by C. Bradley Jacobs
Originally published in the NAWCC Bulletin, April 2004
As a collector, or maybe just an ardent acquirer, of timepieces I, like many others, have refined my preferences to a greater degree than I ever imagined when I started down this path. As a result, it has become increasingly difficult to find a wristwatch that is designed just as I would like. On the market today there are many lovely watches that are simply too small for my taste; there are fabulous-looking watches that employ the same movement as hundreds of lesser watches; there are watches that incorporate very desirable movements but have high price tags or feature designs that do not appeal to me…in short, rarely does a watch appear that has nothing about it that I would change.
Adding to this frustration is the recent trend toward large watches. I am not generally one to follow fashion, but the weight and bulk of many large watches contributes to a sensual appeal that I appreciate. Most of these large watches, however, are powered by the ubiquitous Unitas 6498/6497 series of pocket watch movements—some with fantastic decorative finishing, others nearly factory stock—often visible through sapphire crystals. The prevalence of this movement has forced me to look elsewhere for a large watch. I have nothing against this movement, but I want something uncommon. Something else I find irksome is the use of under-sized ETA automatics in huge watches—precluding the use of a see-through case back, which I consider indispensible. How, then, is one to acquire a large watch with a noteworthy movement (one worth seeing) for a reasonable price?
Finally, as a collector of both wrist and pocket timepieces, I am further frustrated by the lack of opportunities to use and enjoy some of the fantastic pocket watches that are available today for much less than the price of a modern watch of lesser quality. It is this last impediment, however, that was the genesis of a solution to all of these issues: the creation of a custom-built wristwatch using a neglected vintage pocket watch movement.
I have recently become interested in a small class of American pocket watch movements made roughly around the second quarter of the 20th century. Howard, Hamilton and Elgin all made 10-size movements of high grades and interesting construction. The Howard “Thin Model” (17, 19 or 21 jewels) from the 1920s has a very interesting bridge design akin to the 16s Railroad Chronometer. Hamilton’s Grade 917 forms the basis of a series of four grades (with 17, 21 or 23 jewels) of 10s movement with some lovely features. Elgin manufactured several versions of the Grade 54x series with varying numbers of jewels (15, 17 or 21) and adjustments (0-8) which were sturdy but unadorned. The plainness of the Elgin, which seemed to be a draw-back at first, eventually prompted me to take my first serious steps toward the creation of a unique wrist watch. Having already purchased a stock wristwatch case meant to hold a Unitas 649x movement, and finding that it was too small for the American 10s movements I own, I set aside the idea of having the case modified in favor of a more complete approach. I needed something more befitting a person who is picky about the end result, but unable to manufacture a watch by himself.
In the course of reading printed and on-line articles about everything watch-related, I came across information about a man in Pforzheim, Germany who does engraving and engine-turning (guilloché) and skeletonization of watch movements and will build one-of-a-kind wristwatches to suit his customers. Jochen Benzinger is his name. I contacted Mr. Benzinger about the prices of such pieces to see if he might be the man to help me realize my dream. Several of Benzinger’s custom-built pieces are powered by the Unitas 6498 movement, so I suspected that he could provide a wristwatch case large enough to accept the American 10s movement. After a few e-mails discussing options and cost, we decided that I should send him some photographs of the movement I had in mind for incorporation into the watch.
The sharing of photographs led to further discussions, the result of which was that I felt this was the path I should follow in realizing my vision. I shipped an example of the 21-jewel Elgin Grade 543 (that I had bought, uncased, from a US supplier) and, for good measure, included a 15-jewel Grade 546 for Mr. Benzinger to use for spare parts or practice. We discussed still more options—such as the extent of engraving and engine-turning to be done on the piece—and debated whether to skeletonize the movement. Budgetary constraints dictated that the case be made of steel rather than precious metal, but white metals are my preference so this was no disappointment. After a handful of messages back and forth I felt that I had made my preferences clear to Mr. Benzinger and I was comfortable that he would improvise based upon his talent and experience to complete the decoration of the movement.
The Elgin 543, as indicated above, is a plain-looking piece, but is not without its interesting features. Typical of Elgin it has a sweeping train bridge, the lines of which I wished to keep intact, if not emphasize through decoration. Also, as this movement is the 21-jewel variant, adjusted to 5 positions, it features a swan’s neck regulator and many cap jewels set in oblong plates screwed to the movement. The jewels are also somewhat large and nice to look at. The dial-side of the movement features three of these cap jewels and a fairly large and interestingly-shaped piece that covers and integrates with the setting and winding mechanisms. I decided that my timepiece, to be truly unique and interesting, would forego the use of a traditional dial and would instead show the dial-side of the movement, decorated with guilloché. Some blued screws and perlage, along with a rose gold-plated 9:00 sub-dial, were Mr. Benzinger’s contributions to my idea. The dial, made of a thin sapphire disc, is printed only with hash marks for the hours, small dots for seconds, and an off-set Benzinger logo in an oval. The intersection of the sub-dial by a couple of the jewels adds some tension to the design and reinforces the utilitarian nature of the original design. This Elgin grade was designed for function, not beauty, and the decoration of it in the course of this project was meant to celebrate this, not hide it.
At various intervals during the process, Mr. Benzinger and I had discussions regarding some of the details, but other details were decided spontaneously, as he was working on the watch. My initial vision did not involve any skeletonization of the movement—I felt that the original landscape would be best suited to engraving and rose gold plating—but Mr. Benzinger saw something more. He suggested that I consider what he called “light skeletonization,” which is what you see in the finished product. If this is “light” what does he consider extensive skeletonization? Visit his website (www.jochenbenzinger.de) and see the flowery skeletonization of some Unitas movements, or the industrial look of others, or the initials carved from plates and rotors, or the dragon motifs he has created for a special customer. In comparison, the work on my watch is conservative.
The decoration of some of the less obvious parts (winding mechanism and wheels, pallet bridge, etc.) were left entirely to Mr. Benzinger’s inspiration. Having made my initial suggestions, I was content to let the harmony of the entire piece be the responsibility of the master. Although we were in contact frequently during the project (I was writing an article on his business and conducting an interview with him) weeks would go by without discussion of the progress of my watch. I was hoping in part to be pleasantly surprised with a sudden notification of its completion, yet I was also anxious to know how things were going. To satisfy my curiosity, and because I indicated I’d like to chronicle the experience, Mr. Benzinger provided me with photos at various points along the way. Some are included herein.
The main plate of the movement being decorated on an antique rose engine:
This series of images shows the transformation of the Elgin movement’s main bridge from original to decorated state:
The part as delivered to Jochen Benzinger:
Engraving getting underway (notice there is very little in this photo that gives away the final design):
Skeletonizing almost complete:
I was appeased but still anxious about the final product. Would it be the watch about which I had been dreaming? Would the moment I actually beheld the completed watch match the expectations and the enjoyment of the concept and process of creating it?
I’ll try to be brief and restrained in attempting to describe my feeling upon the watch’s arrival from Germany several months after my initial contact with Jochen Benzinger. First, you must know that I caved in to temptation and accepted Jochen’s offer to provide me with photographs of the watch prior to its delivery. He had sent me large digital images of each side of the watch. Even in the images, I could tell it would be more fantastic than I had hoped. The arrival of the watch itself, a couple days before Christmas, brought back emotions similar to those I felt as a child receiving a gift that had been longed for over the previous months. In the moments before unwrapping the watch I questioned whether I had been a good enough boy and whether the item would be everything I had imagined. It was and is. I had embarked upon a quest to create a dream watch. Not THE dream watch, mind you, but a watch which I can be proud to wear for the rest of my days, for several reasons. The concept of this watch is something of which I am proud—the result justifies my choice of this plain but potentially exceptional movement. The ownership of a work of art created by one of the modern masters of a timeless craft also is a source of pride. The friendship that I have begun to forge with Jochen is also a source of happiness. And, in an obscure way, I am pleased to be the owner of a watch which just might be the only wristwatch in the world built around the Elgin Grade 543 movement (I may be the only person who finds this appealing but that’s part of the experience, too).
In order to recall the humble origins of this watch, I asked Jochen to inscribe some movement information around the rear bezel. In the beginning I had hoped that the original engraved information on the movement could be kept intact. As I intended only for the movement to be engraved and not skeletonized, this seemed feasible. Once we had agreed to skeletonize the movement I asked that the text “Elgin 543” and the serial number of the movement be included on the watch. This is an Elgin at heart and I did not want to disassociate this information from the material that remained of the movement. This watch owes much to the defunct American giant and is as much an Elgin as a Benzinger, for both parties are/were experts in separate eras but complementary fields.
More images may be viewed on-line by clicking here. See this and other custom creations at the Benzinger website.
Text and images: ©2009 C. Bradley Jacobs and WatchCarefully.com, unless otherwise credited