Buying a Mechanical Watch

These days, most watches are powered by quartz movements, which are reliable and accurate and require relatively little maintenance.

Watch purists, however, still prefer watches with mechanical movements, which is the way that all watches worked until about 50 years ago.

Skeleton mechanical watchBuying a mechanical watch can make a statement and there are thousands of available models in all price ranges and styles.  If you decide that you’d like to own one, there are a few things you should ask yourself before you commit to buy:

  • New or vintage?  Vintage models have historical and collector appeal, but they may be somewhat less accurate than newer models.  They also may have been altered or modified, particularly in the case of famous brands, such as Rolex, where altered models are quite common.  On the other hand, buying a pre-owned watch can save you a lot of money when compared to buying a comparable model brand new.
  • What kind of strap?  Most watches have either a metal bracelet or a rubber or leather strap.  Most wearers prefer one or the other.  Leather seems preferential for workplace and formal settings, though that seems to be changing as time goes on.  Still, you need to decide which you’d rather have, as most watches come with one or the other, but not both.
  • Dial style.  Do you want a simple face that only tells the time?  Do you need additional features that will add functionality but will also clutter up the looks?  You first need to decide exactly what it is you want your watch to do.  After that, the decision as to what kind of look you want in your watch should become an easy one.
  • Automatic or manually wound?  Automatic, or self-winding models, are less trouble, but are mechanically more complicated and somewhat more expensive.
  • Steel? Gold? Platinum? Other?  The case material is part of how you want your watch to look.  Most watches have stainless steel cases, though many are tinted to look like gold.  You can also buy mechanical watches with cases made from precious metals, of which gold is the most popular.
  • Price.  The price is going to be the big factor in determining the quality of watch that you can buy.  You can purchase a Chinese-made mechanical watch for as little as $25 or so, but it won’t be very reliable, it likely won’t have any significant water resistance and it likely won’t last very long.  At the other end of the spectrum, you can spend $5000 or more on a handcrafted Swiss timepiece that will likely last for decades with proper care and maintenance.  In between, there are many options, though most buyers of mechanical watches still prefer to buy models that are Swiss-made, or at least those that have Swiss-made movements.  The Japanese also make some affordable, high quality mechanical watches, so if you have a mid-range budget, you may wish to consider models from a Japanese maker.

These are just a few of the things that you need to consider when buying a mechanical watch.  Keep in mind that unlike quartz models, mechanical watches will require occasional maintenance, so be sure to keep that in mind as part of your budget.

A nice mechanical watch looks good, runs well, and should last for years with proper care.  They make a good buy if you choose well.

Paul Newmans’ Rolex to Be Auctioned

There are a lot of famous watches out there, and even a lot of famous Rolex watches out there.  None seem to attract attention, however, quite like the Rolex with the name “Paul Newman” attached to it.

paul newman rolex cosmograph daytonaPaul Newman was a famous actor, and he also had some success as a race car driver.  In watch collecting circles, however, he’s best known for the watch that has come to bear his name – the Rolex Cosmograph Daytona Paul Newman.

This was never an official marketing name; the official name for the watch is the Rolex Cosmograph Daytona.  Named for the Florida speedway, the watch was introduced in 1963 to relatively little fanfare and actually sold quite poorly in its day.

A styling change in 1967 made the watch a bit more popular, though the model was sold with perhaps 20 different dials.

As it happens, Paul Newman’s wife, actress Joanne Woodward, gave him a Rolex Cosmograph Daytona in 1972 when he started racing automobiles.  It also happens that Paul Newman liked this watch very much, and reportedly wore it every day between 1972 and his death in 2008.

It also happens that the dial on the watch that Newman personally owned was one of the more unusual and poor selling variations on the model.  Despite this, the watch with that particular dial became the one that was associated with the actor’s name.

The differences between the dial on a “Paul Newman” Cosmograph and one that isn’t are relatively minor, and most people giving the watch a casual look would scarcely noticing anything unusual about it.

An inscription from Newman’s wife, Joanne Woodward

Collectors know, however, and models that match the description of the one that Newman personally owned sell for substantially more than similar, but not-quite-the-same models.  That has led to a proliferation of fake “Paul Newman” dials, where people put reproduction dials on otherwise legitimate Rolex watches.

All of this is coming to a head in a few months, as the Philips auction house has announced that they have Paul Newman’s personal Rolex Cosmograph Daytona and that they will auction it off for public sale this fall.

Watches with celebrity ownership and good provenance will often sell for a lot of money, but in this case, the actor, the watch, and the combination of the two are iconic.  As a result, the current estimate on the sale of the watch is that it will sell for $1 million minimum, though some are speculating that the watch may sell for as much as $5 million before the auction is over.

The funds from the sale will reportedly be donated to a charitable foundation named after Newman’s daughter, Nell.

Not a bad return for a watch that sold for roughly $200 when new.

How Automatic Watches Work

If you’re a fan or collector of vintage clocks, you’ll likely have to spend some time winding them, unless, of course, you own electric models.

Winding a clock has been part of the process of owning one for centuries.  They’re driven by springs, and those springs have to have tension in order for the mechanism to keep time.  As the clock runs, the tension decreases and unless you rest it, the timepiece will eventually stop running.

With mechanical clocks, you wind them with a key or by resetting a weight.  With mechanical watches, you wind them by twisting the small knob on the crown that’s usually found at the 3 o’clock position….

…unless, that is, you own an automatic watch.

oris automatic watch

Back side of Oris automatic watch with visible rotor

Automatic watches aren’t new; they’ve been in mass production since the 1930s.  The method used for most automatic watches was patented by Rolex and is still in use, with some modifications, today.

These timepieces are mechanically wound; there is no magic mechanism that avoids that.  What makes them “automatic” is that there is a small weighted rotor inside the case.  This rotor moves as the person wearing the watch moves their arm during the normal course of the day.  As they move, the rotor moves, and this adds tension to the spring, thus winding the watch.

You don’t have to continuously wear an automatic watch to keep them running, as they have what is known as a “power reserve.”  This represents the amount of time, usually expressed in hours, that a watch will continue to run without being manually wound.  The power reserve of most watches is somewhere between 12 and 72 hours, which means that you likely won’t have to wear your watch every day in order to keep it running.

Even if you do fail to wear your watch for a long enough period of time that it stops, you can get it running again by winding it manually.  Automatic watches can be wound just as any other mechanical watch might be.

Vintage Rolex automatic watch

Vintage Rolex automatic watch

If you don’t want to manually wind your automatic watch but you want to keep it running while it’s not being worn, you can buy a device known as a watch winder.  These are storage boxes that move the watch while it’s being stored in order to wind it for you.  That way, it will always be ready to wear and have the correct time waiting for you.

Automatic watches come in a wide variety of price ranges.  While many high end watches ($10,000 and up) are automatic, self-winding models, we have also seen budget self-winding watches priced at under $30.

That makes them affordable for just about everyone.

Automatic watches are convenient affordable and accurate.  Unfortunately, no one has yet to invent a self-winding mechanical clock.  For that, we’re just going to have to wait a bit longer.

Atomic Clocks the Ultimate in Accuracy

Mechanical clocks have been available for hundreds of years, and during this time, numerous improvements have been made in their accuracy.  Today, the best mechanical clocks and watches are usually accurate to within a minute or two per year, and for most people, that level of accuracy is more than sufficient.

For those who want more accurate timekeeping, there are, of course, clocks and watches with quartz movements.  These are electronic devices that are capable of keeping time within a couple of seconds per year, and they’re highly reliable.

Heathkit GC-1000 radio clock, 1983

Heathkit GC-1000 radio clock, 1983

They’re not as interesting to collectors as mechanical devices, but they are affordable and if you’re interested in fairly accurate time at a good price, then a quartz clock or watch would be a good choice.

For some people however, either by necessity or just out of interest, there are still more accurate clocks and watches available.  These are known as radio clocks.  They’re not clock radios, which are clocks that have AM/FM radios built in so you can listen to music or wake up to your favorite drive-time DJ.

Radio clocks are highly accurate timepieces that receive the correct time over radio waves that are transmitted by government installations that either have an atomic clock on hand or have ready access to one.

Atomic clocks are the most accurate timekeeping devices known; they base their timekeeping on the change of state within certain atoms.  The first such clock to demonstrate high accuracy was built in 1955 and used the cesium-133 atom as the basis.

The U.S. government and other governments worldwide have atomic clocks and radio networks that transmit the time from these clocks.  Radio clocks (and now, radio watches) receive a signal from such networks and use them to keep their own timekeeping accurate.  Most radio clocks also have built-in timekeeping mechanisms in order to keep fairly accurate time when access to the radio signal is not possible.

The first affordable commercial radio clock was the GC-1000, made by Heathkit.  It was sold in both kit form ($250) and factory assembled ($400) versions in the early 1980s.  While Heathkit has long since gone out of business, collectors are still interested in these clocks and they sell for a few hundred dollars when they come up for sale today, working or not.

Modern Casio radio watch

Modern Casio radio watch

Radio clocks are today rather inexpensive, and can be purchased for less than $20, though more expensive models are available.  Now, radio watches are also available, and they work on the same principle as the radio clocks.  There is a quartz timekeeping unit within the watch, but it also has a radio receiver which allows it to stay in contact with the much-more-accurate atomic clock.  When it detects a change in the time from the broadcast signal compared with its own time, it automatically changes the time on the watch.

While such watches might have seemed quite expensive at one time, they’re now relatively affordable.  We’ve seen models for sale for less than $100 and you can usually buy them at department stores and big box retailers.

You can spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on an accurate timepiece, but oddly enough, the most accurate timepieces available to consumers are astonishingly affordable.

Unusual Cartier Clocks For Auction

Most clocks are mass produced, and even many older models from 100 years or so ago were mass produced back in their day.  Many of those older clocks are still quite collectible today as time has rendered them rare, regardless of the actual production numbers at the time they were made.

cartier tripod clockOne of a kind, or extremely limited production items, however, tend to truly attract the attention of clock collectors, as you well might understand.  The fewer the numbers, the fewer the occasions on which such items may come up for sale.

That’s why a lot of clock collectors are interested in an upcoming sale by Christies, which includes a number of unusually rare and cleverly designed clocks that were created by jeweler Cartier in collaboration with clocksmiths.

The one that strikes our fancy is an unusual tripod clock.  There is little known about this particular item, other than the fact that it was likely made for an exhibition that took place around 1958.

What is known is this:

The clock is a polyhedral desk clock, signed “Cartier London.”  It was designed by “R. Emmerson” and was made in 1958.

This isn’t your ordinary desk clock, however.  This particular model is made from 18 karat gold, silver, and is set with diamonds.  The timepiece stands 10 inches tall, but don’t let the size fool you.  The expected price range for the auction is $80,000-$120,000.

Cartier Crash watch

Cartier Crash watch

Rupert Emmerson was the designer, and he reportedly made no more than two or three of these pieces.  Emmerson was a longtime designer for Cartier who did some key work for the company from the 1940s through the 1960s.  He also worked on the famous Cartier “Crash” watch, a piece that is highly reminiscent of Salvador Dali’s “Persistence of Memory,” which included a melting clock.

Other clocks to appear at the Christies auction are earlier pieces, several of which evoke a modern, Art Deco look.  We particularly like this silver, lead glass and Lapis Lazuli clock, which is expected to sell for a far more modest $6000 or so.

While the piece does look Art Deco and would appear to be from the 1930s, it was actually made in 1980 as part of a limited edition of 150 pieces.  It stands but 4 inches high and has a quartz movement.

It’s still a nice looking timepiece, though we’re quite taken with the tripod ourselves.  Unfortunately, it’s not only out of our price range, but it’s out of the price range of most everyone we know.