Wednesday, October 30, 2019

W. H. Blades, Mount Barker

While there isn’t much left of this 1900s Swiss-made porcelain dial pocket watch, as always, there’s a story to tell.

Walter Herbert Blades (W. H. Blades) was born in Adelaide on October 20th, 1876. He was one of seven children of Frederick James Blades and Mary Blades, and husband to Phemie Marjorie Blades.

However, unlike our other porcelain dial pocket watches reviewed over the past few weeks, it seems unlikely that W. H. Blades was a watchmaker himself. In fact, it seems unlikely that he was a watch retailer at all.

Born in Adelaide, W H Blades lived in Mount Barker, a small town in South Australia. Mount Barker is also a mountain in the Mount Lofty Ranges, and the city lies at the base of the eponymous peak. It has an elevation of 517 metres and the first ascent of Mt. Barker was completed in 1837 by European settlers. The area was traditionally home to farmers, with many lots located just outside of the town actually being farming lots. W H Blades owned three allotments in Mount Barker:

The following information gives details of the early ownership of the individual allotments created for the township of Mount Barker in South Australia.

Application 22841 - corner of Gawler and Walker Sts
14/7/1906 - 5 year lease to Walter Herbert Blades

Application 4598 - frontage to Gawler St, in the middle somewhere
10/6/1911 - McKenzie to Walter Herbert Blades chemist Mt Barker
15/7/1914 - WH Blades to Mary Blades widow Mt Barker

Application 5157 - strip facing Gawler St 24’ long and 50’ in from Stephens St
10/6/1911 - McKenzie to Walter Herbert Blades chemist Mt Barker
15/7/1914 - WH Blades to Mary Blades widow Mt Barker
1/6/1916 - 5 year lease to William Robert Murray and James Reordan
7/6/1919 - Blades to Patrick Fox gent Glenelg

Although it may seem trivial, these allotment records hold a missing piece of information: Walter Herbert Blades is referred to as a ‘Chemist’. Whereas the previous porcelain dials we have seen have all belonged to professional jewellers and clock makers alike, I was not able to find any historical information suggesting the W H Blades was in the watch trade. So, the question stands: Was W H Blades a chemist?

In May 1912, an article declared W H Blades a duly elected member of the boards of advice for Mount Barker:

"The following persons have been declared duly elected members of the boards of advice for the districts specified, from June 1, 1912. Note: In every district where only one person is elected, the term of office is for three years; but in each, district marked * there are two or more persons elected, and the term of office must be  decided by lot, at the first meeting of the board held after June 1."
Chemists played a bigger role in the 1900s than they do today, often providing medical advice as well as drugs. Did Blades' election to the Boards of Advice refer to this?

Clearly, W. H. Blades was an active member of society. Newspaper clippings show that he was part of the Mount Barker football club committee and on a brief departure from Mount Barker in 1904, the community held a social:

“A most enjoyable social took place at Jackson’s Hotel, Mount Barker, on Thursday evening of last week, when a number of friends met for the purposed if bidding goodbye to Mr. W. H. Blades who after a year's residence at Mount Barker is leaving this month for the city. Mr. R. P. A. von Berlonch presided, and, with the vice-chairman (Mr M. J. Skipper) and Messrs H. B Chapman, Jackson, E. G. A. Tyrie, C. L. K. Scott, H. N. Bell, T. R. Bird, and G. R. Paltridge, referred in eulogistic terms to the sterling qualities of Mr. Blades, to the work he had done as secretary of the Mount Barker Dance Committee, to the interest he had taken in the minstrel troupe, in cricket and other manly sports, and in promoting the local walking match, and general regret was expressed at his departure."
Friday 4th March 1904. The Mount Barker Courier

The sterling qualities of Walter Herbert Blades were perhaps qualities which made him worthy of a personalised porcelain dial pocket watch. As we know he was not the jeweller, it was not uncommon for these watches to be given to important members of a community.

Until further discovery that would lead me to conclude otherwise, I believe that the watch dial was simply a personalised, one-off piece. 

Ultraman Speedmaster on BBC ‘Antiques Roadshow’

The original Ultraman from 1967 featured recently on the Antiques Roadshow.

(link: )
So what is so special about the original 1967 watch?

It is essentially a standard Speedmaster with an orange chrono hand, but was produced for a very short period of time in 1967. Apparently, only fifty or so pieces were assembled and all were sold to Asian dealers. The watch was also featured in the Japanese TV show, "The Return Of Ultraman," which aired in 1971.

The Ultraman is a benevolent alien human-size super being with the ability to transform into the giant-sized, super-powered Ultraman to battle monsters threatening the Earth. There are plenty of Japanese Ultraman videos on Youtube if you'd like to see more. 
Last year Omega released ‘the new Ultraman’ Model Ref. 311. The list price was $8,720 AUD which currently sells for around $13,000 on second hand market.
Lessons from the Ultraman:
When it comes to Speedmasters:

1. The quirkier, the better.

2. If you’ve found an old speedmaster moonwatch, don’t clean it! Collectors love watches in unresotred condition.

We have currently 12 Speedmasters in stock and without any hesistation, my recommendation is the Galaxy 999 Japanese edition.                          

Friday, October 25, 2019


* Overseas model shown. Free tyres for life. Tinted windows included.
Big thanks to everyone who helped us with our search for the locomotive on the case back of the University pocket watch in yesterday’s email. We have received so many suggestions but believe it or not, we still don’t have a definite answer.

The two candidates with the most votes are the Soviet Passenger P36 steam locomotive and the Czechoslovak 4-8-2 Skoda.

The Russian P36 steam locomotive was a 4-8-4 configuration manufactured between 1950 and 1956 for mainline use. A total of 251 were in production. The P36 was the last type of mainline steam locomotive built in Russia.

There are at least five locomotives still in use today, used for private train experiences:
The Czechoslovak 4-8-2 Skoda express passenger locomotive was introduced to Czechoslovak State Railways in 1938. 16 years later, in 1954, the design was developed further into the 498.1 class. The benefit of these locomotives was improved stability at speed. Both Czech locomotives were technically sophisticated for their time and allegedly capable of 11% thermal efficiency.
So which one?

While the Czech 4-8-2 Skoda image looks exactly like that on our pocket watch, the obvious question is: Why would a Russian railway pocket watch have an image of a Czech locomotive on the case back?

On the other hand, the Russian P36 would make more sense on the back of a Russian Molnia railway pocket watch, but the images don't really match up.

So, could there be a third contender?                         

Full Steam Ahead

With all due respect, I don’t think any of you have ever heard of the pocket watch brand University. Neither had I, until I acquired one the other day. Disguised behind a western name it was our old friend, a Russian Molnia railway pocket watch, made for the export market.

Watch export was not a huge money earner to the Soviet Union compared with other commodities. However, millions of watches were exported to central and eastern European countries, China, India but also to the United States and Germany. The Russian watches were very affordable, reasonably accurate and some examples like University railway came in a rather attractive full relief case. Clearly, it was intended to impress railway authorities.

There is however a mystery to be solved. What is the make and model of the locomotive on the case back? Many watch enthusiasts have tried but I am yet to be convinced that we have an answer.

Those who attempted began their research with a list of Russian locomotives:

The best candidates were SO18 or FD21, but in my opinion there is very little resemble between the two and the locomotive on the case back. My theory is that the locomotive was a 1930s German locomotive sold to Turkish railways. In order to please the Turkish customers, the Russians put that model on the watch case back and this is where the research should start. Unfortunately not my area of expertise, but as always your input is appreciated. 

J.E. Robinson, 93 Oxford St, Sydney

Here we are again with another porcelain dial pocket watch that reads:
"J. E. Robinson, 93 Oxford St, Sydney".

This American Waltham pocket watch was imported and retailed by J.E. Robinson around 1900 to 1905. His store was situated on one of the busiest streets in Sydney, 93 Oxford. You would think that finding some information on watchmaker Robinson would be pretty easy given that he ran a business in the heart of Sydney. But unfortunately, that's not the case.

The history of Sydney predates modern times, and Indigenous Australians have inhabited the area for over 30,000 years. Sydney was founded in 1788 with the arrival of the first fleet of British ships that laid the foundation of a penal colony by Great Britain.

My research on J.E. Robinson turned up two names to begin with: John Eyre Robinson and John Ernest Robinson. I thought: Surely, they must be related? And surely they were. John Eyre Robinson (father) was married to Katherine Lillian Gladwin, who gave birth to John Ernest Robinson (son) on December 1, 1888.

John Ernest Robinson (son) was born in in Bundaberg, Queensland. He enlisted as a Gunner for the army in January 1916, age 27. On his return to Australia, he received a Distinguished Conduct Medal:

“'For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty while in charge of a party of 30 men and 60 animals bringing up ammunition to the battery position through deep mud and numerous shell holes, and under incessant bombardment for a distance of 800 yards.”
Commonwealth Gazette No. 110 25th July 1918
Image from National Archives of Australia 
The son's listed next of kin on his war record was John Eyre Robinson, 93 Oxford Street, Sydney – a direct match with the details of our pocket watch. While at first, I faced the question: Who was J. E. Robinson, maker of the pocket watch - father or son? Clearly, he was the father. Also, as the pocket watch was made in the early 1900s, this would make John Ernest far too young to be the maker.

As John Ernest was born in Queensland, I assumed that the Robinson family had relocated from Queensland to Sydney at some point in time. And sure enough, a quick Google search would confirm that Mr J. E. Robinson of Bundaberg, Queensland was ‘a leading watchmaker and jeweller’:

“Our leading watchmaker and jeweller, Mr. J. E. Robinson is now showing the very latest designs in gold brooches, mass chains, pendants, links and bangles, large selection of engagement rings, wedding rings &c. The stock of articles suitable for wedding presents is both large and varied. As a manufacturing watchmaker, J. E. R. can be relied on for the best class of English Lever Watches. The well known ‘Burnett’ Watch is a splendid timekeeper and wonderful value for 20. Alarm clocks 5/6, 8-Day clocks from 15/6. Best quality, largest stock, lowest prices. J. E. Robinson, Watchmaker and Jeweller. Note – This establishment is next John Hunter’s Boot Palace”

The Bundaberg Mail and Burnett Advertiser, 16th August 1899
Although you would think that finding a pocket watch from a major city such as Sydney would bring up a lot of information, it's been quite the opposite. But even small details can help us understand the bigger picture.

I wonder how the move from Bundaberg to Sydney impacted J.E Robinson's business. Was the move to Sydney for better of for worse? It is not known why Robinson relocated since he was already known as a 'leading watchmaker and jeweller' in Queensland. But what we do know is that he was a direct competitor of J. Macleod & Son who supplied Moeris pocket watches to Queensland Rail.

Since Robinson moved to Sydney, I struggled to find much about him. Maybe business didn't take off. Who knows? It's only a small number of jewellers and watchmakers who survive and prosper. But once again, the porcelain dial has stood the test of time long after Robinson's Oxford Street store closed.

It goes without saying, if you can provide any additional information on J. E. Robinson, I would be more than grateful and will add it to our archives.                           

Why do small businesses go out of business?

The short answer is this: we don't really know. The long answer: a combination of factors, most of which are out of the control of small business operators.

Tectonic change in technology would perfectly explain why mechanical typewriter or video recorder repair shops no longer exist. Lack of operating capital is another major reason for going under, as well as the burden of debt which can choke even a once thriving operation. Recession or a war are more drastic factors. But all these reasons are as obvious to the business owner as they are to the outsider.

However, as a third generation small business owner myself, my main interest is in those less obvious factors which make a small business go out of business. And just because those factors lie beneath the surface, appear infrequently, or perhaps don't really affect daily operations, they are commonly overlooked until it's too late.

The more we study Australian pocket watches and the porcelain dials that proudly bear the names of once thriving businesses, it's harder to ignore the rather sombre fact: most of those businesses are gone, forever.
Yet somehow, a few of them are still around. Those watchmakers and jewellers have not only survived but prospered, remaining both reputable and profitable.

Is there anything to learn from watchmaking history? What is the secret of success and longevity?

Or perhaps, should we rephrase our question: How can (small) business stay in business?

Here are just a couple of my thoughts, refined over the years, but still a work in progress:


No matter what we call ourselves, what we specialise in or what kind of service we provide - we are all in the retail business. Our core business should be selling ourselves and our business philosophy. Only then, our products and services. Retail is tough, competitive, cut throat business.

I have seen too many shy professionals, reputable experts in their field, who are overly introverted. Watchmakers are the perfect example of such retail-averse operators. They love to be 'discovered' while tucked away from passing traffic. Yet watchmakers and jewellers who have 'made it' are those who are always striving for the best exposure they can get; a shop at the most prominent location. For them, selling is not a dirty word but an art form which they have mastered to perfection.

2. Direct engagement with customers is the only way to engage

This means two things: first, no subcontracting. If I am to repair a watch (or make a ring or build a house) I'll make it for YOU, the paying customer, not for the middleman. Not just because I'll make more profit (cutting out the unnecessary middle man) but because I want to be YOUR builder and build my reputation with YOU as a result. Such a relationship is long lasting, profitable and will bear fruit in many decades to come.

The second rule of engagement: TALK to your customers. Whether it is in the form of advertising, engaging in a meaningful conversation over the counter or writing a daily newsletter - disengaged businesses that are out of sight have no future.

I cannot tell you how frustrating it is to deal with some of our suppliers. While we have no choice but to place our orders with them on regular basis, they are so disengaged that it is just a matter of time before they'll be completely wiped out. One particular spare parts supplier has changed hands 3 times in the past 25 years. The only reason they are still in business is for the monopoly on the supply of certain parts. In 25 years I have not received a single 'we appreciate your business' via email or phone. Not once. We spend thousands of dollars with them every month, but we could easily spend twice more if they just said 'thank you' and delivered parts promptly.

3. In order to stay in business, small businesses must grow

For the good part of 30 years, my grandfather and my father - both watchmakers - operated two watchmaking businesses. They ran two separate shops, trained apprentices and employed staff, all while competing with each other! That's right: instead of working together, they worked against each other. This is probably the most disheartening reality of my youth and the reason why I hated watchmaking for so many years. One can only imagine what the two of them could have achieved if they had worked together, complementing each other.

My grandpa was an excellent salesman and a very competent watchmaker. However, he couldn't save money if his life depended on it. My dad was always keen to talk, debate, express his own opinion and was very much liked by customers for being a 'down to earth man'. At the peak of his career, mechanical watches were replaced with cheap battery operated ones and he completely missed the trend. He is still a good watchmaker, but an awful salesman, and totally incapable of hiring and retaining employees. So to this day, at the age of 79, he still runs a one man show. He is in love with his business style, and so is his competition.

I am trying to learn from their mistakes. For us, slow but steady ORGANIC growth is the only way forward. Dealing with apprentices and assistants is not easy, but the objective is to create an environment where young people with different sets of skills will work together, in harmony, for YOUR benefit.

Josh can machine anything, he is technically much smarter than me and a better chess player. His mind is a mind of a practical engineer, a mind which works fast. Andrew is a wonderful, respectful, appreciative, reliable and incredibly honest young man. He is a fast learner, firmly on his track to becoming one of the best watchmakers AND machinists in Sydney. Gemma is tower of strength with fantastic attention to detail, impeccable customer service and amazing management skills. She makes my life easy and she is simply irreplaceable. Young Michael, who has only been with us for one year, has a true and very rare gift of knowing the value of everything. If I drop dead tomorrow, he should be in charge of buying and selling. And Emily from Liverpool - who recently joined us and will only stay in Australia for a few more months - is contributing like there is no tomorrow. I can only imagine what the future will bring for a small team dedicated to a common goal: to serve you.

(To be continued...)

Thursday, October 24, 2019

What does P stand for?

As I continue digging through countless archives to discover the dusty stories of old pocket watches, I can’t believe some of the tales I find! Our fourth Australian pocket watch is no exception.
The pocket watch dates to the very early 1900s, potentially 1905, Swiss made. And you guessed it – the white porcelain dial is marked with a personalised inscription - P. McKenna  Gympie, Q. I thought that this might be a tough one to crack, with only two pieces of information to go off.

Gympie is a town located in Queensland, Australia, about 160km north of Brisbane. Gympie is a famous area for gold, which was discovered by a European Settler named James Nash, in 1867.

P. Mckenna was likely to be of Scottish or Irish descent, as the name McKenna is the anglicised form of the Gaelic Irish surname "Mac Cionaoith" or of the Scottish surname, "MacCionaodha". He was the owner of a jewellery shop, ‘P. McKenna and Sons Ltd’, located on Mary Street, Gympie. And his Jewellery shop was the best in town:

“The best house in Gympie for every class of repairs to jewellery is that of Mr McKenna, which is in Mary-street. Mr McKenna is a practical watchmaker and a first-class manufacturing jeweller. If you suffer from headaches or your eyesight is bad, see Mr McKenna, who is an experienced optician. Mr McKenna’s shop is well worth a visit. He has a very fine stock of ornaments and gems and makes a speciality of wedding gifts.” The Catholic Press, Thursday 5th August 1909
With information on a singular P. McKenna drying up, I broadened my search to the wider McKenna family of Gympie. And here’s where it gets gritty! P. McKenna was the father of four sons - Edward, Albert, Henry and George – whom he left his business to when he died (assumed early 1900s). However, family and business didn’t mix well. A brotherly bond between Edward and Albert soon turned into brotherly bitterness. And on January 3rd, Edward shot his brother:

 “Yesterday afternoon Edward Joseph McKenna was arrested by Senior sergeant Frisch and charged with having unlawfully attempted to kill his brother, Albert Joseph McKenna, who was seriously wounded during a shooting affray on the business premises of P. McKenna and Sons, Ltd., Jewellers, on January 3 last.” The Week, Friday 16th March 1928
Can you believe it?

Although the bullet wasn’t instantly fatal, it killed Albert three years later, making for a whole page news spread in the Brisbane Truth.
“There was a wound in his back under the left shoulder blade, six inches from the spine, which had paralysed him from the waist downwards. For many hours, Albert hovered on the borderline of life and death. Doctors did not think he could live. Yet he did.

But he lived a living death. Paralysed, the bullet in his back in such a position that it could not be removed, Albert knew long weary days of hell . . . while Edward, silent morose, waited for the day when he would face a judge and jury on a charge of attempted fratricide.

[...] Death, the doctors decided, was due to the pneumonia, aggravated by the paralysis which the bullet had caused.”
Truth, Sunday 25 January 1931

Anyway, back to the pocket watch. It is nickel case, with a movement made by “Ilix”. Although I’ve tried to find some information on Ilix watch movements, the internet has no answers aside from eBay listings of similar retailed pocket watches. I was hoping you might help me with some information.

But the bit that puzzles me most: What was Mr. McKenna's first name?

UPDATE: P stands for Patrick.                       

One tooth at a time

"I am a retired mechanical engineer. I worked for 50 years in a university workshop. I'm jealous of you." Instagram

Feedback like this on our latest watch component, designed and machined in Australia, is what keeps up going. There is an enormous amount of satisfaction and pride in being recognised as relevant by very special people: mechanical engineers, machinists and tool makers who make high precision components themselves. Most of them are not involved in the watchmaking industry, so when they see a component scaled down to watch part size, they are genuinely excited. 
The ratchet wheel is our first Australian made gear. The inspiration for the spokes' shape comes from the shape of the topping tool, a traditional watchmaker's tool used to cut the profile of the teeth of the wheels.

Our ratchet wheel is the largest wheel in the watch, yet it is less than 9 mm in diameter with a module of 0.2. It is made out of surgical grade steel and polished by hand. 
The process starts with a hole being drilled into a solid cylinder which is then enlarged and shaped into a square. The next phase is shaping the gear profile which is done on an EDM wire cutting machine using an electrically charged wire to erode the metal.
The cylinder has to be rotated during the operation and re-positioned into the exact spot, which is a challenge in itself. And for that reason, we have to cut the "reverse profile holder" that mesh with the teethed cylinder in a tolerance of a couple microns.
Profile inspection.
After the gear profile is machined, the cylinder is sliced to the thickness of the gear, which is 0.5 mm. The toothed disc is then clamped and undergoes milling and chamfering of the spokes, as well as the milling of the recess for the screw which holds the ratchet wheel on the barrel arbour.
Another under the microscope check of meshing and chamfered finishes. 
The final operation on the mill is engraving. AUS JH AB NHW 2019 which simply means fecit. 
I wish I could show you the photos of what comes next, but unfortunately the process of turning a dull wheel into a shiny highly polished watch part will have to remain our own little secret. What I can tell you is that the entire process of making a single part takes over three hours and combines the employment of most modern CNC equipment and very traditional hand finishing techniques.

So what's in it for you?

If you are the proud owner of a Rebelde watch, one of over 700 assembled over the past 5 years, then for the first time since we started the project you too have an opportunity to have a piece of 'Made in Australia' engineering built into your watch. We are very happy to offer you the opportunity to have a ratchet wheel made for your Rebelde watch, our Australian fecit, and engraved with your initials. Yes you will need a loupe to see those initials, but my goodness, wouldn't you have a story to tell and a watch to be proud of. As we say, one gear at a time.

Here are the examples of the Rebelde Fifty, Control Tower and Titanium, as well as Timascus, retro-fitted with the new ratchet wheel.
The cost: A handmade, custom engraved ratchet wheel installed in your Rebelde would cost you only $150 with around a 2 week turn around. Up to 3 initials can be engraved in a single position. If you are interstate, you can ship your watch to us, but if you are in Sydney, you can pre-order your gear and have it installed while you wait.

PS just received a message from the boys in Brookvale: "Make sure you let subscribers know that we polish each ratchet wheel by hand and they're as good as Patek or Lange. We're ready to receive orders!" 

PPS Please do go on Instagram to check the images because the photos in this newsletter are highly compressed and really do no justice: