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Saturday, June 22, 2013

Pieces of Time

The Wizard mentioned today that his faithful and handsome Bulova Accutron, a railroad-approved watch with a conventional face that I bought for him maybe 20 years ago, is losing five seconds at a time, instead of one. One was livable, but I guess five is too many. Oddly, he knows this by monitoring the atomic clock on the internet.  He took it to a watchmaker, thinking it needed a new battery, but the watchmaker said some part within is broken. A part that is no longer available.

We began talking about watches then, and their associations with status and practicality.  The great and less-than-great-but-adequate names in watches, like Rolex, Omega, Longines, Bulova, Wittnauer, Timex, Swatch, Casio...and watch advertising that is as irrelevant to its product as fragrance advertising is to its. When I think of front-page advertising in newspaers (the WSJ and the SCMP) it is always about watches. Time is money, they say.  The advertising is selling something fleeting, indescribable, and, well, priceless. (We both, the Wizard and I, have vivid memories of advertising in Star Ferry terminals in Hong Kong, one for a Ted Lapidus perfume called Creation, a big surreal ad that was on the wall in the waiting area in the now gone Central terminal for years and years--and another, a working clock actually, for Longines, as you pull into the Kowloon dock. I think it's still there.)

To say nothing of watch time: in most watch advertising, it is always ten past ten, or possibly ten to two because it is the most aesthetically pleasing, those balanced hands.  (Really, look the next time you see a watch ad, I bet it will be ten past ten. Or secondarily, ten to two. Or possibly 20 past 8, if the watch is in a certain position in the display.  If none of these times, the ad designer is clumsy. Though the few exceptions prove the rule.) How we present digital time is more puzzling.  I like the idea of 1:11 or 11:11.  Or 12:34...or any number of numerologically meaningful combinations I notice when I wake up in the middle of the night and look at the digital readout on my Bose radio.

I have a nice conventional Wittnauer, a child of Bulova, that my mother gave me when I graduated from college, engraved with my initials and the date on the back.  It is very similar (but maybe a generation advanced in style) to her own delicate Bulova that now occupies a place on a very personal charm bracelet.  Neither of them actually work well. You must remember to wind them, assuming that the mainspring is still functional. Does anyone remember the caution against "overwinding"? My Wittnauer's mainspring is still intact; the Bulova's is long seized up. Visits to the watchmaker to "clean" them used to be routine, like visits to the dry cleaner or hairdresser.  Now we just buy a new Swatch. (I bought a great Swatch in Korea, in the airport, when I realized in a timely fashion maybe it would be a good idea while traveling in China to have a watch; I really rarely wear one.) Or maybe we acquire a Philippe Patek, which, according to its advertising, is not really for you, yourself, but to pass on to a next generation. (I do not mean to suggest that I actually bought one of these. Or would.  We say time is money, but I don't really think so.)
Mother and Daughter: Mom's Bulova, at left, eternally ten past ten; my 43-year-old Wittnauer, paused at a quarter to four.
Timepieces have a strange place in my own Swiss background.  There was a lovely banjo clock with a pendulum and chimes that graced a hallway of my childhood home. It chimed quarter hours and whole hours. A bronze eagle perched on its top and there was a painting on glass of a schooner on the little door you had to open to wind it with a key.  It demanded regular attention, a special Saturday-night ritual of my father's. My parents bought it as an antique in Baltimore when they were first married, just after the war ended in 1945; there was some legend of a ship's captain down on his luck. The clock appears in the background in many old family photos.  My father said he broke it, dropped it when he was carrying it down some stairs, it shattered into many pieces.  Likewise, the pocket watches of my mother's railroading grandfather were stolen. This was after my mother died and he moved in with an antique collector. I need to let go of my suspicions about the actual disposition of these items. Ah well, the memories are more timeless than the timepieces.

We give such meaning, such attention to these devices that measure something that isn't really real.  What is time anyway?  My Bose clock radio mostly tells me, without an alarm, that I wake up at more or less the same time every morning.  It confirms that I am ready to go to sleep when I feel sleepy.  No clock has ever changed my arrival or departure time, has ever granted me more time to accomplish something.  Although the Wizard has that odd habit of setting the clocks ten minutes fast to deceive himself, he who is bothered by losing a few seconds now and then.  Odd for an IT guy who should have a sense of "real time."

He is in the market for a new Accutron.


BK Max said...

It's true, I remember my first watch so vividly, I was five years old, my mother had just passed away and Apollo mission had just landed on the moon. My watch was a commemorative watch of that event. It's seared into my memory and a love of watches ever since. It is funny the memories we associate with objects and events.
As a guy (also work in I.T.) watches are a guys acceptable jewelry also, but that's another subject altogether.

baroness radon said...

In all fairness, I should clairfy that the Accutron is not actually losing or gaining time; it's simply measuring it in five second intervals instead of one. Instead of 60 increments in a minute, it is measuring 12. Funny, this all has a Chinese cyclical feel to it!

Interesting to understand the watch as a memorial as well as a measurement device. Seeing my mother's and mine together has been sort of sweet.

Kerry, yes, I guess watches are acceptable guy bling. I am sometimes suspicious of men with a lot of gold around their necks or with earrings that are nicer than mine. In fact the nicest earstuds I have seen recently were on a waiter in a Japanese nabe restaurant. It seemed wrong to ask where he got them.

SBM said...

HI. My RR approved accutron is 48 years old and going strong loosing 2 seconds a day, which is spec. Don't abandon it. Was the battery replaced? If so its probably a 1.55v not a 1.34 volt accucel-1 and maybe it needs phasing. Or just get it serviced. there are many people who can service an Accutron. this watch is a bit of horologic history with its tuning fork, the first fully electronic watch, and the last, as the world went to quartz. Google old father time Accutron repairs. he can fix it. There are many others as well.

baroness radon said...

Remarkably, a new battery did correct the Accutron's inaccuracy. The Wizard is on time again.