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Posts Tagged ‘swiss’

accurist 1In Wordsworth’s manifesto of the English Romantic movement, there is a rejection of the high flown language that passed for poetry prior to 1800. The emphasis is on plainness of speech, and finding the extraordinary in the ordinary, of finding a richness of spirit and meaning in the very poorest of places. And when we view an object or a scene it is not simply the contemporary reality we see, more the multiple layers of its existence in time, as granted by imagination and history.

Thus an old watch becomes more than a timepiece, not so much the sum of the time it tells as the times it has known. There’s also something truly beautiful about mechanical watch mechanisms. They sum up all that is best in mankind, in the thousand minds and the hands of the past that came together to create such delicate, wondrous devices.

So when I find one that’s ailing and abandoned, I take a pleasure in seeing if I can get it going again, in helping it on its way. There is no purpose in this, other than a kind of defiance, and few people are appreciative of it anyway. After all, why not simply buy a new watch? Well, that may be the best policy if all you’re concerned about is telling the time,  but there is something more in restoring life to a machine created by past hands and minds. We pay homage to it and to something in ourselves. For a certain type of person – me – there is something of the soul-life in it, something Romantic.

This Accurist I’m working on is a quality piece, and comes apart nicely, easily. I’m not used to seeing gold hallmarks on a watch. They confirm the date of manufacture, while various arcane service marks tell me it’s seen some work, back in the days when watchmakers were numerous and not as expensive.

So, what’s up with it? Well, the balance won’t swing, but a few puffs from the blower brush seem to wake it up and it runs, hesitantly at first, settling down a little slow and there are significant variations in all the positions – face up, face down, crown left, crown right. Either the balance is worn or it just needs cleaning. We’ll stay positive and assume cleaning will do the trick.

I’m not going to disturb the whole mechanism, so it’s just a light strip and clean the balance. I do the pivot holes of the escapement train with a toothpick dipped in white spirit. Watchmakers will grind their teeth at the thought, but they had their chance and turned their noses at it. So,… my turn, my methods.

Then it’s oiling, and the best bit for me, a steady hand and a dropper finer than a pin. It’s just the pocket-jewel atop the balance that’s the usual challenge, trying to get the dropper through those balance coils without touching them. I do smear oil on the coils a few times, so clean it off by immersion in white spirit – the Duncan Swirl method – try again, get there finally. Then I tease it all back together and it runs – much better – much less variation in the positions. It’s still a little slow, so I leave it a day to let the new oil settle in, pick it up again tomorrow. Pleasure postponed is always worth waiting for.

Tomorrow, nudge the regulator arm, let it rest, count the beats. An error of fifteen seconds a day is the best we can hope for here, but I’m happy with a minute on a piece this old. It runs well. The beat is good, nice and flat on the trace. Keeps time. We clean the case up a bit, give it its old sparkle back. That foxing on the dial looks just right, I think, and the guy’s happy, restored to his past, to his place in time. And that he’s happy makes me happy.

Sure, it’s a good piece, and worth it. Plus, we needed each other. It’s certainly picked me up and dusted me down after a bit of a kicking and I’ve saved it from oblivion, lying useless and forgotten in a keepsake drawer. Small victories are important when you’re coming out of a dark place. Accurist, eh? They put their name on some good watches in their time.

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Cyma gstp (2)

I was after the GSTP pocket-watch, actually, the one with the Ministry broad-arrow on the back. My dad had one, army surplus, from the ’40’s. He was a Colliery Deputy and preferred a pocket watch down the pit. I don’t know what happened to it, but I guess the pit ruined it in the end. GSTP is short for General Services Trade Pattern, various makers working to a specification laid down by the government, all good quality Swiss makes. Even broken ones fetch good money now, which is why I had to let it go but I was in the mood for a punt, and then I saw this one:

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This one’s an English Lever, about a hundred years old. I have a few in my collection already and none of them are any good. They were a century out of date even when new. You’ve only to strip one to see the decline in English watch-making: lack of investment in design and technology, a staid conservatism and a misguided belief in our own superiority, even as the Swiss and the Americans were racing ahead of us. It’s a far cry from a GSTP, and I suppose it was the watch-case that drew me, three blurry impressions I took for hallmarks. The seller said the case was nickel, but you don’t hallmark nickel, so it was more likely a silver piece, I thought, and worth twenty five quid at least, even as scrap, so that’s what I bid, and I won. The seller clearly didn’t know much about watches. Ha! But then the watch turned up and the seller was right – the case is indeed nickel, and those marks are just there to fancy it up a bit. Hard luck, Michael. Serves you right.

You wind an English Lever from the back with a key, like a clock, and you set the time with a key from the front, or more often you can’t be bothered because it’s fiddly so you just twiddle the minute hand with your finger, which is why you see so many English Levers with the minute hand snapped off. The best you can say is they’re simple. And this one was both cheap and simple. It was also dead. Not much going for it then.

english lever dates.JPGBut then I opened the back and saw a list of dates, microscopically inscribed by hand. The earliest one is April 1918, the latest September 1923. These could be service dates, they could be dates when the watch was pawned, but either way it was suddenly starting to tingle with its own history, and my imagination was filling in the blanks. So I took another look: the ceramic dial was in good condition and that nickel case would polish up well. The mechanism was awash with what looked and felt like engine-oil, but otherwise looked okay. It had a somewhat sturdy jewelled balance and lever, and the hair-spring was still a pristine spiral, just aching with potential. Usually that spring’s a rat’s nest and the watch is gonner. Given its history, and the times it had known, could I not do something with it? (I know, I say that with all the old watches I rescue from Ebay)

So I stripped it, cleaned the bits, swirled them gently in a jam-jar of white spirit, left them to dry overnight, cleaned out the pivot holes with a toothpick, passed them over the demagnetiser, then rebuilt it. There’s something meditative about assembling a watch, at times a bit fiddly, but that’s all part of the pleasure. Then I oiled it with a needle dropper and some proper watch oil, lowered the balance into place, gave the key a few speculative winds, and,..

Away it went!

english lever balance.JPGBy now I’ve had it ticking in my pocket all day and it’s not lost a minute, so I’m thinking to myself I’ve misjudged it; it just needed a bit of care and it’s back working valiantly again just as it was about to be written off as scrap. And I’m thinking too it’s a very English thing, actually, that maybe English Levers like this one are indicative of the spirit of Albion: far from perfect but generally reliable; they’re like an MG sports car, a little basic, certainly obsolete, and outclassed by just about everybody else, but there are still plenty of them around, still attractive to a discerning audience. So I take it up again, thinking maybe, like my dad’s old Swiss-made GSTP, this is a watch I could actually use.

But the damned thing had stopped!

So then I’m back to cursing it for a worthless piece of junk, and asking myself: how did Englishness, with all its shortcomings, its clunky lack of sophistication, its bad taste and its frigid conservatism manage to come through two world wars and survive a century of upheaval that laid waste to the rest of Europe? The answer, I suppose, is we did it with stubbornness, and luck, and it’s not like we had much choice. But we also had not a little help from our friends, when we needed it, friends who, for one thing, made all those GSTP pocket watches for us. As for our unshakeable sense of superiority in spite of all evidence to the contrary, well, that’s just the English way too, and perhaps not a bad thing if it keep our faces turned to the wind when the odds are against us and others are losing their wits. And is that not the truest test of time anyway?

I give the watch a little shake and it stutters to life once more, settles to a steady beat. Maybe it just needs another look, but for now, clearly you wouldn’t want to bet your life on it. Still, it has a certain something, don’t you think? Or should I have held out for that GSTP?

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flTo deal with daily stress, we have to be like a cork, buoyant, always floating to the top of life. Events swirl, they jostle, they jam and jar, and to be healthy and happy we must find a way to keep ourselves bobbing along, always rising above, transcending that which might harm us. Indeed most people, I think, are robust enough when it comes to resisting the abrasions of daily life, and they float very well. They are adaptable, resilient and eternally balanced, no matter what life holds in store. Others though, perhaps those caught more in the Gaussian tails of a so called mental normality – the introspective introverts (like me), the fiery extroverts, the worriers and the warriors both – we fellow shadow-landers all need to be more careful.

Stress is a sneak thief, creeping in at dead of night, stealing our self worth grain by grain, and covering up the fact that actually we have not been floating at all, that we have been sinking, and perhaps for a long time. We carry on, at first oblivious, then wake up one morning to find life has taken on a paler hue, taken on a strange and an unsettled quality. The pleasures become fewer, and of those few remaining, we deny ourselves the pleasure of them, because they no longer suit our moods, or we say we no longer have the time. And as the world becomes alien to us, we become alienated within it.

Cynicism and grumpiness are my usual warnings. Take heed they say, take refuge from this. But I have not been listening, and the last few weeks have yielded that unwelcome sense of alienation. It came upon me suddenly while conversing with a friend, a quite unrelated feeling of tension, of oddness. An innocuous statement then became like a trigger, and it filled me with an abrasive tingling, like broken glass in my veins. Suddenly, I was running out of beat.

So,…

Another old watch arrived today, courtesy of a successful bid on Ebay. It’s a vintage Favre-Leuba, Swiss made, circa 1963. It’s had some work, and it’s showing wear here and there, but seems to be running all right and will at the very least tidy up to a slightly better condition than that in which I found it.

But like me, this little Favre-Leuba is out of beat. There is a lopsidedness to its tickings, a bias to its balance. I have dismantled it, cleaned it, examined it, assessed the bits I can replace, identified the bits I must accept more as the unavoidable scars of its life’s history.

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With any timepiece, indeed any oscillating thing, we must deal with both the rate and the beat. The rate determines accuracy, determines the authenticity of one’s life’s direction. But the beat is also important, the degree of swing from left to right, from in to out, up to down, yin to yang. Any excess in either direction and we encounter problems, we deviate, we get lost, we stop, or a friend says something innocuous, inoffensive, and a wave of weirdness washes over us as if at the rising memory of a bad dream.

The yin and the yang of the Favre-Leuba is dealt with by a small adjustment of the balance. Provided we have no excessive wear, the rate should then be reliable under any number of positions and circumstances. The beat of a human life is a little more mysterious, the causes of its imbalance harder to pin down, but as a rule the danger lies in excess of Yang.

Yang is hot. It will burn us up, dry us out, render our gut acid, and make our blood boil. While the balance of a watch is contained in the oscillation of a wheel and a spring, the balance of a life is held in the elasticity of the nerves, therefore also partly in the mind. And it is in the mind we must make the necessary adjustment. Reaction and relaxation. These are the clues.

Reaction is tension, it is the preparedness for flight, for aggression, for action. Many of us live in this state all the time. It becomes habitual, and what is habitual over time we accept as normal, unchangeable, even if it is a normality that will harm us. Blood pressure. Heart. Anxiety. Panic. These are the symptoms.

Relaxation on the other hand is the letting go. It is the unfreezing of tension. It is the softening that allows a body’s natural, inner self to reassert itself. It is soothing, healing, calming. And it can be willed.

When we are ill, we are not cured by drugs. They can help, but ultimately it is the body itself that returns us to wellness, to neutrality. This is how the healing arts work. They create space, create the room within us for the miracle that is the human life to work more as it should.

Another thing that strikes me about this Favre-Leuba is its size. It is barely an inch in diameter, and as such flies in the face of the brutality of design and the sheer weight of many a modern man’s watch. It weighs just 25 grams.

The modern man must carry so much weight around these days, much of it imaginary, though we imagine it to be real, purposeful, with all the dials and clickers to prove it. But open up a modern watch and it is mostly space, like the space inside an atom, which renders an atom mostly nothing, but apparently real, at least for all practical purposes. But its solidity is never-the-less an illusion.

The vintage watch is more a cutting back. For all of its antiquity, it’s simplicity, it will still carry the time, the purpose, the direction of a life, but with less weight, less fuss and bother, and there is no more worthy an example of this than this old Favre-Leuba, plagued as it is with the aches and pains of its long journey.

While I tinker and explore its workings, nudge back its beat, fine tune its rate, I feel a slow returning to myself, the palms less tingly, the heart less frozen by unseen terrors, the broken glass melting back to blood. It needs a new strap, the tiniest dab of paint on the dial to hide the bit silver showing through. And I shall wear it, take pleasure in it for a while.

To see the signs of imbalance in ones self is an important step, for then we might stop and wonder what it is we are missing. Better that than not to stop at all and plough on into sickness and oblivion. But what it is is usually to be found not in the details. These are the distractions, and shall all be transcended once we have remembered the single vital thing, the thing we have forgotten.

And what we have forgotten is often simply how to breathe.

 

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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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