Add Venture #7

For Explorers, Adventurers and Visual Storytellers

Sat Mar 20th, 2021

How to Choose your Adventure Watch?

No no no! Niet, non,ううん, nein. If you're thinking "we all have phones, why bother with a watch?" you're getting this all wrong ;) Adventure is a state of mind. And your choice of timepiece matters every bit as much as any other part of your gear, possibly more.

Time and adventure are inseparable concepts. Think of all the ocean races, super trails, high ascents. Whether we accept those as role models or not - I don't - we can't escape the fact that all of them are timed. See how hard that made picking a winner for the 2020 Vendee Globe.  All of the famous explorer's logbooks come serialized by date and time. In fact, early explorers went to great lengths to keep an accurate measure of time (and location) during their travels.

Of course, these days, we more often need our watches more to make sure we'll be back home before curfew or before the match begins, than to keep track of our progress through an ocean. In spite of this, adventure watches come laden with features that would have made Shackleton's knees tremble: GPS, heart monitor, vO2max, time in multiple zones, mapping, altitude, weather forecast, email and other notifications ... And yet, many actual modern day explorers care only about time keeping, as do most of the muscular heroes of modern blockbusters. So let's examine and weigh all these options, understand their diverse appeal to different types of people, and set some guidelines on how to choose a watch for yourself.

On your marks! Get set! Go!

Leather strap in sea water and watch worn upside down. Purist watch lovers have already left the room ;) ;) ;) (c) Alex Perez

Travel, Adventures & Exploring

Can a watch really change the course of an adventure or are those expensive wrist ornaments only glorified jewellery? 

In Timepieces That Connect With a History of Exploration, Alex Bellini, who rowed 294 days alone through the oceans, explains "The longer you stay alone, the closer you get to yourself [...] That’s what makes the adventure extreme — not exploring remote areas." and "keeping track of your time is very important because it gives you the magnitude of your adventure". That is perhaps the most essential role of a time piece, a grounding element against which to gauge and keep track of the most real moments of life.

But why old-fashioned, mechanical watches? In a world riddled with digital devices that provide all the tools to make exploration a lot simpler, the rugged simplicity and reliability of a bulletproof traditional watch is like a return to nature, a form of authenticity and a connection to explorers of the past. This adds a deep meaning to the purchase of a mechanical watch, whereas a digital device is a disposable object we rarely create a bond with. There's a profound respect for the engineering and - mostly human - workmanship, and reassurance in knowing than when all the electronics have failed, the watch will keep going on. NASA even bet the lives of a whole crew of Astronauts on that mechanical reliability.  

For us week-end warriors, though, the prospect of a single tool weighing very little and always present on our wrist can be alluring. Particularly at a price that's 5-10% of a mechanical watch's. Here, there is no passion, no story, only convenience and feature set. I personally find them far less interesting and always prefer dedicated tools to a jack of all trades. But here's an interesting selection for those who are more into electronics. And here's another. And another. And if your specific flavour of digital is Apple, here's a solid review.

And maybe you're not even hesitating between a mechanical and an electronic wristwatch but simply wondering why you should be bothered at all. As listicles go, this article does a good job of explaining why. Among other ideas : "Phones don’t keep you punctual. Watches do."

To summarize: explorers and adventurers set on a small-crew or solo adventure that can put their life at risk tend to favour the reality of a solid traditional watch, the simple but powerful promise that time will be told, whatever the conditions. The story behind this is almost like the security blanket of a child facing the dark on night, as the watch will not fail. For those engaged in more recreational pursuits, multi tool digital watches convey a feeling of almost magical potential. And, for fans of horology, well, whatever the endeavour, there is only one choice :) The choice is entirely yours.

Timepieces That Connect With a History of Exploration

by Victoria Gomelsky (The New York Times)

Stories of modern-day adventure watches, the explorers they were created for and their ties to a glorious past. A very interesting read.

A moving tribute to the watches tiend to some of the most important expeditions known to mankind. All mechanical because explorers won't have it any other way. Even today.

“Lost time is never found again.”
Benjamin Franklin

Time is the most valuable thing a man can spend.”

Photo Video & Storytelling

Interstellar! If I could only write one work in this section, it would be Interstellar. The film, if you haven't seen it, is all about noble adventure - paying the highest possible cost to protect those you love - and time. It revolves around a watch. It is a masterpiece of careful editing, that sublime art-meets-science part of filmmaking that best exploits how we experience the passing of time and how this affects our perception of the movie and our understanding of the underlying messages. In Memento, Inception and Tenet, as well, Christopher Nolan reveals his passion for time told in story, but to me, Interstellar is the most closely related to the ideas underlying this newsletter issue and this section in particular. 

And don't think watches are popular in movies just because those are for older people obsessed with time. Social Media was designed from the ground up to steal our time and turn it into capital. And flavour-of-the-month TikTok is named after a watch beat and invites users to post videos under 60 seconds long. Not coincidence here.

If manufacturer slogans such as "every [insert brand] tells a story" are to be believed, watches aren't simply accessories in manly adventure movies, or even props around which a time-based film hinges, but storytellers themselves. This may seem like marketing garbage, and sometimes it is. But watches really are deeply personal objects to those who love them (as opposed to those who speculate or ego-boost through them). And, if that's not you, it might be extremely difficult to relate to anyone choosing a watch on anything but functional or aesthetic reasons (and usually paying far more than seems necessary). To understand this better, I highly recommend Twenty Classic Stories To Read If You're New To Watches, a compendium of articles on the various facets of perceived value, ie of personal story,  by dedicated blog Hodinkee. The important matter of movements is well addressed and well worth a read.

And, if this does nothing to kindle your love of fine watchmaking, what better way to couple adventure, timekeeping, story and cheapness than building a sundial :) ? At the beach using pebbles, in the garden using wooden poles, you name it, and have fun.

The title says it all. Here's a list of the iconic watches used in the some of the most popular films of their time. It's so interesting to see the influence of fashion and trends on those ;)

This is a highly recommended, and fascinating analysis of Insterstellar's editing by a talented pro who also knows how to articulate complex messages in a simple manner. Brilliant! Contains Spoilers, you have been warned ;)

In house or supplied movement? To collect or not to collect? The reality of water resistance. Details that matter. The talisman magic of watches. Tools of the trade. Can a watch really be worth $17.75 million? And many more ...

Making a Sundial

by Leiden Observatory (Astro Edu)

A step by step walk through the theory and practical building of a sundial, written for educators (hence, perfect for a family activity).

One-click Challenge

Share this page, I dare ya ;)

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People, Ideas & Gear

Watches, photography, people? Look no further than our beloved Ming Thein. Before starting his acclaimed watch brand, Ming cut his teeth in horological circles by photographing some of the most iconic time pieces. Framing, determining depth of field, taming reflections, white balance, colour management, artificial lighting, magnification ... this is no different from any other type of photograph, but Ming shares his experience, failures and successes in his online series on watch photography

But, getting back to adventure, what should you look for a watch designed exclusively with that purpose in mind? That depends on what you like in a watch. Some owners, like me, enjoy the fact that a watch can be extremely tough yet remain elegant and unscathed, even after some rough treatment. Other wear their scars as a proud badge of honour. Others go for outright indestructibility (for a really stupid, but seriously impressive take on this, by an actual dealer, check out this video).

Depending on which side of the hardness fence you fall, you'll choose different case, strap and crystal materials. A battered old bronze beauty sure says a lot about where it's been and what it's seen. And this has not escaped manufacturers, some of which will pre-age your watch (kinda like a preset for your case and dial ;) Of course, the material used for case and movement influence other characteristics of the watch, such as resistance to magnetic fields. Even if you don't work in difficult environments that justify those, keeping your watch on at airport security is a cool perk of non-ferrous materials (white gold, for instance).  

Then, there's the matter of lume. Initially intended for divers, the substrate used has to remain readable in absolute darkness for as long as a dive could last. The diver's life very literally depended on it. Today, many a "diver's watch" will struggle to produce a shimmer for more than a few minutes. But others perpetuate the tradition with generous application that will light up a room for much longer than your average Netflix episode. The effect when you enter a tunnel in a train or car, or when the flight attend switches off the lights, can be beautiful and startling! Older watches used radioactive luminous substrates that lasted for decades. For obvious health reasons, this is no longer allowed. But radium and tritium are not completely out, nor are they the only solution for reading time in the dark.

Of course, there's no escaping the matter of the movement used inside the watch. For obvious reasons, a purely digital watch seems like a safer bet than anything comprising hundreds of rotating parts hinging on tiny axes and polished gemstones, but you'd be surprised at just how sturdy the best of these are. And that's what makes these collectible heirlooms that your grand children will enjoy every bit as much as you did. That being said, there are gorgeous precision quartz movements out there too, and even hybrids such as Seiko's sublime spring-drive, in which all the usual mechanics can be found, but a highly accurate quartz crystal paces the movement to an astonishing level of accuracy (a few seconds a month) with no battery in sight.

Based on all of those criteria, as well as aesthetic and financial considerations, you are now ready to choose your adventure watch :) Prices can seem shokingly high. But remember what you are buying is also a worldview. You are supporting high-quality workmanship over shoddy products that need to be thrown away quickly and pollute our world and promote social disaster. You are buying decades of solid use. And, remember, you can buy pre-owned, from trustworthy shops, and severely cut your financial losses. But, most of all, you are buying a level of pleasure of ownership that is hard to describe :) 

Have fun on your buying journey :)

If you've gotten this far, please leave a comment. Tell me what you think, what you agree with and what you don't. What you'd like to see covered in future issues. Let's get talking!

A very informative series of posts written in Ming's usual no-nonsense and information packed style, illustrated with some of his best work. Definitely worth the read.

Radium, Tritium, Luminova, Superluminova, Chromalight, and more, are described in this interesting post. Specificities and individual limits are explained.

Sapphire Crystal is more scratch resistant, and, predictably, more expensive. But if you want to know more than this evidence, this is a good place to start.

Reference website A Blog to Watch presents a list of materials and hardening processes as well as a selection of super scratch resistant watches to illustrate them.

Images (c) myself, Benjamin Suter, Daniel Thomas, Motoki Tonn, Aaron Burden and Jan Kopriva.

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