Many of you will be familiar with the Japanese aesthetic philosophy of wabi-sabi. It is a term that is difficult to define precisely but broadly speaking it captures some sense of the beauty of the imperfect, an acceptance of the transience of life and of the impact of the irreversible effects of time. The word wabi does not lend itself easily to translation but encompasses associations with loneliness, quietude, rusticism, melancholia. Sabi is more straightforwardly translatable as ‘lean or withered’ and its pronunciation is shared with the word 錆 meaning ‘to rust’. It is safer, however, not to attempt to associate specific meaning with either word in isolation because the boundaries between them appear blurred. Indeed, Google translate reports the meaning of 寂び (sabi) as ‘loneliness’ and of 寂 as ‘sadness’ whilst 侘び (wabi) translates as either ‘prawn’ or ‘sober refinement’!
What is clear though is that the philosophy of wabi-sabi is rather broader than its use in western society suggests, encompassing for example the simply beauty of an imperfectly made sake cup as well as the beauty that comes from the marks of existence that soften and lend character to all sorts of everyday objects.
Western language is clearly rather poorly equipped to capture the essence of wabi-sabi, but in English, probably the closest we get, at least in describing the impact of time, wear, oxidation and deposition is ‘patina’. In the art world, particularly in painting, the effects of patina serve to obscure or fundamentally change the original work but at the same time, a piece of art cannot be regarded as temporally static; a renaissance painting will darken and fade as centuries of grime deposit onto the surface; the bright yellows of an imperfectly formulated cadmium sulfide paint on a Matisse oxidize to oranges and muddy browns with time.
In the world of horology, patina is most commonly associated with the changing colour of luminous hour markers on a watch dial; in some instances this might be the appearance of unsightly blots of fungal encroachment; in others a gorgeous, honeyed yellowing of tritium paint. It can also be associated with the softened sheen of polished or brushed steel that comes from years of handling and the gentle friction of clothing; the rounding of the originally sharp edges of an acrylic watch crystal or the changes in the appearance or colour of the surface of a watch dial.
Dials age in all sorts of weird and wonderful ways, some of which deriving from unintentional flaws in their manufacture, and others from straightforward combinations of the effects of light, humidity and oxidation. The original lacquer applied to protect the surface of a dial can crack into a spider-web network or degrade into a crystalline dusting of twinkles. The effects of sunlight and humidity, particularly prevalent in the tropics, result in silver or black dials transforming into increasingly rich variations of chocolate brown. In keeping with the aesthetic philosophy of the Japanese wabi-sabi, such imperfections or flaws are frequently treasured and in some cases can serve to actively enhance the value of a vintage watch.
All of these outward signs of the passage of time can be viewed in some sense as badges of authenticity, but only to the extent that their appearance cannot be conceived as having resulted from any kind of artificial inducement. The present post is not concerned at all with the inducement of patina, but is instead inspired by the unquestionable enhancement in character and beauty that only authentically acquired patina can impart. This brings us to our subject: one Seiko Cronos Sea horse J13032 from July 1961. Regular readers may recall in a long-winded preamble to a post about the Seiko Silver Wave, reference being made to the first fully fledged waterproof Seiko watch in the form of the 1959 Cronos Sea horse.
That watch arguably represents the nucleation point in the development of the modern day Japanese divers watch, in spite of the fact that it is clearly not one. What it was though, was a watch with genuine water proof credentials, to the extent that the wearer could reasonably expect to be able to wear it whilst swimming. Importantly, it served as the inspiration for the subsequent development of the Silver Wave which in turn sired the first proper Seiko divers watch in the 62MAS.
Since writing that article, I’ve kept an eye out for a suitable example of the Cronos Sea horse and quite recently, one caught my eye. It did so not so much because it appeared to be a rather nice example of the breed but that it had aged in a way that to my eye turned it into something really rather special. Or at least into something that had the potential to be really rather special. So, let’s see what all the fuss is about.
That dial is really something. It conjures up images of a Cuban revolutionary puffing away on a beefy Monte Cristo, a glass of dark rum in hand. The degree to which the dial has acquired its tobacco leaf hue sits rather at odds with the condition of the rest of the watch which is surprisingly unscathed by the passage of time. The embossed Seahorse on the case back for example is still crisply defined and the bevels on the lugs sharp and true.
The first signs that this is a watch for which some time has passed since it last saw the attentions of a watchmaker presented themselves when I attempted to gain access to the movement. The construction here is two-part: the case back itself is clamped into position against the mating gasket by a separate ring. While such a design has a certain appeal, it does provide a greater number of surfaces vulnerable to the potential ravages of corrosion. My attempts to unscrew the ring manually were met with complete intransigence: it would not budge. Time to call into service my industrial case back opener designed to conquer even the most stubborn of over-tightened or seized case backs.
We are greeted by the 21 jewel Seikosha Cronos movement, whose defining feature is the lovely sine wave curve of the balance cock, supported at both ends. We can also note at this point the two Diafix settings serving the escape and third wheels. You will notice the presence of a rather beefy case ring too, with the flat gasket sitting between the outer edge of the ring and the inner edge of the mid case. Removing the movement requires the crown and stem to be removed, followed by the gasket, which would otherwise continue to hold the movement in position. We need therefore to lever out the old gasket first before tipping out the movement.
We notice at this point that the Diafix settings on the third wheel bridge are not reciprocated on the dial side, the third wheel and escape wheel bearings on this side having to make do with flat jeweled end-pieces, held in position with screws.
This being a calendar-less manual wind movement, the dismantling process does not throw up any great surprises, either in terms of the extent to which it reveals obvious faults or noteworthy design quirks.
The Diafix settings looked pretty much virgin to me and consequently, the springs played ball in not detaching themselves from their settings. The first signs that this watch had previously seen the attentions of a watchsmith, was revealed when opening the barrel.
The only remedy is a replacement mainspring but the correct original part is no longer available and so I would have to buy a Generale Ressorts spring whose dimensions most closely match those of the damaged spring. The Jules Borel site suggested that a 1.30 x 0.13 x 340 mm spring for an 11mm barrel was a potential best fit and so this is what I ordered from Cousins.
Unfortunately, the diameter of the spring when contained within its packaging ring turned out to be ever so slightly too large for the barrel and so I had to remove the spring from its ring with the objective of then fitting it into the barrel using my mainspring winder. However, the spring requires a left-handed winder to fit with the correct orientation into the barrel and my right-handed winders were not able to gain purchase on the eyelet in the hook of the mainspring. So I wound it into the winder drum right-handed and then fitted the spring back into a smaller diameter packaging ring; this then allowed me to press the spring home into the barrel in the correct orientation.
The final step before refitting the dial and hands is to lubricate the cannon pinion prior to fitting the hour wheel and its washer.
I’ve given the markers a clean but left the dial itself well alone. You may remember when I was droning on at the beginning about wabi sabi, I mentioned something about aged lume. Well, the stuff on the hands on this watch ain’t looking too bad, having assumed a rather fetching Dijon mustard yellow in the 57 years since it was first applied.
I let the watch run for a while at this point and turned my attention to the case. I spent some time removing as much of the corrosion by hand as I could before following my usual cleaning routine. This resulted in a satisfactorily clean case, ready for the installation of a new crystal.
In spite of the fact that the crystal was sold as NOS, it was somewhat scuffed both inside and out and so I spent a little while with some polywatch and elbow grease to work the scuffs out. The watch crystal is mounted onto the case around the outside of the case lip.
This type of design is the same as that used in the Silver Wave and some early waterproof Seikomatics. The crystal is held tightly against the case lip by the bezel that is pressed into place using a crystal press.
Without knowing or having a means to identify the correct part number for the case back gasket, I made some measurements and bought a couple of slightly differently sized generic gaskets from Cousins. The best fit identified, the gasket greased and fitted and we are one step away from completion.
It is frequently the case that months or years can pass between me buying a watch and it finally elbowing its way to the front of the queue. This one, however, has only had to wait a month or so. Maybe it is because this model completes the reverse chronology I seem to have been following in documenting the development of the Seiko divers watch, but I think it is rather more straightforward than that: I confess to having had my head turned.
This watch possesses a beauty that reflects the rightness of its imperfection, whose charms are amplified to a startling extent by the rich depth and character of its patina. For me, this is an exemplar of the philosophy of wabi sabi.