I was going to title this “Watch Idiot Savant,” but the problem is that I don’t really know enough to earn the “Savant” part of WIS, so Idiot Watch Dude it is.
I’ve got a new, dumb hobby: a serious interest in horology. Horology is one of those terms that sounds extremely pretentious and fancy, like caviar, boutiques, and Lamborghini, with its many syllables and very rare use in normal conversation. And yet, as silly as it sounds to say the word out loud, here I’m using it completely unironically, which further cements the notion that I’m in way too deep.
Falling down the rabbit hole
If you had told me two years ago that today I’d have two Miatas worth of watches in a small collection, I’d have said that you were out of your mind. How did this happen?
The origin of my new and expensive hobby started last year when I bought what I thought was a simple stopwatch.
At the beginning of 2018, I was deep in the preparation of my ’66 Ford Mustang for a long distance road rally called the Alcan 5000. A road rally that my friend Dmitriy convinced me to run, it’s a road rally for bikes and cars that begins in the Seattle, Washington area and runs up to Fairbanks, Alaska. Dmitriy would run the rally on a dual sport motorcycle in the bikes class. I would run the rally in one of the Vintage classes with my old Mustang, and convinced my friend Brandon to drive the rally with me.
As an entrant in the Vintage class, I was inspired to make my little Mustang look and feel as vintage rally-ish as I probably could. What I wanted bolted to the dashboard in front of the passenger seat was as close an approximation to the equipment that would have been used in rallies back in the 50’s and 60’s.
That was the idea. I originally thought that I could build up a setup that consisted of true vintage rally gear, but a quick look on eBay and online quickly punted that idea into the ditch — vintage rally equipment like vintage rally odometers and rally clocks were simply out of my budget. What I really wanted — a Halda Twinmaster (and its assorted spare gears with which you’d make your odometer calibrations), a pair of Heuer rally timepieces, and a mechanical “peppermill” Curta calculator — would cost the equivalent of another ’66 Mustang!
If I couldn’t pull off the dream rally navigator setup, then a vintage looking yet modern setup was my next best option. The easy button would be to install an Alfa Pro, but with its LED displays, its overall look screamed the 80’s and I didn’t want any of that inside of my 60’s “rally” car. Instead, I installed a Brantz Retrotrip 2 rally odometer, which sort of looks like an old classic rally odometer with its electrically-driven mechanical digit counters. I couldn’t find this unit in the United States, so I looked across the ocean and bought my unit from a retailer in Britain. Installed in the Mustang, it sure looks the piece, but unlike a purely mechanical driven odometer, it clicks as it toggles each digit — something that I thought for sure would be super annoying as you’d hear a loud click for every 1/100th of a mile that you’d be traveling. It wasn’t as annoying as I thought during the rally sections, thankfully.
In lieu of a Curta calculator, I bought a Stevens rally wheel, which is a circular slide rule used for the express purpose of calculating speeds and times with a correction factor. We ended up not using it during the Alcan. Go figure.
And finally, the last piece of the puzzle: the time pieces. As romantic as it would be to have a rally clock on the dashboard, I knew from the get-go that digital watches would be the best option, having had many brain farts in past rallies where I’ve misread an analog watch, resulting in penalties. I bought two Casio F-91W digital watches, one for me and one for Brandon, that would serve as our rally clocks.
I did, however, want a stopwatch for the dashboard. A Heuer dashboard stopwatch was out of the budget, but I could buy a regular stopwatch and mount that to the dashboard for much cheaper. The search was on for a suitable stopwatch.
And it was here that I started falling down the rabbit hole.
After doing some reading, I discovered that some stopwatches had the ability to measure split times, something that I thought would be very useful. Not all mechanical stopwatches had this ability, I learned, as it was — here comes a specific watch nerd term! — a complication. A split seconds, or double chronograph, or rattrapante, is a mechanism with two seconds hands, one that can be stopped while the other one keeps running, allowing for one to measure timing splits. Useful if, say, we managed to get lost and we needed to measure the amount of time that elapsed from realizing our mistake to getting back on course.
I found a rattrapante Heuer stopwatch in Argentina via eBay that looked to be in nice condition for a reasonable price, and bought it. At the same time, I bought a cheap dashboard stopwatch holder from XKs Unlimited.
Before mounting my stopwatch to the glove box door of the Mustang, I played around with it and marveled at how it worked. I popped open the back of the stopwatch and was taken aback by the intricate assembly of gears, springs, and levers.
As someone who grew up with quartz watches, it had never occurred to me to think about how one could measure time without the aid of batteries. Maybe, far into the future when most cars are powered by electric motors, some young punk will open up what he or she thinks is the “frunk” to discover that this weird classic car does not, in fact, have a front trunk storage spot like all of the other electric cars, but has a mass of steel and aluminum, using thousands of tiny controlled explosions to propel the car forward. This was that kind of moment for me, the realization that with a mechanical watch, what you really have is this tiny machine beating away on your wrist, parts moving many thousands of times an hour, and working so well that it’s able to measure time to within seconds over the course of a 24 hour day.
So with the same fascination as I’ve pursued 78 rpm records and ancient phonographs, the same vigor as when collecting and shooting my old film cameras, and the same obsession that cripples my finances and drives me to, well, drive and own a whole bunch of classic cars, here I am with watches.
There’s no way around it. Collecting watches can get really expensive, really fast. For the price of some modern or vintage timepieces, you can buy a used car.
So while I’m in pretty deep, there’s one barrier that I’m not willing to cross: if given the choice between buying a watch and buying a car, I’ll take a car any day of the week.
That necessarily caps the budget that I’m willing to spend on any single watch. I measure my opportunity costs when buying watches in terms of sets of tires for my Miata and, well, Miatas.
Any Rolex? Out of the picture, as nice as those watches are. Modern Omega watches, or any Speedmaster, is out of the question, though basic three hand vintage Omega watches can be found for pretty cheap, and may be an avenue to explore in the future. Esoteric or extremely specialized watches are also out, as wonderful as it would be to own a watch with a truly great complication.
Essentially, the cap I have on a single watch spend is about $1,000. Yes, still a lot of money, and buying four or five watches at $800-900 a piece is how I’ve ended up with two Miatas worth of watches, but I don’t have to worry about trying to store and insure a watch that costs more than my vintage Mustang, or baby a watch when I want to wear it out and about.
The other limit I set for myself is a physical one: I have a watch box with twelve slots, and I can’t have any more watches than can fit in that box. If the box is full and I want another watch, I have to make a “one in, one out” arrangement in the collection. This means that I’m now not only in the business of buying dumb watches, but also selling my dumb watches.
And like my classic car fleet in which I regularly rotate cars, I find myself regularly rotating watches. I now have a regular use case for my macro camera lens, and I’ve found that my external flashes have been used more frequently to shoot pictures of watches that I want to sell than the original intent of shooting more portraits.
I just bought a couple of watches over the holiday break, and so am in the process of selling a handful of watches. There’s quite a bit of churn in the collection, but I’m finding that I’m kind of enjoying the flurry of activity.
Remember how I mentioned above that what got me into this rabbit hole was the realization that mechanical watches are beautifully engineered little machines, totally unlike their quartz watch brethren?
One recent acquisition, which is decidedly not a fancy little mechanical machine: an early 1980’s digital Casio watch, marked on the case back with the model number B814 and utilizing the 122 module. I actually bought this watch on eBay and had it shipped over to me from Thailand!
It’s in great condition, and what drew me to this watch was the fact that 1) it was one of the earliest digital watches that Casio made, and 2) the watch case is actually metal, not plastic like nearly all modern digital Casio watches these days.
And as a further testament to my dumbness, I’ve removed the (excellent condition!) jangly steel bracelet and put on a thin, pebbled leather watch strap. I think it looks excellent.
So while it was mechanical watches that got me started down this rabbit hole, I’ve expanded to the other corners of horology, and my watch box is a virtual kaleidoscope of timepieces. In addition to my few quartz pieces, I have one of my favorite watches, a tuning fork watch from Bulova that looks super cool and super 70’s. The Bulova was the first vintage timepiece that made it into the collection, and it remains one of my favorite watches. I love that the watch sings when you hold it up to your ear. A battery inside the watch drives a pair of tuning forks, the movement of which drives the hands through a mechanical gear train that it also fascinating in its own right; the vibration of the tuning forks has the side effect of making a light tinging sound, similar to what would happen if you took a regular tuning fork and struck it to get note.
Then there are the mechanical pieces, which make up the majority of the collection. The most challenging think to collect with my self-imposed restrictions is chronograph watches. Chronograph watches have always been connected with motor racing, despite the fact that there’s nearly no need to read a watch or time oneself while deep in the middle of a race. But look at old pictures of famous race car drivers, and you’ll typically see chronograph watches, with some of the hottest vintage watches being chronographs with serious ownership pedigree. (See, for example, Paul Newman’s Rolex Daytona, which sold for an amazing $17.75 million.)
Thing is, chronographs are difficult watch complications to make. Furthermore, because they are difficult to make, chronograph watches are much more uncommon than most other types of watches. Their rarity makes it impossible for me to afford something like an Omega Speedmaster or a Heuer Autavia. That’s used NC Miata money we’re talking about.
So my collection is mostly cheaper chronograph watches from brands that have little modern-day brand cachet. Just in last week, in fact, is a new addition to my collection of chronographs: a 1960’s Waltham three register chronograph, with a Valjoux 7736 cased inside a bulky, slab-sided case. It’s a very clean reverse panda dial, and the case is nearly perfect.
As of right now, my watch box is full, so if there’s anything else that tickles my fancy, I’m going to have to sell one of the watches in the box. I currently already have two watches that need to go to new homes — if anyone wants a blue dial Zodiac Grandrally quartz chrono or a JDM Seiko blue panda quartz chrono with the 7T92 movement, let me know! — so I’m a bit behind on trimming the collection, so hopefully, I won’t (impulse) buy any more watches until I’ve recouped some funds.
It’ll be interesting to see if this is an interest of mine that has staying power, or if it dies down in a year or two…