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Posts Tagged ‘collecting’

medanaThere’s a debate among collectors whether or not a personalised inscription on an old watch or a piece of jewellery alters its value. The majority view is that it devalues it considerably, indeed on a cheaper piece it renders it all but worthless.

Other collectors, perhaps less concerned with an object’s material value, will say it adds human interest. It can also be useful if the inscription includes a date so we can accurately place the piece in time.

Personally though, I avoid old watches with a dedication. I’m not sure why. I have plenty of old books on my shelf that bear a dedication to strangers, yet I feel I possess them no less for all of that. I mean a book is a book, after all. But a watch is a wearable piece of kit and it will always feel like someone else’s watch if it’s got their name on it and a hint of their history. It wouldn’t feel right to wear it myself. It would be as if I had stolen it. With a book it’s more like borrowing it.

This little Medana is my latest acquisition from EBay. It cost me all of £12.00. It was described as a runner, but the case looked poor, and the lens crazed – and square lenses are impossible to replace off the shelf. But all of that was fine by me because I only bought it for the experience of tinkering with it. I’m certainly not complaining, but a more honest seller would have shown a photograph of the back, which bears the inscription:

To Jack on your 21st Birthday. Love Mum and Dad

I don’t know who jack was, or his mum and dad, but I do know the watch has a fine seven jewel  pin-lever movement. This and the general style of the watch dates it to around the 1950’s. It’s a well worn piece, indeed a lifetime of wear by the looks of it, most of the gold plating rubbed off, the case pitted with a million dings, and the plexiglass all finely crazed, but somehow not unattractive for all of that. There is still something elegant about it.

It bears the deep lines of Jack’s life, and as an object in itself, though virtually worthless, it oozes character and old world charm. So perhaps the inscription makes it more than just an old watch. It makes it a story, or rather it has us making up a story to fit it because, without having known Jack, that’s the best we can do. But there are some things it’s reasonable to surmise:

I’m guessing Jack’s dead now, that the watch came from a house clearance or something. Jack would have been in his late eighties, his passing quite recent, his life cleared out, his furniture given to charity, his papers burned, a few items picked up by the clearance merchant and put on Ebay. What else can we surmise? Well, I suspect there were no children nor grandchildren, or they might have held on to the watch, given the inscription, and the family significance, or maybe they just weren’t sentimental about stuff like that.

I find it rather sad to think of this parental gift, marking time for the whole of Jack’s adult lifetime, only to be discarded and wash up anonymously on the second hand market, though I suppose that’s better than it going in the bin. How easily these days we are deleted, our life’s worth scattered to the four winds, how easily we can be forgotten, brushed off, even by kith and kin.

I wonder about him, about his Mum and Dad, and I try to imagine that birthday long ago, when this little Medana was sparkling new, the gold plate unworn and deep with lustre, and Jack was making his first steps into the adult world. Medana was a respectable brand, a sister brand to Roamer, good quality manufacture, though neither of them in the luxury bracket, so Jack’s parents were not that well off, not your Patek Phillipe, dynasty founding types, but they appreciated a bit of quality for a special occasion.

This was an ordinary life, Jack the lad and his mum and dad. Had he any surviving sisters? Brothers? Surely they too would have kept the watch had they known about it. For a reasonable sum it could even have been professionally restored and passed on, kept in the family, but I guess it’s just no that kind of watch. I hope Jack did not die lonely.

The lustre of the case has not lasted a lifetime, but it tells me Jack was loyal to the watch even as it began to show its age, loyal to the gift and the memory of his Mum and Dad. It also carries jewellers marks inside the case, further indicating it was looked after, serviced, loved, valued. I see Jack wearing it from the time he was 21, strapping it on each morning and setting out into the world, his world, and now he’s gone. And I’ve got his watch, a watch that’s worth nothing, and even a little less than nothing for having his name on it, but then such is life. As a story though it speaks volumes, filling the imagination, even though the actual truth of Jack’s life we’ll never know.

But here’s my dilemma: I can’t tinker with it. This isn’t just any old watch after all. It’s Jack’s. So I’ll put it in my little tin of keepers – maybe to confuse my own progeny when I’ve popped my clogs and they’re clearing out my own tat.

“Jack?” they’ll say. “Who the Hell was Jack?”

I don’t know, but I raise a glass.

Here’s to Jack!

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The Ebay bug continues to bite. Search: Gents vintage watch. Maximum bid £20. To date I’ve managed to mend slightly more of them than I’ve junked. But let’s be honest, this “mending” has involved only patience in the stripping down, cleaning, oiling and reassembling. Anything broken or missing is, I fear, (usually) the death knell for the consumer grade tickers of yesteryear. I do not tinker with the luxury end of the market, nor anyone’s priceless family heirloom. One slip with a screwdriver and it’s game-over. That’s just too risky a business.

I’m sure you can still get hold of the delicate bits of Rolexes and Omegas dating back to the 1940’s, and that’s fine – those old beauties will survive for centuries, but a Timex, an Avia, or a Services? It is these consumer grade tickers that are the endangered species, beautiful in themselves but vulnerable to the misadventures of tinkerers and Bodger Bills like me. But I shouldn’t be too hard on myself – it’s up to the Bodger Bills to preserve these less prestigious makes, because their insignificant value means that when they stop, they are not worth a proper watch-maker’s time, and the bin is their usual fate.

My most recent project was rather a sorry looking Cardinal for which I paid ten pounds. All the gold plating was worn off and it was losing 5 minutes a day. But it was a valiant little specimen, keen to keep going, and for all of its poor time-keeping, it kept that poor time reliably, if you know what I mean.  The plan was to polish up the case to more of a chrome shine, clean and oil the mechanism and regulate it back into decent time-keeping.

The dial told me Cardinal was a Swiss manufacturer –  usually the mark of a watch designed to long outlive its original owner, but opening this specimen up revealed an uninteresting mechanism – purely functional, no flourish to it at all, and a little flimsy. It was made to market, product of a cost cutting era when the West still sought to rescue its share of consumer goods, under fierce competition from the East. We lost. We were never very good at going cheap, the secret being to somehow retain the soul of a thing, rather than it being the first thing we threw away, which we all too frequently did. Nowadays we still manage a decent fist of the luxury end of the market, but much of that is nostalgia for a time that probably never was and we shall never recover our prowess for GDP enhancing volume manufacture. At least not in my life-time.

So, I was disappointed in the mechanism, but you can’t argue over the price I paid for it and a clean in my little agitation tank, and some fresh oil got the rate back up to a more accurate attempt at 300 beats a minute. The beat itself was lopsided though – more tick-tick-a-tick than a smooth tick-tick-tick, but there was adequate adjustment to bring this back in line. After an evening of tinkering we had what looked like a promising return to good time-keeping, its daily losses now counted in fractions of a minute rather than multiples.

Meanwhile the case polished up very nicely indeed – all the remaining bits of gold removed and the base metal brought up to an impressive chrome shininess by successive layers of abrasive paper: 600 grit, 1200 grit, 2400 grit, then a good going over with Solvol metal polish and a fine buffing wheel on a Dremel drill. The result was pleasing – the time spent was enormously absorbing.

Then came reassembly, but I chose an inopportune time, the TV nagging in the corner of the room and one of those occasional familial spats kicking off around me. Watch tinkering requires focus. The lifting of every screwdriver, the unfastening of every screw, the withdrawal of every pin, the lifting of every plate. The smoothness, the focus, the deliberation, the intent, all guard against surprise, and against the panic that sometimes ensues when “surprise” happens. In this sense watch repair is like meditation. And like meditation, to begin with at least, we need a quiet room.

The plate was about five millimetres diameter, brass, a quarter of a millimetre in thickness, and had curled into it a spring, like a paperclip, but again very small, so I had not noticed it on strip down. I spotted it now through the loupe as it pivoted away, ready to fall. I caught it with the tweezers, breathed easy, teetering on the brink of disaster. Then the agitation around me reached a crescendo, broke through momentarily, caused a ripple of irritation on the still surface of my thoughts, a tremor of the hand,… and the spring literally dematerialised. One moment it was there, held safe in my tweezers, the next it was gone.

The spring was part of the mechanism that flips the date, a complication which, in the case of this watch was more complicated than any other I have encountered. The watch would still go back together, tell good time, I supposed, but that it would never know the date again was unfortunate. On the plus side, it was not a good quality watch, so I had not ruined much. But I had thought that if I could have got it running better and cleaned up to a more presentable shine, I could in all good conscience have resold it on the Bay as a more superior specimen than the one I’d bought, but alas it looked like I’d junked it, and all for the want of a spring the size of fly’s leg.

But a spring is a spring, fashioned from spring-steel, and I remembered I had it a-plenty from my torsion clock days. I chose a quieter time. No TV, no other people around. An hour under the loupe with snippers and pliers and a new spring took shape. It slotted into place snugly, held firm and performed crisply, pressing the tiny detent mechanism into the date wheel, so it stepped through the days properly. The Cardinal once more knew what day it was, as well as making a better stab at the time. And I began to feel less like a Bodger Bill and more like a watchmaker.

Nope – still a Bodger Bill, Michael.

I remember an old clockmaker showing me once a repair that had been made on a three hundred year old clock. The bit of bent iron crudely fashioned into an escapement mechanism I correctly identified as a discarded horseshoe. I was impressed by such ingenuity. The clockmaker was not.

I’ve worn it for a week now, and it does passably well – all right, sometimes it gains a minute, depending how I set it down at night, and then there’s a slackness in the train that makes the minute hand wander plus or minus a minute when you tap the watch, so the time will always be something of an average, no matter how well the beat is regulated. Alas I cannot release it back into the wild as anything other than another tinkerer’s tinker thing. Yes, it’s running slightly better than when I got it, but admittedly not much, and I would certainly not like to rely on it. But the watch tinkerer’s Cardinal rule is that we must accept much of the value in what we do is not in the end result of our actions, nor in the final bid price if we decide to sell, but in the journey we took the moment we flipped off the back.

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