From Deep in the Watch Box: Reconnecting with a 70 Year Old Dress Watch

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Most of the watches in my personal collection make a certain amount of sense. I have a general interest in sports watches, all things Japanese, and stuff that is rarely seen and somewhat uncommon. So it makes sense that my watches tend to be on the robust side, or sometimes have a less common dial variant or unusual case shape, or just say “Grand Seiko” on them. This is my collecting sweetspot, and something I’ve learned through a fair amount of trial and error over the course of time. But when I look at my watch box, there’s an easily spotted outlier: tucked away from the modern divers and Zaratsu polished Japanese works of art, sits a small, hand wound dress watch dating back to the 1950s. It’s a Certina, it’s 35 milimeters in diameter, and I’ve happily rediscovered it over these last strange months of social distancing and social isolation.  

Look, we’ve all been cooped up for what seems like way too long a time, and I think that new routines and habits have probably found their way into all of our lives to a certain extent. For me, that basically means constantly changing my watch. I think there are probably some collectors reading this who can relate. I’ve found that taking a break from work means doing a  lap around my apartment, maybe cleaning some dishes or taking the trash out, and, somehow, I tend to end up standing over my watch box, ready to cycle something else into the rotation. When you don’t have to be anywhere or see anyone, questions of appropriateness fall by the wayside when choosing what to strap to your wrist, either for the day or for an hour.

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Instead, something else drives this decision. It’s a desire to experience something a little different, even if just temporarily. When your days become a routine marked by an overwhelming mundanity, changing your watch on a whim and for no real reason feels like an easy way to add just a small amount of transgression into your life. All the better if that watch feels anachronistic in some way. Challenging norms feels good when activity is restricted. 

Being that I don’t often have a reason to dress formally, I’ve never had too much of an interest in owning very traditional dress watches. And, even when I do need to throw on a tie or a sport coat, in today’s sartorial climate, casual watches can easily be paired with traditional menswear (but that’s another post for another time, and probably another blog by another writer). While I can obviously appreciate fine and delicate precious metal dress pieces, they don’t really fit my lifestyle or collecting goals, so I admire them from afar. But this little Certina has been with me for awhile, and comes from a period of time in my collecting when my taste was a bit less defined. Where I’ve sold other watches that I’ve determined just didn’t work for me, I’ve held on to this Certina because it’s so well preserved, and I can’t resist it as a time capsule from 70 years ago. It’s also not very valuable, relatively speaking, so it’s easy enough not to notice it sitting unused for months and months at a time. 

But, as they say, quarantine changes everything. And while these last few months have certainly hit many with a gravity that goes far beyond the triviality of watches, I wouldn’t have reconnected to this watch had I not been in the throes of some kind of isolation inspired watch OCD.

The watch itself is a simple three handed dress watch that is completely unassuming on first pass, but is rewarding and rich with small details once you start really examining it. First and foremost this is an honest to goodness vintage sector dial, a design that’s having just a bit of a resurgence over the last few years. The contrast between the three distinct sections of the dial are made a bit more dramatic by the even and subtle patina that has developed naturally over time, particularly on the outermost  sector. There are four applied hour markers at the cardinal positions, drawn together by a crosshair that divides the watch into even and symmetrical quadrants. The dial and hands have a subtle curve to prevent parallax error that was common in watches of this time period. Basically, this thing screams 1950s, and couldn’t be less like the modern sports watches that I tend to gravitate toward these days. 

The case, again, is rigorously simple, but extremely well executed. At 35mm in diameter, this is certainly on the small side for my 7.5 inch wrist, there’s no doubt about that. But wearing it  more frequently these last few weeks has made me realize that the sweet spot at the small end of your wearable spectrum, when you hit it exactly, is more satisfying than a bigger and more forgiving watch. With straight lugs that are angled just slightly downward, this watch is easy to plant on the wrist, and the proportions are perfect both for fit and aesthetics. If any one component (lugs, case, crown) measured just one millimeter off in another direction, it would ruin everything, at least on my wrist. As the watch exists, though, it truly does disappear (it’s so light and unobtrusive I quite literally forget that I’m wearing it after awhile), and the lug span just barely reaching each side of the wrist looks and feels exactly right for a watch like this.

If you look at this watch, or another like it, and think that because of the measured diameter it’s a non-starter because your wrist is too large, I would encourage you to consider finding an inexpensive way to experiment with wearing a smaller sized watch. There’s no better time than right now. I mean, even in an environment where you’re constantly coming into close contact with strangers, the likelihood that any one of them would verbalize a critique of your diminutive watch is vanishingly small. Right now, when we’re all six feet apart at all times, it seems like the chances of that happening are non-existent. And of course if you’re worried about comments from the Instagram peanut gallery, well, you have total control over that and can choose not to share. But I’ve found that in our community, enthusiasts are welcoming and supportive of trying different things. You might be surprised by the positive response.

A 70 year old lug that has seen a few things in its day
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Something that I’ve learned, or perhaps something I’ve always known on some level but has been confirmed in these last few months, is that when we look at watches purely in terms of filling a hole in a collection (a diver here, a chronograph there, don’t forget the dress watch) or as being meant to complete a particular task, it limits us somewhat. That’s not to say there isn’t a place for a purpose built tool watch, or a sleek dress piece that you only bring out for the most special occasions, but wearing this Certina paired with an old sweatshirt with a fresh stain from the previous night’s meatball sub made me appreciate the thing as a watch in a way that I hadn’t before. It’s not a dress watch anymore, because I’m not, frankly, getting dressed for anything right now. But it’s an incredibly cool and wearable object from another generation that transports me to a different time and place temporarily, even if I’m actually just checking the time as I enter hour number three of an Office binge. 

There’s something to be said for developing taste as a collector. Knowing what you like, what looks good on you, and what you can glean long term enjoyment from owning is important if you’re looking for fulfillment in this exceedingly strange hobby, and not constant frustration. But it’s just as important to keep an open mind, and recognize the sheer size of the watch world, both in terms of the variety of watches you can choose to wear, and the enormous history of horology. 

Finding the time to connect with your lesser worn watches, or even taking a chance on something outside of your comfort zone, is a critical exercise in growing your own watch knowledge. Really focusing on how a watch works when it’s divorced from its original context forces you to view it in a new way. For me, it’s given me a greater appreciation for watches that might be smaller than what I’d normally consider, and expanded my own idea of when I might be able to work a traditional dress watch into my life. It’s all part of the experience of developing and refining taste, and opens up the once unthinkable possibility that a watch like this Certina might not be such an outlier in my collection after all. 

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Zach is a native of New Hampshire, and he has been interested in watches since the age of 13, when he walked into Macy’s and bought a gaudy, quartz, two-tone Citizen chronograph with his hard earned Bar Mitzvah money. It was lost in a move years ago, but he continues to hunt for a similar piece on eBay. Zach loves a wide variety of watches, but leans toward classic designs and proportions that have stood the test of time. He is currently obsessed with Grand Seiko.
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