|An essay on transparency and light, and heart|
and, to an inattentive or insensitive eye, unremarkable and also almost identical objects have
played an important role in the last 40 of my now
5359 years old life.
Even "everybody" knows what these objects symbolize, and
measure. They measure one of two related concepts
to which I have devoted much thought and study during more than 35 years, at least since my 18th birthday ,
when I was reading a book, the title of which names both: Being and Time.
The objects are three wristwatches. The title of this essay alludes to their manufacturers' trademarks: the Rolex crown, and the Patek Philippe cross.
here is little place for mechanical wristwatches as utilitarian objects in the present age of micro-electronics. However, because in the rare cases when they do fail, electronic timepieces are likely to do so catastrophically and without warning, if I was going on a dangerous mission, I think I might want to take a well-proven mechanical watch in addition to the most advanced electronic time-keeping and "GPS" equipment and an emergency locator beacon, as in the Breitling Emergency watch... -- for a kind of "sanity check". But I was a child in the 1950s, before the advent of consumer electronics....
In this essay, I shall propose a continuing role for fine mechanical timepieces as inspirational or "evocative" objects. What else in our daily lives can concentrate so much precision craftsmanship -- the combination of hand and mind working together, which, as Jacob Bronowski said, has made "The Ascent of Man" --, in so small a space, and which we can easily have with us always (we wear a watch on our wrist...)? Clock time is a law we give to the world, until recently almost exclusively through the compounded circular motions of mechanical clockworks -- a synthesis of Kant's two majesties: the starry heavens above and the moral order within. But a fine watch can evocatively symbolize even more: That "the Good is beyond Being", because as Dr. François Rabelais said far better than and long before Martin Heidegger: We shall find all wisdom "in time".
|40 Rolex years|
ne of the rare points of light which shined into the opaque, claustral environment ("Abwelt") in which I was childreared happened, when I was probably in the fifth or sixth grade, during one of the times my parents dragged me shopping, which they frequently did, and which I did not like. [I have described one other of the infrequent positive experiences in my childhood, in my dreams page.]
Somehow, on one of these "shopping trips", something caught my eye in the jewelry department of Miller and Rhodes department store (Richmond, Virginia). I saw, in a glass display case: Rolex wristwatches. Neither before nor for 40 years after would I have more than passing interest in horology. But, somehow, as soon as I saw those watches, I wanted one. I believe that, even then (when I would have been at most 11 or 12 years old!), a Rolex wristwatch -- the plain "chronometer" models, not any gem encrusted ones! -- appealed to me simply because it presented itself to me as: quality (what I would later come to associate with such notions as "Bauhaus esthetic" and Adolf Loos's essay "Ornament and Crime"...).
Through the transparency of a department store glass display case and the intervening air, I encountered those Rolex watches (better: they appealed to me) as light reaching me across the open. I wanted a Rolex to have a little piece of quality with me all the time. Perhaps the strength of this wish was the unrecognized "reverse side" of the almost unrelieved lack of quality in my childhood social milieu (in which, as I now describe it, I grew but was not raised -- i.e., was not raised up!)....
In any case, when I was 13 years old, my parents gave me a stainless steel Rolex "Officially Certified Chronometer", for Christmas 1959 (my initials and the date are engraved on the case back; I seem to remember the price was ca. US$125). I wore the watch all through "prep school" (Q: Preparatory for what? A: As far as I could tell, preparatory only for going on to more tests and grades "in college" -- a worse than Sisyphean labor, for, as I understand the story, Sisyphus could not fail -- but this is another story, the imagery of which relates to the first real book I ever voluntarily read: Camus' The Myth of Sisyphus [in the eleventh grade]).
I wore the watch all the time (except when I went to bed at night or bathed). As previously said, I don't think the important thing about it was that it was a watch (i.e., that it told the time), although even today, over 40 years later, the watch still works reliably -- even if not as accurately as when it was new (due to neglect by another person who had in in their possession during many of the intervening years). The important thing was that this little assemblage of steel and glass meant to me, and looked to me to be: quality.
Sometime later, my father took that watch and gave it to his brother,
and he gave me a new Rolex "Superlative Chronometer Officially Certified" Date model,
which he said he had bought in a dury free shop on a trip to the Caribbean (See picture,
above right). I have always recollected that I got
the new watch around 1972, but I have seen Internet lists of Rolex serial
numbers which seem to indicate the watch was manufactured in 1963-64.
(This is only one of a number of puzzling items about my father, the most
interesting of which: his military service in World War II, I have described
in my web page about him.) In any case, I wore the
new Rolex every day, for over 25 years, just like the first one, except for times when I
sent it for preventive maintenance (neither watch ever "broke"). Thus, for just over 40 of my
I've worn a Rolex (and no other watch, except once, a Movado, which a jeweler provided as a "loaner" while
they sent my watch to Rolex for cleaning).
In 1998, I got my childhood Rolex back from my father's brother, and I sent it to Rolex to be repaired -- the brother had not taken good care of it! (I do think, however, that he or my father had replaced the watch's original dial ("face"), which I seem to recall having had Roman numerals at 12, 3, 6 and 9 o'clock -- the watch's present dial has no numerals.) Only minor repairs were required, even though the watch's service record indicated the last service was 1967. For the next year I wore the "old" Rolex, and let the "new" one sit in a drawer. Then, last Fall (1999), I started wearing the "new" Rolex again, and it was running a fairly consistent error of about +2 seconds per day (even though it had last been cleaned in 1992).
|A new watch for a new millennium?|
or some reason, around the end of 1999, I decided I wanted a new watch, even though I did not need one (all I needed to do was to get my newer Rolex cleaned again). Why I decided to buy a new watch, I cannot reconstruct; but I rationalized the intended expense by deciding I wanted a watch with a 24 hour hand. It was the "new millennium", and new millennium and Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) "somehow" got connected in my mind.... Since, for me, "quality watch" was still synonymous with "Rolex", I ordered a new Explorer II (See picture at top of this page). I was told by the jeweler that the wait time was indeterminate, but probably between 4 and 6 months. Somehow or other, as the wait period commenced, I started looking for things related to "Rolex Explorer II" on the Internet -- and I found Walt Odets' "Rolex Explorer I" article.
Walt's article troubled me. I became increasingly unhappy at the prospect of spending US$3,275 for something that would be on my body all the time, but which might not be quality, and concerning which Walt's final assessment was: "...it is of no horological interest whatsoever."
As sometimes happens with transformative trains of thought, I cannot remember exactly how it happened, but, I cancelled the Rolex Explorer II order, and started to look into Patek Philippes. I don't think the specific steps which resulted in my ordering a Patek Philippe Aquanaut (ref. 5066/1A), contribute much of interest to my reader -- except perhaps for me to emphasize that my initial condition of ignorance is exemplified by such things as that, when I asked the jeweler to call the distributor to find out what the "Price on Request" was for a certain Patek model, and the jeweler called back to tell me it was well over US$300,000, I was entirely amazed (the Aquanaut's price has 4, not 6 digits!). "The net" is that I soon had on my arm the third watch I have owned -- the first watch I actually bought (my father bought the two Rolexes for me). And the two Rolexes went into a drawer, with no aspiration ever to wear any Rolex ever again.
Before I got the Patek, one of my main anticipatory concerns was about the safety of wearing such a relatively expensive item (esp., I checked into insurance for it). Once I had the new watch on my arm, however, the most striking, and an entirely unexpected feature about it was, as thought struck me at the time: "It was just obvious that it is what should always have been there -- no 'big deal', really, just [what was] right." In other words, the Patek now seemed to me to be what for 40 years my Rolexes had seemed (but which, now, Rolexes, in general, no longer struck me as being...). (A less significant surprise was that the Aquanaut is so silent one cannot hear it tick without a stethoscope.)
|"Let your light so shine before men...."|
fter I cancelled my order for the Rolex Explorer II, at first I thought I might just get my "1972" Rolex cleaned and be done with watches -- especially since Walt Odets says that Rolexes from even as little as 15 years ago were much better made than what he saw in the Explorer I he examined. (Also, in all fairness, one can see pictures of new Rolex movements (e.g. click here), which clearly are better finished than Walt's pictures of the Explorer I. Some persons have said that the Explorer I is one of the "less expensive" Rolex models, and therefore one would get better craftsmanship in a "more expensive" model; my feeling is that there is no such thing as a cheap Rolex chronometer; and, in any case, that Rolex would choose to make anything shabby, at whatever price, is inexcusable -- a betrayal of my childhood trust. Finally, I don't see a fitting function for myself or for anyone, to be an apologist for Rolex or anything else.)
I think what got me interested in Patek Philippe, and in mechanical wristwatches, in general, at this time, was learning that some Pateks (and, as I soon also learned, some watches from other manufacturers...) come with crystal backs -- so that the owner can see what's inside without compromising the integrity of the piece by opening the case to see what's hidden behind an opaque back. I had always admired the fine finish of my Rolexes' dials -- but now I thought that this was just surface beauty: a display back would reveal at least some of the inner beauty (or lack of same!) of the watch movement!
The second point about the Patek, of course, is the fine finish of the movement -- what earns it the "Geneva Seal". I cannot see much point to having such quality in a watch with an opaque front and back, so that only a watchmaker cleaning or repairing the watch can see it. Beyond being a miniature simulacrum of the circular motions of the starry heavens, a fine mechanical watch can provide a setting to highlight two even more important, and corequisite principles:
|(1)||Transparency [the open]: the ability to see what's inside the watch [or whatever], i.e., to see what the thing really is, "under the covers" (as was beautifully expressed by Kofi Annan, in his remark about the need for transparency(sic) regarding Iraq's weapons development programs). Transparency provides the open space in which things can be lit up, and thereby be seen (#2).|
|(2)||Light, which shines into and lights up the world by its quality, thereby bringing things into the open (#1).|
(To see a picture of magnificent watch finishing -- which can be fully appreciated only under magnification! --, click here. To see some expensive but VuLGAR watches, click here.) --If ever I buy another watch, it is hard for me to see how it could be anything other than one with both a see-thru front and a see-thru back, to permit seeing some of the inner quality without having to take the watch off my wrist. (I used to think that display fronts on watches were gauche, but I have always felt that, above all other considerations, esthetics must conform to truth, and consequently I have changed my feelings on this point.) This would not necessarily be what is called a "skeletonized watch", since, in addition to having both a see-into front and a see-into back, a skeletonized watch has as much as possible of each plate and gear cut out to make the watch itself see-thru, and this "skeletonization"(sic) makes the mechanism more fragile, which is not desirable. What I am interested in is simply removing the dial (and adding some simple markers to indicate the time positions (like, e.g., the modification Walt Odets made to a 1960s Patek Philippe).
|How much time is left?|
urther reflections led me to another important conclusion: If I ever buy another watch, the inclusion of a "power reserve" indicator (aka: "Up/Down" indicator", reserve de marche "complication"...) shall be an important consideration. A power reserve indicator serves the useful function of telling how long the watch has to go until it stops working unless rewound (either manually or, if it is an automatic movement, simply by being worn). Without a power reserve indicator, one has no idea when the watch might stop. With a power reserve indicator, the watch is able to give an accounting for its own internal state. (Photo at right is an Elgin railroad approved pocket watch I bought in December 2000. Note the Up/Down indicator. Learn more about Elgin National Watch Co.; See detailed information about an Elgin B.W.Raymond watch similar to mine)
A power reserve indicator is perhaps even more important symbolically, however, as a reminder that time does not only "go on" (as in the eternally repeated circular motions of the starry heavens). Time -- at least for us mortals -- also "winds down" and "runs out". The reminder of this inevitability which a power reserve indicator provides seems to me a worthy complement to the reminder of the fragility of our life afforded by being able to watch a watch's balance wheel's rapid oscillations (like heart beats...). In addition, anything that gives an accounting for itself -- which, for a watch, means reporting how much time it has left until it stops working --, is a model and a reminder for us persons to account for our actions and inactions. [To see one Patek model with a pleasing and clearly "readable" dial design, including a well-designed power reserve indicator, click here.]
|Matters of the Heart|
nother thing which has struck me by examining my new Patek's movement through the crystal back, is how fragile and vulnerable the small balance wheel looks as it so rapidly oscillates back and forth. This reminds me eerily of the vulnerable fragility of the beating of a human (or animal's, e.g., one of my cats'...) heart. It gives substance to the cliché applied to both watches and hearts, about [never] "missing a beat".... I wonder what effect this evocative image might have had on me over 40 years, had I often seen it instead of the opaque backs of the Rolex watch cases, which symbolized at most immutable adamantine eternity. Would frequently seeing this fragile pulsation have "colored" my experience, over the course of 4 decades, more toward sensitivity to mortality and life's fragility?
A contributor to an Internet Patek forum recently proposed another image, which I, having spent some time in Japanese buddhist temples, found insightful: The similarity between raked gravel temple gardens (e.g., Ryoanji), and the Côtes de Genève (aka: "Geneva waves"...) finishing of a fine watch movement. I wish I had had such a little meditation space with me all through my life.
These steel "waves" also resonate with the opening words of Hermann Broch's magisterial novel about human temporeity, The Death of Virgil, which Hannah Arendt described as "among the greatest literary landscapes in German literature":
"Steel blue and light, ruffled by a scarcely perceptible cross-wind, the waves of the Adriatic streamed against the imperial squadron as it steered toward the harbor of Brundisium, the flat Calabrian coast coming gradually nearer on the left. And here... the water had become mirror-smooth; mother-of-pearl spread over the open shell of heaven, evening came on...." (1945/1945, p. 11; Please see picture)
hope this little essay has given you some pleasure, and also some "food for thought" about how, even though mechanical wristwatches are no longer necessary in the present age of electronic timekeeping, they may nonetheless retain great value in terms of the higher utility of enriching our understanding of and staisfaction in our life -- as [what Sherry Turkle calls:] evocative objects.
To borrow from an old Timex advertising slogan:
May we all keep on ticking without having to take a licking!
|E-mail me your thoughts.|
|Go||to detailed info about Patek Philippe ref. 5054 "complicated" wristwatch.|
|Go||to detailed info about Patek Philippe ref. 5066/1A (Aquanaut) sports watch.|
|Go||to detailed info about Elgin Grade 478 B.W.Raymond pocket watch.|
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