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