“Time Capsule”: Japanese Tomes, Watch Otaku, and the Rule of the Archetype

Share this story:

Today, watch lovers have multiple channels for discovery and research, among them (but not limited to) dedicated online magazines, Wikipedia, and a wide range of enthusiast forums. 20 years ago, however, this simply wasn’t the case. Rewind back to 1996. Text-based messaging systems like Usenet’s alt.horology and Prodigy’s message groups were being replaced by sites like Timezone. Also known as TZ, it attracted a large group of dot-commers, who at the time had an abundance of income and nowhere to spend it. Many of us wound up simply accumulating watches rather than pursuing the art of collecting. Moreover, there were very few authorities (the few included incredibly gifted writers like Carlos Perez and Walt Odets), but mostly there was just a lot of noise.

Due to this chasm in knowledge, dedicated collectors like myself still relied on books and magazines. But beyond James Dowling’s fantastic work on Rolex history, nothing else impressed me as much as what was coming out of Asia, specifically Japan. Simply, nobody else had the analytical depth and research compared to what the Japanese were doing, and I can thank a handful of Japanese authors for helping me incubate my thirst for watch knowledge. Strange enough, I discovered many of these books at a Taipei airport bookstore around 1998. Casually flipping through them between flights, I was quickly drawn into the details. I purchased the lot and took them home stateside.

Advertisement
Kesaharu Imai’s “A Time Capsule Omega Speedmaster.”

One of the best known Japanese watch authors is Kesaharu Imai, and his most famous work, A Time Capsule Omega Speedmaster, is now an out-of-print book covering the Speedmaster Professional and its involvement in the Apollo program. It is undoubtedly the most complete and authoritative work on the subject of the moonwatch. Imai’s research focused not only on the big picture, but also on the smallest (but equally important) of details, ranging from hand drawings of different designs to testing notes and scanned internal memos. These visuals are what make his work especially significant, as collectors come from all over and, as the cliché goes, a picture is worth a thousand words. Time Capsule now fetches high sums among collectors. Depending on the condition, a copy can go anywhere between $200 and $600.

time-capsule-20

“Simply, nobody else had the analytical depth and research compared to what the Japanese were doing, and I can thank a handful of Japanese authors for helping me incubate my thirst for watch knowledge.”

I happened to re-discover this book after unearthing it and a handful of others from storage a few months back. It was basically in a sealed state for 15 years along with other Japanese watch books I’d accumulated over the years from publishers like Green Arrow and Begin. Green Arrow and Begin simply titled their books, Submariner, Explorer, Speedmaster, or Calatrava. As the titles suggest, these books were often dedicated to specific watches, with a laser focus on everything that made these watches tick (excuse the pun).

The books were essentially portable guides, filled with photos and infographics on every little thing you could think of. Some of the Rolex books, for example, had pages showing  minute logo variations with specific size annotations. You could, for example, see very clearly how Rolex changed their different crown etchings throughout the years. There were photos of exploded movements, serial number history charts, and scanned advertisements. Things that we obsess over now, the Japanese had already covered years ago.

time-capsule-35
Breakdown of Rolex crowns over the years.

Counterfeit watches were also rather rampant at the time. I could clearly remember encountering vintage dealers at the time selling fake Tudor Rangers, Rolex Explorer 1016s, Glycine Airmans, and Universal Genève Polerouters. While traveling to a watch store in a far off country like Taiwan or Spain, I didn’t have the luxury of a smartphone or Internet access back in 1999. These tomes accompanied me to many shops selling vintages watches.

time-capsule-38
The evolution of the Speedmaster, meticulously documented and presented.

I still remember clearly one specific example of how these books saved me from being duped. I had found what appeared to be a 6610 Explorer in Bali. It ultimately turned out to be a fake or at the very least a franken-watch, but to my untrained eyes at the time, it seemed like the real deal. The watch had a convincing patina, the dial and hands appeared to be legit, and the counterfeiters had nailed the case dimensions and knew where to sign the case (it may have even been a proper Rolex case). The movement was also rather deceptive, featuring a custom signed Rolex rotor. What I learned with the help of my copy of Explorer was that the rotor was sitting atop an ETA movement base. In retrospect, it was the biggest tell on the watch, though one that was deceptively hidden underneath layers that looked correct. I rightly declined the sale.

Advertisement

These books were created to service a certain Japanese consumer mindset. The concept can be difficult to explain to Westerners as it embodies an almost fanatical obsession for knowledge, though I believe that many watch lovers today can certainly relate. This mindset originates from the word otaku, a word you may have heard before and one that has multiple definitions and interpretations that have changed throughout the years. And depending on who says it and who it is directed toward, otaku could be considered derogatory or praiseworthy.

In the West, otaku is widely associated with extreme anime culture. In other circles, it refers to highly informed enthusiasts who enjoy extreme immersion in their subjects or hobbies. These books were tailored precisely for obsessive Japanese watch types, with a laser focus on the rule of the archetype.

time-capsule-34

The rule of the archetype encompasses the desire of acquiring the ideal standard. In watches, the typical archetypes include the Rolex Submariner, the Omega Speedmaster, the IWC Mark series, etc. By definition, archetypes are standards or points of reference by which others are judged and emulated from, and the Japanese value the icons. These aforementioned watches are standard bearers, or hallmarks, of their genre. The Submariner, for example, defined the dive watch with its rotating bezel, oyster bracelet, and Mercedes hands (though I should note it was not the first to have some of these features). There are also other archetypes the Japanese go crazy for that fall beyond the scope of watches, and include sunglasses, sneakers, classic furniture, denim, etc. And yes, there are voluminous books on those subjects, too.

time-capsule-5In closing, as I thumb through Imai’s book, I am still impressed with the amount of detail and research crammed within its pages. Despite the rising popularity of forums and online magazines, these books remain important tools, with their authors having done much of the important legwork we now see online. I often see a lot of Speedmaster information out there pulled from Time Capsule, and Imai rarely gets his due credit, but I digress. If you’re a watch lover of the fanatical sort, I highly recommend finding these books and adding them to your collection.

Advertisement
Images from this post:
As a collector who splurged during the glorious dotcom 1.0 days, Hung acquired a sizable collection of Swiss watches. Now married with two kids and a mortgage, his watch tastes and pursuits are more down-to-earth. His other interests involve design history, technology, and collecting Star Wars Action figures. He brings a seasoned perspective to the worn&wound team. Hung grew up and lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Categories:
  • DannyBoyJr

    If only John Mayer had these books…

  • imageWIS

    How can I get these books??

  • The Deplorable Boogur T. Wang

    Thank you very much for this valuable insight.

Article / Featured

DISCUSSION PROMPT: APPLE WATCH

By
It’s finally here, the Apple Watch… as expected, it has …

Watch Mods: Dagaz Watch Ltd.

By
A few weeks ago we posted our first watch mod …