Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Top Gear Wrist Watch Season 21 - James May's Vintage Memovox

It's been a while since an update was done on Top Gear wrist watching. And to be honest, it's not that I didn't want to, but the boys from Top Gear aren't helping either. They haven't worn anything they haven't worn before. And on the occasion that I catch something that I think I haven't seen before, it's too far away for me to be certain. There was this one vintage watch on one James May's wrist that was first seen last season but for the life of me I just couldn't pick it. Watches from the 60s all look alike! So like any sane people would do in this situation, I gave up and not give it another thought. Until this current season.

As James may showed off his multitasking skills at the risk to his own life (driving, narrating, looking at the camera and NOT at the road, performing some fancy card trick with a top hat and doves in tow) my attention went straight to his wrist. And yes. That round vintage watch with a silver/beige dial is back.

This time I had help.

@initiahjh, a fellow watch enthusiast and connoisseur whose knowledge in all things vintage *ahem* is second to none. Plus apparently he was searching for something just like what May was wearing so I completely trust his insight. There were tell tale signs on this watch, and as you can almost make out from the below and above screen grabs, courtesy again of @initialjh, these were enough to go on.

So what are these tell tale signs? 1. 2 crowns- one each at 2:00 and 4:00 positions. 2. Something that looks like a disc in the middle of the dial. 3. You can just make out the triangle on this inner disc. and 4. Date window. From these visual clues @initialjh came to the conclusion that the watch is most likely the Jaeger-LeCoultre Memovox Alarm watch, from the 60s.

I won't bore you with a history lesson, so feel free to skip the next paragraph. Otherwise, here's the abridged version:

Jaeger-LeCoultre first introduced the mechanical alarm watch, the very first Memovox (the voice of memory) in 1950, with the Calibre 489. This was then followed by the very first automatic winding bumper alarm movement in watchmaking history in 1956 with the Calibre 815. The one on James May's wrist is powered by the Calibre 825, which is essentially the 815 with a date. This first came about in 1959. In 1970, the Calibre 916 replaced the bumper winding system with a full winding rotor and the balance frequency was increased frm 21,600 vph to 28,800 vph. The current iteration Calibre 956 is a direct descendant of the Calibre 815.

On the left is the original manual wind Memovox from 1950. On the right is the Calibre 815, the first automatic winding alarm with a bumper movement (see the springs?) The Calibre 825 looks the same as the 815 but with an added date function on the dial side.

The vintage Memovox is getting quite difficult to come by, especially one in good condition and original dial and hands. Here is an excellent post about all the variations of the 60s Memovox.

However, if you're like me and wouldn't mind a modern day version (and pay roughly 2-3 times the price of the one from the 60s) these are a lot easier to find. The current Memovox is part of the Master range, and with it comes the JLC 1000 hour control test. The watch case proportion is very well balanced at 40mm in diametre and about 8.6mm in height. Rather than having a hammer hitting a post and giving a buzzing sound for the alarm, the hammer hits a gong, giving it a very crisp note, which actually sounds quite melodic. The volume and quality is amplified if you have the watch sitting on a wooden bedside table, for example, as the wood reverberates the ring and the further improves the acoustics. Another great thing about the Calibre 956 is that it incorporates all the latest bells and whistles, including ceramic bead winding system, variable inertia balance and quick date setting.

Great. I think I just talked myself into a Memovox. Sigh.

Nothing new to report on the other 2 hosts. Clarkson seem to have gone back to his trusty Omega Planet Ocean. The length of absence corresponds roughly to the time it would've taken for the watch to be completely refurbished at the factory in Switzerland. And Hammond hasn't been showing his wrist lately. Someone should write to the producers. And the tame racing driver? Some say that he is so fast that if you strap a watch to his wrist (if he had a wrist) it would go backwards. And he believes by fitting a tourbillon to the engine it would counter the gravity effect on the pistons and make the car go smoother and faster. all we know is... He's called the Stig!

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The Quest For Thinness Part 2: The Minute Repeater Strikes Back

It is very entertaining observing the intra-company sibling rivalry that doesn't seem to stop. Round 2 involves the same 3 siblings of the Richemont group: Jaeger-LeCoultre, Piaget and Vacheron Constantin. Piaget as you might know wanted to hold the record for everything thinness category there is in the world of haute horlogerie. And they did have all the records (thinnest automatic, thinnest mechanical, thinnest minute repeater, etc) until Vacheron decided to spoil things by introducing the thinnest minute repeater watch late in 2013, pushing the total height down to a mere 8.09mm (compared to Piaget's 9.4mm in the Piaget Emperador Coussin XL, which was released in early 2013).

JLC, still reeling from having their thinnest mechanical watch record wrenched away by Piaget after such a short period decided that there is nothing like the sweet revenge of beating them at their own game (and dealing a double blow to Vacheron at the same time) and launched not only the world's thinnest minute repeater watch, but one with a flying tourbillon/flying balance AND a peripheral winding system to boot! Just as the thickness of the thinnest manual wind watch dropped quite significantly (in terms of percentages) the thickness of the ultra thin minute repeater watch dropped from 9.4mm to 7.9mm in just under 12 months. Sure is amazing what intra-group competition can do!

(Yes I realise that it takes far longer than mere months to plan/design/engineer/manufacture such amazing feats of craftsmanship and oneupsmanship but it makes for a much more entertaining read to pretend as if all this has just happened in real time)

I guess Vacheron can console themselves at still owning the record of the thinnest minute repeater movement (at 3.9mm thin) compared to JLC/Piaget's (at around 4.8mm each) but then again, the Vacheron movement is manual wound whereas both JLC and Piaget are both automatic movements.

The Vacheron and the Piaget are both quite traditional in their movement design, whereas JLC pushed the envelop just that little bit more in order to cram in extra complications (just like Piaget did away with a separate movement and case construction in their quest for ultimate thinness in a mechanical watch and combined the two to make the watch one integrated unit). Rather than having a slider to activate the minute repeater, JLC instead opted for a pusher, which stays flush with the case after activating the minute repeater, and a separate mini slider to release the pusher if you didn't catch the time the first time 'round.

JLC has also removed as much as possible around the tourbillon to make it first of all, reduce the amount of space it takes up and second, to offer a completely unobstructed view of the tourbillon. Again, people have expressed concern at the fragility of a flying tourbillon topped with a flying balance, but I guess JLC's done their homework and made sure something like this will still be sturdy enough for everyday wear.

And finally, a peripheral winding system dispenses with a centrally mounted rotor (takes up too much space), instead a weight spins around the edge to wind the movement up. This idea is not new.  The first patents to this system where filed in 1955 by Paul Gostel and a decade later by Patek Philippe. The first brand to offer this system in a serial production was Carl F Bucherer back in 2008. Subsequently numerous brands also presented their version sof the peripheral winding system, with DeWitt in 2009 with their Calibre DW8014, followed by Audemars Piguet with their Calibre 2897 in 2011, then in 2012, by Cartier (of all brands) with their calibre 9603 MC, even though they've not announced it as such, instead focusing on the design attributes (a bejewelled panther spins above the dial, but is in fact the 'rotor' for the movement). And finally, in 2013 with Breguet's Calibre 581DR, which currently also holds the record of the thinnest automatic tourbillon movement (that's another one Piaget needs to get back...).

From Top Left: Carl F Bucherer, Audemars Piguet, DeWitt, Cartier. Breguet movement not shown because I couldn't find a brand PR shot.

Personally I like this strive for thinness. As Daniel Riedo, CEO of Jaeger-LeCoultre mentioned, that it is much easier to make a watch with a thick case, than it is to make it thin. It shows the capabilities of a manufacture, when they are able to make a watch as thin as possible, without all that dead space inside the watch. I salivate at the prospect of what could possibly come next! I wonder how much space the minute repeater takes up? If JLC got rid of it, could they challenge Breguet for the thinnest automatic tourbillon movement? Or does Vacheron and Piaget have something in the works already? Only time will tell and perhaps stay tuned for: The Quest For Thinness Part 3: The Whirlwind Timekeeper.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Speake-Marin Dinner in Sydney

The Sydney Tarts and Peter Speake-Marin go way back. In fact we hosted Peter's first trip Down Under. And his second trip. This was back when Peter would traverse globally on tourbillon* worldwide tours to showcase his collection. And sometimes to hand deliver them to new owners. Now that the brand has grown and expanded so much, Peter was able to delegate the travelling and the selling to others, and on this night, it was with pleasure that we met with Dariush Djavaheri (travelling) Area Commercial Manager Asia & Middle-East and Josh (selling) from Swiss Time Machine (PSM's authorised retailer in Australia).

There was terrible weather for Dariush's first trip to Australia, right when we are experiencing one of the wettest November in Sydney. Apparently Melbourne wasn't much better but then that was to be expected.

It was a delight to be able to see the collection again after all this time. In attendance were no less than five owners, with plenty more potential owners-to-be.

This time around PSM hosted the dinner at the Park Hyatt in Sydney, and we were in "The Study" which is a private room, perfect for the evening. Park Hyatt did not disappoint with the food nor the service. Both top notch! The highlight would definitely have to be the steak, which was tender, juicy and succulent. Mine was ordered medium rare and was cooked thus. (unlike certain places where their idea of medium rare is a strip of tough leather worthy of being mounted on a dive watch). The accompanying mash was smooth and creamy I hate to think just how much fat and calorie was needed to make it so buttery smooth... And the dessert? the quote of the night was "that fixed the holes in me socks!" That says it all, doesn't it?

Now, onto the stars of the night. Most of the time, watches tend to look better in real life. There are always exceptions to the case, but PSM's latest collection, including the Resilience and the Spirit Mk II, were just superb in person. And even better on the wrist. The main issue (thickness of the case) that a couple of us had was addressed and was an issue no longer. In fact, the new generation cases offered much better proportions thanks to a new, slimmer movement, and overall balance was greatly improved. The Spirit Mk II DLC immediately stood out from the rest. It worked better than any of us had thought it would. This is why it’s always important to see watches in the metal and more importantly, to TRY THE WATCH ON.

The matte DLC treatment matches the matte black dial, making the watch extremely stealthy, yet at the same time it stands out because of it. However, having compared the DLC version to the regular steel version of the Spirit, I would personally choose the latter, simply because it's the more versatile watch and I'm not sure how a black cased watch would fare over the long run.

The Spirit Mk II is essentially PSM's entry level watch. The "no-frills" edition. You have the distinctive Piccadilly case, and amazingly detailed and three dimensional dial (have a close look at the lume). What you miss out on is the custom movement, which in this case is a Technotime TT738. You do have the option of paying a little more and option the PSM finishing with the custom topping tool rotor with the see-through back. (This brings the movement designation to EROS2) The movement aspect is a little disappointing. I mean, don't get me wrong, I am very taken with the Spirit Mk II and do see myself owning one in the near future, but when you buy an independent watchmaker's watch you kinda want the movement to be... special... and not just a basic movement in a fancy case and dial.

If, however, you don’t want to go through the hassle of ordering the Spirit Mk II with the custom movement/see through case back etc etc, perhaps the Resilience would be the way to go. It is much dressier than the Spirit, but it comes with the EROS2 movement as standard, and the dial is enamel. Stunningly beautiful in person and simply breathtaking. The one on the night was in rose gold, which was pretty much perfect. If budget doesn’t stretch that far, there is also a stainless steel version, and it’s not that much of a hike from the price of the Spirit.

The PSM Resilience in gold

I'm sure I'm in the minority here, as I believe the Spirit is doing extremely well, and I guess given the low production numbers and price point, you'd need to sacrifice some aspect... PSM is in a growth stage, and with it comes growing pains. I'm not sure if there was the need to bring the entry level model down to a certain price point? As I would happily pay the extra and have more PSM touches to the
movement. I suppose we'll wait and see how the brand evolves.

Thanks to @initialjh for most of the images used on this post.

*whirlwind... geddit?

**Apologies- this post was meant to appear much earlier, but life got in the way... Better late than never, no?

Monday, February 3, 2014

On The Wrist: Swatch Sistem51 First Australian Impressions

Yes I am a sceptic and as you have probably read here and here, I really did not see the point of these watches. And yet I still bought one. (Got caught up in the hype) And no, not to resale, but really just to see what all the fuss is about, to see if all the hype is warranted, and really, for 150CHF, it's not that much of an investment. If you think about it, this is less than a pair of general release Air Jordan Retros and will last just as long, if not longer. It's also cheaper than an alligator strap from many higher end Swiss watch brands, and the Swatch will most definitely last longer than the strap. Anyway, that's how I'm justifying the purchase. Of course, your mileage may vary.

The first release of the Sistem51 came in 4 colours, blue, red, white and black. I believe the initial batch sold out, and were quickly restocked. For some reason the ugliest of the lot (the blue) is the one that is still sold out. Red, black and white could still be had from the Swatch Boutique on Rue Mont Blanc in Geneva as of last week. For me personally the black and white were the lookers and white was the one I ended up with. (Friend was in Geneva and asked what I wanted, I said either black or white and he made the call). I'm happy with the white, since I have too many all-black watches already, and it's something different. A fun looking watch.

More details have emerged since my previous posts, and the Sistem51 is supposed to last about 20 years, and it is laser-regulated to about 5 seconds a day. I'm not really fussed about accuracy as it won't be on my wrist continuously enough for the accuracy to make an impact. The 90 hour power reserve will be interesting to observe (see how close it comes**) but again, nice to have, but not necessary. Having said that though, it is vastly longer than the usual 40-odd hours from a regular automatic movement, and still longer than some of the more recent higher-end longer power-reserve watches of up to 3 days (72 hours). Another feature is that the movement is meant to be anti-magnetic. I really don't know how to test this (and I'm not about to leave the watch between speakers and magnets) so I'll take their word for it. The specs of the movement is mightily impressive and may be some cause for concern, and I think this is also what they are trying to do- to shake up the industry a little bit.

The life expectancy of 20 years is very interesting. Current mechanical watches have a service recommendation every 4-5 years, depending on how the watch is worn. Given the Sistem51 is sealed, and the movement is not designed to be serviced, one can read this as a mechanical movement having the possibility of a 20 year service interval. Sure there are stories that some Rolex watches have run that long without servicing but that's not the norm. Of course, we can't really test this claim for another 19 years and 11 months and a couple of weeks, but if this Swatch continues to keep relatively accurate time for that long, hmmmm...

Now, the watch itself. It is a plastic watch with a silicon strap. Nothing fancy. Having said that, this particular watch has already been dropped... well, actually, flung against the wall then fell to the carpeted floor. Don't ask. But the watch survived, fully intact, no scratches, no dents/chips nothing. Still ticking away. So that's a plus. The watch itself is nicely sized - at 41mm in diametre, and not too tall at 11mm. The watch sits on the wrist quite comfortably and light enough that you don't notice it. I like the idea of a see-through rotor, and that the movement and rotor are/can be printed. This is a great idea as I'm sick of seeing movements that really should not be shown. At least with the printing it covers the movement and they might even offer personalisation printing down the line. You can wind the watch up, but it's in a back-to-front anti-clockwise direction. The winding is rough, but then again, this is a 150 CHF watch. Not sure how efficient the plastic rotor is in terms of winding the watch up though given it's uni-directional, and spins freely in the other direction (much like the Valjoux 7750).

Over all it's an interesting watch (I keep using the term interesting, simply because I can't think of better, more fitting way to describe it.) and I'm sure the movement will be fitted to other brands within the Swatchgroup in the medium term, in the entry level models within say, Tissot, Certina, Mido brands. Who knows this movement may even replace some quartz movements (no battery changes every 2 years!!! Just shake it and go!) as it is really vastly more convenient, and you never have to be without your watch for 20 years. And after 20 years, when the movement dies, you just go and buy another watch. (Although I'm sure many will be looking to change the watch after about 5 years anyway).

So, consider the industry shaken, but hopefully not so much that all the romantic notion once associates with watchmaking is all shook out.

**I took the watch off in the afternoon of the 27th, the watch was fully wound. it stopped late on the 31st. So the 90-hour power reserve checks out. There are also reports from people whose Sistem51 arrived DOA. I have a feeling that the first batch was rushed and some pieces didn't pass muster. Good thing the there is a 2-year international warranty. It's just a bit of a hassle. My particular piece, although ran fine, had some very minor cracks in the plastic rotor which I'll keep an eye on.