The Magic Word [1/17/01]

Carlos' Journal September 17, 2002 admin

The Magic Word

by Carlos Perez

January 17, 2001

Once upon a time when quartz watches were in ascendancy, long before the mechanical revival of the 1990s, and even before Blancpain was a gleam in Jean-Claude Biver’s eye, there was a wee lad — well actually kind of a big lad, who from his actual days of being “wee” had been a rather grand consumer of wristwatches. Well okay, you guessed it — the lad was me. By the time I was nine or thereabouts, I had already gone through an interesting variety of wristwatches: Analog, digital, the prerequisite Mickey Mouse watch, 1970s style, 1960s style, leather straps, and the mighty twist-o-flex band. While there may have been a handwind or two amongst the host, they were by and large dominated by the word “QUARTZ” printed on their dials. Why there was a piece of rock in my watches I never understood, but its ominous significance was not lost on me entirely.

I am not sure when I first encountered the book, but being of the precocious sort it was long before it became a part of the official curriculum, so I am guessing that it was around that age. Which book? Oh I forgot to mention it: T’was The White Mountains by John Christopher, a small science fiction novel written for children, and the first installment of a trilogy. It was written in the late sixties, just before the first shots were fired in the Quartz Revolution; the significance of which will shortly become evident.

Wristwatches play an important role very early on in the book — for in the post-apocalyptic world under alien dominion, wristwatches are relics of the past, and so rare that the one belonging to the protagonist’s father is simply called “the Watch.” As with most treasures it largely remains locked away except for special occasions, and once every three years when it was cleaned and oiled by the visiting “clockman” (1-2). The Watch itself is described as being steel-cased, with the mysterious words “Incabloc” and “Anti-magnetique” printed on the dial (3). A large part of the first chapter is focused on our hero, Will, illicitly borrowing the Watch from the locked drawer in which his father kept it, to wind it a few times and listen to it ticking, and even more daring — to wear it for just a few moments. While this is certainly most interesting to a budding watch addict, it was not particularly significant in that I was already familiar with handwound watches, even if my experience was dominated by the enigma of QUARTZ.

It was later, almost half-way into the tale when in fleeing the aliens, our hero finds himself
traveling through the ruins of an old city. There, in the window of a ruined jewelry shop, Will finds a treasure trove of two dozen wristwatches, of which he takes one made of gold with an expanding gold bracelet. Having sat there for untold centuries, he assumes that it will not work and therefore does not even try to wind it. It is still a Watch however — a prize to be worn with pride. It is only later when he shows it to his companions that he discovers that it is not only running, but running without having been wound by the crown: ‘Disbelievingly I looked myself, above the hour and minute hands a third, more slender pointer was going around, sweeping the dial. I held the Watch to my ear: it was ticking. I noticed a word on the face: “Automatique.” It seemed like magic, but could not be. It was another wonder of the ancients’ (101). It was from that moment that the word “Automatic” held a great and magical mystery for me. I never understood it — how did the Automatic watch work without winding or batteries, and after hundreds of years? I think that to a degree I just dismissed it as science fiction, but the idea was wonderful, and it lingered in my mind for many years to come.

Those years that followed were years of QUARTZ: The hegemony of the Swatch fashion amongst my age group, and the gift of a gold ultrathin by
Milus from my father, which would serve occasionally as my dress or daily-wear watch for some 15 years to follow (shown right). For the most part I forgot about watches that “tick” as I became a great consumer of Swatches in my teenage years. Recently I was horrified to see a picture of myself from that period, dressed impeccably in suit and tie other than for the big black Swatch Scuba 200 on my wrist!

It was only after the bezel of the Scuba 200 had wandered away that I experienced my first mechanical revival. I do not recall the circumstances, but I rediscovered a legacy of inherited pocket watches, one of which still worked when wound — an old Illinois railroad watch with a full-plate movement. It could not have been serviced from long before I was even born, and yet I cannot recall having to correct the time (other than for daylight savings) for the year or more which I wore it.

The beginning of my years of bodybuilding ended my first mechanical revival and led me back to CPB QUARTZ, and a mechaquartz chrono that I came to loathe, and after which I returned to using the Milus for daily wear. At this point I was nearing my mid-twenties and I had finally begun to think about getting a “nice” watch — something actually fit for an adult to wear. I was already familiar with some of the elite names of Switzerland: Jaeger-LeCoultre, Blancpain, Patek Philippe, Chopard, and of course the king of kings, Vacheron Constantin. From my initial search for a nice watch I was aware of those mysterious Automatics, but accustomed to ultrathins as I was and being only of modest means it quickly came down to a decision between the steel-cased ultrathins of Blancpain and Jaeger-LeCoultre. In searching the Web for more information to aid in the decision, I happened to run across someone’s personal web page on wristwatches, which had a link to something called TimeZone. The beginning of the end.

Following the link I went straight to the watch reviews, and I recall that the first one I read was the
Lange 1 review by Marc Rochkind (“MJ”), a watch and brand that I had never even heard of. Between the TZ reviews and Archives, Bulletin Board (with less than 100 posts then), and Public Forum, I realized that there was a great deal about watches that I didn’t even have the slightest inkling of, and being of the sort that has to know everything about everything I was trapped. It was here that I discovered that Automatics were not only popular, but that they in fact dominated the mechanical watch market. Of course in those days watch scans were still relatively rare and movement scans extremely so, but I would sadly learn that the magic word Automatic merely referred to the “self-winding” function of the weighted rotor that would wind the watch as you wore it. How mundane! The poor scans of Automatic movements of the time also did little to inspire.

I quite neatly rejected the whole concept until one day when I went watch shop touring around Copley Square. I looked at AP Royal Oak Offshores and Millenaries, tried on an IWC Aquatimer and Fliegerchrono — which were then the absolute darlings of TimeZone, and finally studied under magnification several wristwatch calibres. I’ll admit that I was displeased by the diminutive appearance of the 21mm-wide JLC calibre 849 in a 34mm-wide “ultrathin” case. In turn I was
surprisingly pleased by the well-finished Lemania 8815 in
Parmigiani Fleurier‘s Torus. The skeletonized solid gold rotor moved smoothly and silently, adding a wonderful kinesis to the otherwise almost completely motionless “movement.” This and some of the other treasures from the workshops of Michel Parmigiani brought a new magic to the word Automatic.

It was then that I finally sought out a Seiko 5 auto as a first and inexpensive experiment with this unknown quantity. It was a bit odd at first: One could actually feel the rotor move with every motion of the arm. No doubt this increased the toy-like aspect of wearing an Automatic wristwatch, and made one far more conscious of its presence throughout the day.

For a time all was well. I was an initiate of the Automatic watch, and QUARTZ was fading into obscurity. Alas it was then that I was corrupted by the teachings and ideals of a certain infamous
Horologist. After seeing the grand automatics of Vacheron Constantin, Patek Philippe, et al., and beginning to attain a true understanding of the craft, the quest for a nice watch reasserted itself once more — if only as a long term goal, but Automatics were now at the center of my thoughts.

It wasn’t until a general lifestyle change where I became less active physically and more studious that the magic word began to lose its power once again. With increasing frequency I began to find that since I usually only wear a wristwatch when I am out and about, that once or more each week my wristwatch would stop, which was a great hassle since I had to reset the day and date indication in addition to setting the time whenever this happened. Of course this was not a failing of the watch, but my inability to live up to the more intimate symbiosis required by an Automatic. A handwind can be fed easily like a cat or a dog, and it runs the rest of the time autonomously, but the Automatic must feed physically off the kinesis of its owner. The Automatic was not with me for much longer.

Naturally then I began once more to think of handwinds as the obvious direction to take, though Automatics still have a card or two up their sleeves — the extended power reserve autos and the calendar-free autos. Unfortunately for the most part these are creatures of the higher-end of the mechanical watch market, which is not conducive to easy experimentation for a poor scholar. So in patience and contemplation I have returned to QUARTZ, and await my third (and final?) mechanical watch revival. Even now I am unsure of what form it will take: Does anyone know the magic word?

Recommended Reading

Watch Diaries by ThomasM
My Descent into Hell by Ludwig

Works Cited

Christopher, John. The White Mountains 10th ed. New York: Collier Books, 1967.

Image Credits

Philosopher in Mediation (1632) by Rembrandt van Rijn (1606 – 1669); scan by
Mark Harden
Jaeger-LeCoultre Master Grande Taille by Eugenio Demmenie
Seiko calibre 7S26 by Robert MacDonald

Copyright © Carlos A. Perez 2000
All Rights Reserved