Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Timekeepers in Changing Times

Traditionally, one of the more difficult early lessons for any child was the art of telling time. To a child, time has a peculiar arcane system of its own, ruled by 12 rather than 10. The translation of the numbers on the face of a clock to actual hours and minutes can be challenging for some.

It is said now that many children are growing up without any knowledge of traditional clocks and watches and therefore without the ability to tell time using any old-fashioned device. Digital clocks and watches do not require any special training. The numbers say precisely what they mean. '12.45' on a digital clock is self-evident, unlike a clock with a large hand that points to a position between the 12 and the 1 and a small hand pointing to the 9. With digital time, expressions such as 'quarter past' or 'half past' will become obsolete...

Fortunately, we are a species that can be extremely attracted to our collective past and when a tradition is almost lost, some one will revive it. Where objects possess great beauty, it is even less likely that they will be relegated entirely to the dust heap.

So it is with old watches and clocks. Timepieces always have been 'collectible' and amateurs and jewelers alike have been driven to research their history and their science.

I always found pocket watches in particular very beautiful but as a child, I learned more about fine china and silver than I did about timepieces. I was familiar with some of the famous names and I always loved the idea of having a gold watch, but collecting timepieces seemed to be more of an old man's pursuit somehow.

Current fashions combine gold with stainless steel in extremely heavy, functional unisex wristwatches. I never was comfortable with a wristwatch, especially one that was not solid gold. It seemed to clash with other jewelry, to take a position better occupied by a gold bracelet or bangle.

Although I looked at antique pocketwatches and pendant watches in a desultory fashion from time to time, thinking that one day I would obtain a lovely antique gold watch, I knew very little about them. Some one in my position, with little money for luxuries and little knowledge of the inner workings of sophisticated timepieces would hesitate to take any step towards acquiring a gold antique watch in real life.

Recently, however, I have done a little reading on the subject in order to help a friend. It is quite fascinating, actually, in its own way.

In my very limited experience, there were three types of watches. There were those that never needed winding, those that were wound by turning the stem and those that were wound by means of a key. I had no personal experience with the third. It was one of those activities shrouded in the mist of time. I had seen it done in old films but never had a watch myself with a key mechanism.

Rather to my surprise, however, I discovered that there were quite a few different methods for setting the time on a watch. I never realised that. Whether a battery watch or a watch that required winding, I thought one simply pulled the stem out another notch and turned it to set the hands.

This, however, is not the case with every antique watch. There are 'lever set watches', 'stem set watches', 'pin or nail set watches' and 'key set watches'.

'Lever set watches' include many railroad grade pocket watches. To set one of these, you must remove the bezel that holds the glass crystal. You then need to find the lever. It will be set either on the left or the right side of the dial. Pull out the lever to engage a clutch that will allow you to set the hands with the stem. When the hands have been positioned properly, push the lever back into place and replace the bezel.

'Pendant set' or 'Stem set' watches are the type that I know best. You simply pull out the crown another notch to engage the clutch. In this position, by turning the stem and crown, you will set the hands on the watch rather than winding it. It is important to remember to push the crown back into its usual position afterwards, however, or your watch may not run. Furthermore, when you next 'wind' the watch, you will turn the hands rather than actually winding the watch.

A 'Key Set' watch is one of the oldest types of watches. The key often is used both to wind the watch and to set the time. If you have a key, you must remove the bezel or open the cover. Where the hands attach to the watch, you will see a square 'arbour'. Set the key over the arbour and turn the hands until they display the correct time. Remove the key and replace the bezel or watch cover.

The 'pin' or 'nail set' watch is the type that perplexed me personally. A friend asked me to help her set her antique watch. It was a pendant watch with a stem that could not be pulled out at all, no matter how hard I tried. Before I utterly destroyed it, I discovered it to be a pin set watch. In a way, the pin set watch is similar to the lever set watch as a tiny button serves the same function as the lever. You will find this miniscule button located either to the left or right side of the pendant. Depress it and while doing so, turn the stem and crown until the correct time is displayed, then release the button. This releases the clutch, allowing the hands to move again.

This may be extremely tedious to most people, but once I began to research the workings of timepieces, I became rather fascinated by them. In addition, apparently, there are quite a few individuals who are drawn to antique watches but who, once they have obtained one, are unable to set the time or wind the watch because they are given no instruction in these matters.

The entire business of winding the pin set watch actually was an extraordinary experience partly because I could not believe that I could be defeated by a small round gold box.

Compared to a digital watch or any battery operated watch, any old wristwatch, pendant or pocket watch is a mysterious entity. For most people, the act of changing the battery in any battery watch, digital or otherwise, is something left to professionals. If they are enterprising, they can learn how to pop off the lid to replace the battery themselves. Apart from that, there is not much else to explore.

In a watch that requires winding, there can be three or four different ways to open it. There are open-faced watches and Hunter watches. Some watches have 'cuvettes' or dust covers. Some do not have the extra cover. If one actually opens the lid that protects the actual inner workings of the watch, one exposes an incredibly intricate tiny mechanical universe. The cogs and wheels are a mystery to me, but I am caught by their magic.

The system of a watch is known as the 'escapement'. This is a very precise mechanism that releases increments of time through the gear train of a watch.

The escapement of a watch begins with an escape wheel. The next component is the pallet. This makes contact with a balance wheel that swings back and forth. With each swing, the balance wheel locks and unlocks the pallet as it engages the escape wheel. The arc-of-motion can range from 18,000 beats per hour to 29,000 beats per hour, depending on the watch.

I am terrified of destroying the inner workings of a pocket watch. Too many tales have been told of children who pulled watches apart 'to see how they worked' and who were unable to put them back together again afterwards. I do see the attraction of the timepieces that have open workings, allowing the owner to see the gears in motion. I believe they include 'skeleton watches'.

Above and beyond all that, however is the ticking of an old watch. That is what I missed the most with battery watches. A watch that ticks has a heartbeat. It gives time a soul, presents it with life. A watch that ticks is almost a spiritual companion. The rhythm of the ticking is akin to the drumming of a shaman.

I suspect this is why traditional watches never lose their appeal to a small group of people. They may be more trouble than battery watches. They may be less predictable, less dependable, requiring constant interaction with the owner, but in a way, that is part of their charm. Winding a watch daily is a positive ritual, an act almost of devotion. In a way, it has a small superstitious component to it. By winding the watch to keep the watch ticking, one can fancy one is making certain that one's own heart will continue to beat. Obviously, there is no practical connection between the two, but it is a live-sustaining ritual in its own fashion, even if the device is a mechanical one.

N.B. The photographs displayed are of two pendant watches, both of the same size. One is a 'Hunter' style, which means that the face is protected by a case. The other has an open face. The Hunter watch is stem set but the open face watch is pin set. In fact, you can see the tiny pin next to the crown if you look closely.

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