Thursday, July 28, 2011

Dear Diary: In the area

If this happened only once or twice, I would not even mention it. Even if it happened once per month it would not be a big deal. No, I am not looking for an advice on how to handle this matter nor a sympathy pat on the back. I just have to get it off my chest.

It is 8:55 in the morning and I have already spent a solid hour behind the work bench trying desperately to re-shape a Breguet-over coil hair spring. Fixing other people's mistake is never fun, but since we cut down on general repairs, tangled hair springs and broken balance staffs are luckily not often on the menu. I've learned long time ago to ignore intense pain in the back, shoulders and both elbows which is a typical 'watchmakers disease.' But with a bit of luck and patience, it will be all over soon...

Then the door bell rings.

Our office is situated on the 4th floor and we have two security doors. Due to the nature of our business and security issues, we see clients strictly by appointment only. My assistant opens the door and I could clearly hear the conversation that is taking place in the show room.

- Hi, is Nick here?
- Yes, he is but he is busy right now. Can I help you at all?
- Well, I would like to see Nick!
- Unfortunately we are not open to the public, as of yet. Do you have an appointment?
- No, but it will be only 10 minutes or so...

At that stage, I know I have only one option - to put the hair spring job away and turn my attention to the visitor.

- Good morning Sir. Are you here to buy, sell or repair?
- Hey Nick - neither - do you sell watches?
- Yes, I do.
- But there is nothing on display?
- No, it is a bit too early. So you are interested in...?
- Well nothing in particular, I would just like to see what you've got?
- In that case, Margarett will set an appointment. How about 9:45? We keep our stock in a security deposit box and it takes a bit of time to get it ready for viewing. (Why am I apologizing?)
- Nick, I am not really ready to buy; I just want to SEE what you've got.
- In that case, why don't you check out our website. After all, it's all there; photos, description, prices... (Why am I reasoning?)
- It's not the same thing... I have to try the watch on my wrist before making a commitment. It is really a shame you can't show me what you've got RIGHT NOW. This is very disappointing, I was in the area... looks like I'm wasting my time!

At that point, I feel like a gorilla stunned by a taser.

Don't get me wrong - I am not upset because you've forced your way into my premises. Nor with the lack of respect - or because you are not even making an effort to listen. That I can handle.

What throws me out of whack and makes my blood boil is your immature attempt to put a blame for your "disappointment" on me, like this is somehow my fault. And even more so - by using completely illogical reasoning.

Let me just tell you two things.

First, this situation is anything but SHAME. Shame is when England won back Ashes beating Australia in 2009. Or that game last month when Samoans kicked our bums in Sydney. THAT is shame.

Second. There is an establishment across the road, above the bank called "Final Touch". No, they are not a hair dressing salon. No, they are not a funeral directors either. They provide a very specific service. Yes, that one.

Like other 400,000 people who work in Sydney CBD, I too see their sign on my way to work. Since this is a completely fictional scenario, I beg you to use your imagination wisely:

I ring the door bell. The 60-something ex body builder covered in tattoos opens the door. Yes, I woke him up, and yes, I can smell some strange fumes, and yes, I can see something is going on behind that curtain, yet I hear me saying:

- Hey, it's me. Are you open?
- No mate, it's too early...
- Anyway (and I push him gently to make my way into the establishment) I won't waste much of your time...
- We are not open; what do you want?
- Well my solicitor told me that you got a new girl, Ruby Cat. I would like to see
her in person!
- Ruby Cat is not available. It's too early mate. She is not ready to see clients.
- Oh, you don't understand me. I don't want THAT. I just want to SEE her. I've checked her profile online, but as you know, in case I ever decide to become a client of your fine establishment, I have to make sure I like her personality.
- Listen mate, call the number, call us to make an appointment (now the area under his chin is turning red, and heavily pulsating, especially around the string of tattooed numbers - is that the number to ring? I haven't seen a walking business card before! Very unprofessional to say the least)
- Well, that's really a SHAME. Especially because I WAS IN THE AREA....

So here is my second point: being in the area gives no one any special power or privilege over any business owner who happens to have an office in the time and space YOU intentionally or unintentionally happen to share.

There are 400,000 people within 3 minutes' walking distance from our shop who are ALSO in the area, yet I don't expect them to knock on my door with such a lame excuse. This "I WAS IN THE AREA" excuse sucks, and it sucks big time so DONT USE IT!

Even if my shop was 850km north of Burke, in the middle of nowhere, even then, "I am in the area" would not be a good reason to knock on my door unless I had a "No Appointment required" sign stuck on my window.

Actually you will have more chances of seeing the tears rolling down the face of Ruby Cat's boss than making me guilty for not being able to accept illogical excuses.

Nothing personal. That's just the way the things are.

Seriously: Yes, we appreciate your business and we LOVE to deal with you in person. However, we are professionals - in order to serve you better and allow you to browse our stock confidentially and uninterrupted, we operate BY APPOINTMENT ONLY. Please call 02 9232 0500 or email.

Thank you for your patronage.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

One mighty swing

"Can you explain the purpose of pallets and how the pallets are "connected" to the escape wheel and balance wheel?"


Dear TK,

I guess the easiest way to answer your question would be to provide a link to Wikipedia, "Lever Escapement." The only problem with that is that these seven paragraphs of explanation are written by someone who has either never seen a watch or who copied the whole article from a 600-page book called "Theoretical watchmaking."

To save your time, I've read the said article just a minute ago, and quite frankly it was so dry that they've lost me in the third paragraph.

Therefore my explanation will be somehow different.

No technical background needed, just plenty of imagination!

Let's say you and your kid decided to have some outdoor fun and build a swing. Since the only suitable tree in your backyard is a very tall one, you had no choice but to suspend the rope from a branch which is 10m above ground.

(Are you using your imagination? Can you picture that really long rope? I don't want you to think of a small playground sand pit swing, but a BIG one!)

Six hours later, working on a hot summer day, your swing is finally ready for a ride.

The kid is on, and you've given him that strong initial push.

(Now imagine the swing swinging swishhh......swishhh.... and the kid having fun!)

Then your wife comes out and yells: slow it down!! So you let the swing slow down, to rock gently, while you maintain the action by pushing the kid with just a gentle touch. Like all good fathers do on a hot summer day.

Once again, we are talking about a very long swing with a very low amplitude.

So here is the first postulate: in order to keep the swing swinging, you must continually provide a bit of force, or an impulse as watchmakers would say.

No impulse, no joy- the swings stop.

Now let's move to the second postulate.

After a few minutes, the kid is going to get bored. Since you've just spent six hours building the darn thing, you want him to play a bit longer. (This is also known as quality time). So you've come up with a game: Every time the swing comes your way, the kid will give you a high five and yell a number.

The mental picture: Here comes the swing - your hands touch and he yells ONE - then you gently push him away. Here he comes again - touch,TWO, push; touch,THREE, push... and so on.

Every time you two do the high five, the kid is impulsing your hand. A fraction of a second later, you are impulsing the swing back. And because the kid is counting swings, he is acting as a tick-tock generator - a time piece!

Your swing is an oscillator which is impulsed from the outside, and at the same time it
provides an impulse which is 'fed back' into the system.

This concept is really extremely simple yet magnificently efficient and accurate. The swing is a pendulum and the kid is a pendulum bob (weight on the bottom). Since you are receiving and giving an impulse, YOU are acting like clock pallets.

The reason why students of horology don't understand this concept is because two things happen almost instantaneously, and only one is obvious. However if you try to explain the geometry of impulsing without understanding the basic concept behind it, you too will be lost in 7 paragraphs of Wiki explanation.

You have probably noticed that I am not talking about watch pallets, but clock pallets instead. For a simple reason: while watch and clock oscillators work on different principles, the impulsing part is almost identical (and easier to demonstrate in simple terms on clock pendulum).

Essentially, pallets provide a connection between gear work and oscillators and their purpose is to transfer the force from the mainspring (via gears) to the oscillator AND to receive feedback impulse which does the 'tick tock' counting.

While we are at clocks, let me just expand a bit on pendulums (your big swing ticking at low amplitude). The search for accuracy in mechanical timekeeping went on for at least 2000 years. It came to an end in 1656. when a clever dutchman by the name of Huygens attached a pendulum to a clock movement. Within a couple of weeks of experimenting, he managed to improve the daily error in clocks from 15 minutes per day to 15 seconds per day! This was such an amazing and revolutionary discovery! Of course, he could not keep it secret and a few months later the good news spread to London which was at the time the horological capital of the world. The rest was just history...

So what is so special about clock pendulums?

If you remember, last week we have talked about watch oscillators and concluded that the period of oscillation depends on two things: inertia and stiffening of the hair spring.

Here is that formula once again:

Obviously, it is difficult to get a steady rate of oscillation when you have to jiggle two variables - we are dealing with complex and challenging engineering requirements.

Unlike with hair spring-return system, the beauty of the pendulum is this: pendulums are gravity driven!

Here is the formula which describes its period of oscillation:

Now note that T is not exactly defined in the formula; this simplified formula works only for a pendulum with a very small amplitude. This is why I wanted you to picture that LONG swing, not a short one.

(Just in case you want to see the formula which does take into account amplitude or theta-angle of swing here is that nasty and ugly beast. Note the 3 dots after last + sign: the equation extends for ever!!!

So let's go step back and have a closer look at T in the simplified formula: it is directly related to two things: L = length of the pendulum and g = gravity. Since gravity is a constant, there is really just one thing we need to worry about! What a beauty!

Indeed, you know so well that timekeeping adjustment in clocks is done by adjusting the length of the pendulum bob. Lower the bob, slower the clock.

And the weight of the pendulum is irrelevant - whether you have a 10 kg kid on a swing or a 30kg one, the preriod of oscillation is always the same. You can actually sit on the swing yourself and let the kid push you - and number of ticks and tocks will not change a bit!

Because of constant gravity, clock built in London will keep equally correct time in Sydney, Hong Kong or New York.

But let's say we have built two identical clocks and we send one to the Moon while the other stays in Sydney. We set time on both clocks at noon Sydney time. My question is this: twenty-four hours later, would both clocks display the same time?

While this sounds like a tricky question, the answer is really simple. According to our formula -

the period of oscillation is gravity dependent. And since gravity on the Moon is only 1/6 of gravity on Earth, the moon clock will go significantly slower. Actually we would have to reduce the length of the pendulum from 1m to 16.6cm if we want both clocks to show identical time!

That is probably the reason why Apollo astronauts took Omegas to the moon, not their grandfather clocks :-)

To conclude, understanding the function of watch pallets starts with the understanding of impulsing action. Transfer of forces is pure geometry, and I have to say a fairly complex one. For many years, watchmakers have struggled to perfect the geometry of pallet stones, shape of the escape wheel, polishing, lubricants.

The smallest misalignment will inevitably result in loss of power transferred to the balance wheel and in loss of amplitude. The timing when transfer of power occurs is absolutely critical, and it is determined not just by the shape of the escape wheel and pallets, but by their relative positions. Once again, it goes without saying that external disturbances like shock or lack of regular servicing will result in poor time keeping.

Here is a photo of (broken) pallets and a (rusted) escape wheel from my junk box:

Final curiosity: the weight of the Rolex escape wheel is 0.006 gram. In other words, the total of 167 wheels would have the combined weight of 1 gram. With the price of US$28 per wheel, 1 gram of escape wheels is worth US$ 4,676.00!

Do you know of any other machine-made and mass-produced piece of metal worth 4.6 million US dollars per kilogram? That's why the Swiss don't bother about making hammers and screwdrivers. If they did, you'd have to be Warren Buffet to take up carpentry as a hobby :-)

Monday, July 25, 2011

IWC Da Vinci Ref. 3750

When we are talking about truly iconic watches then the Da Vinci is surely one to be considered as such. Introduced in 1985. as model reference 3750, Da Vinci was the world's first automatic chronograph to feature a perpetual calendar, year display and perpetual moon phase display!

With an unparalleled level of calendar complication, it is still a miracle of mechanical watchmaking. It's mechanical calendar will function properly WITHOUT ANY EXTERNAL ADJUSTMENT until March 1, 2100 when the normally expected leap year will be skipped!

Unlike other perpetual calendars, the 3750's calendar is manually set (forwarded) just by the crown - there are no external push 'holes' for the separate adjustment of day/date/month/year and moon phase. It's all done automatically by a simple turn of the winding crown. Of course, that means that the calendar cannot be 'set back' to the previous day but this is really not required since the Da Vinci can 'tell' all of the above by itself anyway!

This watch encompasses one of the most extreme reduction gear ratios in the history of watchmaking: 1 : 6,315,840,000 turns of escape wheel are required to move the 100-year display for just 1.2 mm. At the same time, the balance wheel would make 95 billion ticks and tocks!

To say that IWC was excited about Da Vinci would be understatement. Here is the quote from watch booklet which captures the excitement of the new model:

"With the Da Vinci we also present to you a brand new century slide for the year 2200 - 2499. And that in a sealed glass tube. Keep it in a good place for the next 200 years. At the beginning of January 2200, take it to your watchmaker. He will exchange the slide in next to no time and your Da Vinci is ready again to show the time for the next 300 years.

Perhaps the visit at your watchmaker's will last a little longer than expected. Not to worry. He will seize this opportunity to take a close look at the watch movement ad calendar. On looking, he will certainly be astounded that such a thing was ever able to be produced. And that 215 years ago."

Needless to say, there are only a handful of watchmakers trained to assemble the Da Vinci. The entire calendar is located between the dial and movement plates, and held by just 4 screws. Not only that each gear, lever, tension spring and bridge must be placed in exact order but the each tooth of each wheel can be set in only one exact position.

Knowing your limits and sticking to them is one rule I religiously adhere to - so when the new baby arrived on Friday, I was just happy to take it out of the case, check the overall condition of the movement, made minor adjustments to the tome keeping, advanced the calendar for a few days to make sure it works as it should - and to take a couple of photos of the dial for my blog.

I am just so glad I won't be around in January 2200. to help you with the calendar slider!

Thursday, July 21, 2011

BNIB: almost a keeper

Hi Nick,

I have signed up for your email updates and interesting articles over the last 3-4 months and wanted to pass on how much I thoroughly enjoy these. I have always had a keen interest in fine watches as well as the history behind fine time pieces.

Part of the reason of me sending an email was to ask about buying fine watches online. I did  research some of your articles talking about buying watches where the dealer won't divulge serial numbers and any history of the watch.
My brother lives in the States and is interested in purchasing a Panerai watch over there. There is one online as new with boxes and papers with a private dealer. My question is, with new watches how do they turn up with sellers that are not authorized sellers of new watches like Panerai initially? Secondly how does the warranty apply in this situation? Are there things to check to make sure everything is above board?

Your advice would be greatly appreciated.

Best regards,

Dear Richard,
Thank you for your email.
Before I answer your question, let me share with you a very personal story.
A couple of years ago we met a guy who became sort of a friend. Mike was the nicest guy ever, very helpful and extremely polite. He loved my wife's cherry strudels and in return he would fix my letters for grammar and spelling. A fair deal!
As an accountant by trade he worked hard and saved his pennies even harder. Happy man - except for one detail: for some strange reason, no matter how hard he tried, he was still a single man. He really wanted to find that very special soul but for one reason or another, it just did not happen.
One late evening, Mike knocked on our door, announced. Obviously he was in a hurry and he said he needed my help. So we let him in.
He quickly logged into my computer and said:
"Nick, here are 3 ladies I've narrowed down from a selection of 12,000. A doctor from Novosibrisk, an architect from Petropavlovsk and a painter from a small village in Ukraine. Which one should I marry?"
To say that all 3 looked extremely beautiful would be understatement. 

But that was not the Mike we knew, so I was curious to find out what made him pick those 3 particular ladies? And he told us: all three were exactly the same height, same age and same  weight. For Mike, those numbers were the most important search criteria. The only problem he had is which one to pick?
And this is why he needed my help.
Now, let's just pause the story here for a second. If you were in my shoes, you would probably do your best to convince Mike not to rush with his decision. You would argue that there is the  possibility of significant misinterpretation when deciding about a person purely on low quality .jpg fifteen minutes after midnight, and that height and weight have very little to do with heart and soul, and all that stuff. That's what any reasonable person and friend would say!
But not me.
Without a nanosecond of hesitation, without even the slightest bit of guilt or doubt, as certain as only a watchmaker could be, I pointed to the photo of the artist by the name of Yelena.
"She is the one, Mike. You can't go wrong with a painter." 
And so he did.
Yelena arrived in Sydney in what I would call a BNBIB condition - a brand new Barbie in a box, with original papers, certificates, inner and outer boxes, hang tags, original receipt, spotless, conservatively described as 10/10. She would suit both a novice enthusiast or a seasoned collector. She was painfully perfect, with that heavenly Slavic accent - all those shs, tchs, ljs, zszs, which makes the sweetest French girls sound like Darth Vader.
There was only one bit missing: she came with no instruction manual and Mike could not figure out how to get her ticking -  no matter how hard he tried.
So what is my point, you may ask?
Well, buying online could be tricky. There is no guarantee that you'll get what you want and there is even less guarantee that you'll like what you get.
For the same reason you cannot blame Yelena for being Yelena, you cannot blame a Panerai for being too large, too heavy, too expensive or even fake.
I hope this goes without saying, but when it comes to recommending an online product, I am completely useless.
As Roxette said, "...listen to YOUR heart - there is nothing else you can do"
PS. Mike is now happily married to an Aussie mum with 4 kids. He lost few dollars in trade, but he kept the receipt. My wife still makes the best cherry strudels in the world, and as before, I still need someone to fix my grammar. As what happened to Yelena, I can not disclose for legal reasons.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Time keeping

What a week! After receiving 127 requests to disclose the cherry strudel recipe and 16 requests to disclose Yelena's phone number (neither possible, sorry) finally a watch-related email from a fellow enthusiast:

"Can you explain in simple terms how the watch balance wheel is regulated to keep 'spot on time' ?"

Dear J.N.,

I am glad you've asked for a simple explanation because this will save us time :-) You've indirectly asked two questions and I'll try to respond accordingly.

But before we get into it, let me just say that I cannot stress enough the importance of this subject. Unfortunately I know of many watch retailers, dealers, collectors - and even watch repairers who handle high grade watches on a daily basis, yet most of them have only vague knowledge of time keeping adjustment.

Therefore if you care to immerse yourself in my brief reply, you will be miles ahead from them all!

Time keeping and regulation are fundamental to watchmaking and our ability to tell the time accurately. Let me just say that mechanical watches never keep 'spot on time' but neither do 'quartz' watches. Even atomic clocks are not perfect but they are getting better: In the 1950s they were able to keep time within 1 second per 2000 years, while today we got them 'adjusted' to 1 sec per 20 million years. Which is not really all that bad.

Back to mechanical watches. Instead of 'spot on time' may I propose we settle for the more practical term: 'reasonably accurate'. Let's say 2 seconds per day.

While 2 sec/day is way above any practical requirement (especially if you travel on Sydney buses) your watch will still be 1 minute off at the end of the month. But then again, this is at least twice better than official Swiss chronometer certifications.

Which makes the Swiss standard look pretty lame. Or does it?

Before we jump into any conclusions, let's put things into perspective.

The balance wheel assembly is the heart of the watch. It is directly responsible for time keeping.

In essence, the balance wheel is a mechanical oscillator - it is the heart of the watch. Or to put it simply, this is the device which makes ticks and tocks.

And those ticks and tocks are what the time is made of!

Take a look at the photo below.

One second consists of EXACTLY 4 ticks and 4 tocks (*for 28.800 bph movement).
No more, no less. Consequently, one hour is made of 28,800 ticks. Or 691,200 heart beats per day! That is almost seven hundred thousand beats!

Let's say that instead of 691,200 beats your watch heart ticks just 16 beats more (or less) per day That would be an error of 0.00002 % which is the equivalent of those 2 magic seconds we are chasing!

You don't have to be a mathematician to figure out that such a tight tolerance is nothing but a miracle - especially for a mechanical device.

Actually there is no other mechanical device - including precision laboratory instruments - which would or could keep such a level of accuracy 24 hours per day over a period of 5 years without any maintenance while submerged under water, or up in the air, exposed to a temperature range of 50 degrees Celsius or more. Not to mention game or two of golf, sledge hammer and occasional drop to tile floor!

Indeed, the mechanical watch heart is a MIRACLE of human engineering and it's ability to tick with such an amazing accuracy is a very unique property.

Now that we've learned how precious that little heart is, we can get into more detail about time keeping adjustment or regulation.

The heart (oscillator) consists of a number of components, but two are directly responsible for ticks and tocks are:

- spring (often called a hair spring) and
- balance wheel

If you like formulas, you'll love this one: it is a real beauty! Actually the
greatest thing about Newtonian physics is that everything makes perfect sense!
(Unlike with confusing quantum stuff which came later :-)

The above formula describes the relation between time keeping, the hair spring
and the balance wheel.

Why is it a beauty? Because this is exactly what we need to know! It tells us that period of oscillation T [ticks and tocks] is determined by the position of weight on a balance wheel [I, inertia] and the stiffness of the hair spring [k].

In other words, in order to make our watch tick faster or slower, we could make adjustments to either the hair spring, the balance wheel - or both!

Rolex (and some other makers like Patek or the new Omega Coaxial) have designed their tickers in such a fashion that adjustment to time keeping is made by the variation of inertia of the balance wheel.

With most calibres of Rolex watches, regulation is achieved by adjusting the position of
regulating weights. The tiny little weight (marked A) is set closer or further away from the balance wheel rim (B). The closer to the rim: more inertia, slower period of oscillation, and the watch goes slower. The weight is effectively a nut; one quarter of a turn of one weight (4 shown on photo) equals approximately 1 sec per day.

Other makers opted for variation of stiffness of hair spring as a means of time keeping adjustment. Here, the inertia is constant (no weight on wheel) but the hair spring is
either shortened (stiffness increased) or extended by sliding the regulator lever [B].

As one would expect, both designs have advantages and disadvantages, and yes, there is more than one way to skin a cat.

Since by now I have most likely lost most of my subscribers, let me just wrap it up by clarifying a couple of Internet misconceptions.

The myth: watches with higher oscillator rates are better time keepers. Well this one has been busted big time. If you are to remember just one thing today, then remember this: never buy a watch just because of high beat rate!

A 36,000 bph watch is not necessarily a better time keeper than a watch ticking at 19,800 bph. The higher beat also comes with a few side effects: it requires a very special kind of lubricant for the pallets / escape wheel; more frequent overhaul and if movement is not serviced properly there would be more wear and tear.

This is the main reason why Rolex Daytonas produced with Zenith El Primero movements
(Pre - 2000. production) have 'modified' movements: the original Zenith bph was reduced to 28,000 and true to tradition, Rolex preferred free sprung balance wheel with variable inertia adjustment.

But the 36,000 bph has one fantastic property: it allow us not only to mechanically split the second to 10 beats (5 ticks+5 tocks) but to display the 1/10 of a second on the dial as well. And yes, the high beat oscillators are less sensitive to outside forces which are trying to throw the oscillator out of balance.

The common bph for mechanical wrist watches are 18,000 - 19,800 - 21,600 - 25,200 - 28,800 - 36,000 corresponding to 5 / 5.5/ 6 / 7 / 8 and 10 beat per second.

For those who like to think "outside the circle": you can actually chose ANY rate for your mechanical oscillator, as long as you have a wheel cutting machine to cut a wheel with 64.9754 tooth and don't mind "hour" hand displaying 3.483 hours per day :-)

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Gustav Becker with a good provenance

Hi Nick,

My name is Troy D. and have been a subscriber to your mailing list for sometime and was wondering if
you would be able to help with the identification of a wall clock that has been in our family for some time now.
It is believed to be a Gustaff Becker made in 1907. It was brought to Australia by The Redemptorists and was for the Monastery in Mayfield,
Newcastle which was founded in 1885. When the monastery closed it was obtained my family.
The history of the clock is a bit vague but it is believed that it was either brought to Australia by the one of the fathers
or it was constructed by one of the craftsman constructing the St Alphonsus monastery in Mayfield.
It is believed that the clock has been maintained quite well and is in perfect working order.
If at all possible from the photos attached to this email could you shed some light as to its make and
approximate value for insurance purposes.
Your expert experience on this subject would be greatly appreciated on this matter by my family
and also any tips in keeping this beautiful timepiece in perfect condition.

Your Sincerely,
Troy J D

Dear Troy,

Thank you for your email.

While you have supplied a number of photos, you have unfortunately made my dating task almost impossible by not providing a crucial one: a photograph of the back plate which will show us the Gustav Becker logo.

In order to do so, you must take the movement with it's sitboard out of the case. The sit board itself is fastened to the case with a couple of wood screws. Remove those screws and pull the sitboard form its slot.

Now be careful not to detach the mechanism from the sit board itself! Otherwise you will alter the position of hammers in relation to its chiming rods!

(I assume you are capable of doing this as per instruction, if not, it is better to leave it to a clockmaker.)

If your clock is indeed manufactured by Gustav Becker then you should be able to find a company stamp / logo on the bottom of the brass back plate.

This is what you are looking for:

As you can see, GB cloaks were manufactured both in Germany and Czecho-Slovakia (Bohmen or Bohemia) .

The clock case itself is clearly dating from the early 1900s as per your suggestion, and so is the dial. However the dial style and shape of hands remained popular until 1960s.

The clock itself is of fairly common construction for the era. It was built to tel the time, not to impress! It is a spring driven 8-day movement with 3 trains: time, hour strike and quarter chime
on 4 gongs. The fifth gong is for the hour strike only. On your photo, you can see the lever behind the dial, above the 2 o'clock position. This lever allows the owner to "turn off" the chime, strike or both.

There are a couple of important factors which must be taken in consideration when determining value for insurance purpose.

First, it is the value of the clock as a timepiece. Secondly, it's sentimental and historical value.

While your clock comes form a good home it would be difficult to convince any insurer that it possesses any significant value purely on it's provenance. Therefore the replacement value must be established based upon historical sales data for a similar clock made by Gustav Becker. The overall condition, especially of the dial and case, repair history, etc. would be considered as well.

In general, Gustav Becker clocks are regarded as mid-range quality German clocks. From the late 1850s to 1935 GB produced hundreds and thousands of clocks - maybe even well over a million! The company was bought by Junghans in 1935. With so many clocks produced - and so many still in good working order - GB clocks have very modest collectors value, even for examples in very good to excellent condition.

The possibility that the clock was made in Australia is extremely unlikely. While the clock cabinet (case) could have been made locally, there is no evidence in your
photos that suggest so. Case construction, ornamentation, veneer and overall finish looks consistent with mass-produced German examples.

Based on the above, a figure of around $1200 - $1500 would be a fair and reasonable insurance valuation amount.

Regarding maintenance: let's leave this for the next newsletter!

NOTE: While I am happy to provide my opinion on any timepiece based on photos and description - if time premits - such opinion is NOT legally binding in any financial or legal matter.
Proper and adequate Insurance Valuation is only possible upon physical examination of a watch / clock in question. Valuation service is available at nominal charge.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

To regulate or to overhaul

Dear Nick,

Please do not take offense to my e mail, I am just seeking clarification of my recent experience. I am a past customer of yours having purchased a Rolex Submariner 14060 M in 2007 .
As I live in Adelaide and was visiting Sydney for a conference last week I wanted to take that opportunity for you to regulate my Explorer 114270 “D” series which is running 8 secs fast per day consistently. I rang your office three weeks ahead of time and told the person who answered that I would like you to regulate the watch while I was in Sydney .She said that I needed to ring closer to the time to arrange to bring the watch in. I did that and just happened to speak with you personally and when I explained what I required you told me that it would need and over hall which would cost $850.00 and 6 weeks turnaround time, and that regulation was not an option. To say I was then very surprised when upon returning home I opened an e mail from you citing a recent example where a customer returned a watch which he had purchased from you and wanted you to regulate it as it was running either fast or slow( not sure which) . You stated that it was a simple fix ( less than 5 minutes work) and it was running +_ 1 sec ..straight away..but you did have great trouble with the case back. My question is this : was your lack of willingness to regulate my Explorer which did not come from you (as it was a gift from my wife) .or some other reason? I am just confused. I am a huge fan of yours and have directed many people to seek you out for their watch purchases, but I am left feeling somewhat let down over this experience. I suppose what I was hoping for was that you would welcome me as a customer and agree to at least have a look at the watch and if in the end it meant leaving it with you as you were not at all confident that regulation would work ..then I would have done so.

I certainly do not want to impose on you and I know you are very busy , but I do feel kind of “not wanted”

Thanks you for taking the time to read this.

Kind regards
Richard, Adelaide

Dear Richard,

Thank you for your email.

Time keeping in mechanical watches is a very complex issue. It took us over 500 years of development to reach this current stage of precision! Today, makers of mechanical watches are investing more money than ever to improve time keeping even further. Unfortunately, due to the very nature of mechanical watches, environment, temperature, gravity, materials used, lubricants and design of escapement, we have already reached 'the peak performance' in the mid 1800s (for clocks and other chronometers) 1920 (for pocket watches) and 1970s (for wrist watches).

Without going into detail - indeed, one can write a book on the subject! - let me just point out that majority of modern (post 1950s- to now) mechanical wrist watches with straight line lever escapements like the one employed in Rolex calibres are designed to keep time within a few seconds per day. Official Swiss Chronometre certification COSC stipulates that an average daily rate of -4 to +6 seconds per day is "good enough" to pass the chronometer test. Almost all brand new watches which are finely lubricated and adjusted could keep time within 1 or 2 seconds per day.

In reality, this 'ideal' time keeping property is degraded relatively fast once the watch leaves the factory's assembly line, regardless whether the watch has been worn on the wrist daily or sitting unworn in the box. For a simple reason: deterioration of oils and lubricants! If we can produce a watch which will require no lubrication and is made of materials which will not wear out, then such a time piece will keep 'factory new' time forever. Of course, this is not possible and all mechanical watches need regular overhauls. Unfortunately, unlike with your car, one cannot just drain the old oil and replace oil filter - there isn't one in a watch! Watch movements require complete disassembly, cleaning, assembly and only then it is ready for final adjustment.
This is what we call "complete overhaul" and yes, in the case of Rolex watches $850 is standard charge. A complete overhaul is recommended every 5-6 years.

Now back to your question: why I was unable to adjust timekeeping of your Explorer in 5 minutes or less, while such adjustment was possible with GP?

According to Rolex serial numbers and production data, your D serial Explorer was manufactured in 2005 or 2006. As you indicated it is a 114270 model which has a chronometer certified movement. It is now 6 years old and had no previous service history. Which means it is now due for an overhaul. As I have explained over the phone, attempting to improve the time keeping of a watch which is due for an overhaul by varying the frequency of its balance wheel is incorrect procedure. Such adjustment is only possible for watches which are less than 1 year old, while
oil is still relatively fresh - like in the cases of above mentioned Girard Perregaux.

Let me explain why.

Your Rolex watch movement consists of a number of 'units'. Power source (main spring) train wheels, escapement, automatic winding unit, time setting section (stem and crown), calendar assembly, etc.

The units which are directly related to time keeping are: main spring - train - escapement.

All three sections are carefully designed and engineered to work together in harmony. Or more precisely, the forces which turn the wheels (main spring and train) and frequency of balance wheel (escapement) are finely synchronized.

Here is an example: if you have a weight-driven wall clock, try to gently pull the weight down. You will immediately notice that pendulum would no longer be 'ticking' as it used to.
Reduce the weight, the same thing will happen. (There is one more twist there: more or less weight will not necessary make the clock go fast or slower, but that is another story altogether).

What I'm trying to say here is this: your watch will only keep correct time when the forces applied to the train wheels and consequently, the escapement, are right.

That invisible hand which messes with your movement (taking the 'weights' of a clock train) is friction. So before we can get to final time keeping adjustment of an oscillator, we need to make
sure that forces around it are as per original design. To 'restore' that driving force, we need to clean the watch and re-oil it again.

How can I tell that a watch needs an overhaul?

Basically, I am checking the condition of lubricant by observing the force in the watch train. I am not going into detail, but a simple check on a time keeping machine will tell me if your watch is due for an overhaul or not. The loss of amplitude is usually a dead give away, but there are other things to look for. Again this has nothing to do with the average daily error (seconds per day).

Which leads us to a conclusion: a watch due for an overhaul (low amplitude of balance wheel) can still keep reasonably good time but trying to compensate for poor time keeping, which is the result of low amplitude, by varying the frequency of the oscillator ("regulation") is a bad solution.

Of course, there could be any number of other reasons why your watch may not be keeping correct time, but we cannot even consider any of them unless we take care of the obvious.

In the same way that you cannot ask your doctor to prescribe you a specific medication you think fits your symptoms, I am unable, as a professional, to undertake a certain procedure just because I'm requested to. Especially without physical examination of your timepiece.

I am sorry if you felt that your business is not welcome, but I can only assist you if you trust my expertise. As I've said over the phone, you are more than welcome to bring the watch in for a free of charge assessment.

In addition, I would be more than happy to further elaborate on any technical aspect related to time keeping, if required.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Dear Diary

Have you ever thought about what would be the most challenging place for a journalist to write from? Maybe Benghazi, or Tripoli, perhaps Damascus? Well not really. It is a two-bedroom share apartment on Bondi. With all the booze, free chicks, cheap pot and endless surf, a young journalist would have to have the will power of Dalai Lama just to sign a cheque, let alone for anything else. Except maybe for Newtown. Same as Bondi, minus chicks and surf.

The phone rang a few minutes before 5pm. My assistant wanted me to take this urgent call: it was from a journalist who was writing an article on watch collecting.

Immediately, I got excited - could this be the call from Bani McSpedden, the sharpest pen of Australian horology? BMS is my hero - and I've been waiting for an invitation for an interview since the day I saw his first article in the Financial Review. The guy is unparalleled. Many have tried, but only BMS succeeded in placing terms "Tissot", "TAG" and "tourbillon" in one sentence. Interchangeably, of course.

It turns out that on the other end was a wannabe surfer from Newtown.

Without any introduction, he got straight into it:

- Nick, I am writing an article titled "Investing in Watches." Would you be able to answer a couple of questions for me?
- Sure, no worries.
- OK. Here we go. Question number one: what can you tell me about IWC watches in 60 seconds or less?

He was neither joking nor patronizing, so I mentally encircled c/ stoned. Yet I could not help but help. The kid clearly possesses the most prized virtue: he wasn't a darn time waster.

- Listen Jack, this one is too tricky. Why don't we move to question 2?
- Sure Nick. Question number two: What is a better investment: Rolex Daytona or Breitling Navitimer?
- Mate, you can't go wrong with Daytona.
- Thanks - he said cheerfully - great stuff!

About three weeks later, someone emailed me the link to a major Sydney paper. Title: "Get rich quick collecting Flieger Chronographs". Miraculously, Jack pulled 3 solid paragraphs on such a challenging subject and to his credit, he also referenced me as N.H, celebrity watchmaker.

There is absolutely not a slightest doubt in my mind that he was never paid for his hard work - but hey, neither was Piers Akerman for his first article- and look at him now!

There was only one problem - ever since this incident, I haven't been feeling the same. As Lady Cora would say: “The point is, Nick, if you've refused Jack, you would never become a celebrity, but you would have an unsullied reputation. Now, you are just damaged goods.”

Well I didn't think much of it really - until about four weeks later when I got stuck in the elevator between the second and third floors of Culwulla chambers. Stuck with me - and with the elevator - was that long legged blond legal secretary from the 12th floor.

Since I am neither Indiana Jones nor Charlie Sheen, we spent time quietly staring at the floor. (Lift needed a new carpet!). Forty five minutes later, just as we were slowly running out of oxygen, she finally said:

- So, what do you do for living?
- I am a celebrity horologist.
- Wow, that's fantastic! Where is your restaurant?

[to be continued, upon request]

Monday, July 11, 2011

The ultimate fantasy

I must confess: I do enjoy Downton Abbey.

Sitting in front of the box on Sunday night has become a small ritual. And I just love every bit of it - the costumes, decor, casting.

My mechanically minded brain is easily stimulated with obvious predictability of each scene and every dialogue. You just know what they are going to say and what happens next.

While most Brits watch it because they are familiar with the vocabulary, I watch it because I'm not. When it comes to Victorian England, I am as clean as a slate (blame my Central European upbringing?) but for some weird reason, I have a feeling, that if transported back to the 1920s, I would not be out of place or time!

Here is my ultimate fantasy:

- Carson, the Longcase clock is not showing the time?
- Yes my Lord, it has stopped last night. I have arranged for Mr. Hacko to repair it.
- Mr. Hacko? That pompous clock swindler?
- Yes my Lord, I am afraid so.
- Carson, surely we can afford here someone who is more familiar with the treatment of fine timepieces?
- ... I know your Lordship would never want him to come, but since Mr. Dent left for London, Mr. Hacko is the last remaining clockmaker in Newbury.
- Good riddance!
-... And there is one more thing, my Lord... Mr. Hacko has not been paid 1 shilling and 2 pence for his last job - a repair of the pocket watch Mr. Pamuk gave to Lady Mary...
- Is that so? Well Carson, it is not quite fair to deprive a man of his livelihood when he has done nothing wrong. There are many worse professions than a clockmaker...

Seriously - the set of Downton Abbey is overflowing with fantastic antique and period pieces. I've spotted at least a dozen long case clocks and there is a fine bracket or ormolu clock in every room in the mansion! A feast for an eye - great scenography.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

A five minute job

A couple of weeks ago we've advertised a nice Girard-Perregaux Classic Elegance '1966' watch in 18K gold case, set with diamonds. A very fine, elegant slim-line piece. The watch went to a good home - and I had the privilege of meeting both the owner and his wife - we spent almost two hours chatting. Very nice people, both over the moon about the purchase.

A few weeks later, the owner came to tell me that he is still very much in love with the watch and wonder if I can adjust the time keeping because watch was gaining a bit of time. Of course - this is just a five minute job - so I suggested that I can do it while he waited.

The five minute time frame to accomplish the task was a bit of an overkill. It really just takes a few seconds to pop up the case back, slide the micro regulator, and snap the case back on. Two minutes at most.

The watch arrived yesterday around lunch time, as scheduled. As predicted, the regulation was a piece of cake - it was oscillating gently within -1/+1 sec per day. Perfect! But getting the case back on was impossible! No matter how hard I was trying to push it on, it just would not click back! After 10 minutes, both my thumbs were sore, purple, red and green in color. But the physical pain was the least of my worries - it was the overwhelming sense of failure combined with nonchalant underestimation for time required to accomplish this simple task!

I excused myself to the owner and asked if he can leave the watch overnight.

An hour later, I've decided to give it another go. I cannot even estimate how many case backs I've snapped back on in my life - this really IS a stupidly simple task. But this one just would not budge!

Now, there are two ways of getting the case back in place: one - to place the watch in a press and snap it on, and two: to do it by hand, as I was doing. This second one is actually a preferable way, especially for solid gold cases which are thin and soft. And the ONLY way for diamond bezel watches with concave crystals. Unless of course you have at hand a factory made case holder, manufactured for this particular model.

Applying too much pressure with the wrong tool could lead to a catastrophic outcome: bent case, broken lugs, smashed crystal, scratched dial, bent hands, and crushed diamonds. Plus most likely a beyond repair movement. In this particular case we are talking about a $18,000 damage. A true watchmaker's nightmare.

Taking the watch to Girard-Perregaux's service center would be both embarrassing and useless because they would not be able to help - the watch would go back to Switzerland because there is no casing tool for the '1966' Elegance in Sydney. And this is exactly what any smart, sensible Swiss trained watchmaker would do.

But not me...

With no obvious and immediate solution, I've decided to take a few minutes rest and clear my mind. And then came the EUREKA moment! A piece of PVC tubing bought recently for a domestic plumbing job was almost ideal to turn into a custom made casing tool!

There are multiple challenges in making the holder: the material must be soft enough not to mark the gold case, yet strong enough to withstand pressure. The watch must perfectly sit, resting only on lugs, with the point of rest as close to the bezel as possible - yet not on the bezel itself. It goes without saying that glass and diamonds must remain "free" at all times, and the same goes for the winding crown.

Turning a piece of PVC into a holder is not a big deal and I was happy to put the old trustworthy Mayford lathe into good use. The lathe was too heavy to lift onto a bench from the floor so all the turning was done on the ground!


Recess for winding stem and crown.

Finally the moment of truth: pushing the press down.

To my relief, with just the right amount of pressure, the case back clicked on in one go.

Not quite a five minute job - but definitely one less thing to worry about. As a wise man once said: nothing is impossible for those willing to improvise :-)