Horologist: A person skilled in the practice or theory of horology. A watch or clock maker. My Dad.
So, Apple had ‘a thing’ again yesterday. The net was abuzz with the new ‘Wafer Thin’ Macbook and iOS updates, but the really excitable chatter was around the Apple watch (other computers for your wrist are available.)
My Dad made me a geek (call social services!! j/k) and we talk a LOT about tech, what it does, what it means and how it works. I bet he’s really pleased he taught his 7 year old daughter to code BASIC, the nerd runs deep with this one.
So, when a computer for your wrist – or ‘watch’ as it is branded, comes out, who better to talk to than the only horologist I know?
Knight Senior gained his Diploma from the National Association of Goldsmiths in 1960/61. Here’s our voip chat about his world of watchmaking.
JK: What made you decide to do this?
Knight Senior: Laughs Confusion! At some stage I decide it was a good idea to do something at an art college. Adds wryly – which you know about.. (A reference to me doing fine art degree). I had a GCE in art but I was not a good artist, so I thought I would try textile design, I did that for a month.
JK: Just a month? What happened?
KS: It’s boring! Both laughing. (Note here that I have a textiles diploma too – I think he’s trolling me).
Someone said, “give jewellery a go”. It coincided with me getting a job with a jewellery company. It was not a life decision, like being a doctor or a lawyer, it was a job. The company paid the fees to the college.
JK: That’s kinda cool. An investment in staff to get their education?
KS: It wasn’t an indentured apprenticeship. But yeah, they gave me an opportunity.
JK: What was the job description that they thought you should get your diploma for?
KS: Learning to be a jeweler – right from making things to learning to sell it. The company was was a wholesaler and manufacturer of jewellery. They also dealt in clocks and watches. I did a lot of learning. It was not heading toward getting a better job, it was just learning about it better. Not long after I got the diploma I decided to go and do something else.
Me and my mate Brian took the exams in London and we went out drinking every night and he came first and I came second.
JK: Fickle. Did you do alright on your course?
KS: I think so. I was asked to go back the the college as a tutor as soon as I graduated. I would like to say I was best in the country for that year, but I was second best. Me and my mate Brian took the exams in London and we went out drinking every night and he came first and I came second.
JK: This is not great parenting…kinda cocky no?
KS: Yeah, well if you understand something you don’t need to learn it in the same way. Trying to learn something you don’t understand is hard. We knew it because we were working it every day. Not just from a book or coursework.
JK: I think I might have hated the pair of you in that class.
KS: We weren’t trying to be cocky, it just happened like that.
JK: Rock and roll. What was the course like?
KS: There was a lot of maths.
JK: Wat? Like holy shit maths?
KS: At first yeah. But it was straight forward maths though. If you make a wheel that has say, 100 teeth on it and you mesh that with a cog that has 5 teeth, then it’s got to go around 20 times vs the wheel with 100 teeth.
KS: It’s simple stuff but it all has to be calculated before you measure the metal – which is all in very fine measurements. The components are very. very fine. you put them on a lathe – you can make care parts on a lathe but try to make something that’s a bit thinner than a needle, that’s trickier,
It was interesting and it was hard. The course that I did was shortened, the full watchmaking course was full time for three years, like a degree. So I did enough to understand it and be able to make a watch and know when something was broken and how to fix it.
JK: Sounds fiddly.
KS: Yeah. You work with an eyeglass all the time and you shouldn’t have too much to drink the night before so your hands don’t shake. I didn’t say that.
You became a master of time! Like a Time Lord…ok,not quite like a Time Lord. But you could create a measure, pretty neat.
JK: Can you explain in simple-brain terms how a mechanical watch works – the kind you learned to fix?
KS: For mechanical watches the power is a spring, the spring sits in a container and it’s a coil spring. You tighten up the coil so the energy comes from releasing the spring. It puts the energy through a train of wheels and which comes to the balance wheel. That goes back and forth with a ‘hair spring’ and a lever that lets one step of the cog go through at a known rate – tick-tock…get it?
JK: I think so…so is it true you were given a block of metal – like a cube and you had to make a watch mechanism out of it?
KS: Yeah, pretty much.
JK: You became a master of time! Like a Time Lord…ok,not quite like a Time Lord. But you could create a measure, pretty neat.
KS: Heh. I guess. Some people on the course were career watchmakers rather than repairers – they were brilliant young engineers. One guy there was 15, afaik, he was still working in the Jewellery Quarter last year. So it was definitely a career for him.
JK: So you built a watch. That’s pretty cool.
KS: Yeah it was satisfying. I made the mechanism but I didn’t make a case for it – it was a short course. I didn’t get to wear it.
JK: Let’s talk about the price of watches. The differences are vast these days, were they like that back then?
KS: Yeah. Most of the good watches came from Switzerland. At the other end of the course I was on we were learning how to sell the products. Because I had learned how to make them and knew which ones were good, I found it easy to describe them to retail customers. It’s really satisfying to know what you’re talking about. Some people didn’t want to know of course, they just wanted a pretty watch for the girlfriend.
JK: When did you get your first watch?
KS: Ahhhm….I had a watch when I was 14 or there abouts. I bought it on a school trip to Switzerland.
JK: Get you fancy pants.
KS: It was 18 shillings. Now that’s around 82p direct conversion – it was a cheap watch. Buying it today it’s hard to compare because watches are made of cheaper materials. The prices have come down wholesale. Maybe it was a tenner in today’s money?
JK: After doing the course and when you have a lot of knowledge about something it changes the way you view it. Was it the same when you learned about watchmaking?
KS: Yeah – it became a product rather than a thing of useful beauty. Occasionally you’d come across one that was a very fine swiss watch and think ‘that is nice!’ You knew it was from a fine factory where people were making them by hand. But high street watches meant nothing to me then – the same with jewellery too after learning about it.
JK: So, what was a cool watch back then?
KS: To me they were ones that looked artistically nice. Not covered in diamonds or anything, but at that time watches were getting thinner and a nice thin watch was attractive. Especially when you knew it was from one of the top makers like Vacheron and Constantin. I remember seeing one of their watches that was particularly attractive. (V&C – since 1755 world’s oldest watch maker. Clearly a man of taste eh?)
There were some makes considered to be good that didn’t attract me because I thought they were a bit ‘lumpy’. Patek Philippe made the thinnest good looking watch around 1960-61. Artistically fabulous but so thin you thought you’d break it.
JK: What appeals you aesthetically apart from a watch being thin?
KS: I like very plain ones. No additions. A circle. A pure perfect geometric circle. Honed so that the edges are nicely shaped on the case. There were a lot of case-makers that could do that. It’s one of those things – I’ve said to you before now – I find geometric curves attractive.
JK: And under the hood, what makes a good watch technically for you?
KS: The design and manufacture. Whoever worked out the design makes it work properly, uses good steel and good brass and very good metals for the balance wheel that are non-magnetic and have little change in temperature etc. If you work with manufacturers that care about these things – you’ll end up with something really nice.
JK: Did watches have quartz in them then? In fact, what does the quartz do?
KS: OK, vibration of quartz, ahhmm physics – not my field! An electric current is passed through quartz and it vibrates at a known frequency. I can’t explain it more technical detail, I don’t really know. Therefore it governs the speed of the mechanical parts. If the watch has an electronic display, LCD or whatever, then there’s little or nothing in the way of mechanical parts. The quartz crystal is the time keeper.
Quartz watches had not been invented when I was learning how to make them. I’ve had them apart since but I don’t know in great depth as it’s electronics and physics.
JK: What about accuracy? It’s expected that the Apple watch will be networked for time keeping, is accuracy important?
KS: Well yeah, the Apple watch should be accurate – as near as dammit perfection.
JK: Is accuracy important to you? Do you think we really notice?
KS: Well, the watch I am wearing at the moment has no hour or minute markers on it.
KS: It’s an arty-farty watch, by Seiko. I like it.
JK: Send me a photo of that watch?
KS: Sure. OK in a bit. When it comes to accuracy though, whether it’s atomic time or whatever, whether it’s perfectly accurate? You’re never really going to notice are you?
JK: So even though you left the trade sharpish, I know you like tech, did you follow any of the advances in watchmaking, like little lights on the watch face and stuff?
KS: Yes! I did notice the lights. A tiny bulb that would light it up for reading the dial. There was also light up paint. It drew its power from sunlight and stored it so that it would be luminescent in the dark…it was radioactive I think…what was it called?
JK: (Googling…) Radium paint?
KS: That’s it!
JK: It was radioactive!?
KS: I guess. We didn’t know any better, nobody knew what radiation was back then. I don’t know…
JK: What did you reckon to the first digital watches?
KS: By the time those came out, I was well out of the jewellery trade. I saw them around, possibly the late 60s early 70s. I didn’t buy one immediately. I bought one when they became really cheap and paid about $5 Aus. I think they got cheap because they were a bit of a fad. At the bottom end of the price range they were not very reliable. The displays tended to clap out and the batteries were hopeless, like they are today, but worse.
Battery life is the bane of all electronics.
JK: But you learned to make mechanical watches. Not ones with batteries.
KS: Oh yeah. It never occurred to me that you could put a battery in a watch back then. I was quite impressed, but I was quite impressed with the ZX80 too – it was in the same league.
KS: Battery life is the bane of all electronics. I’ve not been shown batteries that last.
You can buy watches that are powered by the sun, ones that are kinetic and get their energy from your movement and something to store the energy of course. I’ve not tried to buy a wind up watch for a long time, but I’ve not been looking for them. They all seem to have batteries now.
JK: Watch batteries seem to last a really long time. How long on average?
KS: Manufactures will suggest you’ll get a year out of them – unless they’re faulty. Everything now is battery powered, I’ve often thought surely if we can send space ships to Mars why can’t we make a decent battery? Then I get cynical and realise there’s more sales in a short life cycle.
JK: So, the Apple watch are you intrigued?
KS: Yeah, intrigued and interested. I’d like to know what it does as I like to know what’s happening with new tech. I know I can’t afford one and I don’t really want one. My close-up eyesight is rubbish and I don’t want a really expensive piece of electronics on my wrist that I cannot see. If it needs touching or poking on something so tiny, I’d get frustrated.
JK: Because you’ve got giant hands?
KS: Not compared with some blokes! Laughs But, yeah – I have trouble with an ordinary touch screen phone. I have to read what I am doing because I know I am likely to press the adjacent button. I’d be hopeless with a screen on a wrist watch.
JK: Is the Apple watch really a watch?
KS: No. The only similarity is where it’s worn. I am led to believe it’s a computer.
JK: Watches are kind of close to being ambient technology. You’re not too focussed or aware of them.How many times a day do you look at your watch? Are you conscious of doing that?
KS: We have 10 clocks in this house so I rarely look at my watch. But I don’t feel the need to look at it. I check it if the parking meter is about to expire. But I’m not generally aware of it. I don’t show it off. It’s a tool. A handy tool and non-intrusive.
JK: Do you think we look at time only in conjunction with another reason?
KS: Exactly. You look at it to see – Am I late? Has the parking meter run out? Shall I catch my train? Whatever, but no need to check whether it’s midday or something..
JK: Time is an abstract concept.
JK: If the Apple watch was more accessible for you to use, do you think you’d spend a lot of time with it?
KS: Probably as a new toy – like the commodore 64 was. You’ll recall I did disappear for a long time working out what that did?
JK: Yeah. What’s your name again?
JK: Oh, right.
KS: I might have wanted to hack one 30 years ago. These days I like my desktop more than my laptop. But I still like to know what they’re doing, if there’s a new way to hack…can I say hack?
JK: We’re all friends here.
KS: OK hack. Well, I’ve not got the interest for collecting too many apps. Not many would interest me. But we had hundreds of pieces of Commodore software back in the day and a lot more when we went PC and made stuff in BASIC. That was interesting to me. I was not a technophobe, I wanted to learn to make a few things, but I don’t want to collect useless apps.
I don’t think Apple are going to give me a free watch at this rate are they?
JK: Doubtful. But thinking of cost. What do you reckon to the price range? The Apple watch collection runs between £299 – £13500.
KS: Well, a certain amount of people will Have more money than sense but at £299 that’s an Xbox..
JK: Is it? How do you know this stuff?
KS: I don’t know. I just do.
JK: (Wondering if he has become a gamer since I left home…wouldn’t be at all surprised)
KS: I was being a bit mean there, but it’s in keeping with a game console price. We’ve established I like a watch to tell me the time. I’ve seen some nice looking watches for 25-30 quid and I’m content with that and getting my money’s worth.
JK: There’s plenty of watches that are not so smart that are way more expensive than the Apple watch. Looking at the brands you mentioned earlier … (pauses – Googling) … *gasps* Wow.
A watch from Vacheron Constantin, a nice one with a plain face, the sort of thing you’d like is £25k!
KS: It wouldn’t be worth it me.
JK: Similarly from Patek Philippe £30k There are cheaper ones, but I think ‘cheaper’ is relative here.
So, do you think a smart watch might have a heavier psychological weight? It would have messages and apps and all sorts of nagging things.
KS: Yeah, people of all demographics and age groups have smart phones and I can’t imagine why they want to tie smart phone to your wrist. People can’t stand at a bus stop without using their phone, they always need to call someone or use the apps. No one looks around.
…if it’s going to be a computer – it wouldn’t offend me if it looked like a mini computer rather than a traditional watch. Form following function.
JK: Apple has designed a pretty traditional-looking strap and face as an option. Do you think that was a smart move?
KS: To use traditional materials. Well you’ve got a wooden watch.
KS: I think it’s got to look good as well as being useful.
JK: Do you think that watches are a form of jewellery that men can use to express themselves. Women seem to have more options traditionally.
KS: Oh yeah – some guys have six or seven watches or more. They like the look of them. The best you can do on an expensive computer watch is put another illustration on the screen.
JK: If you think of it as a computer on your wrist, does it have to look like a watch anymore? Can it be turquoise plastic like some of the other offerings from Pebble or Google?
KS: I’ve not really given it thought, but if it’s going to be a computer – it wouldn’t offend me if it looked like a mini computer rather than a traditional watch. Form following function.
JK: You’d need an iPhone if you had an Apple watch.
KS: Wryly Well great…
JK: Not an Apple fan?
KS: I’m on the fence. They’ve been really innovative. But I don’t have any apple products
JK: yeah you do – I got you an ipod.
KS: Oh yeah, I forgot about that. I don’t like battling with iTunes. It makes angry. It’s not helpful technology to me. But I know there’s millions of people who like it.
KS: Hang on a minute, the battery is running out on my laptop…
JK: Batteries man…
KS: Yes exactly.
JK: What about an Android watch?
KS: No difference if it was Android. I am not brand aware. It’s not Apple, it’s the type of product.
JK: So if I was off out to buy a watch tomorrow, what would your advice be?
KS: Get a watch that pleases you to wear. To many people your light-up Timex would not be their first choice, but it’s a good watch. (Referencing the watch I have worn pretty much every day for ten years)
JK: You have to say that I have chosen a good watch, I’m your daughter,,,,
KS: No-no, at one point Timex was struggling – they didn’t make great watches, it was low end, but they got their act together and the Indiglo is one of the best.
JK: Which of your watches is your favourite?
KS: I don’t have one by name. I have a couple of Seikos because I worked there.
JK: How old are they?
KS: How old are you?
JK: Point taken…
KS: I wouldn’t buy one today because it had a fashionable name but I would want something that looks nice to me.
JK: Do you think smart watches change the cultural legacy of what a watch means as a gift or an object?
KS: Yes. Grandfather’s pocket watch handed down to his son it was valued because it was great grandfather’s watch, it was the thing to have. When people used to retire – you get a watch or a clock. They have sentimental value.
JK: To represent the passing of time from one person to another?
KS: Yeah. But that changes when it’s a computer. It’s usually to do with someone in the lost generation who left their watch to you. That’s not going to work with a smart watch. Old watches work for amazing amounts of time. A smart watch won’t last like that.
JK: So are you going to buy me an apple watch?
(Thanks Dad! xx)