Magazine | December 17, 2018, Issue

More than the Time

(WestEnd61/Getty Images)
The secret code of wristwatches

If my children someday ask me about a certain personal extravagance, I will blame the Axis Powers.

On December 18, 1941, Luigi Durand de la Penne and five of his comrades were ahead of schedule. They stopped to eat figs and drink cognac, when, to their great fortune, they saw two British battleships and a British destroyer entering the harbor of Alex­andria, Egypt. These men were part of Italy’s elite frogman unit, the Decima Flottiglia MAS. They had launched from the Italian submarine Scirè, driving their two-man sea chariots toward the British fleet. These chariots were manned torpedoes, with a maximum speed of 3 knots, and so unwieldy and unreliable that their riders referred to them as maiali, or pigs. The frogmen used rebreathing units invented for spear fishers during interwar years to operate undetected under the surface of the water. From there, they could navigate their explosives around nets and set up other forms of protection for their ships. That night, these six men would dramatically alter the balance of power in the Mediterranean.

Leaving behind figs and cognac, de la Penne and his crewmate approached the HMS Valiant. Their equipment began to fail — this was the Italian navy, after all — with de la Penne’s wetsuit and mask letting in water. He swallowed it to clear his vision. After a mighty struggle with his pig, he managed to place the limpet mine on the keel of the Valiant. But almost immediately afterward, he and his partner had to surface for air. They were spotted and captured.

Refusing to talk, de la Penne was placed below deck, right above his charge. Ten minutes before it was set to explode, he alerted the captain that in a few minutes the Valiant would sink and all he could do was evacuate his men. De la Penne reached the deck unscathed after the bomb went off, and he witnessed similar mines exploding beneath the HMS Queen Elizabeth, the HMS Jervis, and the oil tanker Sagona.

Six men had disabled the bulk of the British fleet in the Mediterranean. The world wouldn’t discover it for months, since the ships sank in shallow water on flat bottoms. Winston Churchill would praise the ingenuity and courage of the Italian frogmen when he relayed the news in a secret session of Parliament. After the war, the captain of the Valiant, Admiral Charles Morgan, even lobbied for a British decoration for de la Penne.

How did the frogmen know that they were ahead of schedule? Or determine that there were ten minutes left before the explosion? They had another piece of equipment, issued to them by the Italian navy: a hulking, 47-millimeter, plexiglass-domed, submersible wristwatch. Its guts were made by Rolex, but the Italian watch firm Panerai modified the cases, soldered on wire lugs, and added a sandwich-style dial. The bottom half was a disk painted with glowing radioactive material; the top half was a black disk with cutouts to make the indices. This was the Panerai Radiomir.

And I really want to spend an exorbitant amount of money to get a watch that looks like the ones that de la Penne and his comrades wore.

Well, not exactly like it. The modern versions are no longer made with radium, so they don’t give their makers and wearers cancer. Also they have better components and much shinier and more polished cases than the originals. You get them not from military contractors but from luxury boutiques, where the staff wear white gloves to handle them and speak to you in hushed tones.

It makes no sense, really. Cheapo battery-powered watches keep better time than expensive modern Panerai. An even more accurate time is available on my smartphone. But you can’t get better advertising than de la Penne’s physical courage and sportsmanlike conduct in one of the most daring feats of World War II. He wore it. It’s cool. And I want one so bad.

Or maybe this history is just one part of my excuse for caring about these shiny, expensive objects. The others are a boyish fascination with the engineering that goes into fine watchmaking, or with the design history of each of the major ateliers. Not to mention the career and financial success that fine watches can signify — first and primarily to yourself, but also to other “watch people,” or to the world. There is a certain personal style that can be expressed by the choice of watch, one usually perceived only by other connoisseurs. And, in an age of disposable technology, fine wristwatches seem durable beyond measure. I toss out my phone every few years. My computer gets replaced at least twice a decade. But if you turn in your wristwatch to be serviced by a watchmaker every few years, it will be ticking away for generations, maybe centuries.

And although mechanical horology is now a centuries-old endeavor, major technical advancements are still happening in our day. George Daniels, the British-born watchmaker who died in 2011, designed the coaxial escapement, which has rather dramatically increased the accuracy and durability of mechanical watches. This innovation was brought to mass market by Omega over the last decade. On the other side of the world, Japanese engineers at Seiko developed what they call the “spring drive” movement. It is a mechanical watch movement with a mainspring. It needs to be wound or have a winding rotor. So far, so traditional. But it converts its power through a regulator with a quartz crystal to push the watch hands forward and simultaneously apply a brake to correct its speed. A battery-powered watch will tick once per second. Most Rolexes will beat eight times a second, sweeping along in a tidy march. But a spring-drive watch will have a second hand that glides with no ticking or beating at all. For fans of mechanical watches, the effect can be mesmerizing. It also improves the timekeeping of the watch.

There is something about the way watches collect our memories and sentiments. Sitting on our wrist, day in and day out, they are intimate to us. At the height of her days working for IBM, my mother treated herself to a small yellow-gold Cartier watch. And I cannot see the signature Cartier style of roman numerals without thinking of her and that time.

I bought my first nice watch not all that long ago, to celebrate signing my first book contract. The book will have some bits of memoir and history, and it concerns my Irish father. I think I got the perfect watch to match the occasion. It was made in Japan by Grand Seiko. Within a mirror-polished steel case sits a green dial. It has beautiful sword hands for the local time, and a gold-colored spear hand for the Greenwich Mean Time function that I set to the time “back home” in Ireland. Glancing at it makes me happy. It also tells me instantly whether it is the right time to send my father a text or a note. Because it is a Grand Seiko and not a Rolex, it absolutely signals to other watch people: “I am one of you.”

And that’s part of the fun, too: bonding with other watch guys, enjoying their successes in finally acquiring their “grails,” and sharing advice on negotiating tactics with other sellers and traders. And because watches are so bound up with memories, the stories that watch guys share with one another tend to be about special moments in their lives: time spent with fathers, their wedding day, the birth of their first child, the big promotion that let them buy a watch in the first place, even just some difficult ordeal. We share our ambitions for life and our collection all at once.

I hope to have the occasions and the funds to mark the future with a Breguet Classique Chronométrie, from the house named after the relentless horological inventor Abraham-Louis Breguet. Or something I can pass down to my daughter from A. Lange & Söhne, the firm that was so wonderfully resurrected in Glashütte, Germany, after the Cold War ended. I want a yellow-gold Cartier, for reasons you already know. And that hulking Panerai Radiomir, of course. Can I afford any of these? No, not now. Not even secondhand. But someday.

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