Saturday, October 13, 2012

Time Telling

Just because you can, does not mean you should.
If this is the first law of good design and engineering, then many watchmakers are as guilty as O.J.
Being able to tell the time is not an ability we are born with. Most of us still remember the time when we learnt how to tell it! Yes, we needed someone to teach us how to do it - and to explain to us the meaning of hours, minutes, division of time and relation between the short hand, long hand and twelve numbers. Very quickly we realized that time telling is all about the relative position of clock hands and we were able to 'tell the time' without even understanding how the clock works or how the time flies.
Very quickly, the link between the position of hands and the actual time created a series of mental images deeply 'stored' in our subconscious. Soon, we no longer needed to 'see' the actual numbers or even the minute track because the mere position of two hands was sufficient for very precise time telling.
The link created was a very powerful one - so powerful that with the introduction of digital watches, most watch owners quickly realized that while 9:37 was an accurate time reading, the information was lacking mental picture of "9:37".
The LED display was dry, cold and artificial.
The position of hands on an 'old' clock dial was far more meaningful - it provided more complex information (not only the current time but also the relation between the current time AND some future / past time without any conscious calculation).
In other words, we knew how to tell the time because we were recognizing 'pictures'. On the contrary, LED watches provided no pictures, just a row of numbers which needed conscious effort of translation and calculation.
Very soon, the watch manufacturers realized that something was 'wrong' and what followed was a generation of digital watches which featured both analog (hands) and numerical display.
As the novelty of LED and LCD wore out in the 1980s and 90s, digital display disappeared from the main stream watch market altogether. In other words, we accepted and embraced the accuracy and convenience of 'digital ' watches and happily rejected the inconvenience of mental gymnastics.
If there is one area which best portrays the stubbornness of the human race, then that has to be the area dealing with design of digital watches.
Refusing to accept the 'normal', some designers went into a great deal of trouble to create even more bizarre watches which required even more mental effort to read.
Take this one for example:
What is the time? How fast can you tell it?
If this is not slow enough, then here is another 'clever' design:
Finally, this could be the ultimate 'geek watch'...
the LCD Maze Holographic timepiece:
The manufacturer admits that "initially, telling the time may be challenging, however after some practicing, you will be able to tell the time as easy as you can 'see' any other holographic image." Good luck with that one when trying to catch a bus.
Now, if you really MUST have a digital graphic-display watch then here is one which probably makes more sense than others and requires far less mental effort for our 'pre-digital era' brains:
At least, the designer was honest enough to recognize one simple fact: that more means larger 'pile'. Based on that simple concept, here is the watch:
Of course, you can accuse me of nit-picking, but from a purely engineering aspect this toy is a very inefficient one: to display the time, on average, half of the 'lights' are switched on all the time. What a waste of energy!
So how long did it take you to figure out the time on this baby? Less than 5 seconds? A minute? (That was our office average :-)
As said before, displaying time-related information on the watch dial in a meaningful way is both a conceptual and technical challenge.
For that very reason, from the earliest days of horology, watchmakers have spent years perfecting a seemingly trivial functions.
Here is one example of such an effort: day of the week display.
From a mechanical point, the simplest day display would involve a simple pointer which will 'point' to the current day. The drawback of such a design is a relatively cluttered dial which is not aesthetically pleasing.
Slightly more elaborate - and definitely more eye-pleasing design is where the day appears in a cutout:
However this display lacks one important information: it no longer places the current day in relation to other days of the week. In other words, Thursday - or Sunday - is just another day in the week, not a particular day in weekly cycle.
Here is the third design which is not only more intricate, but also mechanically challenging: retrogrades.
Retrogrades means "reverting to an earlier position".
In this case, the day pointer goes from Monday to Sunday, however the transition of the pointer from Sunday to Monday goes in the opposite direction - the hand travels counter clockwise in an instant.
This bi-directional 'jump' function requires additional retrograde mechanism and as such, it is regarded as a horological complication.
Such a display combines all desirable aspects, it is 'true' to watchmaking tradition of skilled makers and places each day in an un-mistakable weekly cycle which then repeats itself in the way we are used to.
In addition, note the perfect silver guilloche dial, delicate print, blued steel hand and the exquisite white gold hour markers - all housed in a timeless tonneau shaped case.
A true watch aficionado and keen student of horology should base his watch choice upon those features, not exclusively on a brand name or price.
By the way, I am sure you have noticed how the watchmaker placed the pointer EXACTLY in the middle of the letter U. Attention to detail, of course!

Friday, October 12, 2012

The Egyptians got it right!

Have you ever wondered why your watch tells the time in a 12-hour format?
If the day contains 24 hours, why are we so comfortable with the concept of 12 hour division instead of a more logical 24 hours division?
To find the answer to this question, we need to go back in time- to ancient Egypt. The Egyptians were obsessed with numbers and were very practical with their approach to mathematics.
For simple calculations, they used a base-12 system.
Unlike the number 10 (the base we use today), the number 12 is really a 'magic' number: it can be divided with 1,2,3, 4, and 6.
To count to 10, you can count your fingers on both hands. But to count to 12, you can instead just count joints on one hand! Therefore you can count more on one hand and use your second hand to hold a tool or a weapon!
Here it is: the world's oldest and simplest calculator - your hand:
... and it comes with a built-in pointer:
"I have 5 goats!"
The superiority of the Egyptian base-12 counting system was obvious, and it was used for all simple calculations, including time division.
While Egyptians had many different "clocks" (the water clock or clepsydra was their original invention), the most widely used timepiece at that time was the sun dial.
Because a clock which runs on sun could only measure daylight hours, the day-time hours were divided into 12 units. And so were the night time hours, with one sunrise to sunset cycle being divided in 24 more-or-less equal units.
This Egyptian division was passed onto the Greeks and centuries later on, to us.
The very first mechanical public clocks in 13th century used the same 12 hour time division display. While mechanical clocks were perfectly able to tell time in 24 a hour format, they too were 'in use' only during day time so 12 hours was more than sufficient for everyday use.
The first public clocks had only one hand, which was precise enough for most users. In a similar manner, the first domestic clocks only had an 'hour hand' as well. The minute hand was added later - actually long after the clocks were featured with date / calendar and moon dials.
In other words, the reason why your modern watch dial looks like it does is because your hand looks like it does. And because of the Egyptians and their obsession with precise division.
A note on medieval clocks: the moon dial was actually one of the most important features and it was a 'norm' with all better clocks. While our need to tell the moon phases is no longer important, the moon dial is still one of the key traditional features of a quality modern watch.
While the majority of timepieces are constructed and designed for everyday use by ordinary users, it is important to note that the 24 hour format is equally important to astronomers. Here is a picture of an astronomical clock in Hampton Court Palace, London:
Today, wrist watches which display a 24-hour time format are popular with users who need to measure and record GMT time. Military users, radio operators and pilots who travel over various time zones to mention just a few. However, thanks to our lifetime exposure to the 12-hour format, our brain is not comfortable with this concept, and telling time using such devices requires mental effort.
In some way, 700 years from the invention of the first mechanical public clock, some watchmakers have reached the full circle, returning to a pure, simple, single-hand 24 hour display:
While the above model from Jaquet Droz is out of reach for most watch enthusiasts, it still presents a fine educational example for a keen student of horology.
And here is another example of a watch by JLC which clearly demonstrates the makers' understanding of the time display concept featuring an AM/PM indicator.
How to display time - and most importantly what to display or omit form the dial- is one of the most challenging steps in watch design. A seemingly small, unimportant or redundant detail can make all the difference between 'just another watch' and a GREAT watch which combines functionality, mechanical properties and design into a horological master piece.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Jaw-dropping head turner: Wyler Titanium Carbon Fibre Chrono

Keen students of horology know that the enemy 'number one' of all mechanical watches is corrosion. The second deadly enemy is shock to finely engineered mechanism. Both are fatal and often cause irreversible damage to a watch, regardless of maker or price.
Here is a vignette about a man and a project which attempted to provide a solution to both problems.
Paul Wyler was a Swiss watchmaker born in 1896. At the age of 27, Wyler tackled one of the most challenging problems of his time: shock resistance of wrist watch movements. He was the inventor of Incaflex, a device designed to protect the balance wheel. The device was legendary at that time.
In 1937 Wyler created a stir amongst watchmakers with his water-resistant watch that was not fitted with the conventional soft gaskets. The mineral glass was pressed in between the edge of the case and a pressed or screwed bezel, the gap between the winding shaft and the watch case was sealed hydraulically by fitting the winding shaft and bushing together, in the same material, to 1/500 mm.
In 1956 Wyler became world famous: he dropped 3 of his watches from the top of Eiffel Tower in Paris to demonstrate the shock resistance of his watches. The story goes that while all 3 watch cases were destroyed, the watch mechanism survived intact, continuing to keep correct time !
Ironically, despite the innovative design, practical improvements offered to watch owners and the large number of Wyler's watches manufactured and sold, the brand suffered the same fate as many other Swiss watch brands of the 1960s era: Wyler went out of business quietly.
In 2006 a group of Swiss watchmakers in Geneva, Switzerland, decided to resurrect both the Incaflex and the Wyler brand. The new modern Wyler appeared at the Basel watch show in limited production of only 3999 units in gold and titanium.
This was a very brave and ambitious project. The new Wyler was not just a head-turner, but a technically advanced concept featuring some rarely-seen solutions. The most prominent one was a case design where movement was suspended on 4 shock absorbers. A tourbillon version appeared the following year. A $300,000 baguette diamond-shaped piece premiered in 2008.
Reconstruction of what happened soon after is based more on speculation than facts.
Exactly why Wyler went out of business will remain a mystery. The 2008 global financial crisis was surely one of the factors. Another obvious reason was the exuberant recommended retail price. A $12,000 price tag for an unknown brand name base model was a huge gamble. While the Wyler was uber-cool, it was still an ETA-based time piece. One can imagine that most pieces were sold for significantly less than the asking price. Making a profit on a prototype is impossible, regardless of the industry.
Sadly for the brand owners (and even more so for the investors) the last examples of unsold Wyler timepieces were auctioned by Swiss auctioneer in 2011. Judging by the post-auction results, most bidders had no idea what they were bidding on. Same was the fate of machinery, brand name itself, designs, tools and spare parts - the Wyler project was buried for the second time.
Despite the crash landing, to this day, Wyler remains an uber-cool watch. Mint examples still do appear on the pre-owned market. It is important to remember that Wyler is one of the most copied concept-watches in recent horological history. Clearly, there is a huge demand for a watch which does not look like just another Swiss-made timepiece. Serious watch collectors are constantly looking for a watch 'with a twist' and this beauty is surely a conversation piece with story to tell.
The only remaining question is this one: what is the watch worth today?
In my books, $3,500- $4,000 for NOS example base model and few hundred dollars more for a chronograph is a very fair price. I doubt that even Wyler dealers and stockists paid any less than that 5 years ago. (More likely wholesale price was around $5,000). The stock list still available online and provides a fantastic insight into the brand's marketing policy:
Would I wear Wyler? Probably not - but I am neither a cool 30-something nor a watch collector. Otherwise - yes, of course!