Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Quick Look: Breitling Blackbird

If you think Breitlings are oversized blinged up watches, you'll be happy to know that they're not all like that. They do make some very sensibly sized watches and this is one of them. In fact it almost seems small, at least, that was my first impression. Till I measured the case size. It couldn't be that small given it runs the Valjoux 7750 movement. The measurements came to be 40mm in diameter and about 13mm thick. 100m water resistant.

The Blackbird has always been one of my favorite planes. It's designed to be a stealth recon aircraft flying "below the radar" so to speak. It's sleek , elegant and subdued. It also looks mean and aggressive. And not to mention pointy. It conveys a sense of discreet power. Funnily enough pretty much all of these adjectives can be used to describe its namesake in watches. The Breitling Blackbird. No, not the Breitlings of today, (and they're not alone in this) but one from the age of sensibility (relatively speaking) in terms of watch design. The early 2000s.  This was before bling and oversizedness took hold and watches became ostentatious for the sake of "just cuz".

Good thing about Breitling watches is that they all look pretty much the same from generation to generation and only a truly hardcore B-fan will be able to tell to a degree of certainty which year the model is from. And even then, older models are much more desirable, aren't they? I refer you to a classic exchange from the movie "Gone In 60 Seconds" - the newer one with Nicolas Cage - where an exchange about vintage Ferraris compared to brand spankers and what they say about their owners. Ahem.

As mentioned earlier this model is powered by the Valjoux 7750. A tough, reliable workhorse of a movement and one of the most popular if you want a chronograph. The movement is quite tall, meaning the watch will be relatively thick regardless to begin with. But the Blackbird wears well on the wrist and is easy to pull off. High contrast white hands on black dial makes it quite legible and the dial is also balanced if not symmetrical. Anti - reflective coating on the sapphire crystal adds to the legibility in all conditions. Finally, it comes with the signature 7750 rotor wobble that is so endearing to some and an annoyance to others.

They certainly don't make watches like they used to and this particular model is long discontinued. Meaning the number of this style will not increase and for the time being they're reasonably easy to find on the secondary market. However, be quick if you want a reasonably priced Breitling that's neither Jeremy Clarkson nor Kanye. And as matte finishing and discreetness makes a return to popularity, the demand and price for these examples will rise quickly and discreetly.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Quick Look: Baume & Mercier Clifton Retrograde Date

I remember my first retrograde experience. There is something so poetically unnatural in its movement that really captivates. On this particular piece it was a jumping hour with a retrograde minute hand, and i would wind the time forward, advancing the minute hand quickly to close to "60 minutes" and then slow down and watch the hand bounce back to "0 minutes" and starts again. It's more fun than watching the windscreen wipers going through a similar motion (although I must admit as a child I do remember being fascinated by the wipers and I would mimic its function with my hands on a flat surface with water). Why is it more fun than wipers as an adult though? Simply because of the sheer force with which it bounces back and the speed it does it with. This must put quite a bit of strain on the movement, and thus producing a reliable one is no mean feat.

This could be the reason why the retrograde function is not offered en masse, and the ones who can should be applauded for their defiance against natural motion (ie, hands going around in circles).

The Baume & Mercier Clifton Retrograde is a very fine looking timepiece. In fact, the whole of the Clifton range boasts classic styles, if a little reserved, and I think this is where the retrograde balances the range. The oversized arc of the retrograde date screams out for attention like the middle child. It's the watch for those who wants a classic dress watch but doesn't want to be bound by classic proportions and styling. It's for those who needs to confirm due to societal pressures but still wants flashes of personality, like drab grey suits with bright orange socks and pink pocket square. Yes proportions may be a bit out of whack, but it retains a certain balance, with the day sub dial at 9:00 and the power reserve at 6:00.

It is not a small watch with a diameter of 43mm, and I know there are people out there who swears anything bigger than 38mm is too big for a dress watch. Given the national average weight has been on the rise for decades I think 43mm suits just fine. The watch sits well on the wrist, and the lugs do curve down which adds to the fit. The alligator strap is soft and supple and I'm sure will be even more comfortable after the initial wearing-in period. The watch is powered by a ETA2892 movement with the calendar module from Soprod.

Granted it's not for everybody, and the price point (AUD7200) I feel is a little on the high side for a stainless steel watch from Baume & Mercier and it doesn't quite fit into the whole "Affordable Luxury" ethos. However, it is a stand out piece and speaks volumes about who you are, choosing it over a  safe and boring choice of a Datejust.

Monday, May 19, 2014

On The Wrist: TW Steel Slimline

Tw steel were very kind to loan me a watch from their latest slimline collection to wear and review. I chose the gold because people are always telling me that rose gold watches suit my skin tone and I chose the silver dial because the date window doesn't stick out like Ryugyong hotel. (Google it. Personally I quite like it. The building that is. Very sci-fi.)

The first impressions are good. The watch is still very solid as I've come to expect AND a lot thinner than I'd expected. I do wish the hands were thinner and perhaps to match the elegant elongated indices in shape. The croco grain strap is a nice dressy touch but should lose the rivets as it's more of a pilot watch styling cue. But I guess it's to reiterate the TW Steel logo? Also the croco grain is a thin pattern stitched and glued onto the calf strap and I feel that over time it'll start to fray and come apart on the edges especially if it's put on and taken off daily, as the edge will continue to rub against the buckle.

Speaking of the buckle I like it. Looks like someone put a little effort into designing it. Some pricier brands should take note. Even the pin for the buckle is really well made. There is really no excuse for anyone else to still make them on the cheap. I'm sure the price difference is negligible.

I know a lot of watch enthusiasts turn their noses up at TW Steel but these watches are genuinely well made. Apart from the aesthetics which is a very subjective matter, construction wise truly impressive, especially for the price. I'd even go as far and say they're better built than some of the bigger names in fashion watches. Granted if you're dropping 5 figures on watches without blinking this is obviously not the watch for you, but for less than the price of an alligator strap from one of the major Swiss brands it's actually a really good watch! You need something to wear whilst waiting for that 5 figure watch to return from the 6 month long service in Switzerland right? Plus the watch is made from 316L grade stainless steel. This is the same sort of steel as used by the majority of the luxury watch industry. Not Rolex of course they use a different grade called 904L. Whether or not it's better or just different depends on who you ask and what you believe.

Now I don't think people generally go this sort of detail  for a quartz watch but I noticed the case back is screwed in rather than a snap-on. I prefer screwed in and personally I think this is a sign of quality. I'm tempted to open it up to see what makes it tick. Let's see if I can manage it...

(5 minutes later...)

Were you expecting something more interesting? 99.9% of the clientele isn't going to do what I did. And quite frankly this is not unexpected. Open up any quartz watch and you'll likely see something similar. The shape and size of the movement might vary but that is it. And of course, 99.9% of the clientele won't care what the movement looks like as long as the watch keeps time. And it will. And it looks good. And it gets a lot of compliments  And the price ain't bad. (Just over $400 for the gold plated or just under for the steel version) And that's all it matters.

There is also a bracelet version and that would be the one to get. The bracelet looks great and you have the option and versatility to swap it onto the strap for a more formal look. It's like having two watches for the price of one. Overall count me impressed. TW Steel in their Slim line collection has managed to move away from a me-too style to something of their own. It's an evolutionary step in the right direction and still in keeping with the TW Steel identity.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Quick Look: Jaeger-LeCoultre Grande Reverso Ultra Thin Duoface

One of the more popular pieces released in SIHH 2013, The Grande Reverso Ultra Thin Duoface has started to trickle into the Australian market and we were fortunate enough to get a close look at a piece.

From a design point of view, there is very little to fault. You have a vintage looking dial on the front, and a more contemporary black dial on the back, with a pusher on the side of the case to quickly adjust the hour hand on the second face for a second timezone. However, you could just leave both dials on the same time and have two watches for the price of one, as both dials have very distinctive characters. If anything the watch is possibly a little too monochromatic, but that can be easily fixed with a dark brown strap.

This model is part of the new Reverso "Ultra Thin" range, which begain with the Tribute to 1931 in 2011. Jaeger-LeCoultre has managed to shave off as much unnecessary millimetres as they can from the height of the case of the Reverso. Of course, there will always be a certain minimum height to it, due to the extra carrier case to support the swivelling watch case. Having said that, the whole watch is proportioned just right and seems to be a good fit for a vast majority of wrists (as long as you're not Ahhhnold on whose wrist a 60mm watch looks normal).

The watch is powered by a well-proven manual wind movement (yes, one movement powering both sides). The movement has been in service since the introduction of the Reverso Duo, way back in 1994.

Personally, the Reverso is an iconic watch, so much so that it really deserves a place in everyone's collection, just like the Speedmaster and the Submariner. A Reverso with two dials and a two timezone function really is the best of the range, unless you really want to engrave something on the solid case back of the regular one-sided Reversos.


Grande Reverso Ultra Thin Duoface 1931

Mechanical manual wind movement, Calibre 854/1
180 parts
45 hour power reserve
Water Resistant to 30m
Fitted alligator strap with pin buckle.
Case size  46.8mm x 27.4mm, 9.1mm thick
Available in stainless steel (RRP A$11,400) and pink gold (RRP A$20,600)

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Quest for Thinness Part 3: The Whirlwind Timekeeper

As promised here is part three of "The Quest For Thinness". However, during the course of deciding to write about these and actually writing and researching, things have changed so dramatically that I've had to rethink the players to feature for this third part, where the focus is on tourbillons. Bulgari decided to simply drop this amazingly thin piece of haute horlogerie into our midst during Baselworld 2014 I believe a vast majority of the watch industry dropped their collective jaws. (Better jaws than watches right?) It was almost a repeat of what Piaget did a mere 3 months before. Bulgari's tourbillon is so thin that it's very difficult to imagine anyone beating its thinnest anytime soon. How so?

Up until this bombshell, the thinnest tourbillon watches that were considered for this post were from Breguet, Arnold & Son and Piaget, the master of ultra thin. Given the unavoidable thickness due to the size of the tourbillon cage, these watches were already getting pretty darn thin. I mean, at a total watch height of around 8mm for the Arnold & Son and around 7mm for the Breguet, these are almost cardboard territory. And the movements? At around 3mm each, that's approaching paper thin. Then Bulgari went and sliced that down further to a mere 1.95mm for the movement and at just 5mm for the overall watch.

Call me gobsmacked.

Arnold & Son Tourbillon

Breguet Tourbillon

I still shake my head when i think just how thin that Bulgari is. And it came so unexpectedly from an brand not usually known for their watchmaking flair. Yes they did buy in a lot of the expertise but it takes real geniuses to develop and produce something like this. Case designers, movement engineers, watchmakers, a lot of people need to work together to make something this work cohesively. As mentioned before, it's easy to make a big watch, but it takes real skills and know-how to fit so much into so little space.

So Bulgari sliced a good 2mm off the total watch height from Breguet's tourbillon. Is this about as thin as it gets?

Why don't we hypothetically design the thinnest movement? Let's use 3 brands as examples, given they're already leaders and pioneers and masters in this field.

First let's look at Jaeger-LeCoultre. I posed the question that if all the minute repeater functions were taken out of the Hybris Mechanica 11, it could free up a fair bit of height. But is it enough to bring it down to under 5mm? What about using their ultra thin movement as a base? They could fit the flying balance and the flying tourbillon to their caliber 849 movement which may add a little more height to its already svelte 1.85mm (bring the total to, say, 2mm). And assuming they still only need 2.2mm to fit everything else in, we could possibly be looking at a total watch height of around say, 4.2mm?

Now let's look at Vacheron Constantin. Their thinnest manual wind movement is even thinner at 1.55mm in height. assuming the tourbillon will add the same sort of percentage in height, that would bring it to about, say, 1.7mm? And let's assume they can also fit everything else (glass, hands, dial, case back) within 2.2mm, that would give us a 3.9mm watch.

Or maybe Piaget can do what they did with the Altiplano, and simply add a tourbillon to it, and somehow manages to keep it at the same 3.8mm? I really cannot imagine a mechanical watch any thinner than this. There are still some laws of physics and thermodynamics to obey. How thin can you go??

The ball is well and truly in your court, Richemont siblings. Go nuts.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

The Morning Commute

I hopped on the 8:06 to Town Hall as I do every day. (I've always wondered about this way of saying a time and a destination. Wouldn't this be different for everyone depending on which station you board the train from? Or is it the 7:45 from Hornsby? Would that make more sense?) Most of the time it's close to 8:09 or even 8:12. They're just that punctual. Maybe they need their watches serviced?  Although I don't mind it much. Sometimes it's nice to breathe in the crisp morning air, and listen to the dissonant cacophony of birds tweeting, cars honking, air brakes braking and children laughing. Yes I look at my watch that closely not because I'm concerned about being on time, but because every time I look at the time I get to admire this thing of beauty that sits on my wrist, held securely by the skin of a generous animal which gave its life for a worthy cause.

The Grande Reverso Ultra Thin, while long in name, is as simple and elegant as it gets for a watch. There are only 2 hands. I don't need to know the time down to the second. And a two-handed watch has that serenity you just don't get from a three-handed watch. It's as if your time is standing still, a nice bit of white lie and a stark juxtaposition to the ever-rushing world. The watch is taking the time to smell the roses and reminds you that you should also. The dial too, is elegantly crafted. Simple, black no-nonsense Arabic numerals on a silvery white background. Distinctive, high contrast, and easy to read. The brand, subtle yet prominent sits below 12:00 on a vertical guilloche decoration.

It's difficult to imagine the Reverso as a sports watch, and yet therein lies its humble, but significant beginnings: as a sports watch for Polo players who seemingly cannot control their wayward flying balls and forever getting their poor timepieces smashed in. The Reverso "reverses" over on itself so the hard metal back protects the watch during the game, and all the player had to do was flip it back over to see how much more time before the chukka ends. The piece on my wrist is a direct descendent of said pioneering sports watch. Manually wound and solid case back for when I do pick up the game of Polo. Ultra-thin? I suppose... It's the thinnest watch I have.

As I was staring at my watch I wondered what other people in the same carriage are doing. Is there any truth to the myth that 90% of the people just bury their heads in their smart phones/tablets? Surprisingly it's not 90%! A cursory glance around the carriage reveals 45 possible seats. 10 empty. Obviously all of them are of the middle seat in the 3 seater section. 2 girls are putting on their makeup. 3 guys have their heads against the window; resting I assume. I can't see their eyes. Surprisingly again only 5 has earphones on. Ok. One of them has an audio technica headphone. No dr dre beats here today. Ratio of guys to gals is 3:1. Half the guys are in suits. 3 people are reading actual books! As in made of paper! Only one person looked up to admire the view as we cross over the Sydney harbour bridge. Granted I was seated in the lower deck so the view does get obscured. 2 guys are on their laptop. Presumably working/emailing. From what I can tell only a handful have their heads buried in their phones. I bet no one stares at their watch for half the trip. There is one young couple deep in whispers. So sweet. The rest of the passengers seems to be just in a daze. Blanked out.

I also wonder what is on the minds of people who get up to stand at the door 45 seconds to a minute before reaching the station. Were they traumatised from a missed exit experience?

"Ladies and Gentlemen. Next stop Town Hall. Please be reminded to take all your belongings with you and thank you for travelling with Sydney Trains."

One more glance at the watch before I struggle out of my seat and walked through the carriage towards the doors. Glancing down as I pass by the other passengers to check out what's on their screens, I was dismayed to find no one was playing candy crush.

After "Big Sister" Opal reads my card and send crucial private information to the gummy mint the hard plastic gate creaks open and my access to the daily grind is granted and thus begins another day in the rat race. The upside? I get to stare at this beauty all day. And that makes it all right. As I stand in the lift that takes me to my day cell, I top up the juice by winding the buttery smooth crown and listening to the soft clicks as the spring inside the barrel tightens, I knew everything was going to be all right.

**No… I didn't take pictures of the view in the carriage. That would be plain weird and creepy. Let's just let the imagination run with this one.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Top Gear Season 21 Wrist Watch - Richard Hammond's Tag Heuer Grand Carrera Chrono

We briefly touched on Richard Hammond's Grand Carrera back in 2009, but that was with a dodgy low-res screen cap and it was more of a point-and-identify exercise than an in-depth look at the watch. Whilst watching the latest episode we FINALLY get another close up of the watch during the 'news' segment of the show, and this inspired me to do a proper post on it.

So as we have identified, the watch on Hammond's wrist is the Tag Heuer Grand Carrera Chronograph, Calibre 17, an officially certified chronometer. This is one of my favourite Tag Heuers. No, really. I've loved it ever since it was launched back in 2007 and I do think it is one of the most successful Grand Carrera models they've done. So successful in fact that here we are in 2014, and it is still part of the range. The reason why it is so successful? The disc system (where rotating disc display the chronograph minutes and the running seconds) rather than the more conventional hand display, and the perfectly balanced and symmetrical dial. Trust me. Balance and symmetry in a watch does wonders.

It also helps that there are some very well thought out design features. The bezel is very thin, which makes the dial look bigger, which I like. The shape of the double sapphire crystal in the back case is a nod to the two window cut-outs on the dial revealing the rotating discs. The minute hand that reaches the minute tracks!! This is something lacking in Tag Heuer's latest masterpieces and I really wish they'd kept it up.
The Grand Carrera was actually a brand new range of watches for Tag Heuer, and this range was designed to raise the, err, luxuriousness of the brand and move them higher up in the price bracket. In some ways this was done quite successfully, but it did take sometime. Keep in mind that it is always much more difficult to move up a price point than down, especially since the range didn't have any in-house movements to 'justify' the price. The movement powering the Grand Carrera Chronograph is an ETA 2824-2, which is essentially a 2892 movement with a chrono movement on top of it. Nothing spesh, sure, but it works perfectly fine.

And yes, I love it so much that I did end up picking one up myself. On the leather strap. But I really should've bought one on bracelet, since they're so expensive to buy as a spare part...