Review: My First Grand Seiko (SBGH005)

Grand Seiko Front Angle 2

It is very easy to be seduced by the “Swiss Made” allure of watchmaking. At a certain point in time, the Swiss managed to convince the world that they were the only teeny country in the world that could produce timepieces of prestige. No one who knows anything about watches is immune to the reliability and quality that stands behind a Rolex or the words “Certified Chronometer” on a dial. To their credit the Swiss have been able to guard this like a hawk for a generation, as the market has been content to buy complex components such as hairsprings rather than innovate on their own. Fortunately that is rapidly changing and watch companies have begun investing heavily in R&D and starting to use new materials and methods to produce ever more reliable “in-house” movements, but what might come as a surprise to many is that Seiko has been doing this for decades already and in many respects is ahead of the vast majority of Swiss companies. One could convincingly argue that they are the most advanced watch company as both their Quartz and Mechanical movements stand among the best of timekeeping and is unequivocally on the cutting edge of technology.

Unfortunately for the brand, they shot themselves in the foot by never widely releasing their top of the line watches such as the Grand Seiko, King Seiko, or Ananta in the US. As a result they came to be known as the company that produced mass-market low-end quartz watches. With the recent release of most of their pieces in the US, the opening of a high-end boutique in Manhattan, a strong marketing campaign, and a devoted vintage collector base they are hoping to climb the ladders of perception. I can say that after a few months of my new Grand Seiko Hi-Beat on the wrist I really think they are really bringing their A-game to the US market.

When the time came to add a new high-end watch to the collection, I was bouncing between something new and less known or a standard collection addition (Rolex or Omega.) After a great deal of thought I decided to add a Grand Seiko to my growing collection. I had often tampered with the idea of getting a vintage one on eBay but figured if I wanted to fully appreciate a Grand Seiko at its absolute prime I would have to go with a new one. I originally tried on the SBGR053 and the SBGR057. The first one was too small for me. At 37mm it is perfect for people who are anti-big watches . On the SBGR057 I just was not a fan of the crown guards, but that’s just me. Then I tried the SBGH005 and fell in love. At 40mm it was perfect on my wrist, and I had to have it.

The way this watch plays with light is really something that needs to be seen in person to really be appreciated. Everything from the lug lines to the textured dial to the mirror polished edges of the hands catches light differently and is seducing in its own way. The one double-edged sword with this particular form of design is that a single smudge is much more apparent than against a matte or fully brushed finish. Smudges aside, this is one of the most beautiful and different pieces that exists in the under $10k chronometer world.

Grand Seiko Dial Grand Seiko SideGrand Seiko Hands Grand Seiko Crown Down

The movement is their high-beat 36,000 bph 9S85. It goes without saying that a movement of this caliber is going to be beautiful. Both the rotor and the plates are decorated with Geneva Stripes (funny that a Japanese movement has them.) It is smaller in diameter but thicker than comparable Swiss calibers. It has a precision and sturdiness and precision in design and build that is what one can only describe characteristically Japanese. It is clean, utilitarian, and beautiful without being over the top. You can tell that more goes into the mechanical development and the accuracy than the decoration, and its not a bad thing aesthetically or functionally.

Grand Seiko Movement 2 Grand Seiko Movement 1

While the COSC will only certify movements that are “Swiss Made” Seiko has made it clear that not only is their movement worthy of the title of chronometer, it exceeds the Swiss requirements. The first Grand Seiko received stellar timing results from the COSC back in the 60s when they were still testing foreign movements, and they have kept their standard just a notch higher ever since. With a +5/-3 accuracy limit in any position it is slightly more accurate than what is required by the COSC at +6/-4. Their 17-day testing regimen ensures that every Grand Seiko that leaves the factory is going to be of a quality that compares to if not exceeds the accuracy of other Swiss movements at a comparable price point and above.

Finally on the movement, Seiko is one of the very few who can consider their entire movement “in-house.” It is a term that gets thrown around far more loosely than it should be but when it comes down to it Seiko makes everything in this movement including the most difficult parts that many companies outsource such as the mainspring, the hairspring, and the escapement. While the power reserve is not the most impressive thing at 55 hours, just how hard that is to achieve on a 36,000 bph movement cannot be understated.

With all the marketing around the supposed quality of “in-house” movements and “Swiss Made” watches, its tough to confidently take a step off the beaten path with a new purchase but for those who seek them, there are some hidden gems of horology. For my newest high priced acquisition I wanted more out of my new addition rather than just “hey look, I got another Rolex, but this one has a different dial and bezel” or “look at the different costume on my ETA chronometer.” My new Grand Seiko and the whole line in general represent a pinnacle of both chronometry and in-house manufacturing that is arguably unmatched at the price point. The refined and timeless styling make it a watch to keep in the collection for many years to come, and the incredible movement will ensure it will be accurate the whole time.

Grand Seiko Clasp Grand Seiko Crown UpGrand Seiko On Wrist Grand Seiko Flat

1920 Howard Pocket Watch with Full Set

1920 Howard Full Set

When it comes to my personal collection, a full set is a must. I want boxes and papers to come with my watches. It drastically helps resale value, and many modern watch companies put a great deal into their packaging. Sometimes it can border on the obnoxious (take for example one of my Omega Speedmasters which you can read about here: http://www.fratellowatches.com/speedy-tuesday-omega-speedmaster-1957-50th-anniversary-2007/) but they sure as hell made sure I don’t lose the box.

The vintage pieces I restore however rarely have a box, let alone papers. This 1920 Howard I recently got in however had them and more. It even came with the original canvas bag labeled “Howard Watches.” Anything accompanying a pocket watch is rare, but a full set like this is insane. I had to buy it just because I wanted to see what a full set from this era felt like.

1920 Howard in Pouch 1920 Howard Papers

This particular Howard model is one of my favorite classic American pocket watches. While it is a beautiful and well-made movement there is nothing particularly fascinating it, except that one of favorite experiences in watchmaking was fixing my great grandfather’s pocket watch of the same caliber and era. Restoring pieces from the past (as I obviously can’t restore pieces from the future) is why I love doing this, and the time I was able to restore my own past was a feeling apart from any other.

Like many watches from the 20s and 30s, it was unfortunately marked with the telltale signs of “watchmakers” from the time. The Great Depression impacted watchmaking and watches in two ways. Firstly people tried to service watches themselves as the cost of a watchmaker may not have been affordable. Secondly, in an attempt to find any sort of work, people took to calling themselves “watchmakers” and “serviced” watches for very cheap. As a result of one or both of these things, there were scratches on the main plate that were caused by indelicately wedging the balance cock up with a screwdriver (and then some,) one of the case screws was broken, and there were some screws that fit, but didn’t match. The latter I was able to replace with spare parts I have. The case screw i couldn’t fix, and when fit, the balance cock fortunately covers up most of the damage done in the past.

1920 Howard Scratches

Like the Railroad Chronometer all the bridges are stamped with their serial numbers, and once again I was lucky to get a completely original piece. Back together with its box, matching papers, and canvas pouch, this is a great piece of history preserved in its entirety. Cared for properly, it will turn 100 years old soon with all the pieces it left the factory with.

1920 Howard Front 1920 Howard Serial number 1920 Howard Movement 1920 Howard Case Back 1920 Howard Open Back

The Forgotten History of Chronometer Standards (Howard Series 11 Circa 1918)

Howard RR Chronometer Feature

Today the word “Chronometer” is associated almost exclusively with Swiss timepieces. The COSC (Contrôle Officiel Suisse des Chronomètres) has managed to monopolize the word (among other things) but many may not know that the standards were actually formalized by Webster C. Ball in America in the 1890s. Nearly 80 years before COSC and about 30 years before the Société Suisse de Chronométrie the specifications for a chronometer were set up in America. They were changed very little and rebranded the Swiss standard. This re-appropriation glosses over the tragic history that led to the regulations that have defined the chronometer for nearly a century.

All too often great change comes about through tragedy. Chronometry is unfortunately in this category. In 1891, mail train #14 collided with the Toledo Express at Kipton Station in Ohio. The impact occurred close to where the Toledo Express would normally have pulled on to a side-track to allow the passage of the much smaller and faster mail train. Nine men were killed in the accident. The believed cause was a pocket watch that was four minutes slow.

train wreck

(Image taken from: http://postalmuseumblog.si.edu/2013/04/the-great-kipton-train-wreck.html)

In reaction to this incident, Webster Ball, an Ohio jeweler was assigned to investigate and this led to the Railroad Chronometer Standards of 1893.

The standards were as follows:

(copied from: http://www.appalachianhistory.net/2009/01/making-trains-run-on-time.html)

  • Only American-Made watches may be used
  • Open-faced dials with the stem at 12 o’clock
  • Minimum of 17 functional jewels
  • Maximum variation of 30 seconds per weekly check (+/-4 sec/day)
  • Adjusted to at least 5 positions
  • Adjusted for heat and cold and isochronism
  • Indications with large bold Arabic numerals, outer minute division, second dial, heavy hands
  • Breguet overcoil
  • Micrometer adjustment regulator
  • Double roller
  • Steel escape wheel
  • Anti-magnetic protection
  • Jim-proof
  • Lever set (this is a pain, but ensures the stem can’t be left out or the time accidentally changed)

While the Swiss clearly removed some of the above requirements, many are strikingly similar to today’s standards. Very shortly after these standards were published, almost every American watch manufacturer complied. This time period produced some of the most accurate (and beautiful) movements in American horology. One of the most popular ones used was the E.Howard Series 11. After a long time of searching, I pulled the trigger and found one I wanted to service.

Howard RR Chronometer Movement 2

One thing that is particularly important with these older pocket watches is to check the condition of the lettering on the plates (and the paint still in them.) If the letters are fully intact it is generally a sign that the watch has not been over-serviced, poorly serviced, or mechanically cleaned (modern methods tend to remove this detail.) Secondly, I made sure the dial had no hairline cracks. Howard watches tend to suffer badly from these as the dial is snapped on rather than screwed in place. This means that the process of removing the dial is a very delicate one requiring care and patience. Railroad dials also tend to suffer from wear because of the lever set mechanism. This mechanism requires that the glass be removed and a lever pulled up to set the time. In doing so, the dials were constantly exposed to the elements and as a result finding mint ones are tough.

Howard RR Chronometer Full Dial Howard RR Chronometer Lever

This watch was about as close to perfect as I wanted. When it arrived I put it on the timing machine and found it was running over 2 minutes fast per day so I set about servicing it. After full disassembly I noticed some features that make these watches what they are. Every bridge, plate, and cock is stamped with the serial number to preserve and verify the originality of the piece. Fortunately all of these matched. Another rarely seen feature these have are adjustable banking pins. Without getting technical this is an interesting feature that allows for fine-tuning of the escapement.

Howard RR Chronometer Movement Parts

After a very meticulous hand cleaning, reassembly, oiling, and regulating, this legendary piece is running as it should. The shape of this watch after nearly 100 years is insane. This is a watch that was cared for and will last another 100 years in good hands. It is a stunning example from the Golden Age of American horology that represents a forgotten tragedy and the birth of the world standards for chronometry.

Howard RR Chronometer Front Howard RR Chronometer Caseback

Howard RR Chronometer MovementHoward RR Chronometer Caseback 2

1941 Bulova Chronograph (Caliber 13AH)

Bulova 13AH Feature

Buying Pre-50s chronographs in non-working condition and expecting to get them running again is usually like trying to find true love through Tinder, but every once in a while you find a piece that entirely renews your faith in these vintage chronographs (and one’s ability to fix them.) This Bulova Chronograph from 1941 reminded me about what is so mesmerizing, elegant, and beautiful about chronos of this era.

(A side note here: I strongly urge people against buying non-working vintage chronographs online. If it’s not working, run away unless it is a piece you are strongly attached to. More than likely, the cost of service, if possible, will be close to double whatever price you end up paying.)

I bought this great piece off of a forum with what was supposed to be just a mainspring issue. What I found was so much worse. Ironically the mainspring was fine (but I replaced it anyway.) The real problem was the winding pinion and all the pieces it left behind. When I removed it the wheel only had one tooth left (as I imagine some other things of this age….) Unfortunately this made it impossible to wind the watch and also meant that there were 11 broken teeth that were at one point floating around in this piece. Luckily these did not cause too much of an issue.

Winding Pinion

I decided to take the usual shot in the dark that these chronographs are and set about disassembling, cleaning, reassembling, oiling, and praying it will work when it all comes back together.

When working on chronographs, unless you are very used to them and have a crazy good understanding of the mechanics and all the little quirks of each different caliber, technical guides are your best friends. Vintage chronographs have the equivalent of a bible that comes in 28 volumes and is called the Esembl-o-Graf series. This series has just about every base caliber and detailed instructions on its takedown, assembly, and oiling procedures. This chronograph was a Valjoux 23 base so that’s where I went. There are digital versions available, but I am a sucker for vintage books and was able to pick up a full set for my horological library. With a book as my guide I got the whole thing back together and shockingly, it worked! There was however one thing still wrong that I only noticed during disassembly and inspection, the minute jumper spring was bent. This was incredibly annoying as not only is this part impossible to replace, but it is unreasonably delicate as it needs to allow a gear to gently pass without stopping the whole train, and yet needs to have enough tension to give the wheel its “jumping” effect. I very carefully bent the spring back to its proper alignment and other than the mysterious spot of rust on the chronograph bridge the movement came out magnificently well. It sparkles for a piece that is more than 70 years old.

Bulova 13AH Movement 2 Bulova 13AH Movement 1

Once I got the dial and hands on and went to case it up I noticed an external problem. The bezel would not sit properly on the case middle. Nothing like one more obstacle with a watch just as you think you are going to be finished with it. Unfortunately I could not remedy this problem myself and had to send this case to some experts. On a recommendation I contacted ABC Watchwerks.

In an industry famed for intimidating and rude service, I was very pleasantly surprised by the friendliness, speed, and quality of work that they produced out of their shop in LA. They also did some amazing work on another piece coming to the blog soon.

With the case functioning perfectly I was finally able to finish this piece and appreciate its full beauty. There is a certain elegance and class that these vintage chronographs have that was lost with time. The crisp numbering and the contrast of the blue and black lend a legibility and simplicity that is unmatched in most modern chronographs. Even the sub-dial numbering is easily legible. It is no more than what it is intended to be and shows no useless design fluff. It is a perfect piece as a dress watch with a little more than just the time to make it pop. While it does show some signs of mistreatment in the past, it has aged far more gracefully than many other 73 year old things (or people.) Back together it is in my opinion one of the best chronographs I have worked on to date, but I have a feeling that it will inspire me to buy a few more chronographs that will not end as well as this one did. Only time will tell.

Bulova 13AH Side Bulova 13AH Crown Down Bulova 13AH Pushers and Crown Bulova 13AH Case Side Bulova 13AH Front Bulova 13AH Front 2 Bulova 13AH Caseback

1950s Eterna Kon-Tiki (Caliber 1424 UD)

Kon Tiki Feature

The best vintage watches are the ones that come with great stories. If not to inspire technically, a great backstory can make an otherwise normal watch into a fantastic collector’s piece. The limited editions, or the special releases that can start a conversation or conjure up a sense of adventure on the wrist are the ones I really seek out. As always, the best ones are worth waiting for, and so when this all original Kon-Tiki popped up I almost had no choice but to take it.

Originally introduced in 1952, the Kon-Tiki line was made to commemorate Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl’s epic 101-day journey in a balsa wood raft to empirically show the possibility of contact between South America and Polynesia as early as 500 AD. While the merits of his journey and his discovery remain somewhat controversial, it does not change the fact that a guy with a bad historical record with water (he almost drowned twice as a child), made a crude ship and sailed 4,948 miles in it from Peru to French Polynesia. He had the courage to risk his own life to prove his hypothesis. That he did all this wearing an Eterna watch was the genesis for the Kon-Tiki line. To this day it remains the most iconic Eterna series ever made.

This particular line, like some older Omega constellations and Longines pieces comes with a raised design in the case back that goes a long way to tell about the historical condition of the watch. One careless polishing job and the design is irreparably damaged. Constant wear also takes its toll. As a result it is very rare to find these watches with a perfect raised raft with the five Eterna dots on it. More than that there are tiny little wave lines that also flatten with wear. Also, like vintage omegas, the crystals are marked in the center. I had the good fortune to find this entirely original Kon-Tiki. The downside was that it was not working. That was changed, and after a thorough service it is running perfectly. The movement itself is impeccable. There is absolutely no rotor wear and no scratches. While this piece does have the scratches, nicks, and dings that most vintage pieces have, it fully maintains its all-original character and shows its age gracefully. All the hallmarks of a well-kept watch are there. It has a near perfect dial, the original crystal, and a near perfect ship on the case back. Running again it is a wonderfully preserved vintage piece commemorating an incredible journey.

Kon Tiki Coin Kon Tiki Crystal Kon Tiki Movement 1 Kon Tiki Movement 2

Eterna has a very long and turbulent history. They are an innovative company that has a very rough past. Currently in the hands of the Chinese group that also own Corum, Eterna continues to produce surprisingly innovative and interesting pieces that pay homage to their history but also showcase some technical sophistication that has always been a part of the Eterna DNA.

Kon Tiki Angle Kon Tiki Angle 2 Kon Tiki Side Kon Tiki Side 2 Kon Tiki Front

Review: Weiss Field Watch

Weiss Feature

As a watchmaker and a supporter of all things USA-made I have often found myself with incredibly limited options when it comes to watches that fit the criteria of affordable, mechanical, and at least partially actually American made. There are several brands that are trying to do similar commendable things such as assemble in the US, but Weiss is the only one that makes and finished their cases in the US. While I like Shinola, and have a huge respect for what they are doing (and will eventually pick up one of their pieces,) I wanted a mechanical not a quartz. Of course there is RGM (I will hopefully be adding one of his pieces to my collection in the near future) but other than him there have been no young watchmakers attempting to onshore mainstream mechanical watchmaking until Weiss and the Field Watch.

The only thing not American-made in this watch is the movement. Making a fully in-house movement is a herculean undertaking, and is far out of the reaches of a start-up. It takes a dollar figure with several zeros and many years to develop, prototype, and manufacture. While I hope that Weiss will begin making their own components I was more than happy to obtain my first piece of theirs just to support the USA-watchmaking cause. After having this watch on for a number of weeks however I found myself going from a supporter to an advocate.

The movement is a Swiss ETA 6497. To give some context to its utility, Panerai is one of the many companies who use this base movement. It is also the main base-caliber for watchmakers to use when they make their own components.

Weiss finishes, assembles, regulates, and tests all their movements in the US. This is an added amount of care and work that deserves to be appreciated, and is really a task that can only be done by watchmakers. All too often companies will order their cases, order their movements, dials, and hands and then have an assembler slap them together and ship them out. Weiss puts in the extra effort that for me sets it apart from some other companies using a standard caliber. They also have their cases made in the US, and hand-finish those as well. Finally, they make their dials in the US as well. Other than RGM and KM Independent they are the closest you can come to American-made in the watch world. The affordability of the work they put in makes this a must-have piece for anyone supporting the growing talent and abilities of US-based watchmakers.

Weiss Movement Weiss Movement Close Up

I bought the field watch set as they are limited and come numbered. The packaging is very well executed. It arrives in a wooden case with a spring-bar tool (also USA made) and an extra band. While I have not used the extra band, as I am such a huge fan of the one it came on, it’s still a nice extra. For me the green canvas is (perhaps unintentionally) reminiscent of some of the greatest American timepieces made for our military such as the A-11. The lining makes it an incredibly comfortable and quick molding band.

Weiss Band

I was initially worried about the 42mm, but it wears small for its size. It is one of the few watches over 40mm that you can forget that it on your wrist. The case sits very well and that combined with the padded band makes it incredibly comfortable. The case details are aesthetically great. The combination of a brushed steel middle case sandwiched between a polished bezel and polished side of the case back manages to pull of both an industrial American-made feel with a just enough polish to exude the particular refinement one expects of a piece crafted with the care that Weiss puts into each one. It also allows for the watch to be worn well with jeans or a jacket.

Weiss Case Finish Weiss Case

All together this is a purchase that I have zero regrets about. There are certain times where we make a choice to sacrifice for a principle, like when you pay extra for ugly organic produce, or when you pay extra for fair trade chocolate that tastes slightly more chalky than a piece of velvety Valrhona. After a good deal of time with this watch, I can say it is a rare instance where I sacrificed nothing for a principle that I support wholeheartedly, and I can’t wait for what they put out next.

Weiss Crown Down Weiss Crown Up

1968 Omega Chronostop Caliber 865 (Ref. 145.009)

Omega Chronostop Feature

If it is not yet clear that I have an affinity for odd watches, this most recent one will certainly solidify that sentiment. While working on such odd pieces does have one significant drawback (parts) they provide a unique restoration experience and I am always trying to look for my next one. This Omega Chronostop was on my list for a while. It’s not particularly expensive, but a one-minute register (one would have a hard time really calling this a chronograph) from Omega just seemed and looked so odd that I had to work on one. Starting in the late 60s it is estimated that about 124,000 of this caliber were made. It was a very short-lived production, the likes of which have never really been seen again.

After a good search I found this great piece. The near perfect blue dial is what brought me to it. The deep blue color with and orange minute register against the stainless really makes this watch pop on the wrist. I knew immediately that there were a few things wrong but correctable on this watch. Firstly, the movement ring was wrong which caused the movement to move a bit in the case. Then there was the issue of the pusher. A prior watchmaker had substituted the plain button pusher for a women’s omega crown, which beyond looking awkward, functionally wasn’t perfect. And finally and not uncommonly, the crystal while original was scratched up. With these external parts ordered I got to the guts. This movement adapted a Lemania movement for a simple one-minute register. It is a great watch for anyone wanting to ease into the mechanics of the chronograph. The drastically simplified chrono-works make this a walk in the park compared to that Tissot Navigator I did a few months ago or a Valjoux 22, 23, 7750, etc.

Once the movement was cleaned, inspected, and reassembled (and after I got past the always-mesmerizing color of vintage Omega movements), I set about getting the case right. The pusher issue turned out to be a bit worse than I had imagined. In addition to the crown, the tube was not right and was over-tightened into the hole in the case. Furthermore it was installed with an improper tool that left a scar on the case. This required a bit of elbow grease and a file to pry loose but once done, the brand new tube and pusher installed like a charm. After putting in a new genuine crystal I got the movement in with the new ring and it is back to its former glory.

Omega Chronostop Crowns Omega Chronostop Crystal Omega Chronostop Movement 1

While one very much like this but with a date (but in less great cosmetic condition) sold for almost $1500 http://gearpatrol.com/2014/08/19/timekeeping-selects-omega-chronostop/ finding great examples at far less is most certainly achievable for anyone interested in owning such a great head-turning, and unique piece of Omega history.

Omega Chronostop Flat Omega Chronostop Back

Omega Chronostop Movement 2Omega Chronostop CU Omega Chronostop CD Omega Chronostop Angle Right Omega Chronostop Angle Left