Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The only thing that matters: 50 years

If I had to sum up what I do then this would be it:
I am building a watch designed to be worn daily for the next 50 years.

Nothing more, nothing less. This is my mission statement. This is the only thing I should have on my mind, from dawn to dusk.

And this is precisely what rebelde is all about: robust, reliable, repairable.

If I fail on any of those 3 accounts than I've failed miserably.

Everything else is well- how should I put it- unimportant. The watch size, strap colour, dial design, the shape of the hands. Price, delivery time, quantity and number of pieces assembled, the material: steel, titanium, gold. Even what name is written on the dial. Completely and utterly unimportant.

Why am I telling you this? Because it is easy to get distracted. It is easy to shift the focus from what really matters to things that don't matter at all.

Every now and then I need to remind myself of why I have taken up the rebelde project. Today is one of those days, when I am expecting a blogger who wishes to write about rebelde. I will be tempted to venture into those areas of unimportance, trying to self indulge - or even worse- trying to impress people who have never heard of rebelde and most likely will never wear one.

Focus. Focus!

I am designing and assembling a watch which will last for 50 years.
Fifty years from now, we will have the luxury of looking back, and with plenty of time to assess the watch and judge it on it's own merits: we will see how robust, reliable and repairable it really was.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Dumb vs. Smart

On the left side of this picture is a Rolex link screw. A piece of stainless steel wire with a slot on one end and a thread on the other.

On the right are two electronic components.

The top one is a Silicon Labs Si570 "any frequency oscillator".

Basically a clock. Or to be precise, a super clever, super smart and super accurate clock featuring proprietary DSPLL technology. A fully programmable oscillator with tuning frequency resolution better than 80 parts per trillion.

The component below is a Michrochip microcontroller PIC18F4550. Like the Silabs component it is state of the art, a nanoWatt interface with programmable memory.

The two electronic components on the right paired together can do a miracle: their usage and application are only limited by your imagination and programming capabilities. You can build equipment which will allow you to communicate, measure, time, process and do unimaginable things; allow you to unleash your genius and creativity.

The two components on the right cost $4.50 each and they are available by the truck load from manufacturers, wholesalers and even hobbyists who sell them online. SiliconLabs and Microchip invested countless hours designing them yet they really don't care who can use them and for what application. They have no desire to restrict their supply.

Why would they? They want you to buy those components, learn, build, engineer, have fun and develop gadgets which you can play with or sell for profit.

Rolex didn't invented the screw. Rolex didn't invent the screw making tools.

Rolex didn't make one single improvement in functionality or design of the screw. Actually, the Rolex screw is the same as any other screw out there, like any other link screw manufactured by any other screw manufacturer in the past 50 years. It takes no brain to screw that screw into a link. I can train you to screw it in 5 seconds. Actually, you already know how to screw it.

Yet somehow, Rolex refuses to supply that STUPID screw to you. You can not buy a Rolex screw. It does not have a price because it is simply not available for sale. Sure, Rolex will install that screw for you (and charge you $40) but they will not supply it to me or to any other Australian watchmaker. Why? Because apparently I am not qualified to screw a screw.

According to Rolex I am dumb and untrainable.

When I approached Silicon Labs and Microchip to place an order for the two above components, neither company asked what I intend to do with them. I was not required to provide proof that I am smart enough to install them as per their specification or to prove that I possess programming knowledge.

Neither corporation restricted access to parts or access to instruction manuals, charts, operational parameters, evaluation boards. All the technical information are available online and the only restricting factor is my ability and capacity to learn. I am free to buy their components and engineer equipment, sell that equipment and make profit. They simply don't care.

This morning I've asked my assistant to make a call to Rolex to see if we can buy a link screw for a Submariner. A dumb piece of steel wire with a slot and thread. The answer? We can not give you a price, we can not sell you the screw, you have to bring the watch in. He insisted to be provided with the estimate on how much would screw cost, and Rolex refused to answer. "Bring the watch in, bring the watch in" was the only answer.

But what if I am located in a country town somewhere in the middle of Australia? What if I can not physically bring my watch in, even if I want to? Do I really need to ship my $8000 watch to Rolex just to have one screw installed?

I am a watchmaker. I can even design some of my own watch components and have them manufactured per my specification. I have proven to you, and to anyone else who cares to listen that I am good at what I do. I am not stupid nor unqualified. I can build complex electronic equipment despite a lack of formal engineering education. I AM NOT STUPID.

So why does ROLEX refuse to supply watch parts to watchmakers? According to Rolex, Australian watchmakers can not perform.

The general manager for Rolex said that Rolex wants to "control the quality of repairs". But who gives Rolex the right to CONTROL anything if that control breaches our right to practice our trade? There is a huge difference between controlling the quality of workmanship and imposing a total ban on the supply of parts.

Mr General Manager: have you actually assessed my skills or for that matter the skills of ANY AUSTRALIAN watchmaker? And would you at least disclose to us what your standards are?

Do we at least have the right to know what make us unqualified to work on Rolex watches?

When in 2012 Rolex Australia closed the last two parts accounts, they simply informed those two last watchmakers that their account will be closed. There was no explanation why Rolex made that decision. The decision was not based on any performance review. Those two watchmakers didn't fail any accreditation test or any skill/performance test. They were just discarded after 50 years of loyal service to the brand.

The door was slammed in their face. The door has been slammed into the face of all other watchmakers who aspired to learn, be trained and repair Rolex. This issue is driving me nuts. I am unable to focus on my business because I feel insulted. This injustice is irritating and I can't stop thinking about it. I can not accept that Rolex can get away with it.

But what makes the things even worse is the fact that almost every other Swiss watch manufacturer is now following the trend. Even the crappiest brand out there feels powerful enough to follow Rolex's practice.

Three years ago, we predicted that if the trend continues, Australian watchmakers will be out of business. Not because we are lazy, unqualified or stupid. I know that some of you have watched this video but I invite you to watch it again: then ask yourself does the watchmaker in this video look unqualified, lazy and stupid to you?

Today, it is easy to predict that 3 years from now, you, the watch owner, will have absolutely no say or no rights whatsoever in making the decision over who can repair your watch. Like in the case of Rolex, there will be only one point of call, only one service centre to take your watch for repair. The monopolistic grip will be unbearable and you will ask yourself: what the hell just happen?

Today, we are just weeks away from another major development: Swatch group (the owner of Omega, Longines and number of other brands and the owner of ETA movements) will completely stop supply of parts to watch wholesalers and parts distributors.

Hundreds of small watchmakers who make their living repairing low and mid-range Swiss brands and who source parts through those wholesalers are facing uncertainty. Any watch fitted with ETA movement will be affected in some way- whether it is an IWC, Breitling, TAG or Tissot. Modern or vintage - the ban will be universal and complete. You local watchmaker will have no say, and most likely as of January 1 2016 he won't be able to help you anymore. Swatch Group is mysteriously quiet on the issue but I doubt that their solicitors are drafting a Set Of Standards for accreditation of independent watchmakers. Like in the case of Rolex, they will just assume that we are all stupid and unqualified and incapable of repairing the watches we have been repairing for the past 50 years.

Right now, ACCC believe that Swatch Group will do the right thing in spite of all the evidence and precedents set by other Swiss brands. Make no mistake - right now, this issue is not just an issue of independent watchmakers vs. big brands.

We are out, discarded and written off. It is not an issue between you and the brand because as an individual watch owner you have no say or power over the Swiss brands.

This is the issue between YOU and YOUR GOVERNMENT because only the ACCC has the power to prevent further deterioration and degradation of your consumers rights.

And remember: you are not asking for MORE rights, you are just asking that your existing rights are not taken away from you completely. Many of you have suggested that I should reinvigorate the Save-the-time campaign, to start an online petition or lead some sort of action. As I said before, I am out. I am not interested and I don't want to stick my neck out.

If you want a change, then YOU, a consumer and watch owner, must take action. If you feel that you have something to say on a matter then say it. The ACCC is set up to listen to you. Let the ACCC know how YOU feel. Regardless what you say, make sure that you introduce yourself properly:

"Dear ACCC my name is [.]and I am an owner of [1,2,3,5,30] Swiss watches with the total estimated value of [$]."

The rest is up to you.

Be polite and factual and don't send multiple emails. One email CCed to all should be sufficient. Do use your influence and expertise to word the letter professionally.

The ACCC directory is here:

For those who care, here is the photo of my project incorporating both Silabs and Microchip components. The two boards contain around 900 additional parts and the total cost of the lot is under $200 or the equivalent of two stainless steel bracelet links. All those components are soldered by hand, and they do exactly what they are designed for. And I am doing this for fun. When I play with electronics, I feel smart, but when I am restricted to obtain a screw, I feel dumb.

So Rolex and all other Swiss corporations: do you seriously believe that we, Australian watchmakers could not pass your 'quality control' test if we were only given the opportunity?

Bring it on- we are ready!


Wednesday, July 15, 2015

The last repair: job No. 2664478

If I were to print all the replies I received to yesterday's post then today's newsletter would be 70 pages long. The bottom line is, we are all on the same page on the issue of spare parts.

Let me just share with you a couple more details which will illustrate the points I wish to make. Please be patient with me because this post is not as much about my business as it is about yours.

My last job yesterday was a repair to a Panerai which belongs to Rob. Rob is about my age, a polite gentleman and my customer. The watch is worth around $7000. The problem: all 3 screws which hold the automatic winding unit came loose which prevented the watch from being wound.

Since this particular watch comes with a see through case back and since Rob is an intelligent and curious person, he was actually able to diagnose the problem himself. While he wasn't really sure what steps are required to rectify the problem, I am very much convinced that he was expecting the repair to be a simple one, and that it shouldn't take long to fix it. Which was exactly the case: I quickly explained what I would do, and if the were no surprises, Rob could have his Panerai ready for collection by tomorrow. I also quoted him $100.

Of course I could easily charge him twice that amount, and I am sure he would be equally happy, but that would be both disrespectful and unnecessary because I can fix his watch in less than 15 minutes.

So as predicted the repair was straight forward: after removing the strap and unscrewing the case back with the help of a special tool, all 3 screws were tightened and the rotor was working fine. I also refreshed the case seal, checked the watch for timekeeping and gave it a water pressure test.

Now allow me to pause here for a moment by asking you who is the winner in this case?

Obviously, Rob is over the moon: he got his watch back quickly and cheaply. He is also happy because he knows that if anything ever goes wrong with his Panerai, I am the one who can help him. He feels respected and appreciated.

The other clear winner is the tax office. Out of $100, the tax office is getting an easy $10 in GST. Also, my company profit is taxed at a rate of 30%, PLUS there will be more money going their way once my wages are taxed as well. I guess this is a total of $40 give or take. Not really a bad deal taking into consideration that the Government invested precisely $0 in my education or business.

The third winner is me. Even after paying taxes, I still made a handsome profit for something that was a relatively easy job. Also, I now have Rob as a repeat customer who will spend more money with me in yeas to come, so the value of my business has gone up.

The fourth winner is probably least obvious: it is the Panerai Corporation.

Not only have I restored Rob's watch but I have restored his TRUST in Panerai products. After all, he is a happy PANERAI OWNER and most likely he will buy another watch from Panerai or recommend it to his friends.

Now, Panerai gets this benefit without investing any money into my service or my reputation, yet I am investing all my skills, expertise and reputation into Panerai. Hardly a fair deal as far as I'm concerned.

However - and this is my punch line - the only reason why this fine balance of trust, expertise and respect exists is this: I was able to fix Rob's watch because I actually didn't need any spare parts.

If for example that Panerai needed a new gasket, which is a petty $1 rubber seal, I would not be able to help him at all. If I needed just a simple screw which costs 1cent to make, the outcome would be FAILURE. So by restricting the availability of the supply of spare parts to me, Panerai has full control over Rob, myself and the tax office. Restriction is easy to implement and long-standing and powerful in action.

Now, if you are new to watches, you may ask: but WHY would Panerai or Rolex or any other Swiss brand want an independent Australian watchmaker out of the picture, and ultimately, out of business?

The reason is simple: an independent watchmaker is an extreme pain in the bum for a brand and extremely powerful competitor. I can do my job faster, cheaper and better. I can work on variety of brands so I can provide my customer with much more objective insight. As a mature and far more versatile watchmaker and I personally take pride in my workmanship which ultimately leads to a personal relationship with customers and better repair results.

If Rob took his Swiss watch to a Swiss brand's service centre, his experience and overall satisfaction could have been very different. For big brands, there is no such thing as small repair. 'Quick and cheap fix' does not exist because they don't offer partial repairs. In most cases, additional and unrequested repairs are bundled in so the repair bill is commonly in the vicinity of $1000 or more.

The turnaround time is months! A three to four month wait is common. And these are not my words but yours- often, they will treat you as though you are a complete idiot, someone who will be grateful for being allowed to wear their fine timepiece.

The ultimate outcome: your dissatisfaction with the brand which will never be restored. So the ultimate loser are the brands themselves who in their myopic greed are killing it for everyone.

And here is my second and final punch line: the monopoly on the supply of spare parts is allowed to continue because the Australian Competition and Consumers Commission is incapable of assessing this simple matter adequately. For years, the ACCC's approach to this matter has been pathetic and incompetent: when you, or I, or a group of watchmakers submits a case, the ACCC goes to the brands and simply asks them: are you restricting supply of spare parts? The answer is "No, we are not, we have selected a few independent retailers who have access to our parts". And in cases where the ban is total - which is now the case with almost all Swiss brands- the response is: "the independent watchmakers are not capable of repairing our watches so we are actually doing a big favour to our customers by cutting them out"! And in every case, the ACCC finds this infantile reply - a complete lie- valid enough to close the investigation.

The question the ACCC should be asking the brands is this: how do you actually know that independent Australian Watchmakers are not capable of providing a service to your brand standard, when you have never assessed any of them?

Where is it stated, in black and white, what the requirements to get accredited are? Do you provide any training to independent Watchmakers? If a Watchmaker wishes to invest in tools and equipment, to setup a workshop, and if he passes your test, would you then unconditionally allow access to spare parts? What are the financial commitments that you would expect an independent watchmaker to undertake to meet your brands expectations? Are you pleased to recommend an independent authorized service to your customers?

Personally, I have been told that even if the ACCC ever breaks the monopoly of Swiss brands that I will never get access to spare parts. My sins are beyond redemption.

I have been told by the most well known brand that even if I send my son, who would be then fourth generation watchmaker to Swiss watch school (3+3 years, then a training with specific brand, all at my cost) that even my son will never have access to spare parts. "Never, ever" were the exact words.

Which is fine, and I can live with that. But if that is the case, why are those Swiss brands lying to you? Telling you that we are incompetent when true reason for the restriction is a pure commercial greed?

And why should I continue to prostitute myself by sourcing the watch parts from indirect sources, paying ridiculous amounts of money for a screw, spring or wheel - just to do the 'right thing'?

Make no mistake: the ban on original spares will result in ever increasing number of inferior aftermarket parts. Both small and reputable watchmakers already use those parts exposing themselves to both legal action and customers dissatisfaction. Their customers are not happy, and brands, rightly can finally say: "Well, we told you that independent watchmakers are shonky and not to be trusted".

I for one am out. I am not going to be part of this silly game, trying to juggle my loyalty to customers, love for fine mechanical watches, endless abuse by Swiss brands and the impotent and incompetent ACCC.

I am not going to tell you what to do, what to collect or where to fix your watches, or to write to ACCC, but for the time being, taking your watch to brand service centres is the only option. There is no second choice, second opinion, second quote or second option. You will be charged top dollar so you better like it and enjoy it.

(Although I just interrupted this email for a quick fix of a broken Rolex bracelet, for a lady who lives in country; I actually fixed the bracelet so quickly that she didn't even have time to ask me 'do I owe you something for it?' which is clearly not her fault. Sorry tax office!)

Our government must focus on the most obvious thing: making YOU happy by giving you the opportunity to exercise your consumer rights, of which the fundamental one is the right to a second opinion. Where brute market forces will always prevail, it is government's role to provide at lease some degree of competition because we know that big corporations are very good at abusing the power of monopoly. Don't crush us, don't cut us out: instead, train us, equip us, supply us with whatever we need to show you what we are capable of - and then watch us work for you and your customers.

The only permanent solution is one of mutual respect between brands, watchmakers, government's regulators and watch owners. We are all 'into it'. We owe it to each other.

And we owe it to the next generation of young bright people who one day will look back at the past and ask themselves: why they couldn't fix it before it all fell apart?

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

The Leap Second CAPTURED

I am sure many of you have heard the news that today is an unusual day. Unusual because it is one second longer than every other day this year. This extra 'leap second' was thrown in at 9:59am Sydney time, making the 59th minute a very special 61 second minute. For any time freaks or radio addicts out there this is a big event, because it is single unique second that occurs only once every four years.

Right now, some of you might be asking: "So what's the big deal?"

Well it's simple. For centuries we regarded the sun as the most accurate clock in our universe. We set our timepieces against it. However, in the early 1800s advances in mechanical clocks led to the realisation that earth's rotation around the sun is slwoing down. We humble humans had produced clocks of greater accuracy than every before, an amazing achievement!

Our achievements in timekeeping didn't stop there though. Around 1940 the atomic clock was developed. Millions of times more accurate than a mechanical watch, the atomic clock became our new time standard. We measured the error in Earth's solar rotation: our Earth is slowing down by a quarter of a second every year. This presented a problem: how to keep our Earth 'on time' on its orbit of the sun. The timekeeping was no longer a matter of 'us' being late, but the Earth being late. Thus the leap second was born.

The creation of the leap second has proved controversial. Some scientists say we shouldn't worry about reconciling atomic with with earth/sun time at all. This makes today's leap second extra special, because it could be the last leap second of all. The end of an era in the history of human timekeeping.

I for one couldn't miss it. This morning I locked myself away with my radio. My plan? To capture that second in real time, and frame it as proof for posterity that it really happened.

To do so I tuned my short wave receiver to the International Time and Standard frequency of exactly 15mhz. On that frequency a transmitter located in Hawaii called WWVH sends out a time radio signal. I then processed the received signal with a piece of software that graphically displays the signal's audio component. The snapshot this created is simple proof of this uniquely lengthened 59th minute.

Was it difficult? The best analogy I can think of would be likening it to trying to photograph a meteorite. Not only do you need the best camera equipment, but also you have to hope for perfect conditions, no clear skies, no photo. Even with perfect conditions you would still need to know exactly when and where to look to find your target. In the end if the light from the meteor or in my case the signal from Hawaii was just too weak, then all efforts would have been in vain.

Luckily for me, although the signal wasn't strong, it was just strong enough. I sat listening to the signal from 8am, and sure enough could hear a pre-recorded message telling me that UT1 time would be adjusted for a leap second at 00:00 GMT. The event was on as scheduled, I just needed a bit of luck to catch it.

BEEP. The time signal appeared on the spectrum timeline, seemingly at precisely 10:00am. I took my snapshot and looked closer. The signal sat slightly off the time mark. I've got it!

The addition of just one second in 125 million may seem insignificant. Yet to me it is not. It is a testament to our mastery of time. We may not have any idea what time is all about, or what we are all about for that matter, but at least we are getting better at measuring it.

What an exciting journey!