Like my two recent entries regarding music (but with a photographic tie in), this will be my last discussion on vintage watches. I did not think I would find the world of vintage watches interesting because save for a very few, it is a passive hobby typically involving the gradual acquisition of certain watches with which to build a personalized collection. I already know too many people who buy limited edition Leica cameras or high end telescopes that they occasionally remove out of their original boxes to admire and fondle. At least with a watch, even the most untalented owner can still wear it to keep time so it fulfills its existential premise. But it’s the stories that go with some of the most coveted watch models that make investigating this world worthwhile. I’ll keep it relevant to m43 by showcasing the watches with some innovative m43 images.
In Part 1 (https://jimchungblog.com/2019/05/29/of-vintage-watches-and-custom-made-watch-straps/) I described my journey of wearing my father’s Omega Seamaster daily for several years before retiring it to pass onto my son and then finding a watch more attuned to my own story. I had made some extra money shooting motorsports and decided to buy an unusual Driver centric watch, the 1968 Omega Chronostop Driving Watch. It’s an oddball watch that was Omega’s attempt to penetrate a new more youthful market but was not a commercial success. The face dial was rotated clockwise 90 degrees and the watch was worn under the wrist so that it’s face was visible even when your hands are positioned on a steering wheel.
It had the essentially the same Lemania based movement as the legendary Omega Speedmaster but stripped of the minute and 12 hour subdials and actually operated at the faster and more accurate 21,600 beats per hour. The watch can only time events under a minute which is not very common in motorsports but quite common in the health professions. It also only has one pusher control which not only starts the second counter, but stops it on the second press and on release causes the second hand to rapidly spring back to 12. The original debuted in 1966 with the Omega Calibre 865 and won an award in the “Sport Chronographs and Watches” category in a contest organized by the Swiss Watch Federation at Expo ’67 – the World’s Fair in Montreal that also celebrated the centenary anniversary of Canada. In 1968 they introduced Calibre 920 with the date function which also became the official timer for the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City.
With the city experiencing a lock down due to the Covid-19 pandemic, I didn’t want to stray too far from home or spend too much time in public, hence the mismatched scale when my original intent was to superimpose the Omega Chronostop for the clock tower face.
As a child of the 1970s and 1980s, I embraced the digital revolution and never looked back. On a family trip to Hong Kong in the summer of 1980, my parents gifted me with the then astounding Seiko C359-5000 digital calculator watch. To the average consumer, it was a shocking revelation that a calculator could be miniaturized to fit inside a wrist watch. This was actually Seiko’s second calculator watch, the first premiered in 1978 but several months after rival Citizen had beaten them to market. By the mid 1980s cheap calculator watches could be purchased in dollar stores but the Seiko is a quality product. I had not worn it for three decades and it stills functions perfectly with a new battery.
People generally assume the Japanese invented the digital calculator watch, but the United States would continue to enjoy a preeminent innovation advantage spun off from its space program for many decades. Pulsar pioneered its red LED digital watch in 1970 and then a calculator watch in 1975. The first models were made in 18k gold and sold at Tiffany and Co. during the Christmas season for $4000 USD – the first hundred sold in one day. Later a stainless steel version was available for $550.
Seiko and especially Citizen dominated the modern quartz watch movement and in 1981 Japan surpassed Switzerland in world watch production. A quartz movement uses a battery to energize a quartz crystal to produce oscillations some 100x faster than a mechanical movement giving them greater accuracy and simplifying fabrication. A quartz watch might gain or lose a few seconds over a week while a mechanical watch might gain or lose almost a minute in that period. The Swiss wisely regrouped and dominated the luxury watch market where the craftsmanship and complexity of a purely mechanical movement is its selling point.
Once again, although Seiko introduced the first quartz watch in 1969, it was the famed US company Bulova that introduced the first electronic watch in 1960. The Bulova Accutron used twin electromagnetic coils in a one transistor oscillation circuit to make a Y shaped piece of nickel alloy vibrate. Citizen introduced the current Eco-Drive line of watches in 1995 that are powered by solar energy and do not need a battery and in 2008 bought Bulova to become the world’s largest watchmaker.
Modern Citizen watches are made in a profusion of styles and are affordably priced. You might even consider them disposable but fashionable time pieces worn in a period of history where keeping track of time is no longer difficult. Which explains how I managed to purchase a used Citizen Quartz Chronograph just a few years old for $20 USD on eBay.
At the same time both Seiko and Citizen continue to manufacture high end quartz watches and in 2019 Citizen introduced the Calibre 0100, a watch that will gain or lose only one second …. per year. Priced at $17,000.
I was not fully aware of the rich and long Japanese heritage of watch making. Both Seiko and Citizen made very expensive and accurate mechanical watches through the 1960s and continued to introduce new mechanical movements into the mid 1970s that outperformed contemporary Swiss movements. But the world of collector vintage watches is like that of collector vintage automobiles – even the most iconic Japanese cars indisputably as well engineered and built as Europeans models, fetch only one tenth the price at auction.
I was thinking of trading in the Omega Chronostop (they made 61,000 of them in just two years of the model) for a less common Chronostop model with a 30 minute and 1 minute subdials, otherwise known as the Seamaster Bullhead diving watch. But the few on eBay are still beyond my monetary reach. What was unanticipated was the number of vintage Citizen Bullhead time pieces that were also returned from the eBay search.
And herein is another facet of vintage collector watches – the celebrity endorsement.
Turns out, sharp eyed movie goers noticed that none other than Brad Pitt wore a gold colored 1974 Citizen Bullhead in his Oscar winning supporting role in last year’s Quentin Tarantino film Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood. Suddenly everybody was unloading a Citizen Bullhead for good prices but in the chaos many watches are not legitimate originals but feature counterfeit dial faces and hands in nonoriginal colors to improve their physical attractiveness given nearly fifty years of use. This phenomenon permeates European made watches as well and can often be difficult even for the factory to determine authenticity.
But the celebrity endorsement is a powerful thing. Actor and professional race car driver Paul Newman had his personal 1968 Rolex Daytona watch sell for $15.5 million at auction a few years ago. The watch was a gift from his wife and he in turn gifted it to his daughter’s boyfriend in 1984. The same former boyfriend promises to donate a significant part of the windfall to the Newman Foundation.
Similarly, the “king of cool” Steve McQueen also set the watch world ablaze when he arbitrarily chose the Heuer Monaco 1133B to wear in his iconic 1970 film Le Mans. He needed a watch that a professional race car driver would conceivably wear and this model was revolutionary for its time, being the first automatic (self wound) chronograph encased in a water resistant square body. The watch was not very popular when introduced in 1969 but after the movie premiere, the McQueen endorsement allowed TAG Heuer to continue to manufacture the line to the present day, so high is the demand. The modern reissue of the watch was given significant screen time in Season 5 of Breaking Bad to give relevance to younger readers. Jessie Pinkman offers it as a 51st birthday present to Walter White, the show’s anti protagonist.
The more research I performed on the movement found in the Citizen Bullhead, the 8110A, the more impressed I became. But Bullhead fever had worn off. I was after an even more uncommon 8110A watch – the Citizen Monaco 67-9071.
Interestingly, only German period advertising of this watch survives digitally.
Both the Citizen and the Omega are known as chronographs, meaning a watch with the added complication of also having a stopwatch feature. The Citizen has the newer and more feature laden movement. Flyback means the stopwatch can be reset while running or “on the fly” instead of having to stop it first. Each gear or pivot point in a movement needs to be held in a zero friction non wearing setting and the only materials hard enough are diamonds, sapphires and rubies (the jewel count). In spite of the jewels, the movement still needs to be lubricated. This requires that mechanical watches be periodically serviced to restore lost lubrication as solvents in the natural oils evaporate over time. The use of modern synthetic lubricants allows longer operating periods between services – just like in a car. A higher beat means a higher accuracy of time keeping. But because of the endorsement of the US Apollo/Moon Program, the Omega Speedmaster Professional now referred to as the “Moonwatch” and brought back to current production fetches a price 20X that of the likely numerically more rare Citizen Monaco.
As alluded to earlier, vintage watches are sometimes in such a worn state that counterfeit dials and mismatched hands are used to assemble an attractive appearing and functional watch that is sold unscrupulously without disclosing that it is no longer original. These watches of course have reduced value.
It is possible to conduct some professional tests on the health of your movement without having to know anything about watchmaking or even opening up your watch case. Professional watchmakers have a piece of equipment called a timegrapher that analyses the sounds generated from the movement and can assist in properly calibrating it. You can also download a shareware application available on many operating systems called TG Timegrapher that can perform a similar function. Instead of a normal microphone which is sensitive to interfering ambient sound, I used a pizeoelectric guitar pickup microphone and a small preamp to boost the signal.
I have not worn the Seamaster for a couple of years and not serviced it for maybe five years so it may need relubrication. Obviously the Monaco needs to go in for servicing, likely it has been ignored for some time despite its good physical condition.
In closing, vintage watches appeared during an era when it was fashionable to have thin, elegant straps – think about the evolution of men’s tie widths as well. Modern watches tend to have wider straps so it can be difficult to find modern styles that will fit vintage watches. The Citizen Monaco comes with 18mm lugs but I had a NATO style strap that was available only in 20mm widths. Turns out you can buy adaptors that will allow you to use wider straps.
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