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… 

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.