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paul jobinSince the beginning of my eccentric fascination for the sensibly priced, mass produced gents dress watches of yesteryear what I have always wanted to acquire is a Paul Jobin.

The house of Jobin was a fine Swiss maker, and like many a fine Swiss maker, all gone now, swept away by the advent of quartz technology. I’ve been watching them on Ebay for a while now and noted these pieces tend to be expensive for vintage mass market tickers – at least relative to my tinker-toy budgetary limits, so when I bid a little over a tenner for this one, I wasn’t expecting to win, but then you never can tell with Ebay.

The seller said it was running “a bit”, but I’d prefer to say it was limping, then stopping to rest. Permanently. I wasn’t altogether hopeful then that after a quick tinker I was going to end up with anything more than another addition to my spares box. As usual the glass looked like it had been grit blasted, and the gold plating on the lugs was worn back to brass along the edges and corners. Removing the glass though revealed a pristine dial and still shiny fingers – and brass, when polished with Autosol, comes up like gold anyway. It was worth a shot, and all depended on the state of the movement.

It has a hand-winding mechanical movement, an ST 1802/3, by the much respected Swiss maker Anton Schild. We can look this up in an online catalogue and it gives us the date of manufacture as being 1965. Part of the fascination for me, as in childhood, is opening up an old watch like this and seeing the movement. They are incredibly beautiful things:  small, intricate, designed to run faultlessly for a lifetime – even on cheaper pieces – and quite probably haven’t been seen by a human eye since the day the back was first sealed, fifty, sixty, years ago. As a lesson in design and volume manufacturing they also speak of untold miracles. And by now they have become, in spite of their worthlessness, otherwise quite precious things. I no longer resist my obsession. I am tooling up. I am moving in deeper.

Fortunately most watches from the “vintage” period have probably lain quietly and safely in a drawer since the advent of quartz, around 1978, and the chances are if they’re not running any more it’s because time has aged the oil to gum, and all the thing needs is a strip down, a clean and some fresh oil to get it going again.

small parts.jpgYes, the parts are tiny, but with practice and patience and a smattering of cheap tools, it’s a skill anyone of a mechanical bent, and steady hands, can acquire. After a year or so of practice, and with the aid of online guides written by old watchmakers, I’m getting better at it, my last two examples having actually survived my efforts and gone on from their dubious conditions on arrival to make surprisingly accurate and attractive timepieces.

And so it has turned out in this instance.

After cleaning and oiling, my newly acquired vintage Paul Jobin has been running well, keeps time easily within a minute over a couple of days. In the fullness of time, a change of glass, costing all of £1.50, will enable much of that original sixties charm to once again shine through. Until then, this sterling little ticker can be my companion piece for my upcoming trip to the North Yorkshire coast. It’s perhaps no coincidence that most of the pieces I’ve acquired are as old as me, that in reviving them, in keeping them going, I am keeping myself going as well.

I close with a little excerpt from the Sea View Cafe – not altogether irrelevant:

the sea view cafe - smallHome was where love was. And when love died, it was time to go. But you couldn’t just run out on people, could you? You couldn’t just run out on a life you’d spent your whole life building from the ground up!

Could you?

The waitress brought his coffee, a fancy little biscuit on the side. She was trying hard, he thought, and not without appreciation, but this was still a small seaside cafe and seriously out of season – there was only so much altitude to be gained here. He noted a neat little badge on her breast which said: Hermione. He noted also she wore a man’s Paul Jobin wristwatch, gold plated, from the pre quartz era. Finn’s era. It had stopped. Beside it, a cheap plastic fashion branded thing kept up the time, all black but for the fake diamond hour markers.

“Thanks,” he said, and then, impulsively: “There were caravans once.”

“Sorry, darlin’?”

“Up on the hill. Caravans. I used to come here on holiday as a kid.”

“Caravans? Before my time. What about you John? Do you remember caravans on the hill?”

John ‘Squinty’ Mulligan had taken out his newspaper and was hiding behind it. He shrugged, grunted. Squinty remembered the caravans of course, remembered them very well, but preferred not to be drawn. Let the stranger pass on through, unenlightened, he thought.

See you in Yorkshire.

Graeme out.

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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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