Saturday, May 03, 2008

Ok, how do you talk about a nice wristwatch on a Buddhist blog?

When I first moved out to the Northwest, I realized that the old Seiko 5 that I had had for decades was beat up, didn't quite look professional, especially when my company's early literature talked about wearing suits and all that.

I had wanted a replacement watch. I didn't really want a quartz movement - first of all there were the batteries. Secondly, a pure (automatic) mechanical movement such as the Seiko 5 had required no attention.

Unfortunately, I could not at the time, find a jewelry dealer in Vancouver that sold a decent non-quartz watch. It was the sticks, you know.

And Rolexes? I couldn't afford one, I wouldn't afford one, and they reeked of being yuppie toys to me.

So I wound up getting an at-the-time nice looking, but essentially cheap Citizen Quartz Chronograph, which tended to need batteries more often than I expected, and at times when it was unfortunate to replace them.

Still, it served me faithfully, more or less, for about 12 years though it got quite beat up. And of course I never actually used any chronograph functions.

And then...I realized that it was really beat up, from being on my wrist in all those coach-class international flights. It looked ridiculous on my hand when I met the CEO of my company.

I just didn't have the ceremonial robes down right, so to speak.

What had really tipped me in the direction of getting a new watch, though, was this article, which I read because my wife got me a subscription to Forbes Life, because frequent flyer miles were expiring, and, you know, it'd be a waste not to use them... Your logic may vary - anyway a variety of magazines started showing up at my home, but that's another story. Ok, let's just say, Forbes Life is conspicuous consumption porn, but it's worthwhile compared to Fortune.

Anyway, I came upon this article, and the engineer in me was fascinated.

The first collectible watch I ever bought was a Rolex Bubbleback, the only timepiece in the 1940s to enclose a self-winding movement in a waterproof case. Admittedly that wasn’t especially impressive by the time I acquired it in 1991—modern quartz didn’t need winding, and watertight plastics were abundant—but what mattered to me was the sheer inventiveness, the audacity of making a watch bulbous as a submarine just so that it could be powered by swimming. In the mid-20th-century, Rolex thrived on technical bravado, making sport of staid jewelry counters by displaying watches inside goldfish bowls, while other companies such as Patek Philippe and Vacheron Constantin tested the limits of mechanical complexity with watches that tracked phases of the moon or multiple time zones.

Today, that grand old tradition of bold mechanical innovation is back with a vengeance. Aided by the latest advances in chemical and mechanical engineering—and computers, of course—an agile new generation of independent watchmakers is building timepieces that would have been unimaginable in the ’40s, or even the ’90s. Richard Mille combines platinum and steel with resilient new materials developed for fighter jets. Franck Muller engineers gears that rotate only once every thousand years. The most extraordinary contemporary timepieces don’t remind me of 20th-century wristwatches so much as 18th-century philosophical toys such as the mechanical doll that delighted savvy audiences by writing Descartes’famous line “Cogito ergo sum” with a quill pen.

(Note the irony of the last sentence...)

Too, I was reminded of the remonstration Meryl Streep's Miranda Priestly made regarding her profession in "The Devil Wears Prada," which struck me as valid: people design this ridiculously expensive stuff not only so that the wealthy have something to conspicuously consume, but also because it helps the rest of us define our image of ourselves to each other. It's a bit of communication.

Andy Sachs: No, no, nothing. Y'know, it's just that both those belts look exactly the same to me. Y'know, I'm still learning about all this stuff.

Miranda Priestly: This... 'stuff'? Oh... ok. I see, you think this has nothing to do with you. You go to your closet and you select out, oh I don't know, that lumpy blue sweater, for instance, because you're trying to tell the world that you take yourself too seriously to care about what you put on your back. But what you don't know is that that sweater is not just blue, it's not turquoise, it's not lapis, it's actually cerulean. You're also blithely unaware of the fact that in 2002, Oscar De La Renta did a collection of cerulean gowns. And then I think it was Yves St Laurent, wasn't it, who showed cerulean military jackets? And then cerulean quickly showed up in the collections of 8 different designers. Then it filtered down through the department stores and then trickled on down into some tragic casual corner where you, no doubt, fished it out of some clearance bin. However, that blue represents millions of dollars and countless jobs and so it's sort of comical how you think that you've made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry when, in fact, you're wearing the sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room. From a pile of stuff.

That movie is probably the only good date-movie I've seen in 5 years, but that's another trajectory...

I realized that it's high time I searched for a decent non-quartz watch. One that's not as accurate as my cell phone's time function.

I also realized there's the huge sub-stratum of society - like the folks who build model railroads obsessively or collect rocks (not necessarily jewels) who collect watches.

I'm not one of them. But I understand the allure. Here's what I got: the Oris BC3:

This watch should be environmentally correct, last decades to be handed down to my son, and didn't set me back anywhere near like a Rolex. It's readable on a plane on an international journey, it's readable without my reading glasses, and it's got a saphire crystal, so it won't likely get any kind of a serious scratch while I'm alive.

Moreover, you can see the movement moving through the saphire crystal see-through back, and it's movement's movement is reminiscent of Mary Roach's description of the human heart beating - it's doing some kind of wild St. Vitus dance in there. The watch appears alive; its second hand dances across the face.

It's deliriously, beautifully, obsolete and irrelevant. That's quite similar to a description once made by Thomas Merton about monks.

And somehow, I can't think it's totally, completely immoral to have a decent reliable watch in this day and age whose only future environmental footprint is characterized by its tuneups that will be needed years from now.

One final plus: my 6 year old asked me, "Daddy, why does it sound like it's going so fast?" He had never heard a mechanical wristwatch before, and so I got to explain to him about mechanical analogs of phase locked loops and whatnot.

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