It’s a Dunhill – Sort Of

The Horologium September 16, 2002 admin


by Walt Odets

Dunhill lighterDunhill
began in the late 19th century as a maker of luxury horse tack, quite
literally for the carriage trade. But the advent of the automobile rightly
caused Alfred to rethink things, and today Dunhill is widely known as
a purveyor of luxury goods for “sophisticated” men, for their excellent
cigars, and for their distinctive silver-plated, lacquered, and gold
cigar lighters. Although Dunhill has marketed wristwatches since 1906–some
of them in cigar lighters–they are not as well known for this
sometimes interesting horological contribution.

Centenary collectionIn
1993, Dunhill released a collection of “Centenary” watches for the one
hundredth anniversary of the company. They were all steel and all reproductions
of earlier Dunhill models. They were also all provided with mechanical
movements, though I had to have my doubts about the quality. Dropping
into the San Francisco shop, I found that the watches had surprisingly
well-finished cases and dials, and complex sapphire crystals. They were
about $900. The elegantly dressed Dunhill salesman responded to my questions
by asserting that they were Dunhill movements and that the company “has
been manufacturing it’s own watches since 1906.” I didn’t believe him,
of course, “3” alt=”The Rectangular Centenary”> but I thought the case of one
of the simpler ones–the large Rectangular Centenary Watch–had some
possibilities. With a 26 mm width, 36mm length, and 10 mm thickness,
it was an impressive piece of work.

Once home with the Rectangular, a 1.5 millimeter screw
driver relieved the case of the four polished stainless steel screws
holding the back and revealed the movement inside. Well, it did say
Dunhill on the wheel train bridge. But it also said ETA on the
mainplate, and I quickly identified the movement as a caliber 2660.
Although ETA’s are typically well finished, this rendition of the 2660
carried a “luxury finish” with Geneva stripes on rhodium plate, and
an escapement with Glucydur balance. Everything, down to the last edge,
was nicely done. Nothing terrible here, but nothing very interesting
either. What bothered me most was the diminutive round, 8 ligne (18
ETA 2660by
3.8 mm) movement that looked dwarfed in the over-sized case. And the
nylon “movement ring,” used to support this small movement, lacked more
than a bit of elegance. I already knew that I would never be able to
look at the watch without seeing the tiny round movement and the white
nylon ring and I never even tried it on. Such a movement makes the case
a pretense and a conceit–all show and no go in the parlance
of street racers. A 4,000 pound Jaguar with 88 horsepower. So, it sat
ignored for several years. Waiting. But waiting for what? The
case, I thought, when on occasion I noticed the watch, is a good piece
of work. Nicely shaped, well finished, and very well constructed. The
brushed silvered dial is very good too. The stenciled, distressed Arabic
markers are extremely well done. Case backThe
big curved sapphire is very well done. Almost everything is very well
done. Everything but the insides that simply don’t belong there.
Those insides that shine through the dial like a nagging apparition
every time I look at the watch.

Several years later, the Dunhill still unworn, I finally
saw what I’d been looking for without even knowing it. It was in the
window of a San Francisco estate jeweler, a store with more over-priced,
beat up watches than the Geneva city dump. Watches that, on a gloomy
day, would make you cry. In the window sat a pathetic Le Coultre–one
of the gold-filled watches made for the American market and signed on
the dial with the abbreviated company name.Caliber 438/VXN balance
Did I say dial? It was a mess. At least a fourth generation redial,
and distant cousin to a natural disaster. The hollow gold-filled case
was dented, over-polished, malformed, and appeared to have been touched
up with a Rhodinette plating pen. The crown was steel. The buckle was
pot metal. The fake brown lizard strap looked like it might actually
be worth more than the watch. But it was a fairly large rectangular
. And it was almost certainly made sometime in the early 1940’s
when watches had movementsCaliber 438 in watchthat
actually fit their cases
. Alarge rectangular movement, I
kept thinking to myself. What did they want for this wreck? They wanted
$700, an insult, an outrage. Probably a felony. They took $200 and I
relieved them of their treasure. I had peeked at the movement, unobserved,
during a busy moment in the shop, and I was fairly certain this would
actually work.

The movement inside, a 17 jewel, unadjusted, JLC caliber
438/VXN was in fairly decent shape. It needed a new balance shaft (broken
pivot), an hour wheel (damaged teeth), a stem (worn), a new and larger
crown (the original was too small, and hard to grip), and a long-overdue
cleaning (filthy). The Dunhill dial needed new feet to attach to the
Le Coultre movement, and cold-soldering (which does not damage the surface
of the dial) worked fine. And I made a solid, two millimeter thick brass
ring, brushed to the standards of a fine gold case, to hold the “form”
movement firmly in the case. I finally had the watch I had always hoped
it would be.

Watch and movement compositeThe
Dunhill is now really a sort-of-Dunhill. Dunhill, in truth, has never
made its own movements, and it might as well have a Le Coultre as an
ETA. Particularly a Le Coultre that fits. It is now a wonderful
watch for $1,200: $942 for the case, dial, and hands; $200 for the movement
(and the now discarded corpse it arrived in); and about $60 (and 15
hours of labor) for the rest of the bits and pieces. I can now look
at the watch and what looks back is an honest watch of quality and one
that I like unreservedly.

Product shotThe
sort-of-Dunhill is, of course, not a watch for everyone. It’s not a
watch for hiking and camping, a subtle watch, or a watch you would wear
to the funeral of someone you cared about. It’s a frivolous watch, a
fun watch, a party watch, or perhaps just a dinner watch. It’s a watch
for a certain kind of date. It’s definitely a watch for the symphony
or opera. It’s an excellent watch to put on when you want to smoke a
cigar or have a cognac. And it’s a pretty good watch to take off
when you want to make your nightstand look elegant. It’s a, you know,
sort of Dunhill watch.