How the cornerstone of mechanical watchmaking is finding new relevance
By R. Jay Nudds
Falling in love is never an exact science. In much the same way as thoroughly studying horology will teach you that despite the exactitude of mechanical watches and their components, you will almost certainly encounter a problem whose solution doesn’t quite make perfect technical sense, how you feel about something needn’t necessarily tally with convention.
For example, a watch might exhibit such a devastating drop in amplitude in certain positions that a purely theoretical diagnosis would suggest there is something categorically wrong with the mechanism. However, it may be possible to rectify the problem by switching the end stones – not by exchanging them for new ones, but by simply moving the dial-side jewel to the balance cock and vice versa. Does it make any sense? Not on paper, no. But that’s because, for all that science and theory, a watch is a machine unlike any other. So small are its components, they behave differently from the pieces of a larger machine. They are almost organic in their function. The relationship between the components is crucial. Of course, one should never add a fault to correct a fault, but when dealing with the microscopic tolerances of watchmaking, one must adopt a certain degree of touch and understanding that comes not with academic study, only experience. Accepting that imperfect components can exist in absolute harmony and function at an optimum level is essential to getting to grips with how watches work, and provides a neat parallel to how we as consumers form unreasonable attachments to movements that are not necessarily the ‘best’ on the market.
Most watch aficionados have a favourite calibre. It is almost inevitable that some personal experience will result in an unusual affection for a certain movement, irrespective of its technical merit or admitted obsolescence. Such leanings can come from any root: I know people who extol the virtues of the Valjoux 7750 for its revolutionary cam system, preferring it to the gracile and elegant Zenith El Primero; I have encountered many who would choose an ETA 2824 for its robustness and reliability over the far daintier 2892; and there are plenty who still hold-up the archaic Unitas 6497 for its sheer size and honesty, despite many improvements having been made in mechanical movements since its launch over half a century ago.
It is my own relationship with the 6497 I am compelled to analyse, given its recent resurgence in popularity. Let’s get one thing straight: the 6497 (and the 6498 – identical but for the location of the seconds sub-dial at 6 o’clock as opposed to 9 o’clock) never went away, but it endured many years in the wilderness, a mainstay unsure of its future as the industry moved away from pocket watches to focus almost exclusively on the wrist-worn variety.
The 6497/8 was designed as a pocket watch movement. It is almost comically large and, for that very reason, often one of the first movements a young watchmaker will encounter. It was the first watch I ever dismantled and reassembled as part of the bench test that ultimately earned me admission to the British School of Watchmaking. At the time, having never seen the innards of a mechanical timepiece up close, it seemed a daunting task. Looking back on it now, knowing how easily it falls together, it is hard to imagine it ever appeared small.
Not only does it go together like Lego, it is very difficult not to get it within the manufacturer’s timekeeping tolerances. As long as the hairspring – which itself is thick and almost unbreakable – is relatively flat, this tireless workhorse will operate within the generous parameters expected of it. Thumping away at a languid 18,000 bph, its structural solidarity and no-frills construction make it a reaffirming practice-piece for budding horologists and an attractive option for brands looking for consistency (however unremarkable its capabilities may be in comparison to movements operating at a higher speed).
The immense dimensions of the 6497/8 were responsible for it spending a lot of time on the outside of modern horology, looking in. Given the industry’s preference for miniaturisation, the 6497/8 was, for many years, viewed as too big for purpose. At a whopping 37.5mm across, the movement needed a case cresting 40mm (minus the crown) to be contained. It was, for a long time, simply unfashionable.
Furthermore, its timekeeping limitations and extremely basic construction did not correlate with the evermore demanding clients of haute horlogerie. Newfangled quirks, avant-garde materials and gimmicky complications rendered the 6497/8 a relative outcast. Recently, though, things have changed.
In light of the ever-rising bar set by increasingly well-informed customers and an explosive renaissance of brands that barely weathered the Quartz Crisis of the 1970s, it seems crazy to suggest that the time is right for the 6497/8 to come back into vogue.
Two things have happened in the industry to make a comeback possible. Firstly, and most importantly, fashion demands a return of the 6497/8. The tendency for oversized timepieces is driving-up interest in this once neglected engine. When the industry first started responding to customer demand for larger wristwatches, many brands acquiesced, but fitted their titanic timepieces with movements that were patently too small for the case. This issue was crudely circumnavigated by affixing the movement with an engorged case ring. However, when trying to cater for the dual-desire for a large case and a sapphire case back, the brands who attempted this uncomfortable fusion met with widespread criticism. One needn’t look far on the internet to find entire forum-threads dedicated to the debasement of this practice. The fact that the chosen calibre appeared lost in a case too large and incongruous for a movement of such delicacy did not sit well with the watch community. Such attempts were a naïve foray into an industry of which fashion is a far more integral part than it has ever been in the past. It was not enough to simply graft a quality movement onto a completely new design ethos. It is now accepted that a watch must be a fully-realised concept, and that all components – case, dial, movement and strap – must exist in perfect accord. A brand, no matter its prestige, can not service one need and neglect another. Quality, in this case, comes second to congruity.
For example, the oversized Panerai Radiomir Black Seal could not get away with a 2824, no matter how much better the timekeeping potential of that movement might be in comparison to the 6497/8. Shocked as I was when I first handled a Panerai Radiomir Black Seal and opened the back to find such a simple base calibre ticking away inside a timepiece costing several thousand pounds, it now makes perfect sense to me.
The shock I experienced was due in part to the cost of the 6497/8 in comparison to its often preferred successors. It is a cheap movement. Not because it is of poor quality, but simply because it is so simple and relatively easy to manufacture. It is this aspect of the 6497/8 that gives credence to the second reason why it is currently garnering such a lot of interest.
Thanks to the steady growth of the mechanical watch industry over the past 30 years, and the burgeoning widespread interest in the industry’s output, we are witnessing the foundation of many more entry-level independent brands than would have seemed possible prior to the launch of Swatch in 1983. The 6497/8 provides such brands with a go-to calibre. It is cheap, robust, incredibly easy to service (thus requiring less technical knowledge and experience to maintain) and modish like never before. Its age provides an instant heritage and its size a fantastic canvas on which to stamp the mark of a brand. Meridian, based in Norwich, have utilised this space to good effect, creating an instantly identifiable pattern now synonymous with the brand. Like it or not, such personality is crucial to carving out a niche for a start-up company. Better still is the way in which Schofield Watch Company has implemented the 6498 in their Blacklamp watch. With a case designed around the dimensions of the movement, one can forgive the standard Geneva Wave finish applied to the plates in light of the revolutionary material of the housing itself. It works because it feels whole. The movement and the case are one. There is no dead space. The Blacklamp has hit the nail on the head. It stylishly combines all the requirements of a budding brand – it loses nothing for the archaism of the movement, because it has been included so seamlessly in the design.
There are many more examples of the 6497/8’s rebirth, and it is likely there will are many more yet to come.
Countless purists will dismiss these watches on the grounds of the movement’s simplicity, but the industry must now cater for a more diverse range of demographics than in previous times. I for one am glad to see the 6497/8 being proudly displayed through any case back, because it reminds me of my first experience with watchmaking. Like a first love, it will forever occupy a special place in my heart. It may not be perfect, it may not feature in the watches I wear throughout my life, but whenever the thought of the movement and its rustic charms passes through my mind, it will bring a smile to my face.
Not everything in life, love and watchmaking has to make sense. It is how something makes you feel that counts. And I’m fine with it being that way.