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Time Pieces

From classic chronographs to Martian clocks, here are some riffs on how L.A. tells time

June 12, 2005|Kent Black and Avital Binshtock

Over the years I have inherited, been given or otherwise acquired a collection of watches. They range from a pair of porcelain-faced "repeaters" from the early 19th century that accompanied my father's ancestors on their voyage from Scotland, both my grandfathers' pocket watches, my dad's gold Gruen that he received for high school graduation and the steel Hamilton that he wore in the Air Force. The most expensive is a wafer-thin Geneve evening watch a former girlfriend gave me after accidentally washing my Timex in the laundry. The cheapest is an $18 Rolex knockoff I bought on Canal Street in lower Manhattan.

My favorite is a 1932 Pierce chronograph. No one in my family is quite sure where it came from. It's steel with a black face and a missing bezel. It is a classic chronograph--the kind a '30s aviator might actually have worn. Pierce, a Swiss company, went out of business after World War II. There are few replacement parts available. Several years ago, I pulled out the stem when I tried to reset it. A Romanian watchmaker in New York who fixed it took six months to do so, manufacturing parts from other watches. When he gave it back, he advised me to always keep it wound because if I broke the stem again, there was no way I'd get anyone to fix it, especially him.

I kept my word. For about two weeks. Then one day I noticed it had stopped. For another couple of weeks I occasionally stared at it on my dresser, trying to work up the nerve to gently pull the stem and reset the time. One morning I noticed that the Pierce and my alarm clock were only a minute apart. I waited a minute and then wound the Pierce. It was on time again. Since then, whenever the Pierce stops, I simply have to wait anywhere from a minute to 12 hours to reset the time. Sometimes I wear the stopped Pierce for days before noticing that the actual time and the time on my Pierce have intersected. Sometimes I'll give it a wind; sometimes I won't. On the days it keeps time, I'm consulting a precision-made Swiss timepiece. On the stopped days, I recognize it's just a great piece of antique jewelry.

Oh, and the most accurate watch in my collection? The fake Rolex. Hasn't lost a second in 12 years.--K.B.

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A feel-good time?

The new age and high-tech worlds don't have much in common, but Philip Stein Teslar claims to blend the two with its dual time zone watch in which a copper chip emits signals complementing the wearer's energy fields. The supposed result is a calming sense of well-being. The manufacturer says its product also increases energy, improves concentration, produces deeper sleep and reduces anxiety. The watch comes in a variety of styles with haute embellishments such as 18-karat gold, mother-of-pearl and colored gemstones. From $595 to $15,500.--A.B.

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Available at Bloomingdales, Century City, (310) 772-7129, and Ice Accessories, Los Angeles, (323) 933-5530.

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For old times' sake

"A lot of people think that when they buy an expensive watch ... it holds its value or increases. Wrong," says Christine Cicogna, a sales associate at Wanna Buy a Watch?, the Melrose Avenue vintage and contemporary watch shop founded by former psychologist Dr. Ken Jacobs. "Basically, a watch is just like a car. The minute you drive it off the lot, it begins to depreciate."

Cicogna is the antithesis of the frosty Rodeo Drive watch hawker. Her passion for vintage timepieces is evident as she moves among the cases in the small shop.

"This is the one exception," she says, placing a tray of black-faced chronographs on the counter. "This is the Rolex Submariner, also known as the 'James Bond' watch because Sean Connery wore it in 'Goldfinger.' The first model was about $150; it now goes for about $6,450. Basically, if you go into a watch store and buy a Rolex sports watch like a Submariner or a Daytona or GMT-Master, it will hold its value when you walk out the door. Rolex has always been very savvy about keeping supply low and demand high."

Cicogna says watch buyers looking for a good investment are entering the world of collectibles, where prices are driven by rarity and popular fashion. She cites the 1950s Hamilton Ventura watch, a futuristic, almost novelty item that got a boost in the collectors' market when Will Smith sported a reissue in "Men in Black." Its price has climbed steadily since then, she says. Another example is the Tag Heuer Monaco, made famous by Steve McQueen (a noted watch collector) in the film "Le Mans." Certain aspects of the watch--its large, contemporary blue face and association with McQueen--have made it highly prized. Its reissue sells for about $2,000, while the original goes for more than twice that.

Cicogna moves to a display of watches with curved rectangular cases and unusual jump hour movements. She picks up a classic Vacheron Constantin. "This sold new for $28,000, but we're selling it pre-owned for $11,000. I think this is one of the best values in the store."

And a good investment?

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