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  • September 27th, 2018


By Joel M. Vance

In 1956 my favorite aunt gave me a Rolex Oyster Perpetual watch as a college graduation present. Armed with a diploma and a Rolex I was prepared to ascend into social circles where surnames were followed by academic designations and wrists were circled by Rolex watchbands.

My eyes, a charming bright blue, have been likened to the late Paul Newman’s famous orbs (although the rest of me is closer to Alfred E. Neuman). That’s one link between me and Mr. Newman; the other is 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.

The Hillman Minx was a British import, cheap and with an engine which quite possibly consisted of a pair of geriatric gerbils running around in a cage which somehow propelled the car at a blistering 25 mph. Maybe I didn’t have a Paul Newman racecar, but I did have a Rolex Oyster Perpetual and I could hang my arm outside the window of the Minx (which I had to do to signal turns since there was no turn indicator among the car’s accessory items) and let people see my glittering status symbol.

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 an elegant starting block 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, the one I got 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 words 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 kept it quarantined 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 dead 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 watch he suggested was made by the Mallard watch company. This seemed a good omen because I am a great fan of duck hunting, especially for mallards, among the best of ducks on the dinner table. A mallard drake is almost a trophy bird when it comes to duck hunting. According to their promotional material the Mallard watch is “built for action, and for life!” Sounded like a good fit for me because at the time (when I was less than decrepit) if not exactly built for action, at least I was ready for it.

The Mallard also touted that “you won’t find these fine watches in big-box or discount stores”. If there is anything that I avoid like the black plague or underarm odor it is big-box and discount stores. A day when I am not in Walmart is a day in the sunshine.

Mallard watches are the brainchildren of a fellow named Jules Borel, a Swiss watchmaker, who immigrated to the United States in 1920 and opened a watch repair shop. The business grew as a supplier of parts and tools for the watch industry and eventually Borel came out with his own line of watches which for whatever reason he named the Mallard. Mr. Borel did not choose the glitzy confines of Manhattan as his home base; instead he chose Kansas City as his watchmaking home, in my home state, Missouri, proving that you don’t have to be uptown to be a down-home feller.

So I plopped down my $100 and went home with my Mallard. At this moment I can look at my wrist and tell within a few seconds exactly what time it is in my universe because after more than 30 years the Mallard keeps the kind of time that Mr. Rolex and his fellow horological legends can only aspire to.

The Mallard has been sweated on, been through the hell of 1000 grueling hunts in inhospitable hells, traveled thousands of miles on the road– and it keeps time the way time should be kept, accurately and without failure. Without a whimper and a lost moment never to be regained.

On the other hand, the Rolex went back into its original case and got stuck in a drawer with old pocketknives, my expired passport with the photograph that makes me look like Osama bin Joel, decorative belt buckles and lint-covered breath mints. There it has languished for a couple of decades while my Mallard continues to be a highflying exemplar of a watch which marks time with nary a missing second.

I sneered at the audacity of Rolex to call any watch “perpetual.” It’s arrogant to label any watch “perpetual” unless it has been around since the time of the Pharaohs. And I haven’t seen any hieroglyphs of Tutankhamen sporting a wristwatch. Rolex is more than 113 years old, founded in 1905.

It’s actually English, not Swiss, in origin. 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 whmper (actually, I would’ve settled for a whimper rather than dead silence).

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 water.

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.

One watchmaker took it apart and said the self-winding mechanism was worn out. Self-winding is an invention of 1923 (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 can see 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).

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 which had a breath mint glued to it 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. He seemed to imply that if it came from Missouri it probably was dysfunctional because it had become clogged with horse manure.

The ensuing 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 Mallards I could have 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 Rolex 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 was in the tradition of shade tree mechanics who are open a couple of days a week if they feel like it, but who can 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. As it turned out, I needed Geppetto, the woodworker who turned Pinocchio into a real boy, more than I needed a watch repair man. I never met the guy but if you remember the Pinocchio story, every time the wood kid told a lie his nose grew longer. I couldn’t see the watch guy over the phone but I suspect maybe his nose lengthened as we spoke.

Commenting on the $1000 Rolex estimate I said, “Yeah, I’ll send it off to them right after I buy the surplus aircraft carrier and renovate it as a luxury liner.” The heavy sarcasm 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 $200 he returned it running with James Bondian éclat. I practiced my Paul Newman chuckle as I slipped the Rolex back on my wrist. The second hand lurched around the dial and the watch gave every appearance of actually telling time for the first time in decades.

The refurbished Rolex ticked on, …picking up about 10 minutes a day, apparently what the Rolex folks consider Rolex Time. Perhaps it was trying to make up the lost years. The repair job lasted, as best I remember, for about a month and then the Rolex returned to its natural state—inert. Back in the drawer with the breath mints. The passport still is expired and so apparently is the Rolex.

The Mallard, meanwhile, is back on my wrist where it belongs and back in a duck blind where a Rolex wouldn’t be caught dead (well, if it was my Rolex, it would be).

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