The Perfection of Imperfection: Wabi and Watches

"Wow." she said. "That watch is getting a little beaten up."

"Actually, I just got it." I sheepishly replied. "I bought it because it looked like this."

She did not ask any follow up questions. My wife knows better than to engage me on watches. I can't say I blame her. She has a whole life that is not obsessed with the tiny machine on her wrist. Lucky for me, I have you lot.

The Seiko 7002 in question, affectionately known as Crusty, had come from the Philippines, a place I believe to be the Seiko dive watch nesting grounds. If the sheer volume of Philippine eBay sellers is any guide, all Seikos must spend their lives migrating to Manilla, so that they may mate, and be serviced by local watchmakers before returning to the wild. Mine was purchased though a trusted seller on the Watch U Seek sales forum for $80, head only, shipped. Was this too much for a battered old watch?  Maybe. I know there are plenty of perfectly good watches that can be purchased brand new for $75-100, but from what I have seen of old Seiko divers, this was not unreasonable, and I was not looking for a new watch. Like many of its kind, it appeared to have lived a hard life, but unlike many, it had not been restored or modified. The hands may have been replaced as they look a bit less old than the rest of it, but overall, it seemed genuine. It had an honest face.

Wabi is a word that gets tossed around in the watch community, perhaps a bit more liberally than it should. We generally use it to describe wear and tear, but of a kind that we find aesthetically appealing. You will often see it applied to old Seiko and Citizen dive watches. Sometimes a seller will describe his watch as "having some wabi" which I am fairly certain is both grammatically incorrect and a gross oversimplification. Researching the term, I discovered a wealth of information about the concept of wabi-sabi in Japanese art and culture, and this little article on the G-Shock enthusiast site that is of particular interest to us watch loving types. The author compares wabi, "the feeling of sorrow, often felt when seeing something ravaged by time" to shibusa, which might be described as a combination of age and bittersweet remembrance. Other sources define wabi as rustic simplicity, and sabi as the beauty of that which is old or faded.  Together, they encompass impermanence, imperfection, and the beauty found in the natural cycle of growth and decay.

I know just enough about Japanese culture to know that this is an area far out of my league. Describing concepts of art and beauty can be difficult enough when when speaking of your own culture in your native tongue. Add a foreign culture and language, and you are going to make a hash of it as any nuance is bound to be lost. Yet I cannot find a word in English that serves as an acceptable substitute. "Patina" springs to mind. In its most literal sense, it is the layer of oxidization that forms on some metals, or the sheen that develops on wood as it is polished over the years. It is also used to describe any desirable effect of aging. This certainly covers the physical aspects of age we see in our watches. Those of us with brass or bronze watches certainly embrace the literal patina, and we can see its almost immediate effect on the appearance and texture of a leather strap. Still, it falls short. The word is too fixed on the tangible. It fails to capture emotion.

Whichever you choose, wabi, patina, or something else, the idea is that signs of age have a beauty and value of their own. In the 1980s and 1990s, when the vintage car market was really hitting its stride, there was a tendency among collectors to bring their cars back to a showroom state.  Everything was restored, in many cases to a better state of finish than when it left the factory.  Perfection was achieved, but provenance destroyed. Now, there is greater respect for patina and acceptance of normal wear because, as they say, it can only be original once. See the "Dirtbag"1964 Shelby Cobra for a good example. It also illustrates how subjective the concept can be. Many will read that and see a dirty old car, others will see history and romance. It begins with how you value the object, then how you value its interaction with other lives. Only then can you hear the story it tells. An item that is brand new has no story. It has achieved a level of perfection that comes with the moment of completion, but after that, it immediately begins to deteriorate as time and oxygen take their toll. If a new item represents perfection, then it can only become less perfect. You could always seal it in an airtight vault to delay the inevitable, but that denies the item its purpose. I find this particularly true of machines, which by definition are designed to be in motion. If you embrace its journey, on the other hand, then the object cannot get less perfect, only different. Age and damage are merely part of a transformation that will never be complete.

Let's go back to my Seiko. It has a scratched crystal, battered bezel, and dented case. The lume is faded to a yellow grey and has no glow whatsoever. The dial is no longer as black as it once was and even the date wheel is faded. It is a mess. All of these things can be fixed, but to what end?  It's not like there is any shortage of clean 7002s out there. There are plenty of beat up ones too, but each of them is unique. The dents and pockmarks have formed with a randomness that cannot be repeated. All of this combines to create a singular, timeworn look that imparts character and charm. Fixing any of Crusty's failings would ruin it. Besides, some of these flaws, like discoloration or UV fading can only be properly achieved over time. Ask a Rolex guy about "creamy lume" or "tropical dials" and you will find the same reverence for the aging process. There are guys out there literally cooking dials in ovens to achieve this look.

It is all well and good to talk of wabi and patina when you buy it that way. It's almost cheating. It is quite another thing to see that first scratch or ding in a new watch, maybe one that cost you a bit. At that point peaceful acceptance usually gives way to a stream of obscenities. Still, over time, you either fix it, or get over it. I have had this experience with just about every watch I own. I acquire a watch, cherish it for reasons personal and horological, wear it proudly, and before long, it has a mark or scrape somewhere. Every time, it makes my stomach drop, but I eventually put it in perspective. Nothing is ruined. The watch is now uniquely mine, not the manufacturer's, not another owner's, just mine.  I am in no hurry to beat up my watches, but one day, when a heirloom watch of mine passes to my son, the inevitable blemishes will identify it as Dad's watch. I know this from my experience with another heirloom.

I never met my maternal grandfather. He died while my mother was in high school, but I have heard much about him over the years. He was a mechanical engineer and a Navy officer at sea in the Pacific in World War II. When he married my grandmother in 1946, she bought him a gold Roamer wrist watch. He wore it until one day, not even 20 years later, he took it off and was too ill to put it back on. After that, it sat in a drawer until it was passed down to me, and after several years, I finally decided to have it serviced. The movement was frozen after years of disuse, but an overhaul brought it back to life. My watchmaker was keen to restore it, but I refused. I let him clean the case, but gave him strict instructions not to polish the scratches or touch the dial or hands. The dial is discolored and some of the paint has flaked off.  It has only half of the number 9. The case is dented in places and shows tool marks on the back and lugs. This is exactly the way I want it. It shows every mark of its time strapped to my grandfather's wrist, just below the point where his pulse could be felt, marking his time. It shows every year that passed after, waiting. Restoration would not only remove a pleasing patina of age, it would erase any trace of his life from the watch. It would destroy its ability to impart feelings of sorrow or bittersweet remembrance. I wear the watch now, and even though I treat it carefully, I know it will change. The dial will continue to decay, that 9 will probably disappear, and the case will no doubt collect some new dents and dings.  All of this will become part of its physical display of the passage of time, and really, isn't that the very purpose of a watch?
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