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Posts Tagged ‘watchmaking’

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:

english lever.JPG

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 They were a century out of date even when new.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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