Many people see watches as a tool to tell the time, and they do not pay much interest to how it works, considering how much time a watch spends on one’s wrist. In addition, the advent of smart devices where a watch no longer just tells the time has made the traditional timepiece appear obselete. However, I am of a different opinion.
Timekeeping is not just about the end result of knowing what the time is – it is also the journey of how the precision and accuracy came about. One can draw similarities between a mechanical watch and a Goldberg machine for example – both employ convoluted steps to put simple actions in motion. However, while many people understand the premise of a Goldberg machine, they do not feel the same about a mechanical timepiece. But for those who understand watches, they buy into the watchmaking journey, craftsmanship and tradition. People who do not appreciate this generally ask why luxury watches cost so much more than a simple quartz watch.
I started an interest for watches in general back in 2009, when I was given a mechanical watch by my father. He did not use the watch much, and decided that it would be better off if I used it. The watch was an old Solvil et Titus which is currently out of production, and what made it stand out was the use of retrograde seconds, which indicated a full minute in 20 second sub-dials. As a teenager, it was really enjoyable watching the hands fly back every 20 seconds and passing the timekeeping baton, so to speak, to the next sector on the dial.
A Living Watch
The watch was an automatic watch, and back then I considered it a curiousity that something would work just by the natural motions of my hand. Back then, the Tamagotchi toy was all the rage, and having such a “pet” was considered essential to teenage life. However, I drew many parallels between the Tamagotchi toy and watches – the Titus I had was alive in a way, as I could hear the ticking of the pallet fork against the escapement wheel, and it was akin to hearing a heartbeat. Through the caseback, I could also see the hairspring contracting and expanding, and this gave me the visual impression of a heart beating.
I daresay I was distracted aplenty during the classes I had at that time by the watch, just looking at it, as I marveled at how the retrograde seconds worked, and came up with many ideas in my head as to how that was possible, since I could not open the watch to study its inner workings.
And also the similarity between a real, living being and a watch is that I needed to give the watch attention by wearing it daily on my wrist and not forgetting to wear it to school, since there was a small power reserve. If I had left it idle and ignored for too long, the watch would stop and I would have to readjust the time. These were the similarities I noticed between watches and the Tamagotchi. However, what I thought that made it different from the toy was the way I saw a watch last through time. Unlike the ephemeral Tamagotchi, of which I had seen two separate generations come and go, the watches seemed to be timeless. Also, after seeing many items being made obsolete or spoilt by batteries and battery leakages, I came to the conclusion that the watch I had, which did not need a battery, could last forever. In addition, this observation also placed me on the path to collecting only mechanical watches and not quartz, out of preference. Of course, I now know that mechanical watches do need maintenance, but back then, such a conclusion was amazing in my eyes.
Over the years, I saved up to collect other pieces too, and took an interest to the independent brands because I appreciated their creativity. I became particularly interested in brands like MB&F, De Bethune, Cabestan and the like after seeing the acquisitions of various prominent watch collectors in Singapore as I particularly liked their outlandish designs and custom made movements, and of their philosophy that their pieces were more mechanical sculptures than timekeeping devices. Legibility became less important for me, but I appreciated watches that told the time in less conventional ways.
Moving on many years later, it was time for me to apply for a university programme. There were only so many choices that stood out to me as I was influenced by the art of fine watchmaking – I settled for Dentistry.
A big reason why I chose to study Dentistry was the parallels I saw between watchmaking and dentistry – fine work, aesthetics, precision engineering and ergonomics. In Dentistry, a lot of fine work is needed as the area of operation is usually measured in millimeters, just like in a movement of a watch. The final outcome of any dental procedure also places importance in the aesthetics, so finishing and polishing a dental crown is just as important as making sure it fits well – which also is true in fine watchmaking. Precision engineering also comes about with parts that have to be cast in metal, where the expansion and contraction of metals must fit closely to actual tooth structure – too large and it will be too loose, too small and it won’t fit. Ergonomics of how a watch is worn on the wrist also translates to Dentistry, and can be seen clearly in the fitting of a denture – how a denture fits natural contours in the mouth, and hugs to biological structures so one cannot feel the presence of a denture as much as possible, something a watchmaker also tries to achieve with curved lugs or in the case of De Bethune, where they are known for their spring loaded lugs. I am very lucky to be able to spend so much time on things that I enjoy.
Years ago, the author William Gibson described his fascination with mechanical watches (as opposed to quartz) as The Tamagotchi Effect. He, as I do, loves having to interact with his watch a little bit every few days. There is something special in those brief moments.