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Zeno~SPARTA~

Watches

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I have a passing fascination with watches. I am not creative and have no sense of style but the watch and the tie are two thing I made a bit of an effort for. I dont really wear either anymore, although I will wear my solar powered Pulsar when I get it back (currently being repaired due to my clumsiness). When I was working I did treat myself to a pretty decent watch, an Ebel 1911 automatic.

 

When I was an up and coming executive I was always a bit out of place, I competed with people from Eton/Harrow and Oxford/Cambridge or american ivy league schools. By comparison I was educated and lived in the east end  of London. For whatever reason I detested the yuppies (as we called them then) and yet I worked with them. Back then the yuppie aspired to a BMW /Porsche and a Rolex so of course I would have nothing to do with either. By the way  BMW's were rarer back then. So I bought a Ferrari instead of a Porsche and an Ebel.

 

Ebel's were and still are looked down upon by Rolex owners. Actually even I wouldn't  consider an Ebel today. Ebel were considered watches you bought from a jewellery chain. But Ebel had a hand in saving the Swiss watch industry in the eighties.

 

First a bit of history. Originally the dominant time keeping devices were made by the French and the British, with the Brits eventually creating the most accurate. This was because they were essential for accurate navigation. The Swiss reputation was for cheap knock offs.

 

Over time and the move to pocket then wrist watches the Swiss made it their speciality and focused on making more and more accurate mechanical watches with more and more features (complications). Indeed annual competitions were held to find the most accurate movements, these are still held in Switzerland and were always won by a Swiss watchmaker. It is not well known but a lot of watch manufacturers do not make their own movements, indeed there are companies that only make movements. For example Tag Huer use (this may have changed recently) a Seiko movement and Omega used a Valjoux ETA movement. Then Seiko arrived. Until 1873 Japan varied the length of the hour at different times of the year, making life hard far anyone trying to make a timekeeper. But in 1873 the Japanese adopted the same time and calendar as the the rest of us. In 1892 Kintaro Hattori started making clocks and watches under the brand Seikosha using imported movements. In 1924 watches were produced under the Seiko brand. By the 1950s Seiko were making their own movements and by the 1960's had two competing watches (The Grand Seiko and the King Seiko made in seperate factories competing with each other) to fight the Swiss. Just as they were about to take the crown the Swiss won with a Quartz chronograph. Although the timekeeping potential of quartz was discovered (by Bell engineers) in the 1920's, it was this action that almost killed swiss watchmaking  as well as Seiko's mechanical watch aspirations.

 

There is still a bit more history before I get to the relevance of Ebel. For ten years an engineer at the Watchmaker Zenith developed a high beat automatic chronograph movement called El Primero, it was comparable to Seikos movement but with a higher beat (which leads to a smoother movement). Unfortunately the quartz revolution arrived and Zenith had financial difficulties and were bought by an american company, who, like everyone else told them to focus on quartz and bin all the mechanical parts and tooling. But the engineer who crafted the movement , Charles Vermot, safely wrapped them and hid them in the attic. When Zenith inevitably failed as a quartz watchmaker they were sold back to the Swiss. In 1981 Ebel were convinced by a Zenith exec to buy all the remaining El Primero movements over the next three years. Ebel did this to test the waters for a return to mechanical/automatic watches. Then in 1982 the same guy heard that Rolex wanted to revive the Daytona and pitched them the El Primero. The Daytona was a manually wound watch and Rolex needed an automatic that would fit in the case. The El Primero was Automatic and thin so Rolex agreed to a ten year contract if Zenith could resume production and they would slow the movement and eliminate the date complication . Thanks to Mr Vermot Zenith had everything it needed and the contract was signed. These events (especially the Rolex Daytona) contributed to the resurgence and now dominance of high end mechanical/automatic movements. But Ebel kept Zenith alive.

 

 

Now the relevance, my Ebel 1911, looked down upon by Rolex owners, has the El Primero movement that basically saved Swiss watchmaking. Amusingly the Daytona with a worse version of the El Primero movement is worth 10 times more than my Ebel today. Despite that I really prefer the look of my Ebel and still like it today, I only regret that it doesnt have a glass rear to see the movement. With that said I cannot wear it since it needs a service (every 5 years).

 

 

 

I have shared this with you because its a way of collecting my thoughts and research on this topic and hope you find it as interesting as I do.

 

 

 

 

 

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Very interesting and something I probably would have never have looked into.

I do appreciate a good looking watch, but I personally find wearing anything my wrists very cumbersome and an annoyance. I really like the ones that you can see the gears moving.

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Watches where you can see the movement through the face are called skeletonized watches and there are some, with automatic mechanical movements (all be it made in China), priced in the hundreds of dollars. The problem with that sort of price point is how deep the watch is.

 

I recently discovered the reason for the price difference between an excellent watch (say $4,000) and a stupidly expensive watch (say >$50,000).

 

I always thought it was the complications, perpetual automatic watches for instance will show the correct date until the end of this century. That is not cheap to accomplish mechanically. but even two equivalent watches can be that far apart in price. My next cynical thought was trading off of the name. To some extent this is true, Tag Huer's using the Seiko movement sold for more than the Grand Seiko. However apart from prestige its the workmanship. An ultra expensive watch has every part of its movement, scribed, etched bevelled or polished by hand under a microscope. I read that preparing one part of the movement in this way takes as long as it takes to make an entire Omega. That is why there are watches over $100,000.

 

Here is a video that highlights the differences

 

 

 

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