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  • April 2nd, 2013

Time Out

By Joel M. Vance

My Aunt Vic gave me a Rolex Oyster Perpetual watch as a college graduation present.  Armed with a diploma and a Rolex I expected to bulldoze into the social circles where surnames are followed by academic designations and all wrists are branded by Rolex watchbands.

My eyes, a charming bright blue, have been likened to Paul Newman’s famous orbs (although the rest of me is closer to Alfred E. Neuman).  That was one link between me and Mr. Newman; the other that he was a fan of Rolex watches and wore one when he drove his race car in competition.  I wore mine when I drove my Hillman Minx to work.  James Bond also wore a Rolex in Ian Fleming’s spy novels, as did Sean Connery when he played the famous 007 in the movies.  We both have thinning hair and a Rolex and that ends the similarities between me and Sean Connery.

My Rolex was a status symbol far advanced from a bachelor’s in journalism and was the only status symbol I owned.  I did not have a Cadillac or a membership in the country club.  I owned no stocks or bonds.  My starting newspaper salary was $65 a week, nothing extra for overtime.  My savings account consisted of a slowly-maturing $50 War Bond, bought by my parents when I was a toddler.

But I had a Rolex Oyster Perpetual and it guaranteed I would know what time to show up for work and what time to quit.  It functioned as elegant starting blocks in the race of life, a sprint to where I would activate its self-winding mechanism through vigorous clipping of bond coupons.

And then it died.  It just quit running.

My Webster Collegiate dictionary, a relic of college, along with my degree and my Oyster Perpetual, defines “perpetual” as “Lasting or enduring forever.”  Apparently Rolex’s definition varies from Webster’s because, about 30 years into the life of the Perpetual it died in the tradition of T.S. Eliot: “not with a bang, but a whimper.”

I quoted this to a watch repair man, showing him the stilled second hand.  “It whimpered when it quit?” he asked in astonishment.

“No…that’s a literary allusion…nevermind,” I said.  “Can you fix it?”

He quarantined it for several days and then told me that he couldn’t get parts for it anymore, that Rolex did not make them for a watch not even 50 years old.  “You mean that a perpetual watch is obsolete in less than half a century?” I said.  “That’s not my idea of perpetual.”

He shrugged and said, “I’ve got some really good watches for $100.  Run on batteries.”  The Rolex went back into its original case in a drawer with old pocketknives, my passport, decorative belt buckles and lint-covered breath mints.  There it languished for a decade while the $100 watch marked time with nary a missed second.

How can a watch be “perpetual” unless it has been running at least since the time of the Pharaohs?  And I haven’t seen any hieroglyphs of Tutankhamen sporting a wristwatch.

The Rolex company is just over 100 years old.  The corporation was founded in 1905, a toddler among timepieces.  Rolex actually is English, not Swiss, in origin, although today its world headquarters is in Switzerland.  One story about the origin of the name is that founder Hans Wilsdorf thought that “rolex” is the sound a watch makes when it’s being wound.  Mine, of course, made a tiny whimper.

A Rolex watch has been to the bottom of the Mariana Trench and to the top of Mt. Everest.  Mine never went higher than the highest spot in Missouri, Taum Sauk Mountain (1,772 feet) or deeper than six inches in a trout stream when I stepped on a condemned slippery rock, did an acrobatic pratfall that would have gained the envy of Buster Keaton, and the watch flew off my wrist and plopped into the shallows.

In 1927 Mercedes Gleitze was the first English woman to swim the English channel and she did it with a Rolex Oyster watch tied around her neck.  Although she nearly died of exposure, the watch was in perfect shape after 10 hours submerged.  Chances are then my watch’s short dip in Roaring River Creek was not what caused its fatal illness.

Watch doctors varied in their opinions as to what malady afflicted it.  One watchmaker took it apart and said the self-winding mechanism was worn out.  Self-winding is an invention from 1923 (introduced in 1931 on a Rolex).  A tiny balance wheel swings back and forth with the motion of the wearer’s arm and powers gears and other mysterious stuff that winds the mainspring.

I suspect that if I were operating a jackhammer 15 hours a day it might stress the self-winder into exhaustion, but I’m just your average couch potato, occasionally raising my arm to grab a Bud or another nachos.  My winder should last a thousand years (actually, being “perpetual,” it should last forever—just ask Mr. Webster).

I was reminded of the old Timex watch commercials on black-and-white television that bragged the cheap watch with the Rolex sound-alike name would “Take a licking and keep on ticking.”  The Rolex motto is “The masterpiece of watch craftsmanship.”  Nothing about licking or ticking.

Years passed and my Rolex moldered among the detritus of my life, a pearl among swine, albeit a pearl that told the right time only twice each 24 hours.  I ran across it while searching out my fifth grade report card and decided to beard the horological lion in its den.  I called the New York Rolex headquarters and spoke with a gentleman whose accent reflected advanced educational institutions where the annual tuition equaled what I spent in four years at the University of Missouri and who doubtless spent more on one sneaker than the cost of everything in my closet.

He told me that Rolex did not make parts for that watch anymore but I was too intimidated by his smarmy accent to ask why in the hell a watch with “perpetual” in its name would be outdated in half a century. He gave me instructions on mailing the watch to them in a tone that resembled the way one speaks to children who can’t quite grasp long division, a mixture of pity and resignation.

The estimate allowed that Rolex possibly could make my watch functional again though it never would keep Rolex time and who knows how long the duct tape and Elmer’s glue would hold?  Cost?  About $1,000.

That would have bought 10 of the watches I’d bought to replace the defunct Rolex, but I didn’t bring that up—had he known I’d defaced my wrist with a $100 watch he probably would have hung up on me.

The watch went back among the rusty pocketknives for several more years and then I read an article about a rural watchmaker who specializes in Rolex repair.  He is in the tradition of shade tree mechanics who are open a couple of days a week if they feel like it, but who could turn a 1923 John Deere tractor into a competitive NASCAR vehicle.

I explained my plight and said Rolex wanted $1,000 to maybe fix my watch.

“They want you to buy a new watch,” said the little watchmaker, who I think was named Geppetto, although I may be confusing him with another craftsman.

“Yeah, right after I buy the surplus aircraft carrier and renovate it as a luxury liner,” I replied with heavy sarcasm that flew past him like a Nolan Ryan hummer.

But I was paying him to fix watches, not to appreciate subtle humor and after I sent him the watch and a few dollars he returned it running with James Bondian éclat.  I’m practicing my Paul Newman chuckle

Meanwhile the refurbished Rolex ticks on…running fast about two minutes a day.  Perhaps it is trying to make up the lost years.

Afterword: The damn thing quit again after a few months and as far as I’m concerned it now is an antique, appreciating in collector value for an eventual sale if someone offers me a few bucks for it, but as a timepiece it is as useless as the proverbial tits on a boar hog.


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