Legendary Divers: Watch Spotting at the German Historical Diving Society

Last weekend, the German Historical Diving Society held its ninth annual meeting in Neustadt an der Weinstrasse, with participants from all over the world. Some of them worked at Comex, others have a military background, and most of them are collectors of vintage dive gear – but most of all, they all share a unique passion and dedication to document and preserve the history of diving.

HTG_Meeting_2015_Presentation_Watchtime_560

As one of the society’s Swiss members, diveintowatches.com was invited to give a presentation on the historical aspects of watches underwater, and we couldn’t have found a better audience for whom to do so: a vintage Omega Ploprof, a Tudor Pelagos, a Seiko “Sumo,” an Omega Seamaster 300 “Bond,” a lovely Dugena Caribbean, a Sinn UX, an Oris Aquis and even a Benthos were spotted among members of the audience — and all of them, we found, were heavily used for their intended function.

HTG_Meeting_2015_Ploprof_Watchtime_560

The most special discovery at the meeting? The Omega Ploprof pictured above is still regularly being used for diving, and its owner did so the very next day, outfitted in a typical black-and-yellow dive suit like the ones we know from Cousteau’s team. In the owner’s own words, “The best watchwinder for a Ploprof will always be a wetsuit… with yellow stripes, preferably.” Hard to argue with that.

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HTG_Meeting_2015_Marxweiher_Helmet_Watchtime_560

Home Grown: Testing the RGM 801 Aircraft

What do you get when you cross a historical, American-made pocketwatch with a clock made for military aircraft? You’re reading about it right now. The 801 Aircraft, from RGM, the Lancaster County-based watch company owned by watchmaker Roland Murphy, is a past-meets-present creation that completes a unique clock-pocketwatch-wristwatch timekeeping trifecta. The dial and hands were inspired by a clock developed jointly by Elgin and Hamilton during the 1940s for use in military aircraft. Today, the clock is known by the unromantic alphanumeric designation AN 5741-1. The 801 Aircraft’s movement is styled after the one used in an E. Howard pocketwatch produced in 1915. Today, both clock and pocketwatch are collectors’ items. Will the lovechild delivered by Dr. Murphy have the same staying power? Let’s find out.

The dial incorporates many small details. It’s divided into five distinct sectors. The outer edge is slightly raised. Taking one step toward the center, the scale for the minutes and seconds is slightly sunken. The outer hour chapter, displaying the oversize numerals 13 through 24, rests on a broad, smooth band. The center portion of the dial, about the size of a dime, is sunken, and it hosts the a.m. hours and a small “RGM Professional” logo. The twin hour scales take a few minutes to get accustomed to, unless you’re the type who only looks at the hands. At the bottom of the dial, the oversize subsidiary seconds chapter is sunken and snailed. It features a tri-color display, along with RGM’s trademark Pennsylvania keystone logo and “Lancaster, Penna. USA” inscription.

RGM 801 Aircraft - front-angle

The modified diamond pointer hands are custom-made to follow the design of the AN 5741-1 clock. Though we like the shape and appreciate the historical fidelity, the hands strike us as slightly petite compared with the bold dial elements. We would have kept the diamond shape, but made the hands just a tiny bit beefier.

Despite the busy dial, the white hands provide good legibility. When the sun goes down, the time can be read for 10 hours with eyes well-adjusted to the dark, so the display will get you through the night.

The case measures 42 mm in diameter and 12 mm thick, including the domed crystal. The complete package weighs in at 86 grams. The bezel is tall but quite thin, showing off the dial to great effect and making the watch appear larger than it actually is. A fine satin finish covers the case, including the space between the lugs. The finish is very well done and catches the light nicely. It also makes the metal appear slightly darker and richer than would a polished finish.

The case is   covered with    a fine satin   finish.
The case is covered with a fine satin finish.

The average deviation on the Witschi machine was +4.9 seconds, almost exactly what we saw on the wrist.

The lugs are long and curved, ending below the caseback, improving the fit against the wrist. The crystals have nonreflective coating on the inside only. RGM does this because, according to Murphy, an AR coating on the outside of the crystal always ends up showing marks. The oversize crown is simple in design and has no logo or other markings. It’s easy to grasp, but on our test watch, the setting mechanism felt slightly stiff, and we noticed a small amount of backlash, or play. Our test watch was not equipped with stop seconds, but that feature is available on this watch.

Our 801 Aircraft came equipped with a medium brown leather strap with a pleasing mock patina. The strap has seven closely spaced holes, helping to assure a comfortable fit. The lugs are 22 mm apart, and after trying on several pairs of shoes, we can say that this watch looks great on a range of strap types and colors. Black crocodile dresses it up, dark gray leather is casually elegant, NATOs dress it down, and khaki looks great for summer. The RGM buckle is simple and sturdy enough with a satin finish that matches the case, and the engraved RGM logo works well.

The strap has a pleasing mock patina.
The strap has a pleasing mock patina.

On the watch’s flip side, a thin, screw-in bezel surrounds a broad sapphire crystal that provides an expansive view of the movement.

We picked up our test watch at RGM headquarters in Mount Joy, Pa., in Pennsylvania Dutch country, and we had a chance to tour the facility with Murphy to gain some insight into how the watch is made. During our visit, three things stood out: the fact that RGM makes more than 90 percent of the parts in this watch, that a great deal of handcraft goes into each watch, and that RGM is very committed to the “American-made” ethos.

The movement powering the watch, Caliber 801, begins life as letter-size sheets of nickel silver, also called German silver. The sheets are different thicknesses, because the mainplate is thicker than the bridges. RGM sends the sheets to a nearby company that uses water jets to cut the sheets into playing-card-size pieces. These become the work-pieces from which the mainplate and bridges will be cut. RGM drills precise holes in the work-pieces to locate them on jigs that RGM also makes itself. These holes often have to be hand-broached to assure a perfect fit. Murphy pointed out that when people think of movement manufacturing, they often overlook the amount of time spent making jigs and tools, getting work-pieces ready to be cut, and otherwise preparing for the machining and finishing that people typically associate with movement making.

Caliber 801’s bridges were inspired by those of a century-old  pocketwatch from  E. Howard.
Caliber 801’s bridges were inspired by those of a century-old pocketwatch from E. Howard.

The machines that turn the small metal work-pieces into mainplates and bridges were made in the U.S. Most are produced by Louis Levin & Son in California. Another family-owned company in Florida creates custom machines, and RGM itself customizes machines to meet special needs. RGM also makes the tools these machines use. Most of RGM’s machines are the bench-mounted variety, not the larger free-standing machines seen in Swiss or German factories. RGM’s small-scale operation has a more personal feel than those factories do. One of the RGM-modified machines cuts teeth in the wheel blanks RGM produces. A technician loads five or six wheel blanks at a time, and each tooth is cut individually using an index system to guide the process, assuring that each tooth is identical.

RGM also does its own traditional heat treating and bluing. This in-house process is used primarily for small batches of parts, such as those needed for prototyping and repairs. Larger batches, such as the screws for the 801 movement, are sent to a company just down the road that uses a vacuum chamber to produce extremely clean heat-blued parts.

RGM’s commitment to handcraft and bench work is partly a byproduct of the building the company calls home. That building, a former bank headquarters, is historic and quite elegant, but also a bit cramped inside. Narrow doors and stairways keep large machines out, and large machines tend to be the most highly automated. The only sign of automation we saw during our visit was a pair of breadbox-size CNC machines that pick up their own tools. Otherwise, hands-on human involvement is the order of the day.

The movement’s plate and bridges are cut from playing-card-size pieces of nickel silver.
The movement’s plate and bridges are cut from playing-card-size pieces of nickel silver.

Once the mainplate and bridges are cut, the real handwork begins. On the main floor, we watched a technician tapping screw holes in the 801 mainplate. He did this one hole at a time, with a small, hand-operated tap. Later, the screw holes in the bridges will be countersunk and polished. Blue enamel paint is hand applied to the engraved lettering on the plate and bridges. We were surprised to learn that this step is completed before surface decoration, such as Gen-eva stripes, is applied.

Caliber 801 has very nicely polished anglage. RGM makes its own tools to hold each bridge as this work is done. The tools reminded us of X-Acto knife handles. Each bridge has its own tool.

Applying the surface decoration is the final step in the finishing process. Each bridge is finished individually, by hand, because tiny variations in thickness can affect the process. Murphy said, “People think we finish all the bridges together – that it’s just zip, zip, and they’re done. That’s not how we do it. It’s one bridge at a time, and it’s a pretty long process.” An indexing system on the finishing machine assures that the Geneva stripes line up when the movement is assembled.

RGM makes 90 percent of the components used in Caliber 801.
RGM makes 90 percent of the components used in Caliber 801.

Caliber 801’s bridges were inspired by those of the pocketwatch made in 1915 by E. Howard Watch Co., also called Keystone Howard (the Keystone Watch Case Co. had bought the rights to the E. Howard name some 12 years earlier). When the watch was new, it was priced at $350 – an expensive watch for the day. Murphy spent years tracking down a pristine example, and today it resides in the room-size safe on the building’s main floor.

The high level of handwork and the lack of automation allow RGM to offer a wide range of customization options – far more than most manufacturers provide. Murphy told us he does not keep an inventory of assembled 801 Aircrafts on hand for people to walk in and purchase, because there is no “stock” model. If you put down a deposit on an 801 Aircraft today, it will be delivered in three to four months, built just as you like. RGM’s staff of five watchmakers and two technicians currently produces 60 to 70 Caliber 801 movements per year. This is a significant percentage of RGM’s total annual production, which Murphy told us runs 200 to 250 pieces per year.

Our test watch features bridges decorated with côtes de Genève circulaire and rhodium plating. As noted, the bridges have well-executed anglage, which is no mean feat given the variety of shapes they present. The large screwed balance keeps time at 18,000 vph. The mainplate is deco-rated with perlage, and peering through the wheels and bridges, we can see an engraved and painted keystone logo, the movement number, and the “19 jewels” notation.

Our test watch kept good time on the wrist, gaining 4 seconds over 24 hours. On the Witschi machine, the results were consistently in positive territory. The greatest deviation was 5.2 seconds (+7.1 dial up, +1.9 seconds dial down). The average deviation was +4.9 seconds – almost exactly what we saw on the wrist. The complete timing results appear below under “Specs.”

If you want something unique, RGM’s 801 Aircraft is hard to top, especially given the customization options. The distinctive look, the home-brew movement, the range of options, and the American origin are all unusual. In our view, these factors make it a very appealing package.

The luminous hands and numerals glow in the dark for 10 hours.
The luminous hands and numerals glow in the dark for 10 hours.

SPECS
Manufacturer: RGM Watch Co., 801 W. Main St., Mt. Joy, PA 17552 ­
Reference number: 801 A Functions: Hours, minutes, subsidiary seconds
Movement: RGM Caliber 801, 121 components, manual winding, 18,000 vph, 19 jewels, flat Nivarox 1 balance spring, Incabloc shock protection, power reserve = 42 hours, diameter = 36.6 mm, thickness = 4.4 mm
Case: Three pieces, stainless steel, screw-in caseback, sapphire crystals with nonreflective coating on the inner surfaces, water resistant to 50 m
Strap and clasp: Leather strap with stainless-steel pin buckle
Rate results: Deviations in seconds per 24 hours
Dial up: +7.1
Dial down: +1.9
Crown up: + 6.5
Crown down: +3.5
Crown left: +5.2
Crown right: + 5.0
Greatest deviation of rate: 5.2
Average deviation: + 4.9
Average amplitude: Flat positions 316° , Hanging positions 304°
Dimensions: Diameter = 42 mm, height = 12 mm including crystal, weight = 86 g
Variations: With red dial accents; on bracelet ($7,950); with red dial accents on bracelet ($7,950)
Price: $7,400
Timing tests performed by Wempe Jewelers, New York City

SCORES:
Strap and clasp (max. 10 points): The hand-made leather strap works well with the watch and the buckle looks good, though the pin is stamped, not machined. 7
Operation (5): The crown is easy to grasp but the setting action is a bit stiff, and there is some play. 3
Case (10): The case is simple and well executed. The look is perfect for this watch. 8
Design (15): The design will not be everyone’s cup of tea, but we find it distinctive and attractive. 13
Legibility (5): There’s a lot going on but this three-hand watch is very legible. The small seconds would be perfect if the hand were entirely white. 4
Wearing comfort (10): The strap is soft and comfortable, and a pin buckle is the right call with a strap this thick. The watch feels good on the wrist. 8
Movement (20): The simple movement with American-made mainplate and bridges features excellent hand finishing and a distinctive, historically influenced design. 16
Rate results (10): Our test watch kept time within COSC specs on the wrist and the Witschi. 8
Overall value (15): At $7,400, the 801 Aircraft is not inexpensive for a three-hand watch in steel, but the small production, customization options, American-made provenance, and the amount and level of hand finishing make it a good value. 13
TOTAL: 80 POINTS

This article was originally published in the December 2014 issue of WatchTime. Original photos are by Robert Atkinson.

Sinn 556 Weiss Limited Edition

The German sports watch brand Sinn, which sells its watches direct-to-consumer on the Web, has long prided itself on its close relationship with its customers. Its newest limited edition, the Sinn 556 Weiss — a watch for which the buyer can choose his or her own serial number — is a product of that connection. Scroll down to read more on this week’s Watch to Watch.

Despite being known for its tough, professional-grade tool watches specially engineered for divers, aviators, military operators and even firefighters, Sinn also makes more classically elegant timepieces such as the Sinn 556 I, one of the brand’s best sellers. The Sinn 556 Weiss is based on this popular model, but adds a new dial design with a matte white (weiss in German) background and a black Super-LumiNova coating (which appears as black in daylight but glows green in darkness) on the hour and minute markers and hands. Sinn says that a white-dial version of the 556 has been among the most requested models by the brand’s fan base.

Sinn 556 Weiss - Front CU
Sinn 556 Weiss - Front - side

The case of the Sinn 556 Weiss Limited Edition is made of surgical-grade 316L stainless steel and sports a bead-blasted matte finish that masks most small abrasions and scratches that the case might acquire over its lifetime. Its dimensions — 38.5 mm in diameter, just 10 mm thick — are decidedly modest, adding to the watch’s understated, dressy look. Also contributing to this look is the white central seconds hand, which blends inconspicuously into the dial but for the red tip that reminds you the watch is functioning, and the small date window (with a black numeral on a white field) at 3 o’clock.

Sinn 556 Weiss - Front-angled
Sinn 556 Weiss - Front-reclining

The watch has a dual-seal, locking crown (which aids in its 200-meter water resistance) and a sapphire crystal with nonreflective treatment on both surfaces; there is also a pane of sapphire in the caseback, showing off the automatic movement (based on a “Top Grade” ETA 2824), including the big, engraved rotor that is in one sense the timepiece’s most precious feature. As mentioned above, the owner of each watch (of the only 150 being produced) gets to choose his own exact serial number (between 1 and 150, first come, first served), which is engraved on the oscillating weight.

Sinn 556 Weiss - CaseBack

The Sinn 556 Weiss Limited Edition comes on a black calfskin leather strap with white stitching and a steel tang buckle. A bracelet option can be added at an additional charge to the watch’s base price of $1,070. The watch is available exclusively at the website of its U.S. distributor, www.watchbuys.com. Below is a wrist shot of the 556 Weiss taken at the brand’s recent New York Road Show.

Sinn 556 Weiss - wrist

Watch Experts Network: #TBT Seiko 6105-8110

There’s always a beginning to the story: something that draws one’s interest to a certain brand. Today’s #TBT relates to that beginning, for me at least, and highlights a popular watch in vintage circles outside of just those who admire the brand name on its dial. It’s a watch that has gained interest amongst fans of divers, military pieces, movie-related timepieces, and, most commonly, admirers of vintage Seikos. Today’s #TBT is about the vintage Seiko 6105-8110. The Seiko 6105-8110 is the watch that drew me into vintage Seiko. I can’t quite remember how I …

End of the excerpt. Read the full story here: fratellowatches.com

This post is part of the Watch Experts Network content sharing program. To learn more about the Watch Experts Network please click here.

Fratello Classics: My Top 10 Chronograph Watch Movements; What Are Yours?

A while back, I wrote an article on my top 5 iconic chronograph watches. Some of you readers wondered why Zenith wasn’t in there. Quite simply, it didn’t make my personal Top 5. However, I do love the Zenith El Primero movement, and think that its reputation as a great chronograph caliber is well-earned. So, to make it up for some of you fellow watch nerds out there, I’ve compiled a Fratello Friday article that focuses specifically on chronograph movements rather than watches. Here is my personal top 10. One of my watch-loving friends – who, sadly, passed away a couple of years ago – had a special appreciation for chronographs and even ended all his e-mails with, “Chronographs, like most finer things in life, only improve with time.” If you want to know more about chronograph movements, and certain specific calibers, from a collector’s point of view, I recommend you read the interview I did with him a couple of years ago (click here). Although it does not include the latest chronograph movements, it is still a useful article covering many important aspects of chronographs.

Another great read that I can recommend if you want to learn more about chronograph movements is the book Chronograph Wristwatches – To Stop Time, written by Gerd-Rüdiger Lang (founder and former CEO of Chronoswiss) and Reinhard Meis. The book dates from 1993 and offers good – albeit very technical – descriptions of the various chronograph movements out there.

My personal Top 10 contains in-house manufactured movements as well as mass-produced movements from manufacturers such as Lemania. You will also note that I’ve included types with both column-wheel and lever mechanisms. Other considerations include aesthetics and other attributes, all based on my experience in watch collecting over the last 15 years.

1. Zenith El Primero

The El Primero was introduced in 1969 and the first two versions were Caliber 3019PHC (with chronograph and date) and Caliber 3019PHF (with triple date, moon-phase, and chronograph).  This first automatic chronograph movement ever is a ‘fast ticker,’ with a frequency of 36,000 vibrations per hour (vph). Most chronographs at the time of its introduction were ticking at 18,000 vph or 21,600 vph. The 36,000 vph makes it possible to time intervals to 1/10th of a second. The El Primero movement as we know it today is an evolution of the very first Caliber 3019 movements. Over time, we’ve seen several brands other than Zenith using El Primero chronograph movements, including Movado, TAG Heuer, Ebel, and even some Rolex Daytonas (though Rolex made some adjustments to it). If you are really into chronographs, you need at least one watch with this movement inside it.

Zenith El Primero movement

2. Lemania 5100

You don’t have to be a movement expert to see that this one is a rather ugly specimen. It has no column-wheel mechanism and it even has some plastic parts inside. The reason that I put this particular movement at number 2 is that it is a no-nonsense workhorse, with central second and minute chronograph hands (for easier reading), a 24-hour hand, and a day-date feature. This movement was discontinued a few years ago, which apparently brought a few chronograph collectors nearly to tears. Tutima is one of the brands that has used it for a very long time, even after the discontinuation of its production. Other brands that have used the Lemania 5100 include Omega (which calls it Caliber 1045), Sinn, Fortis, Porsche Design, and Alain Silberstein. Lemania also created its own chronograph watches in the past that contained this movement. Word is that Fortis, Sinn and Tutima used this particular movement because it was the only one at the time meeting military requirements for chronograph watches. (Photo from Watchconcept.com).

Lemania 5100 movement

3. Lemania 2310

Another Lemania, but very different than the 5100. This Lemania 2310 is perhaps better known under Omega’s “Caliber 321” label, which was used in the very first Omega Speedmaster watches (click here). However, Omega wasn’t the only brand to use this Lemania column-wheel chronograph caliber. Even Patek Philippe used it for some of its chronograph watches, renaming it Caliber CH27-70. Of course, the Patek Philippe CH27-70 looked very different from the Omega Caliber 321 in terms of its finish, but both are based on that very same Lemania movement. Speedmaster fans crave the original Caliber 321, which Omega replaced in 1968 with Caliber 861 (also based on a Lemania movement), which had a lever mechanism instead of a column wheel. (Photo courtesy of SteveG)

Lemania 2310 movement\

4. Rolex 4130

Before 2000, Rolex used hand-wound Valjoux Caliber 72 chronograph movements, and modified Zenith El Primero movements, for its Cosmograph Daytona watches. In 2000, Rolex introduced the successor to its Caliber 4030 movement (based on the El Primero), Rolex Caliber 4130. Fully developed and manufactured in-house, this automatic chronograph chronometer movement is solid as a rock  and cleverly engineered. Rolex was able to reduce the number of components with a new, patented solution for the chronograph mechanism. The extra space has been used to house a larger mainspring, which increased the power-reserve capacity from 50 to 72 hours. A watchmaker from a local Rolex service center has also told me that the Daytona is quite easy for them to service thanks to this movement’s construction.

Rolex 4130 movement

The Wearables Arrive: The Scoop on All the New Smartwatches From Baselworld 2015

According to an old joke, Albert Einstein once said that he wanted to die in Switzerland, not elsewhere, “because everything happens 20 years later there.” This year, Baselworld proved Einstein wrong: the array of smartwatches on display proved the Swiss can be as up-to-date as anyone. Here’s a rundown of some of the smartwatches that debuted, or whose upcoming debut was announced, at this year’s Baselworld watch fair (most, but not all, come from Swiss brands):

• Sister brands Frédérique Constant and Alpina both showed analog watches that connect with apps on an Apple or Android phone, enabling the wearer to track his or her physical activity and sleep. The wearer can see data for sleep and activity in a subdial at 6 o’clock, and in more detail, on the phone. The watch, called the Horological Smartwatch, also alerts the wearer when he or she has been sitting too long and needs to get some exercise (more info here). At a press conference at the show, Peter Stas, CEO of the brands’ parent company, the Frédérique Constant group, noted that sleep/activity tracking is the most successful wearable application on the market: 20 million people worldwide use such an app. The watches, equipped with two-year-plus batteries, are priced from $995 to $1,295 for the Frédérique Constant model and $1,150 to $2,595 for the Alpina. They come in 10 styles and will go on sale in June. They are the products of a joint venture called MMT (Manufacture Modules Technologies Sàrl) formed by the Frédérique Constant group and the Silicon Valley-based Fullpower Technologies, Inc. MMT, like the Frédérique Constant group, is based in Plan-les-Ouates, on the outskirts of Geneva, and its modules are Swiss made. MMT licenses the watches’ technology, known as the MotionX-365 Horological Smartwatch Platform, to other Swiss watch companies, including Mondaine (see below).

Frederique Constant Smartwatch
The Frederique Constant Horological Smartwatch

• Mondaine, best known for its Swiss-railroad-clock-inspired watches, incorporated the MotionX-365 platform into a new watch called the Mondaine Helvetica No. 1 Horological smartwatch. Like the Frédérique Constant and Alpina smartwatches, the Mondaine watch shows activity and sleep information on a subdial at 6 o’clock. The watch will be launched in the fall and be priced at less than $900.

Mondaine Horological Smartwatch
The Mondaine Helvetica No. 1 Horological Smartwatch

• On a very different note, Bulgari  introduced a watch called the Diagono Magnesium concept watch, which enables the wearer to have secure, 24/7 access to his or her most secret data: account numbers and passwords, passport numbers, building entry codes and the like. The watch has a mechanical movement, made in house. (The watch is called the Magnesium because the middle section of its case is made of that metal.) It also has a cryptographic microchip, made by the Swiss company WISeKey, and an invisible antenna. When the wearer holds the watch close to his or her smartphone, the watch, using Near Field Communication (NFC) technology, is able to “open” what Bulgari calls the “Bulgari Vault.” The Vault is an app that stores the sensitive information in an encrypted form. When the Vault is “opened,” the information is unencrypted and displayed on the phone. The Vault can be opened only by the watch and only when the watch is very near the phone. According to Bulgari, the encrypted information is stored on a server buried in a military bunker at an undisclosed location in the Swiss Alps. If the phone is lost or stolen, the information will be destroyed, but can be restored if the phone is recovered. Bulgari says the usefulness of the watch’s “key” function will expand in the future. It will one day be able to open doors, say, or set house alarms or make payments. No price or launch date has been set for the watch. A spokeswoman for Bulgari said it would probably come out in 2016.

Babin with Bulgari Smartwatch
Bulgari CEO Jean-Christophe Babin demonstrates Bulgari’s new smartwatch at a press conference.