I recently had a friend ask me if I ever got sick of looking in my cabinet and seeing all those vintage and/or antique watches.
I thought about it for a minute, then told him that I never, ever get tired of looking at these amazing watches. Maybe the gold they used to plate them – at the non-molecular level, of course – back in the day was of a warmer shade, or was applied in a thicker coat, or perhaps both; maybe it has a patination that can only come with the fullness of time. Whatever it is, there is a richness to the plating on these watches that ensures their collectors will never find them tedious or boring to contemplate – or, for that matter, to wear. Of course, I can only speak for myself, but having read a number of heartfelt posts from fellow vintage horology enthusiasts, I feel pretty safe in declaring this particular collector’s niche a very special one indeed.
At the risk of waxing too eloquent (AKA “going on way too long,” for those of you in Rio Lindo), I love collecting vintage watches. There’s just something about the styling and quality of the build that keeps them from becoming, well, old. Add that to the fact that these vintage pieces are often excellent bargains when compared to their more contemporary cousins, and you have some pretty good reasons to pick up a few of them to add to your collection.
However, one of the very best – and rarest – of occurrences, when collecting vintage pieces, is finding out about a watch’s original (or one or more of its subsequent) owner(s). In the case of the MMMMotM series, this has happened only once thus far, and only then because the watch in question belonged to my father. This month, however, the moldy machine in question comes from yet another special source, as you’ll discover soon enough. In the meantime, here are a few pictures to get us started:
This month’s moldy mechanical machine is a beautiful, Swiss made Waltham, featuring an automatic three-hand, day-date movement, circa 1960.
First Owner’s Story, Part I
The original owner picked up this piece in the early 1960's from a watch shop in New York City, just a few blocks from the United Nations complex, where he was serving with the UN Human Rights Commission. It became one of a small grouping of watches he routinely wore, including a Bulova, a Jaeger LeCoultre, and a Blancpain Fifty Fathoms that had been a very special gift from the French Consulate in New York. Needless to say, this humble Waltham was in some pretty exceptional horological company, yet, in looking at how beautifully it has aged, I feel very confident that it certainly held its own, and quite well at that.
Model: Three-Hand Day-Date
Model Year: Circa 1960
Country of Origin: Switzerland
Movement: Automatic, 25 Jewels, INCABLOC
Case: Stainless steel (base metal bezel)
Case Back: Stainless Steel
Case Width: 36mm
Crystal: Acrylic glass
Bracelet: Speidel gold-plated expansion
It’s very easy to run out of adjectives when you’re trying to describe a beautiful vintage watch like this one, especially when there’s as much detail as it offers. Take a look at the amazing dial:
Sometimes you can look at a finished product and somehow know that you are seeing the results of a design process that was exceptional from its inception to the completion of the first prototype and beyond. Examples of this concept from the world of horology that stand out for me are the Rolex Submariner, the Cartier Ballon Bleu and the Seiko “Orange Monster.” I’m sure each of you have your own favorites, so please feel free to substitute yours for mine. The specific brand and model are less important than the idea that each of them accomplishes a kind of perfection, a design that complements itself, from the biggest components to the smallest elements, as the finished product emerges.
Each line, each angle, each curve matches up to perfection with every other element of the design. Every feature, large or small, plays superbly well with all of the other features to create a completed picture that is neither cluttered nor too spacious. As such, adding just one more element would crowd everything together and spoil the effect; likewise, removing a single piece would throw off what was before a superb balance between available space and the items that fill it. It is the gestalt (or “the big picture,” for those of you in Rio Lindo) of these elements that give these beautiful design examples their iconic appearances. Let’s have another look at that Waltham dial again:
There’s just something about how each element fits so perfectly with the others to give the whole a look of balance and perfection. The gold-filled “ridged” hour markers leave no doubt as to their purpose, especially at six, nine and twelve o’clock, where they’re just over twice as big as the others. This helps set up the Day/Date indicator window at three o’clock, though to achieve a truly balanced fit there, the designer added five thin, black horizontal lines of various lengths to optically balance out the dial before the large Day/Date window was placed at three o’clock. These same lines also allow for a nice optical balance between where the Waltham Automatic label appears, at just below the 12 o’clock position, and the INCABLOCK 25 notation, just above six o’clock.
As an aside, those black horizontal stripes identify the styling period of this watch as the early 1960’s, much as “linen” dials are identified with the 1950’s. But do these marks have a genuine, functional purpose? I rather doubt it, as they tend to disappear if you take a quick glance at the watch to get the time; you just don’t see them unless you give yourself the time to do so. But, as noted above, they really do add to the overall optical balance of the dial, as do all of its features, large and small.
The hour markers all play well off each other, not to mention the Day/Date window. The hour/minute hands are of the simple “stick” design, with openings on the end of each for lume material (re)placement. (There is still a good amount of the original lume on these hands, but they only light for about 20 seconds or so before disappearing completely.) The “stick” hands are truly the perfect selection for this watch, as they neither upstage nor shy away from the hour markers and Day/Date window. Likewise, the nice long seconds hand – with a bright red, 3mm tip – looks exceptionally good with the chapter ring’s black minutes and seconds, reminding the wearer that it’s there without causing it to distract from all of the other features.
Other key appearance features include a matte gold-plated bezel, which frames the dial nicely but does not distract the eye from it, despite there being virtually no interruption of its soft coloring, and gentle bends and folds that make up a rather large open area. The case back carries only very basic information on its stainless steel face, and is made doubly simple by being a screw-in type.
To sum up this watch’s appearance in just a couple of phrases is a rather daunting prospect, but there are several that seem to work out pretty well; like very well balanced. Everything about this classic watch truly is well balanced, from its perfect dial layout to fit and feel as it balances effortlessly atop your wrist. Exceptionally beautiful. So many watches out there – even a few vintage pieces – try their damnedest to be beautiful, or special, or whatever; pick your favorite well-meaning adjective. Unfortunately, all that “trying” precludes it from happening. This lovely old Waltham, however, is beautiful without having to work at it so much. Obviously, it had an excellent design going in, but it has more than that, somehow. Do I dare say it has a soul? And a good one, at that? Uh…well, let’s just say that its beautiful appearance and balance has that certain Je ne sais quoi, and leave it at that.
Flag of the Free French, WWII
First Owner’s Story, Part II
Our original owner was a French Marine who escaped from Marseille in 1940, and made his way to fight with the Free French under General Philippe Leclerc. He saw intense combat in Africa, Sicily, Italy and Southern France. He was grievously wounded and spent nearly two years in hospital, recovering from an anti-tank mine explosion that destroyed the vehicle he was in and killed everyone else in his squad. He was awarded the Légion d'Honneur for his bravery in the battle of Bir Hakeim (Africa), and his unit, the 1st Marine Regiment (1er Régiment d'Infanterie de Marine, 1er RIMa), was awarded the same for the battle of Monte Cassino. He was also awarded the Croix de Guerre (TOE - Valor), with palm, as well as the Médaille Militaire, which was awarded while he was in a coma, which lasted two months as he recovered in hospital. (Interestingly, the Medaille Militaire actually came with a stipend, something that was far more common back in the WWI/WWII era.) He and the others in his regiment would also be awarded the Order of the Liberation Medal at war’s end.
French WWII Military Awards received by the Waltham's original owner: (L to R) Légion d'Honneur, Médaille Militaire, Croix de Guerre (with Palm), and the Order of Liberation Medal
Like so many of his era who have come to be known as “Our Greatest Generation,” he was a very brave man who never spoke about the war. He suffered pain from his injuries for the remainder of his life. He also had terrible nightmares almost every night. His son told me that he would hear him speaking in French, telling people to get down, or to take cover. Five years in combat and severe wounds will do that to you. It used to be called “Shell Shock,” and then “Battle Fatigue.” Nowadays it’s called “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder,” or simply “PTSD,” and it brings with it a type of pain that cannot be described, much less treated. Even in this day and age when we seem to know so much.
Gen. Philippe Leclerc signs the Instrument of Surrender on behalf of France during the Japanese surrender onboard the battleship, USS MISSOURI (BB 63), at Tokyo Bay on 2 September 1945
One of the most common questions I get asked about my MMMMofM presentations is why I use the term “Engineering” instead of, say, “Movement Operation” or “Movement Parameters vs. Actual Operation,” or “How It Ticky-Tockys,” and so on, etc. I’ve even had a few friends tease me about Evine Live’s watch program host, Tim Temple, and his use of the term “engine” instead of “movement.” I have to admit that that’s about as irritating as it gets where this particular Dead Guy is concerned, but using the term “Engineering” in lieu of “Movement Operation,” et. al., is my humble way of complementing what movement designers, builders and repair people do; they truly are engineers in every sense of the word as they go about the demanding and complex tasks that make their professions what they are.
And this is never more true than when these “Time Engineers” do their thing on a vintage watch, where everything is smaller and often more frail, even among such robust brands such as Rolex, Omega, Longines and, yes, Waltham. However, the good news here is that this beautiful old watch passed even my dour Watchmaker’s most severe of examinations, and came back to me in one lovely piece that I have come to cherish every bit as much for what it is as for who it once belonged to.
The 909 movement – one of many vintage “in-house” movements attributed to Waltham – is certainly a very interesting piece of mechanical engineering. It’s reminiscent of the Omega 563 17-jewel automatic (typically found in the Seamaster de Ville), as the time is set from the first crown position, while the day and date function reside at the 2nd position. The big difference, though, is that while the date is quick set, the day function requires you to cycle through 24 hours at a time to get to the appropriate day of the week. No, it’s not much fun, but it beats the heck out of having to twist your way through 24 hours, over and over, to make a 28-day date change…
Its operation is smooth and sure, though winding it can be a little rough on the fingertips. Along those same lines, it can also be a little tough getting the crown out to its furthest setting. In both cases, it feels far less of a case of wear and tear on the movement as it is the robustness originally built into it. Or, put another way, it still operates like a brand new movement, with all the attendant idiosyncrasies that come with it. Nonetheless, I’m still very careful to avoid winding it more than ten to 12 rotations when I get it started up in the morning – or evening, depending on what my less-than-enviable right-seat schedule dictates. I also tend to rely on it for no more than ten hours at a time, as my limited winding almost certainly equates to a shorter power reserve. But does that make it a pain to operate? Not particularly, no.
I mean, if I’m going to have a tough schedule – something like, say, getting from point A to point B by way of point C, D, E, F and G, with a 48-hour layover at point H, it’s probably a good idea to go with my Seiko Pogue, or even a non-vintage watch, such as my Fortis 100th Anniversary “Panda Bear.” Basically, no watch is a pain to operate if you plan ahead accordingly. However, if planning is something you view as a pain in and of itself, perhaps it’s time to break out the new Timex quartz. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that; I love my Timex’s…)
First Owner’s Story, Part III
He came to the U.S. for further medical treatment in 1946, and later became the Military Attache for the French Consulate in New York City.
French National Ensign flying outside the French Consulate in New York City
In 1963, he and his son were traveling through Europe, and were in Paris. They needed to catch a cab to go from one railway station to another one across town. Taxis were lined up, waiting for fares, but when they tried to get one, the drivers all sneered, saying the trip would be too short, so it was not worth their time. As his son tells it:
“One guy, and I remember it well, told my father to ‘get lost.’ My father pointed to the lapel on his jacket, where a red ribbon was pinned. We got our ride right away, and free of charge. People fell [all] over themselves in France for him. I never knew, until after his death, that the red ribbon on his jacket represented his award of Légion d'Honneur, and only those who were awarded it for valor in combat were entitled to wear it, by proclamation of General de Gaulle, after the war.”
“My father met De Gaulle in 1960, or so, in New York when he was visiting in the U.S. I had a chance to say hello to him while he was visiting with dad. After leaving the UN in 1966, my father became a successful businessman in the import and export industry. He died in 2001.”
The gentleman in question was obviously someone of superior courage and conviction, traits that he passed along to his son, a gentleman whom I have come to deeply respect and admire over the last few years as I began collecting watches. When I acquired this particular watch, I asked him if he would mind if I wrote about not just the watch, but his father, as well. Not only did he allow me to write about this amazing man, but he supplied me with virtually all of the information used to put this write-up together. It’s truly an honor to wear this amazing watch, and also an honor to call its original owner’s son my good friend.
So for those of you who haven’t figured out who the original owner’s son is, I am pleased to tell you that he is our very own Koimaster, founder, owner and moderator extraordinaire of Watchlords. Alain, many, many thanks for allowing me to share not only your Dad’s beautiful watch with our fellow armchair horologists, but his remarkable personal history, as well. It is an honor I will always cherish.
I suppose it comes as no surprise that I’m very, very pleased and proud to own this watch. Yet, personal considerations aside, I would be extremely pleased in any case to own this amazing vintage piece. Its design and beauty are obvious, as are its classic lines and overall appearance; it’s truly a watch of its era, one that any fan of vintage horology would be pleased to add to his or her collection. After 50+ years, its superior engineering remains superior, as it continues to run beautifully, losing only an average half-dozen seconds a day. I guess you could sum it up by saying that this watch is easily one of those that make vintage collecting a joy to both the mind and the senses, one of those watches I never get tired of looking at.
As always, many thanks for dropping by for a look and staying for a read – and even, perhaps, a comment. I’m truly blessed by being able to combine my love for watches with my love for writing, and the enjoyment I get from it defies mere words. All I can really say to each of you is thank you. Be safe and well, all.
©2015, Mortuus Praesepultus, Rancho Santa Fe, CA