There’s a lot of emphasis among watch collectors that there is no “right” way to enjoy watches and horology. This is true. Some enthusiasts only give attention to watches within a certain price bracket; some are interested only in watches others would call boring, and vice versa. Regardless of preference, true enthusiasm is inspiring, and can open one’s eyes to new areas of enjoyment.
With that in mind, there’s one way that I think is always a “right” way to engage with watches and horology – understanding how movements work. I’m not here to gate-keep or decide who is worthy to be considered an enthusiast, but an interest in the nuts and bolts, the practical science of timekeeping, is something every watch collector can and should pursue.
One of the most honest and effective ways to achieve this is to simply work on your watches – learning through your hands and eyes. Watchmaking is a vocation with an aura of otherworldliness about it – the long apprenticeships, the inaccessible tininess and precision. It’s so easy to be intimidated by this – and by the fear of making a fool of yourself in front of the stern keepers of the dark art. Don’t let this hold you back. Watches are not sacred – they are earnestly practical pieces of machinery that anyone with a rudimentary understanding of physics can grasp easily. The rest is mostly just patience.
In this article I hope to give you some reasons to pick up a screwdriver set and a pair of tweezers, and begin digging in yourself!
Achieve a Deeper Appreciation and Understanding
To most beginning watch enthusiasts, the means by which a mechanical watch operates and keeps time is something akin to magic – a force both enthusiastically esteemed and not understood at all. But magic is also accompanied by fear, a fear of the unknown, and it manifests itself in kind of funny ways with those new to the hobby “Will I damage my watch by not letting it run down? What about letting it run down? If I move my arm too fast will it damage the winding mechanism? Is hand winding bad for a movement?”
Myths abound about watch movements and their perceived vulnerabilities that occasionally are grounded in reality, but more often are borne out of ignorance repeated over and over. Cast all those cares aside when you learn how a watch movement actually works, in real life, and how various outside forces actually act upon it. Understanding instills confidence and enjoyment.
Anyone can look up diagrams, articles, photos, and videos online that will impart knowledge of watch parts and functions in some form. This is a fine place to start, but it doesn’t compare to unpeeling the layers of bridges and wheels and examining how finely they all interact with each other. Sure you may be able to remember that crown wheel screws are almost always left-hand threaded, but nothing drives that fact home like breaking one off (ask me how I know). You learn just how fine and delicate wheel pivots are, and how easy they are to bend and snap. You realize why the manufacturing of hairsprings was such a difficult and important thing when you try to fix a desperately tiny kink in one with two pairs of suddenly elephantine tweezers.
With time and practice, enthusiasm, and patience, anyone can develop basic watchmaking skills that will aid one immensely in maintaining one’s own collection. Even if you don’t get to [AH1] the point of comfortably working on your own pieces, being able to remove a caseback and examine a movement intelligently can aid you in fixing small problems that may otherwise require a multi-week or month stay at the watchmaker. A dust speck under a dial bothering you? Don’t let it! Instead of a nagging irritant, it can be a couple minutes of enjoyable work.
Knowing how a watch works is to know that even a basic watch movement is mechanical artistry. There is a beauty to the pure function that even the mechanically disinclined can appreciate, and I’ve found that it enhances enjoyment of any watch.
You don’t have to jump in with both feet to get started. Unscrew or unsnap a case back and get out a loupe. Examine all those moving parts and compare them to a chart or diagram. Notice the way different parts are finished, and the different materials used. As you acquire watches with some decoration or extra finishing, such as blued screws, there’s additional aesthetic enjoyment to be had. Even though it’s technically a cheap movement, I’m a huge fan of a well-executed Seagull ST-19 chronograph. When I had one in a watch with a display caseback, I was often tempted (daft as it is) to wear the watch movement-up just to enjoy the Geneva striping, gold-colored brass contrasting with the steel, blue anodized screws, and brilliant purple jewels.
When you’re comfortable getting further into it, performing repairs and service, there’s a huge satisfaction to knowing just how well your watch is running and to know that it’s doing so because of your handiwork. Double that if it’s a watch you brought back from an unwearable or non-functioning state.
Enjoy Watches Outside of Consumption
This one is a little more serious. We all know, deep down, that watch collecting as a hobby is centered around consumption. So is any collecting hobby, to some extent. We acquire and discard and acquire more. I think sometimes the ignobility of more for more’s sake makes us squirm a little, so we come up with excuses for more acquisition – I need a dress watch, a beater, a weekend watch, a travel watch, a GADA watch – the list is only as short as your imagination.
Working on and restoring watches opens up a whole new avenue of enjoyment to the hobby – one that is for the most part mercifully devoid of creative excuses for greed. Get into watchmaking, and you’ll find you spend less time browsing sales posts and trying to figure out your next acquisition. You’ll probably also find that the work of restoring a vintage watch, or repairing a much-loved one, is much more satisfying, too – I know I have.
This last point is really the biggest of them all – without other avenues and paths of pursuit, watch collecting can become a dangerously costly obsession. I believe and have found amateur watchmaking to be one of the more rewarding sides of the hobby. Don’t let fear or self-doubt hold you back. Give it a try!
Check out more of Evan’s articles at The Watch Clicker
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