Thursday, 26 July 2012

The Sinclair Radio Watch

The post this week features another watch from our archive: a Sinclair radio watch from 1985. Before talking about the watch I'd like to give a bit of context, especially for those outside the UK:

Sinclair was one of the most exciting companies of my childhood - for most of the 1980s they produced amazingly futuristic products, things that had only previously been seen in Science Fiction. Their products ranged from the first pocket calculator, to the first pocket television, to the first (only) recumbent electric tricycle.

They were an extraordinarily brave company, prepared to take enormous risks on developing new products and bringing them to market. I really don't think there has ever been anyone else to match them for this level of corporate bravery (or foolishness - inevitably they went bankrupt).

The drive and vision of the company came from the eponymous (Sir) Clive Sinclair. Sinclair's genius was to marry the nascent electronic technology to a strong sense of design and brand. Sinclair was a talented engineer, but he really excelled at carrying a vision through from idea to reality. I think this is the most interesting aspect of Sinclair and something that is often lost in the carping about his many follies.

Enough background - the Sinclair watch was released in 1985. I don't remember it from my youth and indeed the company had more pressing concerns than promoting it: The watch was released at the moment when the Sinclair empire was collapsing. This was principally due to the failure of the C5 electric vehicle, on which they had basically gambled the company. Indeed this watch was produced in very low numbers because the company effectively went bankrupt and was sold to Amstrad who had little time for such fripperies.

In it's own unique way, I think this watch is a miniature masterpiece of 80s design. The detailing on the industrial design is exquisite. It was done chiefly by Dagfinn Aksnes who was the product design manager at SRL (and if Sinclair had been as well run as Braun, would probably be as famous as Dieter Rams is now!) You can read an extremely in depth story of the development here.

The watch is very distinctively of it's time. Probably its most notable feature is the articulated sections, that are covered by the rubber bellows. These have an extremely satisfying feel - they move back and forth in a very controlled, smooth way. Of course this is only partly watch - the bulk of it is actually radio: the middle section is the speaker and the upper section the tuner. The aerial for the radio is concealed within the strap, but apparently this was less than functionally ideal as you had to hold your arm in the air to maximise reception. Finally the battery is held in the fastening of the strap.

These days we're blasé about miniaturised electronics and especially personal audio players, but these developments have only been possible by building on the work done by pioneers like Sinclair. Sinclair had made miniature radios previously, but this was their smallest radio (indeed in 1985 it was the smallest radio in the world).

Currently the watch that I own is not functioning - I need a little clear time to have a look at it in depth and figure out what needs doing. I also need to find a way to replace the neoprene strap that seems to be rather rapidly disintergrating!

Friday, 20 July 2012

how a watch case is made

Here at Mr Jones Watches, we thought it would be interesting to show you how our watch cases are made. The cases are roughly stamped out of stainless steel sheet and then gradually refined in seven subsequent stages.

Under immense pressure the first tool stamps out a crude and chunky face, virtually unrecognizable from the finished article.

By the third stage, the face is more slimline and refined, and the hole for the winding crown has been punched through.

 And by the final stage, the watch case is refined, hand polished, and ready to go! 

This photograph shows just how much the watch face evolves from the first and seventh stages.

You'll recognize this watch face from our 'Cyclops', and 'Everyday Special' watches.

Friday, 6 July 2012

Alas Smith and (Mr) Jones : Watch Revival (Number 4)

The watch for this months revival is a Smiths De Luxe dating from the early 60s.

Smiths watches were the last English watchmaker of note, they made wristwatches from around the end of the second world war, up until the 1970s. The clock and watch division of the company was broken up, but Smiths continues today, it now produces automated flight systems for aircraft. Smiths as a company have a history stretching back to the mid 19th century when they made pocket watches, later branching out into car clocks and later aircraft instrumentation: The Smiths Group, more corporate info is here

The English watch industry made some of the highest quality watches in the world during the 19th century, but was ultimately superseded by the American's (who automated the production process and created much more reliable watches) and the Swiss (who undercut the English pricing). Effectively the English watch industry ended at the point where wristwatches became popular - the early years of the 20th century. Smiths is therefore something of an anomaly, as effectively English watch production had ended some 40 years earlier. My understanding (and this may be somewhat incorrect!) is that they were subsidised by the British government as part of the war effort to produce mechanical timers for bombs and later wristwatches (with an order from the army) and they carried this into the post war period. Post war there was a strong governmental push towards manufacturing and exporting in order to pay off the war debts. 

Confusingly Smiths had two parallel branches of watch factory: one in Cheltenham that made high quality watches (these are all marked "Made in England" on the dial) and another factory in Wales that also produced 'Smiths' watches, but of a much inferior grade (these are all marked "Made in Gt Britain" on the dial). Why they did this I have no idea - it would surely have made more sense to use a different brand name for the lower price point watches (like Rolex did with the Tudor brand).

The wristwatches that Smiths ('England') made were high quality items. Although they were not really in the craft based traditions of English watchmaking they kept some of the elements of this - such as the gilding to the movements (rather than the Swiss tradition of adding damasking to decorate the plates of a watch movement). The watch movement is beautifully finished and it all fits together very well (generally the test of the quality of the manufacture - it shows how good the tolerances were for production). 

This watch is a fairly mature product from the Smiths lineup - it has 17 jewels. It's very nicely designed with a centre seconds hand. One slight oversight is the absence of shock proofing on the balance jewel (meaning that the watch is very susceptible to damage from sudden impacts). 

I like the watch as it feels very of it's time - it's a bit flashy and hints at some of the postwar confidence returning, this is in marked contrast to the earlier Smiths watches that look as if they were designed by a particularly dour accountant...

In terms of a restoration it was really very straightforward - the mechanism was not damaged, it just needed cleaning to get the watch running to time. The only real problem I experienced was with getting the correct screws for the correct holes: there are three sets of paired screws (for the balance cock, the palette lever bridge and the centre seconds plate); these screws are all the same thread, but all slightly different lengths. I believe I tried every possible combination of screws + holes before I figured out which belonged where!

The gold plating on the case is rubbing through in places, but the case cleaned up very well in the ultrasonic cleaner. The dial is in good to ok condition (it has a number of scratches on the surface), but I resisted the temptation to try to improve it. The dial had lost one of it's feet, but apparently this is quite a common problem with Smiths watches. All in all I was very pleased with this watch and it's running well and keeping good time.

You can see a lot of information about Smiths watches and their movements here