Free Time, that is (Battery) Free Time

Considering the very large category of things that almost everyone has and really doesn’t need, there’s one item that can be quite rewarding to eliminate: watch batteries. Although, certainly they are quite small, they are rather nasty in that: they are made with quite a few very toxic chemicals, and they are almost never disposed of in a way that isn’t harmful to the environment. (Note: throwing your watch batteries away with your regular house hold trash is not the way to get rid of them; take them to your recycling center, if it recycles batteries.) It is estimated that only about 2% of watch batteries are disposed of in accordance with all laws governing their disposal.

Before the advent of quartz watches, of course everyone’s watch ran on human power—that is the power obtained from winding manually, or power harvested from the wearer’s own movement, by the various auto-wind movements. In that case the path of the energy used from the bio-sphere to the point of use of the power was therefore extremely short. A short path of travel from point of taking something from the biosphere to it’s point of use is a common theme running through many sustainable imperatives, and we see it again here. Presently, however, the process of getting power from the biosphere to the little hands on your watch needlessly involves the mineral extraction industry, chemical battery industry, the shipping of items around the world, and some really, really nasty waste by-products. A whole globalized cycle of wasted resources and fouled ground water that is in reality totally unnecessary, and entirely replacable by non-polluting bio-power.

It is also very instructive in that this shortening of the distance from the bio-sphere to the point of use is a common theme in sustainability. It is simply the recognition of efficiency. Our present-day economy, however, has a very different measure of efficiency and that’s because many of the environmental impacts caused by the economy are not explicitly priced, that is to say they appear to be free to the economy. I say “appear” free, because in reality the chickens will come home to roust, it’s pay now or pay later.

Back to the subject at hand: so what are the options to the standard electronic watch, which requires batteries?

Of course, you can always by a Vacheron-Constantine for $12,000 or so (for a really basic model) but that approach doesn’t interest me at all. Then, a watch becomes an item of social exclusion–exactly the opposite of what sustainability needs to be about. So, what I am interested is a reliable mechanical watch on a very low budget. I recall buying a new Omega in Warsaw Poland in 1986 for about $100.00, but I relied then on the subsidized prices of Western goods which then existed. Is it still possible to get a good mechanical watch for about a hundred 1986 dollars, in the United States, today?

There are several sources:

1. Existing Stock of Discount Mechanical watches

First, the neighborhood drugstore used to be a source of timepieces, usually in a small side counter. This is especially true in smaller towns, where the drug store was also a general store. The mechanical watches made up until the late 1970’s by, for example Timex, still exist as stock in many of these smaller stores. I know of someone who purchased in 2005 a mid-1970’s Timex (that keeps excellent time BTW) in a drugstore in Ferguson, Missouri for about $20.00. So I think if you keep your eyes open it is very possible to make such a buy. You may have to be persistant, as the clerk in this particular case insisted that the buyer didn’t really want that watch, as it was an old style mechanical watch.

2. Used Watches:

Certainly a good source for these would be estate sales, in which you can frequently buy watches by the sack, often for as little as $5 a piece. I know someone who had even been given watches at an estate sale. The two things to remember are: it will probably cost you $60 or $70 to have a watch cleaned, and you need to do a quick test of the watch before you buy it. If you can move the hour and minute hands together, and they move smoothly when set, the watch can almost always be repaired by being cleaned and adjusted, even if you can’t get it to run right there. A word of caution though: it is getting hard to find experienced watch repairers, so the purchase price is not the real price.

3. Discount Mechanical Watches:

This segment has started to exist once more, with watches built in China and former Eastern Bloc countries leading the way. Of course some of these are fakes of high street brands. But not all of them are and it is only a matter of time before a Chinese or Russian gets into the watch business in a serious way, eventually moving up the food chain into higher priced watches. That is a develoopment to keep your eye on. These watches can run from about $100.00 to as much as $300.00 (Excluding, of course, the fakes of exclusive brands which, depending on the quality can run up to several thousand dollars, depending on brand that is being copied and the quality of the work. )

4. Lower End of Luxury Watchmakers

Some brands, for example Ball Watch Company offer some very interesting watches for less than $1000.00, some even as little as $300.00 to $400.00 at discount. A favorite of mine, Jorg Schauer has some great watches that I feel sure will appreciate, even though they are about $2,000 or so for the better models. (But worth every cent!) Anyway, he has some other marks that are more reasonably priced. (Stowa for example). There are some very nice Tissots for about $800.00 or so. So there are lower end luxury watches, and (I believe) that some of the marks mentioned above will appreciate. Good design sells, and eventually the market comes around to recognize craftsmanship and, when coupled with excellent design, that time cannot be far away.

So there are some some very good alternatives to electronic watches out there, and at the very least you’ll be saved some inconvenience when your watch battery goes out. It seems less and less stores want to install the watch battery. And you’ll also learn something about that quality known as craftmanship that has (almost) disappeared from the world. You won’t have to throw away your watch either–I have three that are at least 40 years old and still keep excellent time (say less than a minute a day lost or gained).

And if you still persist in wearing a fake (i.e., electronic) watch please get the battery disposed of properly.

[Disclosure: This is a non-commercial site, and E.F. has received no payments of any kind from the particular brands mentioned in this article.]

Free Time, that is (Battery) Free Time

4 thoughts on “Free Time, that is (Battery) Free Time

  1. gani says:

    … assuming nearly everybody nearly always has a cellphone at hand, most worn watches are a (old) fashion accessory.

    so.. if you want to save even more (human) energy and materials, dont follow nearly useless trends or customs.

    or am I missing the point?

  2. If you have a cell phone, sure–I don’t carry one everywhere I go, and like the convenience of having a watch. (I actually didn’t have a cell phone until Christmas 2008, except sometimes one that was provided for my work on certain projects, by my employer) So if you do use a watch get one that will last 50 or 100 years, and never ever need a battery.

    And just make sure the battery for that cell phone gets recycled/disposed of correctly!

    Interestingly enough there are folks that are getting netbooks to work as telephones using VOIP.

    And the Apple SDK agreement for the iPod touch specifically disallows VOIP applications, ensuring that somewhere, someone probably already has that working.


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