Collecting Portable Time, a Time Consuming Hobby
by Manfried Rieder Starhemberg
Where I come from it is tradition to receive your first wrist watch as a confirmation gift from your Catholic sponsor. Mine was my grandfather, and my gift was a 16 jewel wind-up Omega. I was eight years old and for the past 56 years mechanical and later electro-mechanical watches have held a great fascination for me, so much so that I now own approximately 300 of them. I have been able to maintain all but about two dozen in well-oiled, cleaned condition, and I wear one of them every day.
To this day the mechanical watch, either pocket or wrist, remains the finest micro-mechanical achievement of mankind, which explains the renewed fascination of the affluent with names like Rolex, Omega, I.W.C, Vacheron & Constantin, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Breitling, and TAG Heuer. Some timepieces take a group of master craftsmen a year or more to create, and every year improvements are made in a form called "complications." Complications are moon faces, additional dials, even musical movements, all in a machine the size of an Oreo cookie...
A wind up watch or its "automatic" brother will have somewhere in the neighborhood of 150 parts, driven by a mainspring which transmits its power through a train of gears to the hands. It is regulated by a balance spring (or hairspring) which oscillates and activates a lever with two pallets which will engage and disengage the power train in precise intervals to control the amount of power allowed to flow through the gear train.
A modern balance will oscillate at 18,000 beats per hour. Many upscale watches have movements that will almost double this. Rolex and Omega have movements with 28,000 beats per hour. But even the lowly 18,000 beat per hour Timex will beat 432,000 times every day, or 12.96 million times per month. The tiny balance wheel travels in an average year the distance of 2.3 times to the moon, and therein is the fascination to collectors.
There are two kinds of collectors: the affluent who purchase rare vintage watches mainly as an investment (some specialize in just one brand of watch, or only collect military watches, for example), or people like me who buy the inexpensive watches most people do not want anymore because they now have a reliable Quartz watch and cannot be bothered to wind up the thing every day.
Watches can be found in fleamarkets, in the glass vitrines of Church jumble sales, or on eBay. Collectors will often buy "a box of watches" and then find out that, out of 25, three work, nine have broken springs, three have busted balance staffs, and at least one has the stem missing or the crystal is so sratched that you cannot see the dial anymore. It's all right. If the price was right, clean up the good ones, put new bands on them, and enjoy.
Most collectors are self-taught watch cleaners and will have a series of case openers to get inside to the movement, and they will know how to finely oil the watch. It takes only approximately 1 cubic mm of oil to completely oil a wristwatch. Over-lubricating will only attract dirt. Even a tiny amount of oil in the geartrain will travel through the train and, eventually, one gear will lubricate another. This is a simplification but often it's enough.
Other than the purely mechanical watches, many will collect electro-mechanical watches. These were actually nothing more than quality gear-driven timepieces, but, instead of a spring, a battery-driven tuning fork does the timing. The finest was the Bulova "Accutron."
Bulova's Accutron watches, first sold in October 1960, use a tuning fork of 360 hertz to drive a mechanical gear train to turn the hands. The inventor, Max Hetzel, joined the Bulova Watch Company of Bienne, Switzerland, in 1948. The tuning fork was powered by a single transistor-driven circuit, so the Accutron qualifies as the first real electronic watch. More than 4 million were sold until production stopped in 1977, and today a functioning one will go for approximately $300 at auction.
Timex was not far behind and started aggressively marketing their Timex "Electric" series through National Geographic and similar magazines. I am very fond of these early Electrics and own many of them. The problem is that the first series Electric had a protruding battery housing on the rear of the watch which can become annoying. (The ladies series was better designed and the batteries were intregrated flush.)
So, if this interests you, go start collecting. You may find that part of the joy of this hobby is that you can look up your particular make and model on the Internet, research the history of the watchmakers, and learn about the place where it was made and by whom.
This is truly a timeless hobby, collecting time.