All Along the (Automatic) Watch Tower

Warning: No Writing Instrument Content at All.

My father is an odd man and there is probably a good chance I got my share of odd via his genes. He’s a mixture of intelligence, illogic, and ill-advised activities. Every once in a while that man slips in a surprise and this is such a story.

My progenitor has been comfortably retired for years and took up the hobby of ending (used as a verb). We’re all dying but he’s been much more proactive at recognizing that fact than most of us. Since his heart surgery over 10 years ago I’ve been privy to a parade of preparatory information regarding his imminent demise. Faustus dwelled less about his eventual end than my pater has over the last few years. Updates on finances, real holdings, and the disposition of possessions were always the second major topic of conversation among us.

The primary subject that was talked about was my father’s health which always hovered on the precipice of doom. I’m not saying he does not have legitimate problems which are important to monitor but when you add a dash of hypochondria (or a gallon) you wind up with a fixation that needs constant feeding. Eventually he developed what I call the “doctor cloud” around him in both locations he resided. Like gnats around a hippopotamus if he swished his tail a medical opinion would fall out of the sky.

In the last year or so this has changed for the better. After a pacemaker adjustment he felt fitter and really has started to shed his previous preoccupations. Now he seems to be thinking about enjoying life. Being my father this manifests itself in odd and unexpected ways which leads us from the background to the foreground of this tale.

A few months ago I got a call from him in which he told me he bought a watch. A normal person might have purchased a Seiko, or if they exhibited excessively bad taste and a need to impress, maybe a Rolex. My father does things on a level that you’d not think a man who often dresses like the homeless would and purchased an International Watch Company (IWC) Portuguese (that’s the model name and not point of origin) automatic (self-winding mechanical) watch in solid rose gold. I had a rough idea of how expensive this item was (it retails for somewhere over $14,000) and the report of his acquisition shocked me. Still, I was very glad he was doing something to make himself happy no matter what it might be. Like whipped cream on a pie the sweet topping of this event was that he got a good deal on the purchase which to my father is like chum to a shark.

Not all was sweetness and light I found out quickly. The stated reason he was getting this watch was so he could leave me something nice as a keepsake and when I say “leave” I mean the big check out. Personally I don’t really like to think about anyone I know not being around anymore, especially my father, but I appreciate that this meant something to him so I kept my mouth shut. While verbally mute my brain didn’t stop working and I found myself now thinking about this mechanism as the “death watch”. Morbid? Yes, but appropriate.

Even more joyous (um, sarcasm there) was the fact that this new watch was going to be shipped to my house in order to save my father New York State sales tax. “Tommy, take a look and wear it a bit to make sure it’s working OK” were the instructions. Thus one day I found a small box left at my door. I didn’t even have to sign for it which seemed to me like using an ice cream truck as an armored car: “Ting-a-ling-a-ling…robbery time…get your theft here…ting-a-ling-a-ling.” Upon opening the nondescript outer carton I found a fancy leather like box with a very large watch inside. Not only was its size ample but the weight of it was like wearing a midsized car on your wrist. After putting the watch on suddenly I was sporting one of the finest wrist Buicks that ever told time.

I wore the watch for a few days and it worked exemplarily well. Still there was a melancholy that came over me since every time I looked at it I thought “next you wear this booger you father will not be with us.” Not a very pleasant thought when all you want to know is how long till lunch.

After the initial check out I endeavored to send it off to its rightful owner. That proved to be a challenge in itself since insuring such a valuable item was not something every shipping company would do. Even external insurers informed me they did not provide coverage for jewelry although they’d be happy to insure an insanely expensive piece of electronics if I had it. UPS was the one shipper that would provide coverage for an option on one of my kidneys but first they had to open the box and inspect the item. Thanks, glad I took so much time to pack it well, Mr. UPS-Rip-It-Open-At-the-Counter-guy.

I’m sure you may have guessed I’m getting to some point where I can spread before you a lot of boring details as I often like to do. We’re almost there since a few weeks later another box arrived at my door with no warning. A quick look at the label led me to utter “not again” and opening the box up showed me another new watch inside. Later that night I called my father to complain about the lack of notice and inquire what drove him to this purchase. I was shocked when told that “This one is for you, Tommy. I thought you needed a new watch too and this was an incredible deal!” Certainly it was a nice gift and I did appreciate very much that he thought of me. Who I am going to leave it to upon my death is something I’m going to need to work on. For now, however, I’m going to wear and enjoy it.

The watch is an Ebel 1911 Automatic Chronograph (like a stop watch) Chronometer (certified to keep time to a high standard) in solid white gold (um, that’s gold which is not…er…gold colored) made for the company’s 90th anniversary in 2001. This watch seemed to have sat around on the shelf for a long time before my deal sniffer father found it. 90 of these special editions were made of which this is number 28. I’m knowledgeable about watches and had an Ebel with a Zenith El Primero ebauche (you’ll learn what this means later) in the past but I knew little about their current offerings so I hit the ol’ internet for info.

Before I continue into the minutiae of this watch I need to define a couple terms about the origin of what’s inside a mechanical watch. Over the years many brands have bought their movements from another watch firm or a manufacturer that sells them uncased (which is known as an ebauche). That’s a French word that I don’t know the meaning of but I’m pretty sure that unlike croissant it has nothing to do with food. Sometimes the purchasing concern will spend time enhancing and decorating these mechanisms before putting them in their watches. Currently ETA, which is a subsidiary of the Swatch Group, is the major supplier of ebauches. Yes, this is the same Swatch that makes those cute watches but also is the largest Swiss watch company and owns brands such as Omega. So in a nutshell some brand like Tag Heuer doesn’t make what ticks in their pretty cases people have on their wrists.

If a timepiece manufacturer makes a proprietary movement in its own factory that’s termed “in-house”. This is the kind of thing watch fanciers love since it means that this is not an “off the shelf” item but one that is you can only find in the brand of watch you just plunked cash down for. Are these functionally better? Not necessarily since the mass produced ebauches are reliable and well-designed mechanisms. Still, there is a cachet to an in-house movement that the cost of design and production shouldered by the brand brings. Of course it can also be argued that high-end watches of this type have the best mechanisms since they were designed with a narrow focus and higher quality standards.

So, my father’s battleship watch has a very fancily engineered assembly of in-house parts that help justify that high cost and it is kind of the same thing with my new timepiece. Ebel was never considered in the very top tier of Swiss watch makers but they do say that their chronograph movement should be considered in-house. Whether this claim is true gets us into an issue of semantics. Ebel indeed does make the movement in question (some parts are obtained from suppliers) but the design was basically purchased in the early 90s from another business that specialized in such things. That company, Lemania, helped do some slight redesign on the mechanism and that is how the Ebel caliber 137 came into being. Later Lemania became the movement manufacturing arm of yet another high-end Swiss watch firm, Breguet. When they wanted to issue a new Chronograph in the mid-90s they dusted off the design we’re talking about and made a few more changes calling it the Breguet caliber 582. Are we following all this? I hope so since this is the simplified version of events.

Since the Ebel movement wasn’t really developed by them and shares major design features with the Breguet is it really “in-house”? Damned if I know. What I do know is that for the 90th anniversary they took some effort in making the movement prettier. Some of the screws were blued (a protective metal treatment) and additional damaskeening (decorative graining on the surface of the metal) was done to sharpen it up. The results are very attractive.

I’ve always found the design of the standard 1911 case (which is used here) nicely understated with its round edges and exposed screws hinting of mechanical things. What really makes this watch stand alone form more mundane offerings is the abalone shell (also known as mother-of-pearl) dial. The colors and luminance you see change with the direction of the light that hits it. This is an unusual material for a watch dial but very pretty.

Even if it was impulse driven this gift certainly was a good choice for me since I find the unusual intriguing. Certainly I was floored by such a surprise and appreciate the thought and love behind it however odd it may seem. Family dynamics, even in my case, never cease to amaze me.

  1. January 15, 2010, 11:17 pm

    What a great post and a nice gift from your dad.

    1. TAO
      January 19, 2010, 3:46 pm

      Thanks Julie. Yep, it was a nice surprise for sure!

  2. DG
    April 15, 2016, 2:51 pm

    Do you know if you can get a metal strap for this watch. It looks great btw.

    1. Thomas Overfield
      April 16, 2016, 2:27 am

      Hi. The IWC cannot be fitted with a bracelet. The Ebel possibly could if you didn’t mind stainless steel with it. It is very hard to purchase Ebel straps or bracelets since they use a screw retention system that makes 3rd party options nonexistent.