Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Beefy Bond is Here! Sapphire Insert Sneak Preview

Introducing the new "Beefy" Real Bond Watchstrap!

Thank you to all our customers who have made the Real Bond NATO and RAF watchstraps a success! Our first mill run of 500 yards of webbing has sold out, and our second mill run of Real Bond webbing is completed and available now in the following sizes: NATO 18mm, 20mm & 22mm; RAF 18mm & 20mm. (22mm RAF is still in stock in the old softer fabric).

The new webbing is fantastic! Still made in the same Scottish mill on vintage looms, we told them to make it tougher. The result is a very tough and beefy fabric, but still very comfortable. It is the toughest, tightest weave of any NATO style watchstrap webbing that we have ever seen.

Still the same price and free worldwide shipping. We know you will love it.

NEW! Phoenix Straps Ltd. NATO watchstraps in SOLID GREY AND SOLID BLACK colors.

We are very pleased to be able to expand our offerings of watchstraps to include Solid "Admiralty Grey" NATO straps in 18mm and 20mm, as well as Solid Black NATOs in 20mm. These are made by the same UK manufacturer as our Bond straps, Phoenix. The fabric is made in a different mill than our Bond straps, but also in the UK. These are the real G10 NATO style straps, exactly as issued to the British Army and Royal Navy. These are the straps that Phoenix sells to the British government. All other so-called NATO g10 straps are copies. Only Phoenix straps are the genuine issued straps.

Finally! The Bradley Dive Watch Sapphire Bezel Inserts Are Almost Ready.

After six months of waiting, we now have the prototype sapphire bezel insert in our hands! WOW, it was definitely worth the wait. They are just gorgeous, and the radius on the top of the insert looks fantastic. On the watch, the sapphire looks perfect, just the look and feel that we wanted. More details and photos to come.

Complete bezel assemblies with the new sapphire insert will be offered to existing Bradley Dive Watch buyers at our cost, $175. They are easy to switch. Also, once these are available, the Bradley will come with a choice of acrylic or sapphire inserts. The sapphire versions will be offered at an introductory price of $1,450.00 for the first 30 days only. Afterward, the price will increase. We will, however, keep the price of the acrylic insert version the same for the foreseeable future. Watch for another email announcement when these go on sale.

Our New Catalog is Now Available!

Our new Fall 2009 Corvus catalog is now available. We will be including a copy in each watchstrap order while they last. If you would like one sent to you, please send us an email at: ( )
They have lots of information about the Bradley Dive Watch and many great photos of the watch!

Look For Our New Ad and Bradley Review in WatchTime Magazine!

Our second advertisement in WatchTime magazine just hit the newsstands in the November/December issue. Our Bradley Dive Watch is also featured in a special Sports Watch section. Pick up a copy!

Monday, October 26, 2009

The Blurry Line Between Real and Fake

Here is an interesting and rather disturbing article about the Chinese watch industry. It appears that no product is immune from knock-offs. Most disturbing is the description of working conditions:

Conditions range from Dickensian workhouse – the sweltering plating room which reeks of chemical fumes with teen-age employees incurring long-term brain damage – “No OSHA in China,” cracks my translator....

We Americans in particular are addicted to cheap Chinese goods, watches included. It is getting to the point where it is almost impossible to know where a wristwatch component is made. Certainly many watch companies, especially small boutique companies that aspire to the "low-luxury" market, rely on Chinese components to hit their price points. I'm annoyed with companies that won't comment on where their components are made. These Swiss/Chinese products should be clearly labelled as such (in the UK new consumer protection laws will eventually demand this). But that would shatter our happy illusion that a fine "Swiss" mechanical watch can cost $600.

China’s Blurry Line Between Fake and Real
(from China Sentinel)

Written by Justin Mitchell
Monday, 28 May 2007

Inside a counterfeit factory in Shenzhen, the reality of China’s massive knock-off goods trade is on display, one watch at a time.
Here in Wong Tinghua’s bustling counterfeit watch factory in Shenzhen, the niceties of copyright are not an issue. Wong, 35, used to manufacture legitimate time pieces in the northeast Chinese city of Dandong, bordering North Korea on the Yalu River in Liaoning Province. Now he specializes in watches on demand. You want Disney? He’s got Disney. Hello Kitty and Doraemon, too, as well as more upscale European and American brands and Chinese counterfeits, if the Beijing Olympics grab you.

Shenzhen’s lure as a get-rich-quick zone as well as competition from North Koreans counterfeiting Chinese watches eventually drove Wong south three years ago where he’s now the number two man in a non-descript third floor “Arts Manufacture” watch factory squatting in the middle of one of Shenzhen’s less-developed, yet thriving district neighborhoods.

Inside the factory a time clock has roughly 30 cards for employees working 7.30pm-6pm six days a week, though Wong claims his total staff is about 100. He says can make up to 10,000 watches a month and brings out three catalogues featuring a staggering selection of phony designer faces ranging from Rolex, Seiko, Omega, Fossil and Tag Heuer to Russian President Vladimir Putin astride a white steed, BMW, Bacardi, Dunhill, the Lone Ranger, US flag, Thomas the Tank Engine and the Beijing Olympics characters.

Conditions range from Dickensian workhouse – the sweltering plating room which reeks of chemical fumes with teen-age employees incurring long-term brain damage – “No OSHA in China,” cracks my translator to near-luxury as in Wong’s office which features an aquarium, large mahogany desk and chairs, though no lights and only air conditioning-on-demand as the Sunday afternoon sun begins to set.

Wong, who sports a flawless looking sleek, black, fake Hugo Boss time piece, gets his company’s watch guts shipped from Dandong and he fills orders from anywhere he can, mostly Hong Kong and Russia. The main distributor is in Guangzhou.

Wong is just one of presumably thousands of pirate entrepreneurs in Shenzhen and throughout China.
Awhile before the visit to Wong, on April 26, it was World Intellectual Property Day in Shenzhen and the city eagerly joined in public exhibitions to destroy pirated DVDs and demonstrate their commitment to ensuring that Disney, Sony, Microsoft, Rolex, Paramount, Playboy, the Charles Schulz estate, Adidas, Burberry, Louis Vuitton, and the 2008 Beijing Olympics, et al are not be ripped off. It’s difficult to assess the damage, but U.S. officials say pirates cost legitimate producers worldwide up to $50 billion a year in lost potential sales.

It hurts Chinese manufacturers also. Recently reported domestic piracy cases included nearly half a million US dollars worth of bootleg Wuliangye, a popular Chinese liquor, as well as counterfeited Chinese cigarettes and phony Li Ning sport clothes and shoes. Li Ning has aspirations to challenge Adidas, Puma and Nike.
I celebrated the day with a visit to the Lohou Commercial Center, one of Shenzhen’s top tourist sites due to its enormous selection of mostly high quality, low priced pirated goods. I was buying red embroidered Chinese slippers as a gift for my sister, but I easily could have scored some bogus Prada, Gucci, Pedro Garcia, or Skechers footwear as well as a flawless and unauthorized Godfather Trilogy DVD for her husband and a quickie copy of Spiderman 3 (with or without Russian dubbing) for her son.

If the Shenzhen Municipal Intellectual Property Bureau truly wanted to make a public display of its commitment to IPR it would condemn and raze the Lohou Commercial Center and then go after the myriad manufacturers, like Wong, but in doing so it would also be severing a major financial and social artery.
The system is so entrenched, says Dutch native Danny Friedmann, a Cantonese speaking resident who has studied the China IP issue for two years, the local courts are practically useless. He adds, however, that courts in big cities can be useful. "That is why forum shopping is important for lawyers. It is hard but you can enforce your intellectual property rights in China, at least in the big cities.

“It’s a combination of corruption, local protectionism and lack of enforcement,” Friedmann adds. “If an IP infringement dispute goes to court some local Chinese courts are inclined to rule in favor of local companies even though they clearly infringe on intellectual property rights. The reason is that the local judge is appointed by the local party official and financed by the local government, which in turn is dependent on the tax revenues and management fees paid by the local businesses.
“And the company's employer or employees are often friends and relatives of the local party or government. So it’s not in the interest of the local government for an infringing company to go out of business because this will lead to unemployment and even possibly to ‘social unrest.’ And it is possible that the infringing company is a state owned company, with direct connections to the local government. Another problem is that local courts oftentimes are not willing to enforce judgments rendered by courts elsewhere in China against local defendants.”

Friedmann says that even if a company does succeed in gaining a judgment in its favor, China’s IPR laws do not guarantee the plaintiff can recover any damages if the defendant’s ill-gotten gains are not readily located or have wound up in the wrong hands.
The problem can be seen in a 2005 Shenzhen People’s Court case that didn’t involve piracy but corruption. The defendant, a 31-year old buyer for Wal-Mart named Li, was convicted of taking more than $4 million yuan in bribes for rigging bids for Wal-Mart suppliers.

He’s currently serving a year in a Shenzhen jail but, according to a former Wal-Mart co-worker of Li’s who spoke to Asia Sentinel on the guarantee of anonymity, Li says he bribed the judge 800,000 yuan in exchange for a lenient sentence and plans to collect about 3.2 million yuan of stashed bribe money upon his release. Reportedly his one regret is that a house, two automobiles and a mistress he also accrued will not be available. The house and automobiles were seized and destroyed as part of an official Shenzhen campaign against corruption. No word on the mistress.

And the judge? He’s Pei Hongguan, one of five senior judges – including Pei’s ex-wife – from Shenzhen’s Intermediate People’s Court who were arrested in 2006 on corruption charges. Three were sentenced to jail terms ranging from four to 11 years with two others, including Pei, reportedly still awaiting trial.
Meanwhile inside the Cititzens Center, the Shenzhen Municipal Intellectual Property Bureau was following-up the DVD and software destruction blitz with a five-day exhibition highlighting the protection of Shenzhen's intellectual property rights over the past three years.
It includes a mass photo of 1,000 artists painting “original” works in the Dafen Oil Painting Village in 2004. Yet another small irony, in that Dafen’s appeal for tourists are its copy-cat renderings of copyright-free Old Masters as well as more current and protected creators such as Warhol, Picasso and Dali.

The Shenzhen effort as well as a national one the Xinhua News Agency claimed that “workers across the country set fire to 30 million pieces of smuggled and pirated audio and video materials, software and 11 million copies of pirated and illegally published books and magazines” followed complaints by US Trade Representative Susan Schwab at the World Trade Organization against China over piracy and restrictions on the sale of US movies, music and books. Vice-Premier Wu Yi, China’s top envoy on trade talks with the US, has since vowed Beijing will "fight to the finish" against piracy.
Meanwhile, Wong continues well below the radar grinding out his watches, though he is proud to say he also makes “real” goods as his business straddles a line between legitimate and counterfeit. He shows off a customized, hefty stainless steel Chinese People’s Army watch with English lettering that he says was commissioned by an army unit in Inner Mongolia, wholesale price 80 yuan. Then he leaves the office to return with colorful sport watches that double as MP3 players priced at about 200 yuan.

Impressive, I think. This is original. Later research on Google uncovers the fact that in 2002 the MP3 watch fad flared briefly with 12-year-olds in American suburbs, was then strangled in its crib only to be briefly revived in 2005, snuffed once again and has yet to catch on, including in China, Russia or Hong Kong.

Yet Wong, perhaps sensing that we aren’t as hip to watch marketing has we’d pretended to be, has hope. As we leave he mentions that he can also whip up MP4 watches and if that’s not enough he can drop the MP3 price by 30-40 yuan for a “large order.”

Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Care and Feeding of the Real Bond NATO

Well, it's been six months since we introduced this watchstrap, and we have almost sold out of the first mill run of webbing.

I thought it would be a good time to give some tips on keeping the straps looking their best. No NATO-style strap last forever, but there are some tricks to keeping them looking top notch.

As you all know, the Corvus Real Bond straps are made from an unusually soft and silky material. This provides for exceptional comfort, but there is a trade-off. Fraying can occur, especially around the buckle hole. This happens with all NATO-style straps, but can happen a little quicker with our very soft material.
(NOTE: We are resupplying from a new mill run of webbing. It should be ready in 2-3 weeks. The new stuff will be thicker and more durable, but a little stiffer. I have mixed feelings about this, but I think most people will like the new beefier webbing very much. Still, I will miss the silky soft stuff.)

Tip 1: The washing machine is your friend.

It's always a good idea to keep your strap clean, especially in the summertime. The easiest and best way is to just throw it in the washer. Afterward, I like to then throw it in the dryer with my regular laundry. This tightens up the weave considerably and reduces the appearance of wear.

Tip 2: Fire is good.

Like most NATO straps, the Real Bond straps are made of nylon. Nylon melts at a fairly low temperature. This is why the RAF style straps were made straight without the second strap, because they were made to fit through a non-flammable leather pad. Flammable things next to your skin are not good for burning jet fuel.

This characteristic does, however, allow for the nylon webbing to be heat welded (basically melting two parts together) and for the holes to be cut with hot pins that basically melt a hole in the webbing.

When you experience the inevitable fraying around your favorite buckle hole, apply a lighter or match to the flayed part. About 1-2 seconds is plenty. The fraying will melt off and the hole will become re-cauterized, looking almost like new. This works for any part of the strap that shows fine exposed threads, just take it easy. A few short (1 second) applications of the fire are better than one long one.

Friday, August 21, 2009

The Waters of Segregation

A few weeks ago I took my equipment out for a shake-down dive. The location was the beautiful small (80 acre) Idlewild Lake in northwestern Michigan. The dive was fun but more interesting that the lake itself is the history of the area, known simply as "Idlewild." Idlewild was one of the few segregated resort lake communities where African-Americans were allowed to own vacation homes. It was a vibrant community from the 1920's to the 1960's. After the end of segregation, it began a slow decline to what it is now: a fascinating, but run-down shadow of its former self.

Idlewild is located a few miles east of Baldwin, Michigan in Lake County. Today, Lake County has the highest unemployment rate in Michigan. It is about 200 miles north of the southern border or Michigan, and is pretty remote. However, in the 1920's it was just a day's train ride from Chicago to the station in Baldwin.

The development was started in 1912, when several white investors bought up a 2,700 acre wooded tract and subdivided it into thousands of tiny house lots (100ft x 25 ft. selling for $35) on a grid of dirt roads, including a relatively small number of premium lake-front lots. The idea was to sell the lots to "land hungry blacks." Their plan was wildly successful. By 1927 16,895 lots had been sold to over 6,000 black Americans from around the country, mostly from Chicago and Detroit, but also as far away as Hawaii. There soon was a common swimming area, 15 motels and several large nightclubs, including one on the lake.

The visitors and owners are a who's who of African American history. W.E.B. DuBois, founder of the NAACP was a frequent visitor, as well as the first successful heart surgeon, Dr. Daniel Hale Williams. Jazz greats Duke Ellington, Louie Armstrong (see photo to right)and Dizzy Gillespie vacationed and owned property at Idlewild. The legendary boxer Joe Louis owned one of the nightclubs. vacationed regularly and owned a nightclub in Idlewild.

Nightlife was especially lively and became world famous, even attracting white vacationers from Traverse City, 60 miles away. According to a recent article:
Blues greats B.B. King, T-Bone Walker, Alberta Adams and Etta James were all regulars. An equally impressive line-up of jazz greats performed at Idlewild: Ellington, Armstrong, Gillespie, Cab Calloway, Lionel Hampton, Betty Carter, Sarah Vaughan and Dinah Washington. There were others like Sammy Davis Jr. who made some of his first performances on the Idlewild stages, as did Bill Cosby,
Jackie Wilson and Stevie Wonder. Actress and singer Della Reese started her career in Idlewild as did Motown legends the Four Tops who formed there. Other musical giants were regulars; Aretha Franklin, The Spinners, and The Temptations all played the clubs and vacationed at Idlewild.

By the 1950's there were hundreds of cottages (called "dog houses" because of their tiny size), six restaurants and no less than nine nightclubs. But with integration and an aging population of original owners, the community began to decline in the 1960's. By the 1970's, African-Americans could largely go to the same resorts as whites. Cottages began to deteriorate and were abandoned.

A large fire destroyed the nightclub on the lakefront, now replaced with a pleasant public park and swimming beach. Only one building that formerly house a nightclub is left, boarded up. The last restaurant, the Red Rooster, folded two years ago. All that is left is a couple convenience stores and a hodge-podge of still smartly maintained cottages, interspersed with ruins. The dirt roads leading to the less desirable wooded house lots are overgrown with only a few of the tiny houses left. Still, many descendants of the original owners continue to vacation here, and there is a very active owners association that gets together regularly for socializing and no doubt remembering the many enjoyable vacations spent there over the years. The lake itself is a beautiful as ever.

Our dive was begun from off the swimming beach. The water was very warm as it was early August. The sand near the shore gives way quickly to a weedy bottom, and visibility was poor in the green murky water. The lake's heavy use no doubt has accelerated the growth of algae and other nitrogen-loving plants. After an hour or so of hunting at the bottom, about 25 feet deep, we found a few old beer bottles and a rusty ice spud from an ice fisherman. The lack of visibility definitely interfered with the relic-hunting on the bottom.

Overall, it was a fun dive in a very pretty lake, surrounded with a great deal of largely forgotten history.

For more information about the history of Idlewild, see:
An excellent article from the Northern Express Newspaper

Black Eden: The Idlewild Community by Lewis Walker and Benjamin Wilson.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Palancar Reef

By Tom:

In Late January, my wife and I spent a week on Cozumel Island, Mexico. We stayed in a very nice resort just North of the city. The Island is nearly spotless and mostly brand new buildings, compliments of the latest hurricane. I went on 3 guided SCUBA trips. 2 were two tank and one was a three tank dive. The dive shop supplied everything, but I brought my own mask and regulator/computer. The water was in the 70’s with a variable northerly drift. Visibility was over 100 feet! I am NITROX certified but didn’t need to use it as the dive profiles were deep/shallow with mandatory 5 minute safety stop at 15 feet. The weather was perfect, sunny and high 70’s with calm mornings and slight chop in the afternoon.

I made three dives on Palancar reef. It is a Mexican underwater “parque.” This is easily the prettiest coral reef I have ever dived. Massive ancient coral heads festooned with both brilliant soft and hard corals. The heads created underwater caves and canyons that were at least 50 feet deep and very narrow. Light filtering through created stunning backdrops for underwater photographers. The depths for Palancar varied from snorkeling to over 100 feet. Several of our snorkelers saw the biggest spiny lobster I have ever heard of. It was at least 40 pounds! Aquatic life was above average. I’ve seen better examples of fauna, but none in such a pretty site. I saw lizard fish, sea turtles, eels (big and little!), eagle rays, clown fish, gorgeous queen trigger fish and large grouper.

On the last dive we put in just North of the city and only several hundred yards to the edge of the drop off. This location was about 50 feet deep with a very sharp abyssal drop off. The current was too strong to swim against, so we just drifted on the edge of the underwater cliff. The only remarkable thing about doing this was that during the last week in January, right in this location, the Eagle Rays mate. Seeing many rays before, they usually present as big, slow moving, underwater sheets. This day was far different. The guides had warned us that we might not see anything, but several days before divers had seen several.

After just a few minutes, I witnessed one of the most interesting displays in my diving experience. Suddenly, from out of the depths of the cliff, two rays shot up at a steep angle right in front of me. At least 7 feet across, they looked like big gray ghosts flying past my head. Another blasted out of the gloom and did a wing over and dove towards the depths again, going right under another diver, not missing him by 6 inches! It happened so fast he stopped and acted paralyzed for a few seconds. One of our team was a professional underwater videographer. The rays were so fast he wasn’t able to get any good footage. I suppose this behavior has been recorded before, but it must be rare. We observed this chasing and violent acrobatics the entire dive. It was the third dive of that day, but I never felt fatigued with all the excitement.

I can’t wait to go back to Cozumel. Weather in winter is perfect, everything was inexpensive and the people wonderful. The crime you see in the border cities is nowhere evident in Cozumel. I’d live there in a heartbeat!!

Friday, March 20, 2009

Moe for the Watch Otaku

Japanese ideas continue to invade the Western world through pop culture and language. One Japanese word that has been adopted with enthusiasm by watch collecting enthusiasts is "wabi" -- a shortening of the Japanese philosophical term "wabi-sabi" (侘寂). To American watch collectors, wabi has come to mean wear, damage, or other evidence of age that is considered desirable. However, this use of the term is an over-simplification of a complicated idea.

In Japan, wabi-sabi is the idea that life and the world are impermanent and that acceptance of this fact is essential to enlightenment. It can take a lifetime of study and meditation to truly understand wabi-sabi. As to the American use of the word, it would more accurate to say that a watch or other item with wear or signs of age remind us of wabi-sabi because they are beautiful in imperfection. Still, the word is extremely useful to describe the idea that an imperfect example of a collectible has a beauty that surpasses an overly restored example. This idea is widespread in the world of antique furniture (where original finishes are highly prized) and, recently, among car collectors. This aesthetic is widespread among vintage watch collectors (particularly with vintage Rolexes, where a "restored" example can lose more than half its value compared to one in original condition.)

Another recent Japanese import is the word "otaku." This word has great potential in describing watch collectors. The only current term that comes close to capturing the sometimes obsessive and pedantic nature of the watch hobbiest is "WIS." WIS was coined in the early days of the internet, when watch collectors began to discover each other in the wilderness of the Usenet newsgroups. It stands for "Watch Idiot Savant," an all-too-accurate description of many who may find themselves reading this blog (myself included.)

I prefer the term "watch otaku" instead of "WIS." This term has already been used sporadically among collectors. Unlike "WIS," "otaku" has a complicated and rich meaning that seems appropriate when describing the watch collecting fanatic. To many older Japanese, "otaku" is a derogatory term used to describe odd individuals who are obsessed with anime or manga, live alone, and are socially inept. In Japan, any non-conformist is considered a bit frightening. However, the term has quickly evolved in meaning in Japan, and is now widely used and no longer always an insult. Recently, those who might slightly qualify for the term have begun to refer to themselves as otaku with a certain outsider pride. In Japan, otaku has come to mean "geek" instead of "nerd." Those who used to be called otaku are now more likely to be called "kimomen," (short for "kimotiwarui," and "man") or "creepy man."

In the U.S., the term has little of the original stigma attached. In the U.S. and Japan, recent usage allows for it to be used in connection with any interest, such as music otaku, railroad otaku, etc. It has come to mean any somewhat obsessed collector who is driven to learn and share every bit of obscure knowledge about a hobby. Sound familiar?

The otaku, the passionate obsessive, the information age's embodiment of the connoisseur, more concerned with the accumulation of data than of objects, seems a natural crossover figure in today's interface of British and Japanese cultures. I see it in the eyes of the Portobello Road dealers, and in the eyes of the Japanese collectors: a perfectly calm Railfan frenzy, murderous and sublime. Understanding otaku-hood, I think, is one of the keys to understanding the culture of the web. There is something profoundly post-national about it, extra-geographic. We are all curators, in the Postmodernism world, whether we want to be or not.

— William Gibson, April 2001 edition of The Observer.

Now, if we accept that many of us watch collectors are indeed otaku, we can embrace another related, even more mysterious term: Moe (promounced Moh-eh). The kanji for moe (萌え) means literally "the budding of a flower." In he last five or six years, this term has been given a very different meaning in Japan. People under 30 understand the new meaning well. People over 30 are familiar with it, but don't really understand it. People over 40 would think you were talking about horticulture. Among otaku, moe means that ecstatic feeling you get from an item that is greatly desired but largely out of reach. It also is used to describe the attributes that give one the feeling of moe (i.e., only something with moe makes you feel moe.) As with "otaku," the meaning has evolved quickly over the past few years.

Originally, the word was the domain of the hard-core Japanese otaku community, the denziens of the Tokyo neighborhood of Akihabara (known as the Akiba-kei). It was used to describe the (non-sexual) attraction of an otaku to an ideal female anime or manga character. The full richness of the moe experience requires a deep knowledge and understanding of the backstory and context of the object of desire. Moe is the warm feeling of the connoisseur when in the presence of an ideal example within his area of expertise.

In Akiharbara, there are many places for the otaku to experience moe; anime conventions or cosplay events, for example. Especially popular are the many cafes catering to the cosplay otaku that feature costumed waiters and waitresses acting out various roles for a participatory theatical experience. These cafes cater to every kind of otaku from train enthusists to fans of various computer games. For the American tourist, these cafes are amusing and strange, just another wierd "Japanese thing." They feel no moe. Moe requires that the participant be an initiate. An appreciation of the context is what makes the experience moe. If a watch otaku were to visit the Omega Watch Museum in Bienne, it would be very moe. For the otaku's spouse, not moe.

Gradually, the word moe has been adopted in many contexts, including those well outside of the anime world. I think it is a useful word. How else to describe the otaku's love of the rare and wonderful? Why do collectors pay vast amounts of money for an early Rolex Submariner or a TR-900? How else to understand the blossoming of joy when opening the box when a newly purchased watch arrives in the mail? It is moe.

The concept of moe also lets us understand why some watches excite and other leave us cold. Not all watches have moe. It is a function of the depth of the experience that a certain watch allows. History, quality, quirkiness, rarity, exclusivity, sincerity of vision, branding, bragging rights, even the bling-factor all can create moe in a watch or brand. Why does the Hanhart single pusher chronograph made in 1943 make the collector's heart race, and the nearly identical re-issue provides only a passing interest? Why is the IWC Mark XI so much more exciting than the many recent "hommages?" Why is the UK military issue Rolex Submariner 5517 worth twenty times he virtually identical civilian model 5513? Moe. You might also say "soul."

Rolex, Omega, Seiko, UTS, Ken Sato's RXW, Sinn, Kobold, Bathys, Bali Ha'i -- moe. (I would note that I don't really like all these watches, but their moe is undeniable.)

Citizen, TAG Heuer, Ball or other modern watches who have appropriated a historical brand, or anything made in China (and quite a few more I could name) -- not moe.

What about Corvus? Moe-licious!

Monday, March 16, 2009

A Visit to the Fairytale Forest: Fricker GmbH & Co. K.G.

The Black Forest. Schwartzwald. The location of cherry chocolate cake, Little Red Riding Hood, and intensive bombing during the Second World War. Mannheim, Karlsruhe and Pforzheim were all hit hard. The first was Mannheim in December, 1940, part of the British raid in retaliation for the bombing of Coventry Cathedral. In Septebmer 1944 Karlsruhe was bombed, completely destroying the 18th century palace. Finally, in February 1945 Pforzheim was hit by 367 RAF Lancaster bombers, dropping almost half a million high explosive and incendiary bombs. Pforzheim was targeted because it was a center for the manufacture of jewelry and watch components. Certain watch components were essential in the creation of bomb detonators. Before and during the war, the industry was highly decentralized. An Allied report issued in August 1944 stated that "almost every house in this town centre is a small workshop." The results of the bombing were one of the most devastating of the war, comparable only to Dresden. 83% of the city was destroyed in 20 minutes, including one-third of the population and the entire Medieval center. Earlier strategic bombing reports rated Pforzheim's military significance very low, leading one historian to note: "...Pforzheim, [was] selected primarily because [it was] easy for the bombers to find and destroy. Because [it] had a medieval centre, [it was] expected to be particularly vulnerable to fire attack."

I arrived in Pforzheim on a dreary day in December. I had spent the night before in the charming historical town of Heidelberg. In contrast, Pforzheim was a shock. The downtown was completely devoid of character, full of square featureless 1950's modern construction, and all a little shabby. I had lived for a time in Münster, up in Northern Germany. As a garrison town, Münster was also completely destroyed by allied bombing. However, after the war, the citizens of Münster made the then controversial decision to rebuild the town center exactly as it looked before the war. In Münster, one can easily forget the ravages of the Second World War; in Pforzheim it is impossible.

Although lacking charm, Pforzheim has an abundance of excellent watch-related companies. They are no longer the cottage industries they were before the war. They are not run by elven craftsmen in leiderhosen. They are compact, modern operations with highly skilled technicians running state-of-the-art computer controlled machinery. Pforzheim is the home to Hermann Staib GmbH and Aristo Vollmer GmbH , both of which make excellent watch bracelets, and of course, the famous casemakers and watch assemblers Fricker GmbH .

My destination was Fricker. The headquarters were located in a newish industrial block, actually rather stylish. I arrived early in the morning, and did not leave until fairly late in the evening. I got the impression that 12 hour days are the norm here.

My contact during the previous six months of my relationship with the company had been Bernhard Weidmann, "Bernie" for short. Bernie was in his mid-40's with a big smile and quite good English. He occupied a large modern office space in the front of the factory, decorated with large Kremke and Korsbek Watch Company posters. The posters featured lithe, half-naked female models sporting these Fricker-made watches. Bernie noted that Fricker has their own photo studio and ad agency for the use of their clients. The results were impressive, and certainly eye-catching.

First a few observations on doing business with the Germans. You absolutely must visit them and meet in person. Germans are like old-school American businessmen. Personal relationships are important for getting the best service and for mutual understanding. First, we were served coffee, obligatory as part of the European business ritual. By the time I came to Germany, we were already well along in the design process. Fricker had interpreted my many CAD drawings and photographs into a complete set of engineering drawings. It is one thing to design a wristwatch case. It is quite another to engineer one. We had previously rejected an early design with a complete Faraday cage for extreme anti-magnetism. It added over 2mm in thickness, making the watch just too thick. I was determined to make the first Corvus offering -- the Bradley Dive Watch -- very close to the original U.S. Navy specs and blueprint drawings. Plus, modern watch movements already have considerable anti-magnetism built into the movement, so in a dive watch, such extreme anti-magnetism was really unnecessary. A pilot's watch, on the other hand, may well benefit from this and I'm sure in the future I will incorporate this in a watch.

After a while, Walter Fricker came in to meet me. Now, finally, someone who nearly meets the stereotype of the master watchmaker! Walter is an older man, probably in his late 60's, but looks much younger. Luckily my college German came back to me, and I was able to carry on a decent conversation with him. He called in Bich, one of the engineers, and proceeded to study the drawings with the eye of a master. After a long time, he noted an error. Although the plans had been changed to delete the Faraday cage, they still called for an extra-thick dial. He pointed out to me that, counter-intuitively, a thick dial without a Faraday cage actually can cause a movement to become slightly magnified after 5 or 6 years. The design was quickly changed. Herr Fricker is really quite an amazing man. He was partners in the Sinn company for many years, but split over a business dispute involving another joint venture. It involved a factory that flooded -- long story. I doubt there is anyone in Europe with more skill and experience than Walter Fricker.

Next, I was given a tour of the production floor. A row of shiny new CNC machines were working away at small pieces of stainless steel, and stacks of rough milled cases waiting to have finishes applied. The machines were demonstrated by milling one of my casebacks. It took a surprisingly long time, just to engrave a single caseback. Bernie also explained that the programming of the machine also takes considerable time. As robotic as the milling machines are, there is a lot of skill and time involved in making catch cases. As my caseback was the first one, Walter rejected it. The engraving was slightly deeper on one side than the other. I could barely see it. These guys are perfectionists. I commented about a certain caseback with a cartoon of a seal on it. The engineer working the machine said yes, he got very sick of looking at it after a week of engraving them for a former Fricker client.

I also saw the other various machinery and stations on the production floor, the various polishing drums and other ancient looking devices. Bernie pointed out that every process needed to make any part of a watch can be done on premises (except the movement). He also noted that on occasion a special project might require the use of the antique machinery. He said that when they are busy, the run close to 24 hours utilizing two or three shifts.

Upstairs I met the back office staff. Frau Fricker personally does the quality control on every fricker product. Nothing leaves the factory without her having carefully examined it and having been given her seal of approval.

After a fine lunch at a local restaurant (I had the seasonal wild boar, tender and delicious), we returned to the offices for more coffee and conversation. Bernie and I examined the Kolsterised test cases that had come back from the Bodycote company in Holland. Since I was the first customer to specify this feature, Fricker had no experience with it. The test cases were amazing. There were no dimensional changes at all, only a very subtle greying of the surface after the process. I liked the color a lot, although this is probably only apparent on a matt case.

We tried to scratch the cases using a variety of implements, including a stainless steel Swiss Army knife. After these attempts, there was a slight mark where the sharp edge tried to scratch the Kolsterised steel. Upon examination, the mark was the material that had come off the knife blade! The matt Kolsterised steel had acted like a mill file and dulled the knife blade, leaving the remnants on the case. A wipe with the finger removed the mark. There was absolutely no indentation or scratch whatsoever! Kolsterising is certainly not scratch-proof. Hardened steel would scratch it, as would certain rocks. But it is really astonishing stuff!

We spent the next three hours working out many of the smaller details of the Bradley Dive Watch, as well as three other forthcoming projects. Each of the next three planned Corvus watches present unique engineering problems. The third planned watch is a bi-compax chronograph with subdials at 12 and 6 and a co-axial single pusher, a reproduction of a very rare military watch. After much discussion, we overcame the movement problems, and focussed our attention to the case. Walter scratched his head, and gave Bich an order. Five minutes later, Bich returned with a case that had been used before that was similar to what I had in mind. I was amazed again. Fricker had already solved the engineering problem in another project years ago. It was then that I realized these guys can do anything.

Another interesting thing is that Fricker has a subsidiary in Switzerland that specializes in limited edition watches using restored vintage movements. This allows us to offer this forthcoming chronograph in a limited edition with a vintage Valjoux 61 movement.

Our fourth watch involves a very unusual and complicated case design. After describing it to Walter, he said it would be no problem, but it would be helpful for him to see the original. Luckily I own one. Again, nothing seems to deter these guys. I am probably one of their more difficult clients, but they seem to enjoy the challenges of making something new and unusual.

Finally, I declined Bernie's offer to go out for drinks (it was now 8:00 p.m.), and returned to my hotel. I am certain I could not have found better partners than the people at Fricker to help realize my vision for the Corvus Watch Company.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Introduction: A selective and opinionated history of the wristwatch industry.

During the 19th Century, American pocket watches were the finest in the world. The Swiss even faked them. Any gentleman of means carried one, and the bigger the better. A gold case and chain also helped. Ladies carried small pocket watches or occasionally a jewelry-like wristwatch. During WWI men began to strap small pocket watches on their wrists out of necessity. Even after the war, the only men to wear wristwatches were veterans and busy middle-class men. As for the rich and idle, wearing one was gauche, as it indicated that a man was "overly concerned with time."

During WWII, many soldiers got their first ever wristwatch, from the supply sergeant. By the war's end wristwatches had become universally adopted. The style for men was a tiny watch, especially in the U.S.. Until the 1960's, men's watches were between 30 and 32mm. It was almost as if men were still embarrassed to be wearing them.

After the war, as servicemen returned from occupied Europe with souvenir wristwatches, Swiss brands became prestigious. Eventually, by the 1960's, the Swiss watch industry had out-competed the U.S. domestic watch industry, mostly through greater investment in new equipment, and snob appeal. U.S. companies moved operations overseas (Bulova) or were just liquidated (Waltham & Elgin).

This Golden Age of Swiss mechanical watches only lasted about 20 years, from 1950-1970. During this time demand was huge, and thousands of brands produced hundreds of thousands of models of watches. (In 1951 there were 2,800 watch companies in Switzerland). Many have become classics, or even icons. Most watches were put together from stock parts by companies who have by now faded into oblivion. Many of these watch models only existed in production runs of a few hundred. Still, the creativity and stylistic variation was astonishing.

In the 1970's, the world changed with the introduction of the quartz watch. By the 1980's the Swiss watch world had collapsed under the weight of very cheap Asian quartz watches. Swiss companies sold their machinery for scrap. Warehouses full of parts were auctioned off for centimes on the Franc. (Of the 1,618 Swiss watch companies in 1970, only 624 were active by 1984.) Everyone in the world seemed content to wear a wristwatch that ran on a battery and that cost less than a meal at a restaurant.

However, in the 1990s something happened. Men of taste began to realize that they would rather wear a pocket protector than these wrist calculators that were masquerading as timepieces. In a world full of increasingly disposable pieces of electronic crap, wearing a precision mechanical instrument had great appeal. Also, gold chains went out of style, so all men had left were their wristwatches.

At first, a couple of the surviving Swiss marques rode this wave, fulfilling the demand for prestigious mechanical watches. Later in the decade, savvy entrepreneurs bought the trademarks of some of the past greats (Blancpain, Ulysse Nardin, Panerai, Heuer, to name a few), reinventing these brands into prestige labels. At the same time, there was a consolidation in the industry, with three corporate Goliaths dominating virtually the entire Swiss watch industry: LVMH (TAG Heuer), Richemont (Panerai) and the Swatch Group (Omega). Rolex, largely owned by a non-profit charitable trust, has been immune to this trend.

Perhaps because of the concentration of design talent in Northern Europe and the mediocrity of corporate decision making, Swiss watches in the new millennium have tended to look the same: Pseudo-avant-garde and with a faint reek of Euro-trash. Techno-bling rules the day.

However, starting around 2002, a strange thing happened. Small "boutique" watch companies started popping up. Operating outside of the regular retail channels, these upstarts relied instead on the Internet for sales and marketing. What made these companies different most of all was that they were created and supported by watch enthusiasts. These enthusiasts resisted the monopolization of the industry through passion and CAD programs, in partnership with small European companies willing to do small production runs.

Like the thousands of watch companies in the 1950s that pursued a multiplicity of creative visions, today's small independent companies are helping to create a second golden age of mechanical watches.