You’re interested in watches. You want to know more about them. Where do you start? Watchworld is a landscape dotted with rabbit holes down which a tyro can lose himself for days. Why do people keep talking about the ‘quartz crisis’? What’s the difference between a chronograph and a chronometer (and why doesn’t a chronograph record time by writing it down?)
Those of us who remember watches pre-web remember raiding the few watch books from the local library and poring over them for hours, then ordering more to follow the links to subjects we were interested in. Now, if you want to know the fine points of Newman Daytonas (and why the heck wouldn’t you?) you’ve got your choice of YouTube videos with people like Aurel Bacs explaining the whole thing in detail.
But while the web is a fantastic resource once you know – at least broadly – where you’re heading, there’s a lot of myth, even more hype and slathers of stuff that’s just plain wrong. Anyone else remembers the horror show that was the Heuer Mappamondo?
This is where Eric Grégoire’s splendid new book, Eternal Springs, comes in. It has the knack of being a guide for putative residents of Watchworld whilst offering enough to keep the old stagers happy and interested too.
It manages to pack a great deal of material into 170 pages. You get an overview of watch history, a look at the elements of watches (everything from lug shapes to radium numerals) before it runs through different watch types and complications, transitional technology like tuning fork movements and finally a technical strip-down of a movement.
Throughout the book there are ‘Quick Time Out’ sections; bite-sized bits of information that are at a tangent to the main text. They’re fascinating. Want to know what the difference between a bridge and a cock is? Have a look at page 93 (I learned something, even after more than forty years of watch obsession – thank you, Eric)
Eric hasn’t been scared to tackle a couple of the topics that have exercised most of us for years. If you read nothing else in the book, spend some time on the section ‘Do Mechanical Watches Have a Soul’. It’s the best explanation I’ve read anywhere of why watches move us and engage us emotionally in a way that Apple’s wrist computers just don’t.
I had the chance to ’talk’ to Eric and get a sense of why he’d written the book, what his own journey into Watchworld had looked like and what his plans are next.
Thanks for letting me have an early read of “Eternal Springs” – I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it. What inspired you to start writing it?
After almost 20 years of being involved in the watch world, I had started to notice certain recurring themes. I would often meet people who were new to collecting and had become confused by misinformation, half-truths, and myths that seem to abound. It’s easy to become overwhelmed in this hobby, especially for those who are new to it. I don’t claim to know everything about watches and timekeeping, but I’m a pretty good compiler of information and, I’d like to think, an entertaining writer.
So the idea for “Eternal Springs” was born as a one-stop, go-to guide that could serve as a companion piece for those newly entering the world of collecting or who might want to fill in some gaps in their knowledge. What was envisioned as a quick and easy project where I would define key terms and explain a few broad topics, quickly ballooned into a labor of love that stretched out to over a year of extensive research, photography, and writing. Within a few weeks of starting, I realized that I had fallen into the rabbit hole and the only way out was to keep going forward.
I would begin a topic, like watch dials, that would lead to finishing techniques like guilloche, then the topic naturally turns to markers and hands, then to luminescence, which in turn brings up the subject of radio-luminescence and before I know it, I’m delving into whole new chapter on the tragic history of the Radium Girls. When you start to peel back the layers, you soon realize what a fascinating topic horology is and how its rich history has touched on so many other facets of human advancement.
There’s a remarkable depth to the book – where did you start your journey?
I came of age right during the quartz crisis. A time when a rush of new electronic technologies like transistors, capacitors and integrated circuits were being used to replace old-fashioned mechanical devices, not just in the watch realm, but throughout numerous other industries. I am the youngest sibling in my family so I grew up spending a lot of time with my grandparents while the older kids were off at school and doing their older-kid stuff. My grandmother used to enjoy going to antique shops and rummage sales and I would often tag along. I remember one day coming across a Curta mechanical calculator.
I didn’t know what it was at first and thought it was an elaborate pepper grinder, but on closer inspection, I noticed the numbers around the periphery and realized it was some type of adding machine. Little did I know at the time that the Curta could do much more than that, but I was instantly intrigued by this little cylinder with a handle on the top that could calculate numbers without batteries. It did it all with nothing more than hand power, an intricate array of springs, levers, plates, and an awful lot of human design ingenuity. I remember from that moment having a profound respect for what was mechanically possible in a rapidly-changing electronic world.
There’s a huge amount of information in the book – how did you even start researching it?
I’m an old-school guy, so I spent a fair amount of time in an actual library reading actual books. I found “Time & Timekeepers” by Willis Milham to be particularly helpful, especially when it came to exploring the historical and scientific aspects of horology. Of course, the Internet is also an invaluable tool in today’s age, it’s especially helpful to connect with others to bounce ideas around and collaborate. Thanks to the Internet, I was able to work with Paul Delury from Perth, Australia, who is not only very knowledgeable when it comes to vintage watches, but he’s also an amazing photographer. Fortunately, he was willing to contribute some of his excellent watch photos to the project, including the cover shot.
You’ve included some really interesting areas – Accutrons, railroad watches – that you don’t usually see in watch books. What was your thinking behind that?
I’ve always been drawn to the unusual. Anything created by those who like to think outside the box, and the Accutron certainly fits that bill. The tuning fork movement represents an interesting fork in the technological road, designed when transistors were making so much possible. Had it not been for the development of quartz technology, it may have become a standard for many years, but as it turns out, the tuning fork movement became a curious piece of abandoned technology.
But for it’s time, the Accutron stood out as an incredible breakthrough in precision timekeeping, and their truly innovative design still fascinates today. It’s the only timekeeping mechanism that utilizes the regulating system to power the drive train. There is a tiny pawl attached to one of the tuning forks with an even tinier jewel on the other end that engages an index wheel with 320 microscopic teeth, resulting in a magnificently smooth-running seconds hand and a delightful F sharp hum when you put your ear to it. That’s some serious outside-the-box thinking. Railroad watches were the solution to a very serious problem of how to keep the railways safe and prevent deaths using the available technology of the era at a time before GPS or advanced communications, and what an elegant and wonderful solution those watches were. Not only were they amazing, state-of-the-art micro machines, but they were beautiful and actually saved lives. How could I not include a section on them?
You’ve really veered away from the traditional candidates – the watch clichés, if you like – and chosen very different watches to photograph for the book. Are these part of your own collection?
I’d say about 90 percent of the photos are mine. Especially the middle section of the book, “The Movement Explored.” In that section, I disassemble a Unitas movement and reassemble it, photographing every step and every component along the way, explaining their function and purpose. That entire section was a real challenge since getting good clear shots of such tiny pieces is quite difficult. I needed to work with colleagues for some other photos, particularly in the glossary section as there are some types of watches I don’t own, like a tourbillon or repeater, and I wanted to include shots of them. Fortunately, everyone I worked with was very happy to contribute some great photos of their pieces.
Things are changing so fast at the moment – where do you see the future of the watch industry?
Oh boy, you’re going to make me get out my crystal ball polish. Well, looking back can sometimes help us speculate as to the future, and over the last decade, we can’t overlook the explosive growth and proliferation of microbrands. I think their popularity speaks to some of our most basic desires. All of us want to be recognized for being “in the know,” and buying a microbrand allows us a degree of behind-the-scenes access you could never get with a major brand. It’s not uncommon to be able to speak directly with the owner of a micro to discuss a potential purchase. The micros also offer us a degree of exclusivity at a fraction of the cost, and let’s face it, lots of us collectors are still children at heart, and we love being the only kid on the block with a shiny new toy. I think there are some parallels that can be drawn between microbrands in the watch world and the emergence of craft breweries.
Watch collectors today, especially the younger ones, tend to be very dedicated fans of their preferred brands and want to be thought of as more than just an anonymous consumer in return. With this in mind, over next few years as the economic conditions continue to become more challenging, the story will be, which of the established companies will be able to pivot and provide customers with a more personalized buying and ownership experience, and which of the microbrands will have enough reserves and innovation to be able to weather the inevitable decline in overall sales.
Now you’ve published Eternal Springs, what’s next for you?
I’ve lately turned my attention towards writing fiction. While I very much enjoyed writing “Eternal Springs,” putting together a book based entirely on factual information can be exhausting. Watch enthusiasts can be sticklers for accuracy and while writing, I would often hear their voices, “Wrong! A ligne is actually 2.25 millimeters, NOT 2.24 millimeters!” or “The standards for the American railroad chronometer were set in 1887 not 1891.” Knowing every bit of information I included would be heavily scrutinized really kept me on my toes.
It took a considerable amount of effort to maintain factual standards, while simultaneously trying to keep the book fun and engaging. As I neared completion, I vowed my next project would be a fantasy fiction piece so I could write whatever I wanted without worrying about facts, and it has been a liberating change of pace. That’s not to say that I’ve abandoned watch writing altogether, I still enjoy writing watch reviews on occasion when a timepiece comes along that moves me.
What’s on your wrist today?
I actually wore two watches today. I started the day with a morning swim in the ocean, so I grabbed my Yema Superman Heritage Bronze. I hadn’t owned a bronze watch before and decided the Superman Heritage would be a good choice since I admired its decidedly vintage looks. I’ve since discovered that I like bronze, but not dull or green patina bronze. I like bright, shiny copper-toned bronze, so I spend quite a bit of time polishing it with lemon juice and baking soda, especially since it sees quite a bit of salt water.
In the afternoon I switched over to my Claude Meylan 6045 skeleton. It’s a delightful watch with a beautifully skeletonized Unitas manual wind movement. I’m a big fan of Claude Meylan watches and I really enjoy wearing a skeleton because my curious nature always prompts me to ask, “Hey, what’s going on in there?”
Thanks so much, Eric, for sharing your views, your knowledge and your experience. You can download the book for $8.68 at Amazon here.
Mark developed a passion for watches at a young age. At 9, he was gifted an Omega Time Computer manual from a local watch maker and he finagled Rolex brochures from a local dealer. Today, residing in the Oxfordshire village of Bampton, Mark brings his technical expertise and robust watch knowledge to worn&wound.