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.