of the watch on Peter's wrist (see below). You'll notice a few differences, not least the addition of the moonphase complication and the triple date feature  (I'm sure you'll recall that the watch will be powered by reworked NOS Valjoux calibre 88 movement, rather than the 72 in the original). 

The original WOSTEP watch that Peter made 40 years ago

A fully cased-up version is expected at BaselWorld 2013.

the #Watchnerd

Friday, April 05, 2013

Refractionary Thinking

The Ressence Type 3
Sir Isaac Newton once asked whether "blind chance [knew] that there was light and what was its refraction, and fit the eyes of all creatures after the most curious manner to make use of it?" I'm not qualified to answer Newton's question, but what is obvious is that Benoit Mintiens has been pondering refraction for some time. Benoit appears to have come up with a technically challenging, but incredibly elegant solution to a perceived weakness in the display of his previous design - the SeriesOne. With the Type 3, Benoit has created a liquid-filled dial-space that creates the illusion of an almost two dimensional display. Thermal expansion has been considered, with an integrated valve system. Not content with conquering light and heat, Benoit also adds two more complications to the Type 3 (a day indicator on the main dial, and a date running around the perimeter of the dial-space) while taking away something else - the crown.

Operating the crown-less Type 3

The crown-less Type 3 is now operated by rotating the back portion of the watch through a number of combinations to achieve different results: the Type 3 is wound, for example, by turning the case back. "To change the date, it is simply necessary to make a longer rotation through 200° in order to arrive at the date quadrant. The hour is set by starting from the neutral position and turning in the direction indicated." It's all very clever, and looks to be relatively intuitive. Benoit has even carried over some of his magnetic trickery into the rear of the watch: a gravitational gearing system allows time setting to be disconnected by simply inverting the watch. The lugs are now fixed, but I've been unable to get a decent picture of the new straps that go with the Type 3.

To be honest, I'm astounded by this piece: I've always had a soft spot for Ressence, and with the Type 3, Benoit has produced a design that is both beautiful and strangely practical. Best of all, the watch appears to be a diver - it's called Le Scaphandrier - although perhaps this is better translated as aquanaut than deep diver? At EUR23K, this is not going to be a watch for everyone, but them, as there are only going to be 50 built, you're going to be in pretty limited company anyway.

the #watchnerd

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Pebble's wearable tech, via @GreatDismal

Back in 2011, I wrote about the MetaWatch, an interesting piece of wearable tech that appeared to be struggling with its Bluetooth power consumption for a while, but now appears to be focusing on "reinventing the watch as a stylish and relevant mobile accessory." In the meantime, the phenomenon that is Pebble took the world by storm, drumming up millions on Kickstarter and launching wearable tech for the masses. One of the earliest to Tweet about Pebble was Wiliam Gibson (@GreatDismal), who has recently received his Pebble. The Tweets below are taken from his stream, in a slightly stalky way. I hope this is okay - I assume it is - but if not, I'll delete. I particularly like his Sandbenders idea - something I'd like to see in mechanical watches, if the innards weren't so awfully expensive...
"Pebble has landed! Have set date and an analog face with nicely retro dauphine hands. Yay Kickstarter! #pebblewatch"

"Old person, new tech: Gets Pebble Bluetooth epaper watch, uses it to tell time!"
"Just sent a self-congratulatory text to my new wristwatch."
"RT @met2art @GreatDismal How is battery life on it? [Mileage reports vary, I gather]"
"@junkyardmessiah Too black to photograph effectively, but utterly clean design & matte silicone (?) strap is pleasantly tactile."
"Almost incidentally a watch, the Pebble is a highly customizable *smartphone peripheral*."
Perhaps Gibson has finally exorcised his Tamagotchi gesture? Or perhaps it just has a new home?
XenoPhage I like the strap; good balance with weightless plastic head. I think you could also wear it on a 22mm Maratac Zulu nylon."
"RT @cold_fashioned @GreatDismal reading reports that early deliveries have some bugs to iron out. [Perfect so far]"
"@Pebble, please make an app for simultaneous display of three world time zones, thanks! iPhone already has that, so seems a natural."
"@Pebble x a trad watch company, Sandbenders-style; steel or titanium cases intended to last through generations of (replaceable) innards?"
"Very uncharacteristic for me to be a proto-consumer of anything electronic, but… 
 
#thatwasagoodkickstarter"

Monday, February 25, 2013

Making faces

Technical drawings (C) Michlmayr
There's a smiley that's been bothering me (:-S). It's meant to signify worry, or perhaps, mild concern, and it's popping up all over the place. Increasingly, I see it typed as a codicil to Tweets, Posts or other social media comments about English watchmaking, and appears to denote a mistrust of, or even disbelief in, the preceding statement, which often refers to claims from watchmakers about the English-ness of their wares. This distrust is not new - there have been many such similar responses to the Swiss watchmaking industry over the past decade (and increasingly in the past few years as online watch-related fora and 'blogs have proliferated). However, it sometimes feels more like a knee-jerk reaction, rather than a considered response. I was therefore especially intrigued when I was first lent a watch by newcomers, and very "English" watchmakers,  Meridian for long-term test and then invited to visit them in Norfolk.

On an unassuming light-industrial estate on the outskirts of Norwich sits the headquarters, showroom and workshops of the Meridian Watch Company. The purpose-built facility was actually assembled around a huge, ten-ton safe (purchased from eBay, no less) that sits squarely in the centre of Meridian's small office. Meridian employs about a dozen employees in the UK, many of whom multi-task, working on watch and clock repairs for co-founder Simon Michlmayr's other business. Fans of external / public clocks may already be aware of Simon's work, both in Norwich and elsewhere; Simon himself is a WOSTEP-trained BHI-member and second generation clock and watchmaker. Meridian's other co-founder is Richard Baldwin, CEO of Arcadia, with links to Bunter and Fleurier. Richard is a keen collector, who has been dedicated to the industry for almost twenty years; he's a fantastic foil to Simon's technical brain - a Waldorf to his Statler, or is that Statler to his Waldorf?

A sample of prototype Meridian watches
The visit began with a trip through the history of Meridian - three prototype watches that were designed over the previous few years since Simon and Richard first had the idea to produce a watch. It's clear that a few things have remained constant during the planning and prototyping - Meridian watches are not for the faint of wrist; at at least 46.5mm, each of the prototypes has a mass, a weightiness, that is not unimpressive. Working with diving buddies, the pair created a couple of watches with locking bezel mechanisms (neither of which was entirely successful from a cold-water diving point of view), as well as a pilot-style model in which the beginnings of the modern Primes can be seen. The lockable dive bezels were particularly interesting; it's always fascinating to see how manufactures / designers approach dive bezels. With Meridian, as you can see from the photos opposite, the focus was on a sprung device to stop the bezel from turning accidentally. While divers found these hard to use even when not wearing neoprene, there are further plans afoot to create a different style of bezel that is more easily operable.

The Meridian watch box in white oak
The Meridian workshops are working repair centres, specialising in the repair of both watches and clocks. The building has therefore been subdivided into various areas: a repair workshop; a clock-making area; cleaning rooms; and the watchmaking area itself. Each is dotted with equipment - both new and old - ranging in size from a rather nice brass spotting machine to a cherry picker. I must admit to getting a little (over?)excited at the sight of so many cool bits of kit - vintage lathes, a topping tool, a sonic cleaner from the seventies - Simon has just about every tool for every job. And this goes some way to explaining the approach that Meridian has taken to watchmaking: they really do make a large proportion of their watches in-house. In fact, they probably make too much. Richard was explaining that they had recently been looking at a watch box to accompany the wallet in which each Meridian Prime arrives. But they were unimpressed with the hinges that were commercially available. So they made some themselves. The results are impressive - possibly the loveliest hinges I've seen - and this relentless attention to detail (or rather, attention to producing exactly what they want, and refusing to compromise) is something that appears to underpin the Meridian watchmaking philosophy. 

A prototype 100 Hour version of the Meridian Prime
Rather than buy in complete Swiss-made movements, Meridian have used a source of new old stock ETA ebauches from the past fifty years. This allows them to literally build their own movements, from the bottom up, customising some components, decorating others: frosting, bevelling, polishing, plating and assembling. Ken Kessler, in his piece for QP Magazine, has recently written that Meridian use the "raw Unitas 6497/8 in component form." When I first read that article, I had assumed that they were "modifying" movements, in much the same way as many others - perhaps adding a moulded rotor, or speccing the ETA at source. But what I saw was a revelation. Richard has described the process to me a number of times over the past months, but for some reason it hadn't really sunk in (perhaps there was also an element of (:-S) in me as well?). Meridian really do "make" watches, hand-blueing the screws, sending the bridges off to be hand-engraved and even crafting the cases and casebacks from a single piece of steel (which have to be labelled throughout the process to ensure that the matched pair are able to be successfully reunited).

It's wonderful to see a company like Meridian having a go at such things. The Unitas movement that drives the Prime is but one of many fires that are currently in the fire: while I was there, I saw a hand-cut differential being assembled for the forthcoming 100-hour Power Reserve model (results show an average of 103-108 hours), as well as an automatic movement on a test bed. There's a glass caseback in the works (see above) and plans for a variety of dial designs, layouts and even a truly in-house movement. It's wonderfully ambitious - a property that Meridian appear to have in spades. But how about the watch itself? I'll get to that in the next part of the story.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

A Prime Candidate

The Meridian "MP-12" Prototype
Back in the early summer of last year, Meridian Watches appeared on Twitter. There wasn't a huge fanfare, just a few announcements that promised hand-built English watches, with a Swiss movement. Of course, being something of a #watchnerd, and a complete anglohorophile**, I not only began to follow them, but also struck up a conversation. A few months later, I Tweeted Meridian to ask how the build was going and received a rather nice response from them, and was sent a few tidbits during the ensuing months. It was only in the autumn, a few weeks before SalonQP 2012, that the significance of this contact became apparent: Richard called me to give me something of a Meridian-sized scoop. It was wonderful to see the launch at SalonQP - even if the sightly officious security guards ensured that I missed the actual reveal at 1800 - but it was only afterwards that I learnt that Meridian would be sending me one of their watches to wear and feedback to them on my experiences. So here it is: an "MP-12" - it's actually a model without a designation, being the first to be treated with DLC, and a new, metallic dial that I've not seen before. Of course, I'll be recording my thoughts via Twitter, and on the 'blog, but I should like to thank Richard - and watchmaker Simon Michlmayr - for entrusting me with this piece. You've made a #watchnerd very happy!




**I may have just made that up, but you know what I mean. Probably.