An insight into the consumer heart of darkness of watches

The peacock has his tail, and it seems humans have jewellery. In general the march of technology has made many things cheaper and sometimes better, though often not more durable. However, it seems the humble wristwatch is not one of these things, here we have a dude inquiring about finding good value in a watch for £8000. Don’t get me wrong – there are some sorts for whom maybe £8000 is about value. Say you are the crew of Apollo 13, you are SOL when the tank explodes in space, you are on 20% of electrical power, and you need a 5 minute burn to speed you on your way round the moon before your ticket to ride expires with the air. You have two chances to get this right. And the knob of the Command Module Interval Timer comes off in your hand. Then you might be grateful that someone spent a shitload of money on a watch that could survive takeoff. £8000 well spent, you get to see you wife and kids again. Early twenties, working for a REIT, looking to be individual in the stuff that you buy rather than the person you are, well, not so much.

I was recently on a retreat where they aren’t keen on mobile phones. I’m with them there, I don’t tote a mobile most of the time, although often I have one with me when I am out, even if it is mainly switched off. I discovered it’s far too easy to switch it on in a pocket just by bending down, pressing the button on the side that starts it all up. I get to be that tosser with the mobile, and I don’t like it, even if it is just the Galaxy startup sound on low.

A mobile is an okay way of telling the time, though I am still shocked that mobiles don’t update the clock from the mobile network, or failing that use NTP. But I have discovered that I want to go back to an old way of knowing the time, which used to be known as a watch. I have two, both from 30 years ago. One was my own, an automatic mechanical watch, because 1986 was still just in the time when it was cheaper to buy an analogue watch[ref]digital display watches were cheaper[/ref] as a mechanical one than a quartz watch and just about the time when mechanical cheap watches became serviceably accurate – the ones of my schooldays would gain or lose five minutes a day. The Seiko was good enough for that much a week ISTR.

I could use this if I could wind it manually, but I'd have to wear it for half a day before it would run reliably
I could use this if I could wind it manually, but I’d have to wear it for half a day before it would run reliably

I would use the Seiko but I don’t want to wear a watch all the time. So it would run down and stop, and generally be a pain, because for some reason I can’t wind it manually, so I’d have to shake it about and hope the mainspring has enough energy to run, that’s too much trouble for occasional use. Plus it’s the 21st century, FFS. William Gibson was right. There is no point to a mechanical watch, which is exactly why they sell for shitloads of money. Because humans are funny like that. The other one has some sentimental value because it was given to my Dad on his retirement.


This works – but the trouble is it eats batteries, they last less than a year. I took it to be changed a couple of times but after that I’ve had enough.

What I basically want of a watch is battery powered – I can’t be fussed with winding them, and the mighty quartz crystal pretty much solved the drifting out problem, you can check a quartz watch monthly and never be more than a couple of minutes off. Analogue, because I can easily compute 20 minutes from now in a third of the sweep. I confess as a retiree it is sometimes nice to know what day it is as well as the date. I had a browse of Amazon, and after a couple of minutes I lost the desire to look any more, because the paradox of choice was doing my head in. I did since discover one should change watch batteries yearly or maybe every other year. This is to forestall the blighters spewing out sludge, the idea seems to be change the batteries before they run flat. I didn’t know that, though it applies to other sorts of batteries I guess.

There are two other techniques, that replace the battery with a supercap. Either charged by movement energy like the automatic mechanical watches of old or by solar. The latter sounds like it could eliminate the not wearing it all the time and the battery leakage problem. So if my investment in a little bit of IPA and a new battery fails, that seems to be the way to go. Shame that people still putz about with a mechanical ring for the date, which is fundamentally a digital display. It wouldn’t be too hard to use a LCD display for the day and date, which would save mucking around with the date on months shorter than 31.

a bit too industrial IMO. I am also disturbed by the concept of Sunday the 36th...
a bit too industrial IMO. I am also disturbed by the concept of Sunday the 36th…

Casio do these, but I can’t really cope with the idea of a plastic resin case. I don’t really care how ugly a mobile phone is, but a resin watch will offend me regularly with its gauche machismo. I am too old to join the military. I appreciate this is a matter of taste, but it isn’t mine. And I really don’t want a watch that even thinks of making a noise. Five alarms is five too many. It seems nobody simply takes all the mechanical gubbins of showing the day and date and swaps it for a LCD of the same size. Perhaps they can’t make LCD displays small enough and sharp enough, though with watches there seems to be some kudos in doing bizarre things mechanically that really should either not be done at all, or done electronically.

The paradox of choice makes me think better

A retiree should be insanely curious about the world. One is simply to sharpen the saw, the other is because he has the luxury of time, to really get into something because it is there. One of the incidental values of being curious is that it leans against the learned helplessness of living in an unrepairable consumer world. And so I thought ‘Self, for thirty odd years an electronics engineer, what is the obvious most likely cause of a watch working, but running batteries down excessively? Well, it is what battery operated devices left in a drawer for years have always suffered from – a battery leaks and leaves gunk behind, which adds a slight load. You don’t notice that with a radio or a power drill, but a 373 battery is tiny, so the added load is much bigger in proportion to the capacity of a watch battery[ref]leakage is a much bigger issue than I’d expected. After I got the replacement and pressed it into place with my fingers, I noticed the bit on the invoice where it said “please refrain from pre-testing watch and coin cell batteries, and only use plastic tools (no fingers!) to insert battery wherever possible to avoid premature failure of battery cells” Oops. Oh well, I will know next time, eh ;)[/ref]. I confess I’d never really thought about a watch battery leaking, I have never seen a leaking button cell. I just didn’t think it happened.

So I popped the back off this and observed that there was indeed gunk from a previous battery. Not only that, but neither the place in LA who had swapped the first battery in 1993 nor the well-known high-street jeweller’s in Ipswich  had seen fit to inform me of this (the battery I extracted was clean, so not at fault).

leakage from an old battery
leakage from an old battery and corroded terminal, easily visible to me, though I had to really push the contrast in the photo.

A tissue and some isopropyl alcohol were my friend, so writing this post saved me the price of a new watch, by galvanising me to get off my backside and remain challenged and keep learning. It isn’t that I am short of the money for a replacement watch, and indeed if I miss having the day display then I will buy one. But  all H Samuel had to say is “we will change the battery for you for £5, but there is evidence of leakage and we recommend a clean of the compartment if you find battery life is reduced, that would be £25”. This took me less than five minutes [ref]this is apparently not the correct way to clean this off, but it will do for me[/ref] it would have been an easy £20 profit guys! Even if they didn’t want the profit warming me up to the issue wouldn’t have left me pissed off thinking they sold me an old battery when it expired in less than a year.

A visit to the bizarre form over function world of Consumerism with a capital C

When I was at school, the office used mechanical adding machines, because electronic calculators only started to appear in the mid 1970s. When the hell was the last time you saw a mechanical adding machine or a slide rule in an office? There is absolutely no reason for the mechanical watch to exist, perhaps save in the West Virginia Radio Quiet Zone or the like. The sheer exuberant impracticality of the mechanical watch and bizarre fetishes like the tourbillon have become mobile jewellery in themselves – Blancpain tells us

The tourbillon compensates for running errors due to gravity by mounting the balance wheel in a rotating cage. Equipped with a tourbillon, your watch runs with greater accuracy.

Well, yeah, but not half as much as throwing the bugger out and swapping it for a quartz crystal would.

Call a tourbillon a complication? THIS is a complication. By I, Mogi, CC BY 2.5,
Call a tourbillon a complication? THIS is a complication. By I, Mogi, CC BY 2.5

Okay, so you lose out on the pretty rotating device, but the accuracy wins out. I don’t know why they don’t get rid of the dial altogether then and have a living, breathing mass of rotating and shifting whatnots in a crystal round case. An orrery or an astrolabe, maybe an Antikythera mechanism would suit Sir to a T, and our young REIT worker could use his iPhone to tell the time while dazzling his boss and clients with his metropolitan sophistication and one-of-a-kind-ness

Meanwhile, the Chinese can send me a working analogue quartz watch from Shenzen for less than three quid, delivered. That’s only twice the price of my replacement battery, although the aesthetics suck slightly (but not as much as the Casio IMO). Ain’t consumer capitalism amazing…


47 thoughts on “An insight into the consumer heart of darkness of watches”

  1. Hi, I’m still fond of using an actual wrist device to tell time – I had a beautiful one as a gift 10 years ago that still looks new – so I have to change the battery every 2 – 3 years.

    As it was a quality make, the manufacturer stated on the original accompanying paperwork that it should only be changed by a reputable jeweller. When I tested this, they quoted me 3 weeks turnaround time to have it done ‘back at the factory’ for the price of a simple but still good watch. [I think it was 30 – 50 £ about 7 years back]

    I figured that was all a crock of sh*t at this point & had it changed for a fiver at a street stall by a guy who couldn’t speak English, in a shopping arcade …..& guess what, it was fine & still is.

    Now, I use Timpsons – only because they seem to have a shop on every cloned UK high street, so it was nearest when the watch suddenly stopped.

    They had a deal they were pushing aggressively where for a few £, [~12?] they give you a little card with the watch’s make & serial no. on it & from then on, they’ll change batteries ‘free’ forever. (so ……as long as Timpsons exists in its current legal form) But I’ve done it about 3 times now & the deal’s held – which includes the price of the new battteries; I’m guessing they gambled on ~99% of people forgetting they already paid upfront or losing the card & paying again either way. So the deal works if you’re frugal & continue to use a watch.


    1. It was surprising to come to the same conclusion, I’d got away without a watch for the last 10 years at work because there were always computers and phones. But as a retiree that’s not so much to hand. Plus sometimes out in the great outdoors I wake up and wonder what the hell the day is without the clue of human activity. It’s normally easy enough to tell a workday in urban areas from the traffic rumble, but the birds sound no different.

      That Timpson offer would have been a win for the watch from my Dad. They might even have had the incentive to do the cleaning job for free!


    2. I have that TImpson deal too, though mine cost more than a little more than£12 as my everyday watch is one of those plastic Casios that ermine dislikes (haha) and requires sealing for to maintain its waterproof qualities.

      My ‘posh’ watch needs to be sent back to Switzerland to get the battery changed – again, I have a similar ‘free forever’ deal (though not with Timpsons).

      The key is NOT to lose the paperwork!


      1. What is this waterproofness people speak of with watches these days? A fine march of progress – other than a divers’ watch, I would never have expected the interaction of water and a watch to end up in anything but tears. Mind you, it seems to be an expensive feature in a Casio 😉

        Indeed I seem to show foolhardy bravado with DIY battery changing (a battery is about £1.50 a go) compared to most. Apparently the recommended tool is a case knife but I used the short blade of a penknife. I couldn’t really make more of a mess of the back than the guy in LA had done, however.


  2. £8000 for a watch ? that’s entry level.
    Come visit the Bahnhofstrasse here in Zurich and look at the £50000 watches on display. And the really expensive stuff is not on display…
    Strange that these things sell at all.
    I myself make do with a 1976 led watch, because I like it, and a simple low-end, quarz driven, analog watch, but special to me because the chip in it was developed at the place I worked. Total value 5 quid, and as accurate as any mechanical watch could hope to be


    1. Gosh. I guess at that price the wearer can afford them inders to stop covetous muggers relieving then of the goods! Mind you, looking at Swiss high-end store windows always makes me wonder if suddenly a couple of guys will spring out and bar the way, saying I lower the tone of the area by being there 😉 I love the way they’re often so beautifully set out – no spotty teenagers sent out to arrange that shop window.


  3. >When the hell was the last time you saw a mechanical adding machine or a slide rule in an office?

    Oddly enough I was playing around with my school slide rule the other day. Untouched for 40 years, but still gives me a sense of wonder at the ingenuity of those who designed it. I think I would have to scratch my head to start using log tables again, but perhaps it is one of those pieces of knowledge to retain come the zombie apocalypse. It obliged one to think about the size of the expected product and ask whether it made sense. I found younger scientists I worked with who relied on calculators did not have that perspective and blithely accepted thousand-fold errors (not that I was immune to that, cough).


    1. I’m impressed – I never really mastered estimating the decimal point with a slide rule at school, never mind retaining the knowledge 40 years on!

      Still have a set of log tables. You never know 😉 And my sixth form Casio fx-39 calculator, still sees occasional service.


  4. Surely the main “value” of an £8,000 watch is the price itself.

    Funnily enough I was indulging in a bit of watch research yesterday too. I used to have a pretty Seiko Kinetic some years ago, but now I think I’ll settle for a simple Timex.


    1. > the main “value” of an £8,000 watch is the price itself.

      Indeed – humans are strange critters, eh? Mind you, I can’t carp, having paid a lot more that that for gold ETFs where the product doesn’t even sit on my shelf glittering attractively in the light, just ticks up some numbers on a screen.


  5. £8000 for a watch? That’s almost as stupid as owning more than one watch! Or maybe we could all ‘wind’ our collective necks in and stop judging idiots 😉


      1. I’m so far out of my depth that it’s not exactly clear to me how to tell the minutes on that one. Although they are close to the mobile Antikythera, I feel!


  6. I love my eco-citizen watch. It runs on sunlight and is still going strong after 5 years. It does not need a battery, and Argos do them for under a £100.


    1. I will definitely be tempted along the solar route if my fix fails, or I miss the day info. I do see some adverse comment that you must never let these run down, because otherwise it knackers the rechargeable battery which is a specialist (=dear to replace and not DIY) component. It seems the obvious way to go for occasional use.


  7. I’ve never been a watch-wearing person. There are enough ways to find the time, so it seems like a useless throwback. My wife is always having to replace the battery on hers. What a nuisance. And I don’t like jewelry at all, let alone the watch as man’s jewelry. Yuck. Not appealing. I was in a convenience store in New York City once, looking at the magazine racks, and there was not one, but two magazines DEDICATED TO MEN’S WATCHES. The photos were like some kind of watch pornography, all close-ups on the dial and whatever, leaving nothing to the imagination. Who are these watch people? It’s perverse!


    1. Fewer ways to find the time in a modern town than there used to be, however! After I took the battery out of my mobile because I was the jerk with the mobile sound setting off for a second time I did struggle, ended up using the clock on an audio recorder I had with me every so often. Which is just too geeky. Plus I didn’t know when was the last time I set it.

      It was surprising how few shops and offices had a clock – none of the numerous estate agents’ offices had one visible from outside.


  8. If you’re still in the market for a watch check out Timefactors. UK watchmaker that makes fantastic quality homage watches at very reasonable prices. I had one of their PRS10 watches for a few years before it was killed (my fault) and it was fantastic.


    1. hehe – nice, bu maybe out of my league. I am a country mouse, not a town mouse, £100 is my absolute tops and £50 more comfortable. Largely because I am perfectly capable of losing watches!


  9. if you ever need to catch a train or flight then theres little to beat the intense satisfaction of having a radio controlled watch and noting it is always exactly synchronised with all the displays around the station/airport. I couldn’t go back – its life-changing.. just get a solar radio controlled (casio do ones for next to nothing) and never have to set the time or change a battery ever again!


    1. Blimey. I didn’t know you could get solar and radio controlled for sub £100. Plus LCD date/day and stopwatch and timer on the little display. Casio don’t actually specify solar until you read the details. And you can get the CTL920 rechargeable batteries as spares, which was one remaining reservation I had on solar… Could be a sale, because a retiree does occasionally needs to know the day.


  10. Longines is a brilliant make of watch, imo. The Swiss know what they’re doing. I got a Tissot for my husband about 20 years ago, paid £90 for it, he’s worn it with pleasure every day since then and it still looks good and works well.

    Like survivor, he went the Timpson route and enjoys free batteries. He’s had it cleaned + serviced once during that time by a proper watchmaker (of the ‘little old bloke in a back room’ type), for what seemed a very modest fee.

    For people who like wearing a nice watch but don’t want to look anything like an oligarch, it’s easy to find beautifully-engineered quality that can be enjoyed for decades for a relatively low outlay. Simple pleasures!



    1. It is a clean design, and I can’t blame the company for the fault – it seems I should get a few years out of a battery on this model. Having the day would be nice for a gentleman of leisure, however 😉


  11. >A mobile is an okay way of telling the time, though I am still shocked that >mobiles don’t update the clock from the mobile network…

    My phone does (though I set mine slightly fast, so I’ve turned this feature off). I thought it was standard?


    1. It never seemed to do anything for me, setting the date to automatic on my old Nokia so I didn’t investigate further. But on the Galaxy there is a setting to get network time, so thank you!


  12. My dad bought me a Tag for my 18th birthday. I wore it for about a year, feeling awkward about it, and not much since. Not that I’m not grateful, it just seems excessive. The watch is still ticking along fine, so it must be made well. It gets rolled out for weddings and that’s about it.

    I have a few friends in the military. From my, small, sample they seem obsessed with watches. Although, arguably they have a much more practical use for them 😉


    1. hehe – I had to look up Tag. Do the guys in the military go with mechanical watches though, I’m not sure I’d want to risk any chance of ending up in the right place but at the wrong time in their line of work!


  13. I was a moderator on a watch forum for years and I have a collection of antique pocket watches and vintage wind-up wrist watches. For regular use though nothing is better than an Eco-Drive.
    Mechanical watches are just expensive men’s jewellery – boy toys. A $10 Walmart watch will keep better time than an $8000 tourbillon.


    1. > Mechanical watches are just expensive men’s jewellery – boy toys.

      So rarely ‘fessed up to! I couldn’t get any specs on the mechanical watches. Whereas Casio, f’rinstance will spill the beans as 15 seconds per month, an tolerance of 6ppm, which is quite impressive for a consumer product.


    1. it would make you sa d to drop that sucker and find the hands foul each other. I confess a weakness for the idea of a moon phase dial however…


  14. I would suggest finding good value in a watch for £8000 is significantly easier when it is a company tax deductable, although even this guy’s accountant finds difficulty in justifying a watch over £6000! So there you have it, an £8000 watch indirectly (as tax payers) at our expense! You couldn’t make it up.


    1. Even at £3200 paid for by the taxpayer it’s stretching the concept of good value for me 😉 His firm still has to pay the balance. OTOH I guess if it matters to the customers then maybe the peacock can make the business case for his expensive tail 😉


  15. I have the exact same Seiko as you. Hardly any time slippage, but then I wear it eight hours per day. Our security at work means not bringing in mobile phones, so I guess one of the most popular alternatives is out for me, making me a bit unusual. Even so, though, there’s something comforting about a watch – there’s activities I’d not take my mobile with me for, where I’d wear a watch, like running or any mildly extreme sport.


  16. like Monica. I have an eco-citizen – again its an Argos special! I’ve had it for over 7 years now and its still going strong. Don’t have to worry about a battery and its keeping time.


  17. Late on reading/replying to this post (quess time not so important to me)
    I have a couple old mechanical watches, but like you I hardly wear a watch, so they are ideal, wind up, set the time, and for the few hours one wears them they are accurate enough. Then back in drawer and no worry about battery leakage.


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