OK, I gotta admit it. I’ve always been fascinated with watches since I was a kid.
I belong to the Generation-X community and I grew up in the seventies where there were no World Wide Web, no digital MP3 players, no CDs and DVDs, PDAs, personal computers, Sony PSPs or video games. Cellular phones were unheard of except for the occasional radio telephones used in cars by the very wealthy, the local constabulary, high ranking politicians and perhaps the Malaysian royalty.
However, the one and only personal item that almost every adult had with them everywhere, other than their wallets and handbags was probably the humble wristwatch. It wasn’t just a device to tell you the current time, for many it represented a status symbol no matter if you wore a Rolex or a humble Seiko. In the early 70s, we didn’t have those cheap, generic quartz watches from China that have flooded the markets of all the four corners of the globe. The replica watch industry had a long way to go and fake watches were virtually unheard of.
The mechanical wristwatch was probably the only hi-tech object that people wore in the course of their daily routines. Everyone seemed to have one (or want one) and watch stores flourished like mushrooms. My favorite store that my dad took me to was a watch store named “Lim Brothers". It was an authorized Seiko and Citizen dealer. I remember there were were display cases of watches and one I found the most interesting was this water filled glass tank in which several water resistant watches were immersed. It looked just like an aquarium sans the fish. I don’t remember whether it was Seiko or Citizen but I was pretty impressed with the display.
My first “watch"
I recall that my first “timepiece" wasn’t a working one but a toy. It was some cheap Hong Kong made mock up of an Omega Speedmaster chronograph bought at a night market. Of course there wasn’t a movement in it but the hands could be manipulated. As with my other toys, it didn’t last long and broke in no time at all (pardon the pun). Even it was a toy watch, that “Speedmaster" was really a cool, no.. “far out" thing to have. 😉
I used to play with my father’s Rado and Seiko Bellmatic automatic watches and one day he presented me with a hand-wind Timex on a leather strap. It was my first real watch and I was happy with it. Not long after, curiosity got the better of me and I broke the main spring from over-winding. I guess the Timex wasn’t equipped with a clutch so the main spring snapped.
My dad sent my watch for repairs and I remember changing the leather strap at the watch store. I had the watch for a few months before I experimented the watch’s water proofing ability.
I remember that I immersed the Timex into the bath tub, thinking it was water resistant. It was apparently not so my poor watch died an untimely death. 🙁
That was the end of it and my dad didn’t buy me a watch until I was like twelve years old.
My first Seiko
Sometime in 1976, my parents took me to Singapore and it was a shopping haven for me. A trip to Singapore always delighted me to no end. The experience of visiting a more advanced duty-free country, the cheap Kit Kat chocolate and Hershey’s Bars and one of my favorite pit stops – the toy section in the department store! I had a soft spot for aircraft modeling and I got quite a few Airfix airplane kits.
Of course, the highlight of the trip was at a watch store, probably located at the People’s Park shopping mall. My dad bought my younger sister and I an honest-to-goodness real watch! It was a boy’s size Seiko automatic with a faceted sapphire crystal. My sister and I had the same model, except that hers had a blue dial while mine was green. I had the watch until 1979 when my family moved back to Petaling Jaya and I had lost the watch, never to be found again. Unfortunately my sister also had misplaced hers a long time ago, so I wouldn’t know what caliber or model it was. I have tried checking Jayhawk’s Watch Photo Database but couldn’t find a photo of my old childhood timepiece. 🙁
My first quartz watch!
Actually my first battery powered, quartz timepiece was a “Tiverton" brand which I ordered from Singapore via postal order. It was pretty cheap, about MYR49 (approx USD15 at prevailing rates) plus shipping. The year was 1978 and at a tender age of fourteen I was already buying a watch via post and eBay hadn’t even existed yet! 🙂
A photo of a 70s era Light Emitting Diode (LED) watch. Due to its heavy power requirement, the watch only displays the time for a few seconds when you press a button.
The Tiverton LED was a basic timepiece, it just displays the time, date and month. No stopwatch, no alarm, nothing. The LEDs also had a pretty narrow field of view so you have to turn the watch directly towards you to read the time. It was disadvantageous as other people couldn’t read the time unless you positioned the watch to face them directly. The watch was almost useless outdoors in direct sunlight as the dim glow of the LEDs had to compete with the bright sun.
As the Tiverton was an LED-based watch, it was also a battery gobbler. I soon found out that I had to replace the batteries (it required three) and it wasn’t exactly economical. The same mail order store later advertised an LCD version and I soon ordered that. I gave the old LED watch to my younger brother.
I can’t remember how long I kept the LCD Tiverton watch but suffice to say it probably didn’t last with me long enough. In 1979 my family and I had moved back to Petaling Jaya and I went to the Bukit Bintang Boys’ Secondary School or BBBS for short. A change of environment meant a change of watch to me! 😉
The late 70’s LCD watch craze
I soon noticed that my schoolmates had caught on a new craze – digital watches. I’m not talking the inexpensive ones but the fancy ones from Citizen, particularly the Multi-Alarm series. Several of my schoolmates had the Citizen Multi Alarm II and it was regarded as a status symbol in school back then. Those who came from well-to-do families had these cool digital watches while the rest were using good ol’ automatic timepieces or had no watch at all.
Owning a beeping digital watch was the in-thing as the local TV was airing the weekly de facto hi-tech drama called Gemini Man. The main character, Sam Casey was accidentally exposed to deadly radiation that gave him invisibility for short periods. In order to control his invisibility, he had to wear a “stabilizer" which was a special digital watch. The watch keeps track of the elapsed time and exceeding the limit would result in permanent invisibility. The show wasn’t particularly a runaway success but it capitalized on an everyday object that most of us take for granted – a wristwatch. After all, who didn’t want a watch that made us pretend that we’re Sam Casey? 🙂
The Citizen Multi Alarm III wasn’t an exactly cheap wristwatch to begin with. It cost around MYR350 (approx USD104) and that was in 1979 dollars!
The Citizen Multi Alarm III featured:
two independently setting alarms
an hourly chime
a stopwatch with a 1-sec resolution
a countdown timer
I was usually good at pestering my poor old mum and she finally gave in and I got a Citizen Multi Alarm III, the latest model. I actually wanted the earlier Multi Alarm II as it looked nicer and had a 1/10sec stopwatch but who’s complaining? 🙂
By 1981 digital LCD watches had become more affordable and I would say that over half of the students in my class wore one. We would set our watches to chime on every hour and it was somewhat comical when all our watches beeped almost instantaneously, causing some of my friends to giggle like girls.
I guess I had gotten tired of the Citizen Multi Alarm III and by this time I had upgraded to a really nice Seiko LCD watch (model unknown) with similar functions as the Citizen, but with a 1/10sec chronograph readout. I wore the watch all year until late 1981, in Penang on the way to attend the dinner-cum-closing ceremony of the international students’ exchange program at the St George’s Institution, I accidentally fell into a deep drain. Besides hurting myself and getting cuts and bruises, the Seiko watch was also badly scarred. Bummer. 🙁
The watch store managed to replace the damaged plastic parts of the watch but not the case. It just looked rather forlorn. For the life of me, I can’t remember if I continued with the Seiko or got another watch for the following year. I have been trying to look for photos of the actual Seiko LCD watch that I owned but have been unable to locate one.