Of vintage watches and custom made watch straps.

Of vintage watches and custom made watch straps.

My father was a young man during that era made famous by Mad Men.   Although a Western educated bourgeoisie, he gave Mao a chance but in the end fled metropolitan Shanghai for metropolitan Hong Kong, then a British colony.  Leaving with nothing, shortly after his first steps into the West he bought himself some hand tailored suits, a car and a wrist watch.  Apparently the weather in HK is too hot and humid for fedoras.

That was the expected behavior of men of a certain background.  The onset of the ’70s in Canada brought a more relaxed attitude but I still observed him wearing a watch everyday, even when the ability to know the exact time became increasingly prevalent with PDAs and mobile phones.  Today, there is a renewed fascination for the complexity and artistry in a purely mechanical watch movement and as traditional watchmakers move upmarket, watch wearing has become male jewelry and a badge of one’s financial success.   I began wearing my Dad’s 1961 Omega Seamaster  to honor his memory and discovered the world of vintage watches wearers, where the appeal of wearing an old watch is the celebration of a story rather than a strutting of the feathers.

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Observe the Omega symbol etched in the center of the crystal!

People don’t appreciate the historic importance of accurate time keeping.  While watch making is a business, it’s one with a serious engineering endeavor.   In order to navigate the oceans and make landfall, a portable clock able to keep accurate time and survive the harsh environment at sea had to be made.  The advances of 20th century science could not have been realized without experiments conducted with accurate time keeping.   And it was a failed mission timer on the Apollo 11 lunar lander that prompted Neil Armstrong to leave his Omega Speedmaster in cabin before going out for his historic lunar walk.  The same mission timer used to time critical events like engine burn duration.  The stock Omega Speedmaster was the only watch able to survive NASA’s grueling test conditions and become the only NASA flight certified timepiece to this day.¹

But none of this figured in my Dad’s decision to buy and wear this particular watch, he just needed something reliable to tell time.  I will unfortunately never know the full story behind his choices.   But after three years of daily wear, I decided to retire the Seamaster  in order to pass it along to my son one day.   I needed a watch with my story.

The Omega Genève line was reallocated in 1968 to become the affordable entry models of Omega watches despite still incorporating some of the more expensive movements.   Also referred to as the “International Line” some models were made just for the Canadian market and sold through outlets like Birks, Simpsons and Eatons for between $90 and $145.²   The Grand Sport Racing is a very rare model and premiered in 1968, possibly to commemorate the first time the Canadian Gran Prix had run at Mount Tremblant.  The Canadian Gran Prix remained the only consistent North American stop made by the Formula One series alternating between Mosport and Mount Tremblant to finally settle in Montreal’s Ile Notre Dame.   The watch appears to have also been made through to 1970 and may represent the very first watch tie in with F1 foreshadowing the modern relationship that all watch makers have today with F1 and their drivers.   The checkered flag dial motif was revisited years later with the special Michael Schumacher Speedmaster Racing edition (shown below) in 1996.

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I found a few examples online for sale or sold with pricing between 1500 – 2000 euros.  There was one unusual exception, a 2016 Christie’s auction with a 1970 example that sold for over 7000 euros!

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Most examples found have the case reference 131.019 with the 601 caliber movement and are manual wound.  My version is dated 1968 and Automatic appears under the Omega name on the dial and it has the case reference 165.0041 and the better 552 caliber automatic movement found in my Seamaster.

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This is a vintage watch that spoke volumes to me and satisfied so many of my criteria.  Canadian, motorsports, an everyday man’s watch yet now exclusively uncommon.  The watch came with a 1970s vintage Jasler aftermarket rally style metal bracelet with a convincing looking Omega clasp.  The holes mimic the practice of lightening automotive components for competition by drilling out metal, as well as providing ventilation to evaporate perspiration.

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The band was a little tight but I had no hope of ever finding another vintage Jasler bracelet in order to cannibalize one of its links.  It turns out you can purchase universal link extensions in varying size widths to extend the clasp reach and as you can see below the addition is almost seamless and undetected.

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I wanted to recreate the original 1968 appearance of the watch which came with a black and white checkered leather strap.

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And for $40 USD you can have any custom design printed on a faux leather strap designed to fit the Apple Watch.  With some minor alterations it can be made to fit the Omega although I won’t be wearing it this way anytime soon!

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I didn’t mind the appearance of the nonstandard metal bracelet but it did seem to stick to my skin quite often and this experiment with the Apple Watch strap set me on a course to experience the world of custom, bespoke, hand made leather watch straps.

Readers of my blog will know that I’m a health care provider who is also a professional sports photographer and writer.  I wanted to design a custom leather strap with a personal motorsports theme and chose colors that reflected this.  However this required that one strap be of one color and the other strap be of a differing color, an option that none of the companies’ website supported.   When I attempted to contact Camille Fournet Paris, ABP Concept, and Bespoke Straps – I received no response.

Despite the time difference in Romania, George of Genteel Handmade responded almost immediately and was happy to accommodate my extra request for a slight surcharge at 130 euros each.   He offered several styles and unable to decide I ordered both the racing and padded strap.  He was also kind enough to provide me with some images of the fabrication process which took about 3 weeks.

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I found that I preferred the racing style, the band is more flexible and I like the multiple holes.  And why did I choose such an unorthodox color scheme?

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The iconic 1991 Le Mans winner, Mazda 787B racer with livery designed by Japanese textiles and clothing manufacturer Renown and illustrated by me.   Well dressed models by Hergé.

Richard of Toshi Straps in the UK was also receptive to my changes and did not charge me anything extra, just the standard 85 pound price which is a hell of a deal compared to Omega OEM bands.  The colors are vibrant and accurately portrayed on his website and even the standard buckle is of exceptional quality.  Turnaround was about 5 weeks.

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¹  Omega scored another marketing coup in 1995 when they arranged for James Bond to begin wearing a Seamaster.  Sales jump from 4500 units in 1992-1995 to 50,000 units in 1995-1998.

²  For non Canadian readers the Simpsons Department stores were acquired by the famous Hudson’s Bay Company and the Eatons Department stores declared bankruptcy and were picked up by Sears.  Happily, Birks Jewelers continue to this day.

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