TWO PERSPECTIVES ON TIME PIECES
Tick tock, kiddies. The older I get, the more conscious I am of the passage of time. I'm also definitely old school when it comes to watches. I love a watch face with hands that move around the dial, not those new-fangled digital numbers with LED readouts. Vintage wind-up and automatic self-winding watches are my favorites. Forget quartz. Forget batteries. (OK, I confess. I do own and wear battery-operated watches but they are like the junk food of the watch world. It's like comparing US and People Magazine to the Atlantic Monthly.)
I started collecting watches about 35 years ago. Like collecting bakelite, collecting watches is addictive. They should come with warning labels. Once you're hooked, baby, you are hooked. Luckily, a couple of decades ago, I reached a mental and spiritual saturation point. I had enough. I didn't need more. Now, I just enjoy them.
My first job in New York City in 1975 involved quarterly trips to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, so I cruised the duty-free shops in St. Thomas during the course of several trips, looking for just the perfect watch. I'd know it when I saw it, I thought. And I did. I found a rectangular gold man's Cartier with Roman numerals on a white face and a blue sapphire on the stem. Women's watches looked too tiny and girly. I liked this one for its size and heft and the fact that although it was new, it looked old. Very art deco. I wore it steadily for years, wearing out several bands in the process.
I recall one fateful morning in 1977, when it slipped out of my hands and fell into a full bathtub. I watched in horror as it hit the bottom and the crystal and face popped completely off, revealing all of its innards (little wheels and cogs). I retrieved it and dabbed it with a towel and then turned my hair dryer on it, in a feeble attempt to remove the moisture. I called Cartier on Fifth Avenue as soon as it opened and was told to bring it to the store's repair department immediately. They were fabulous. The experience was the watch repair equivalent of a team of doctors and nurses whisking a bleeding patient from the entry of the emergency room directly into neurosurgery. When I picked it up two days later, the watch had been cleaned and oiled and ran beautifully. I acquired the blue lapis band on my first trip to Santa Fe in 1983 on my way to the Balloon Festival in Albuquerque.
P.S. In 1975, I bought my boyfriend at the time a round Cartier wristwatch that was a rare design that I'd never seen before or since. While I wouldn't want the boyfriend back, I sure would like that watch. I heard years later that he'd had it stolen at Jones Beach along with his car keys and wallet. Karma's a bitch.
Wristwatches were invented by Patek Philippe at the end of the 19th century and were considered at the time to be a woman's accessory. Men started wearing wristwatches after Louis Cartier created a special one for his Brazilian friend, aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont, pictured here.
In 1904, the Brazilian aviator asked his friend Louis Cartier to come up with an alternative to a pocket watch that would allow him to keep both hands on the controls while timing his performances during flight. Cartier and his master watchmaker, Edmond Jaeger, soon came up with the first prototype for a man's wristwatch called the Santos. The Santos first went on sale in 1911, the date of Cartier's first production of wristwatches. (Photo courtesy of commons.wikimedia)
During the First World War, because soldiers needed access to their watches while their hands were full, they were issued wristwatches, called 'trench watches". Because they were made with pocketwatch movements, they were large and bulky and had the crown at the 12 o'clock position. After the war, pocket watches went out of fashion and by 1930 the ratio of wrist-to-pocket watches was 50 to 1. The first successful self-winding system was invented by John Harwood in 1923.
Since I bought my Cartier, I have acquired about a dozen vintage time pieces, all of them men's watches. It wasn't until I pulled all of them out for this posting that I realized that, although they are evenly split between round and rectangular/square faces, the majority (9) are yellow or rose gold, two are stainless steel and one is white gold. All but one have white faces. Most were acquired in the 1980s and 1990s at flea markets and antique shops and from family.
I inherited my dad's high school graduation watch by The Illinois Watch Company with a white gold engraved case and curved crystal with "John June 1932" engraved on the back. I keep it in a black velvet Sulka drawstring bag in the bottom of a round leather box on my dresser.
I also have my father's narrow yellow gold rectangular Elgin wristwatch. It was a gift from my mother. I vividly remember him wearing it in the early 1960s, when he was behind the wheel of our Ford Fairlane 500. It seems so small, especially since my dad was such a big guy. (The wristwatch equivalent of a hippo in high heels?) I was heartbroken when its original gold flexible band broke. As you can see, I've replaced it with a black faux alligator band. I love the name "Elgin" - it was the name of my favorite Blues Brother. The Elgin National Watch Company was founded in August 1864 in Elgin, Illinois, 30 miles northwest of Chicago. The company sold watches under the name Elgin and Lord Elgin until it closed its factory in 1964, after having produced half of the total number of pocket watches manufactured in U.S. The rights to the name were sold to a company that manufactures in China, so watches made after 1964 bear no relationship to real Elgins.
I used to wear my dad's round gold Waltham pocket watch on a big gold chain around my neck. The Waltham Watch Company, named after its MA hometown, produced about 40 million high quality watches, clocks, speedometers, compasses, time fuses and other precision instruments between 1850 and 1957.
This yellow gold Omega automatic watch called the Seamaster is, as the name suggests, waterproof. It is a classic design and is the iconic sports watch.
This round watch, which says "Jules Jurgensen Est. 1740" and "17 Jewels" under its imperial crown comes from good stock. Jules Jurgensen, established in the early 1770s, is one of the very oldest continuous watch companies in existence today with heritage that extends to Denmark, France and finally Switzerland, the capital of the watch making world in the 18th and 19th centuries.
This square gold Hamilton has always intrigued me. I do not know its provenance but the engraving on the back reads: "Bob with love Rosemary 11-7-56". I always wondered what happened (trouble in paradise?) that it ended up for sale at a flea market. Hamilton Watch Company, established in 1892 in Lancaster, PA, became popular for its series of railroad pocket watches (the Broadway Limited) known for their accuracy. Hamilton introduced its first wristwatch in 1917, designed to appeal to men entering World War I. In 1928, Hamilton purchased the Illinois Watch Company (maker of my dad's high school graduation watch). During World War II, production of consumer watches was stopped because all watches manufactured were shipped to troops. More than one million watches were sent overseas.
Here's what I wrote on Saturday night: "This 14 K gold Hamilton with a rectangular face and rectangular second-hand face is in pristine condition. The raised, square edged crystal hasn't got a nick or scratch ... probably because I wear it so rarely." Boy, did I jinx it. On Sunday afternoon, after I'd taken the picture in my living room in the natural light, Valerie and I went to another room to download photos to my computer. We returned to the living room to find the watch on the floor with just the crystal and outer case attached to the band. I think I launched an f-bomb. (Valerie says: Several, actually. In succession. Almost like chanting.) After fishing around under the radiator, I found the rest of the watch and snapped it back into place. Apparently, Bueller (the large ferret) had pulled down the scarf and the watch with it. Sheesh. It is pictured on a Missoni scarf.
I love the angular Arabic numerals on the busy dial of this round, gold Bulova that also says: "23 Jewels Waterproof Automatic Anti-Shock Anti-Magnetic". What else could a girl want? Jewels and accuracy! Magnetism must have been a problem or at least a perceived problem for early wristwatch wearers because "Anti-Magnetic" is engraved on the backs of many of my vintage time pieces. It is pictured on a grey and black felt scarf designed by Eiji Miyamoto for the MOMA Design Store.
This round Movado has gold symbols rather than numbers and above the round second hand face says "Anti-Dust" - which I thought sort of ought to go without saying. Movado is a Swiss luxury watch company whose name is Esperanto for "always in motion". It was founded in 1881 in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland by Achilles Ditesheim. OK, my little Munchkins, who knows what Esperanto is? Please comment and show us how smart you all are.
This round Baume et Mercier is as thin and sleek as a greyhound. It is "Swiss Made, Stainless Steel, Incabloc, Waterproof and Antimagnetic". Rather than numerals, it has steel slits marking the hours. It is pictured on a black and white cotton Japanese textile designed by Sayuri Shimoda from the MOMA Design Store.
This square watch with metallic blue hands is a "Croton Nivada Grenchen Gladiator EL" The back of the watch says "Incabloc Aquamatic Waterproof Self Winding Shock Resistent Stainless Steel". Nivada was a watch company founded in 1877 in Grenchen, Switzerland. Croton Watch Company was its U.S. distributor. And isn't "Gladiator" a simply scrumptious name for a watch? The blue band matches the hands on the dial. It is pictured on a black and grey Eiji Miyamoto felt scarf from the MOMA Design Store.
The Benrus Watch Company Inc., was founded in New York City in 1921 by three Romanian emigre brothers Benjamin, Ralph, and Oscar Lazrus. The name "BENRUS" is the combination of Benjamin Lazrus' forename and surname. Who knew? The brothers capitalized on the unexpected trend for wristwatches and the sagging demand for pocket watches in the early 1920s by producing moderately priced wristwatches. Benrus manufactured the majority of its watches at La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland and went on to become the third largest American watch company. This black faced yellow gold Benrus has a very unusual 3-level beveled crystal that was obviously too exotic for this amateur photographer to capture. Sorry, kiddies.
I have had this black steel watch for 24 years. It was issued to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Statue of Liberty on October 28, 1986. The city's fireworks display that evening was spectacular. It is pictured on a rubber tiger-print squeaking dog bone.
You'd think that with all this fire power, I'd be on time more often. You'd think...
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When I was 14, my mother gave me a lovely delicate watch (shaped something like the one you see here, but a bit more minimalist). I don’t remember what brand it was. The face was little bigger than my thumb nail, and the band was made of two slim black cords of silk or rayon, with a dainty silver catch and safety chain. The numbers on the watch were so tiny I couldn’t possibly read them now, but then I read them effortlessly. I loved the way it disappeared on my wrist, so as not to distract attention from my face or figure or clothes.
When I was 16 and in my senior year of high school, I snagged my first boyfriend, Walter, who was 20. Something of a cross between a David Cassidy and a young Malcolm McDowell, Walter had his faults (and in the fullness of time I found out just how many), but the way he kissed made you forget them. Or not forget them, but not care about them either.
If they’d awarded blue ribbons at the county fair for kissing, I think Walter would have won every year until he retired undefeated. Mothers, if you don’t want your good girls to go bad, get them a boyfriend who doesn’t know how to kiss.
Like so many high school seniors then, when I had the choice between taking calculus and ceramics, I chose ceramics. One of my first projects was to make a hanging planter for Walter. It was going to be a huge thing, with ropes, and my teacher told me I would need a large quantity of sand in a bag around which to shape the planter. The ceramics teacher kept a supply of sand for just this purpose, but didn’t have enough for a project of the size I had in mind, so one day in November I went down to Coney Island – a short subway ride away – to get some.
I was on the beach scooping up sand for my project when I noticed a man under the boardwalk. He was naked and alone. He beckoned me with one hand, and perhaps I don’t have to tell you what he was doing with the other. This was the 1970s, and New York City had a well deserved reputation for crime. I didn’t want to be prevented from getting my sand, but I also didn’t want to find myself suddenly and unwillingly under the boardwalk with the gesticulating man. So I went up the nearby staircase where two young men were leaning against the railing, and explained my predicament to them. Would they mind keeping an eye on me, I asked, till I finished scooping up the sand I needed? They agreed, and in a few minutes, mission accomplished, I came back up to the boardwalk to thank them and go home.
One of the men asked if we could go out on a date. I had Walter. I wasn’t interested in anyone else, and told him so, nicely. But he persisted – after all, you never know when you’re going to break up, he reasoned – and asked if he could just call me from time to time in case I changed my mind. At 16, I hadn’t learned the art of saying no tactfully, and besides, wouldn’t it be nice to have a periodic caller waiting for a spot on my dance card? So I gave him my number. I seem to think his name was Stewart, and that’s what I’ll call him here.
Stewart was tall and slim, with dark curly hair and a moustache - not a bad looking guy. But when he told me he was a teacher in the New York City school system, my antennae went up. When I asked his age, and he told me he was 24, I had to marshall all my will not to giggle. What 24 year old wants to date a 16 year old - even a really cool 16 year old, I wondered. (I now realize that even 90 year old men would ideally like to date a 16 year old, but back then I thought – and still think – that a guy that age who’s fishing in the wading pool isn’t a guy a young girl should want to get hooked by.) (On a separate note, had he been Peter O'Toole [above], none of the above would have applied. At all.)
Stewart probably called me a week later. Geez. Did he have that little faith in my ability (or my desire) to hold on to Walter? And so it went. Every few weeks or so Stewart would call, and I would tell him I was still with Walter.
Until one day I wasn’t. (Walter probably found someone closer to Stewart’s age).
And so it was that several months after our first bizarre meeting, Stewart and I arranged to go out. It’s hard for me to be certain one hundred years later, but Stewart and I could only have had a maximum of three dates, because Stewart couldn’t kiss. Walter had offered me kisses akin to filet mignon with butter sauce, and poor Stewart countered with a McDonald’s hamburger with smears of intermingled ketchup and mustard, topped with a slice of pickle.
To be exact, Stewart inserted his tongue into my mouth the way one might insert a plug into a wall. It was just in there, hard and pointy, and it wasn’t going to move and it wasn’t going to come out.
Not being a wall myself, I was hard put to know what to do with it, or what he expected me to do with it. Electrocute it? Nibble on it? Thrust likewise with my own, and engage in lingual fencing? I was flummoxed, but only for a moment. A girl looking for her second boyfriend wants someone who will outdo the first in every way. I refused to teach the teacher. Stewart had to go.
I was raised to be polite, and would not have dreamed of criticizing Stewart’s kissing. Instead, I probably told him that I was still smarting over Walter, and that I was not ready to start dating again yet. Stewart dropped me off in front of my home and drove away.
Very soon after that, I realized that I didn’t have my watch, the safety chain for which had recently broken and needed to be repaired. I looked in all the usual places for it, to no avail. My heart nearly stopped when I realized it might have fallen off my wrist in the middle of the street when I got out of Stewart’s car, and gotten crushed by passing traffic. I looked where Stewart had dropped me off, but found nothing. Possibly someone had picked it up, I thought. But if I was lucky, it had fallen in Stewart’s car.
I called Stewart the next day. He confirmed that he had found my watch in his car, and said he would bring it around, which I thought was very sweet of him. Time passed, and he didn’t bring it around, so I called to ask again.
Again Stewart said he would bring the watch around, and again he didn’t. I think I probably called one last time, more or less realizing that Stewart had no intention of giving me back my watch.
And so it is with the dance of the sexes (the genders?), where “I’m not ready to go back to dating yet” is code for “oh my god, you're 24 and don’t know how to kiss”, and “yes, I found your watch, and I’ll drop it off” really means “it’ll be a cold day in hell before I waste any more gas money on you”.
I’ve had lots of watches since then. I had a purple Philippe Starck, two red ones from MOMA, one mounted in a black round plastic bracelet, one mounted in a bouncy red rubber undulating band, and a hilarious red and yellow water-filled domed watch in which floated a tiny die. The Swatch I have now is on its second red plastic band, the first having been chewed to death over the course of many years by my 16 year old cat who savored the texture of any soft plastic. But when Jean said she wanted to blog about her watch collection, the only watch I could think to write about was the tiny nameless piece my mother gave me when I was 14.
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