My Vintage Jolus Watches and how these Relate to My Grandfather’s Private Artifacts and our Stealth Relationship
There is an otherworldly quality that certain objects manifest. Something that transcends their mere purpose in the real world. This is a quality that sits and hovers just above a young boy as he holds his grandfather’s cuff links, and wrist-watches, and even his ivory-handle shaving razor, a quality whose power etches primal memories onto the cave wall of the young boy’s hopes and dreams. Later on, he remembers that those moments opened up and expanded his ability to drink-in important details that shaped his conception of style and beauty and as these material possessions transformed into heirlooms, a serene cast of understanding filtered in reminding him that, not the objects themselves, but the memories spawned from these treasures are where his gratitude lives on and shapes everything before him.
Oftentimes conversations, physical environments, objects, or dreams, recall memories that seemed to have been lost. A wrist watch, for me, is great fodder for memory recall, and I think of the experiences I have while looking at a watch, as it takes me back to memories from the past, as a form of time travel. It may be my father’s actual watch, or a personal watch that reminds me of a time-piece from my childhood, that initiates these long-lost memories. Another experience for me, is the act of examining a watch I am interested in buying or one I already own that is associated with a time period in history where it was used for a specific function. I imagine inhabiting this era in time and living the life of a military navy seal during wartime or a race car driver timing laps with his chronograph before computers came on the scene. These tool-watches for divers, pilots, race car drivers and infantrymen have a great mystique attached to them and each scar on the case and scratch on the crystal tells a story.
As a physician who has studied his fair share of psychiatry over the years, I am fascinated by what my mind remembers and doesn’t remember. It is interesting that a person’s moral structure is formed in grade school, yet memories from this period are scarce. Many more memories are living and present in both the conscious and unconscious mind than I am aware of. Psychiatrists and psychologists tinker with the idea of uncovering repressed memories in an attempt to shed light on why someone may have certain psychiatric illnesses. I have read that some of these memories may be real and others fabricated. In the setting that I am describing whether these recollections are entirely true or real is immaterial. Even if only bits and pieces are actual experiences and the rest are from dreams or childhood mental extrapolations, this exercise continues to have a beautiful relevance as something that adds interesting dimensions to the sometimes hum-drum tedium of modern adult life.
I stumbled upon a pair of watches a few years ago while surfing on ebay. I was curiously drawn to them and I felt a strong pull to examine them and ultimately purchase both of these watches, for reasons I did not understand at the time. Once I received these pieces and had a chance to study them and wear them, I began to recall a watch that my grandfather owned when I was a child. With time on my wrist, one of these watches in particular, was instrumental in helping me delve into memories that had not surfaced for some time. I began to swim in these recollections and before long entire stretches of time became real and I was living them once again now with a clarity I didn’t believe possible. I felt the leather of Pappa’s armchair, the smell of his pipe smoke, the sun flickering through the blinds draped over the windows of his Bay Ridge apartment, and the taste of the sweet rock candy he always kept nearby.
I searched my mother’s house for clues related to this dress watch my grandfather cherished. There was no sign of it now, and I struggled to remember if this “Jolus” watch I now owned was of the same make and model as his watch. What if the watch i now owned was his actual watch, given to a friend and subsequently sold. My grandfather, Ivar, was a generous man, a man who would give a friend his watch if he told Ivar how much he admired it. Unlikely, of course, but this sent me on a course to find out what I could about the brand and in the process the memories that I bumped into on the way have become close and intimate friends that I will always cherish. The beauty of newfound memories is that I have seemingly experienced them once already and now with my mind layered with experience, mining these distant memories feels like becoming recharged with childhood sentiments that I had lost access to long ago.
There is not much history available regarding “Jolus” watches. Jolus (which may be the German word for the Greek god Aeolus) was a Swiss watch company associated with another Swiss watchmaking company called “Verdal.” This is an obscure, relatively useless fact that underscores the paucity of information out there regarding this watch brand. These watches are rare (a term vastly overused in vintage watch circles but in this this case dead-on appropriate.) I have been collecting watches a long time and the two that I own are the only ones I have ever seen for sale. Safe to say, Jolus was a casualty of the quartz crisis and I consider myself fortunate to have found a pair of time-pieces so close in resemblance to my grandfather’s dress watch, that I was stimulated to recall memories long dormant to me.
During the World War II era, when this time piece was made, there were hundreds of such Swiss companies. Jolus is believed to have made watches specifically for military indications. It was imperative that soldiers have accurate means of recording and coordinating time for various combat activities. This type of tool watch needed to be sturdy and tough. The dial needed to be readable often with Arabic numerals and many military watches of this era were complicated by chronographs which served as separate stop-watches to independently time flights, military maneuvers, bombing distances and the like.
Interesting period-specific additions added to watches of this era designed to yield information important back then and not typically required or included on watches today are part of what make vintage watches interesting to study. An era in history creates a need, and watches, very often, answered that call, by integrating complications that served as effective tools of the day. An example of just such a concept is a numerical index referred to as a telemeter scale.
The telemeter scale is a valuable mathematical measurement inscription usually on the outboard perimeter of the dial. Sometimes it can be more central on the dial and is often depicted in red print. It runs from the 12 o’clock position in kilometers ranging from zero to twenty. This scale is employed in conjunction with the associated chronograph, which is an independent stop-watch within the watch, controlled with the two square pushers at the 2 and 4 o’clock positions. A soldier under mortar attack engages the chronograph as soon as he hears the launch of a mortar. He then stops the chronograph when the mortar lands and explodes. The numerical reading on the telemeter scale tells him precisely how far away the enemy firing the mortar is in kilometers.
Another curious fact during this era is that Americans were not allowed to own gold bullion, so this Jolus watch, as were many watches during this time, was encased in gold as a way of getting around this restriction. This addresses the question of why a military watch would be constructed out of 18 karat gold. Most other watches made in the U.S. during this era were gold plated because of this restriction.
One way of generating some data on a watch were little is written and available is through providing some recent sales descriptions, not for cost, rather, purely for further information gathering purposes. would shed a little more light on what makes these watches unique or not.
An example was sold on Ebay in July 2008 with the following description:
“A rare and superb vintage watch with a gilt dial signed Jolus, outer telemetric and tachymetric scales, subsidiary constant seconds and minute recording dials, 17 jewel nickel-plated movement, metal curvette case with snap on back, diameter 37 mm.”
On 10/11/2013 at an Aniquorum auction in Hong Kong a Jolus time piece was sold with the following description:
“Jolus, pink gold, new old stock, Jolus case number 292535. Made in 1950’s. Fine antimagnetic 18K pink gold watch with square button chronograph tachometer (sic) and register.
“Three body, solid, polished and brushed, curved lugs: inclined bezel, soft iron gilt metal dial with antimagnetic lining, snap on case back, pink gold Arabic numerals, outer 1/5th second track with 5 minute/second Arabic markers, outer tachometer scale, subsidiary guilloche dials for running seconds and 30 minute register. Pink gild alpha hands Rhodium plated, straight-line lever escapement, monometallic balance, self-compensating flat balance spring index regulator. Case shape, round, 38 mm.” This is the extent of the literature I could find during my research of Jolus watches.
After possessing the two watches discussed in this writing, I began to notice a flurry of memories from my childhood. What is memory and what is embellishment remains a mystery. This concept sits well with me and the power of a watch to generate both actual memories and fictions gives me great pleasure. Before I relate this tale of my grandfather’s watches, and our relationship, I will convey what I see when I examine these beautiful vestiges from a bygone era.
The Jolus with the champagne dial, Roman Numeral indices at XII and VI o’clock receives more wrist time in my world. The dial itself started out life as a lighter gold color and with time has taken on a darkened patina that embodies it with the richness and character reminiscent of the subtle crows feet around the eyes and mouth of a woman’s face that betray her emotional and secret expressions. Markings of dignity and individuality that women strive to rid themselves of during misguided moments of vanity. It is such distinctions of maturity that separate those beautifully adorned with the majesty of time from those purely expressing the unseasoned canvas of youth.
In a timepiece, it would be sacrilege to replace or refurbish a dial cured and yellowed with the passage of time. Maintaining the original with all its imperfectly evolved blemishes is the gift collectors search the globe for. Though I have never seen a new example of this watch I am sure it possessed a lighter shade of gold that announced a naïve version of itself at birth.
The chronograph complication is my most desired addition to a watch’s basic ability to represent real time. The sub dial at nine o’clock measures the seconds in real time since the central second hand is designed to record time for the chronograph, which is a separate stop-watch. The sub dial at nine o’clock is a minute totalizer designed to tally up to 30 minutes for the chronograph. Both sub dials are artfully countersunk and are monotone to the dial but have darkened slightly more than the expanse of the dial. At the perimeter of the dial the telemetric scale pushes against the outer reaches and is printed in black while the minute scale is in-board of this and just outside of the hour indices.
The hands are heat-blued in a process where high temperatures are applied to the metallic hands until they reach a certain point turning them into a darkened hue of blue, a process that Cartier originated and perfected. A beautiful flourish is the open circle of the hour hand known as a pomme (apple) hand. The case is very elegant, in solid rose gold measuring a generous 38 mm, quite large for that era. The lugs curve gently downward and the width is quite thin, with the domed plexiglass crystal accounting for roughly two of the 11.5 mm thickness. The chronograph pushers are of the classic square design seen in the 1940’s and both the crown and snap on case back are unsigned, which is unfortunate.
The second example with the silver dial and sub dials of comparable size and dimension but the dial utilizes a completely different layout, coloring scheme, and design DNA. I enjoy the pop of red and blue used for the telemetric and tachymetric scales respectively. This piece covers its bases with both military speed measuring utility beneficial to soldiers, pilots and race car drivers alike.
The countersunk totalizer sub dials are vertically oriented with the minute recorder for the chronograph at 12 and the running seconds positioned at 6 o’clock. The lance-style hands are gold as are the indices for the hours. The case is also solid rose gold and measure 37.5 by 12 mm with a similarly domed plastic crystal which gives the dial an added warmth and slight distortion that is charming compared to modern sapphire.
When I was seven or eight years old I spent a great deal of time with my maternal grandparents. My middle-namesake, Pappa Ivar, was a taciturn, powerful fisherman and iron worker from a village area on a group of small islands off the southeastern coast of Norway called Lyngor. It is a fascinating village located and spread among several islands (Odden, Lyngoya, Steinsoya, and Askeroya) grouped together and separated by straits no more than one hundred meters wide. Ivar grew up on boats and on the water, spending just about every day of his young life fishing before he emigrated to America in in 1924.
As a child I was intrigued by the treasure trove of artifacts my grandfather kept on the table next to his favorite burgundy leather chair and ottoman. I would sit near him and we might talk a little, mostly we sat in silence and I observed his movements, behaviors, moods, postures, interactions with my grandmother, as well as any gestures he displayed. He had a variety of delivery systems for tobacco. Ivar was prohibited, by the iron hand of my grandmother Constance, from smoking cigarettes, but if I was able to purloin one of my aunt Elsa’s cigarettes, he would give me the secret handshake and a wink of approval.
Next to his favorite chair were several tobacco pipes that had this wonderful smoky-wood-apple aroma that is part of my everlasting olfactory lexicon. He kept cans, pouches as well as squares of chewing tobacco and cigars of varying size and thickness. There was rock candy that looked like translucent chunks of crystal and diamond connected by string. I liked to lick these gems but I was sure if I tried to bite them I would splinter my teeth.
His wallet and leather change holder were underneath on the second shelf of his personal end table along with cuff links and writing instruments and two watches he interchanged depending on the day. Ivar was also prohibited from drinking and he relied on my sister and me to locate both cigarettes and cans of beer. I quickly became adept at clandestine missions for Pappa Ivar and when I was with him, it became my job to sneak him a beer when he whispered the request in my ear. He would then walk out the side door and around the vegetable garden to the garage where he would enjoy a beer and a cigarette that I lifted for him. When he would disappear on one of these stealth refreshment breaks, I would climb into his warm broken-in chair and examine the contents of his private table.
My eyes would always return to the two watches on the bottom shelf. First I would pick up the steel Seiko on a bracelet with the silver dial and day-date complications. The crystal was massively scratched as was the case and bracelet. This watch seemed to be sized to fit a tree-trunk wrist, a description that was not far from the truth. Pappa was in his seventies yet his biceps would bulge like a bowling ball when he flexed. I tried the watch on and it draped loosely on my wrist. I wound it and pulled the crown out and re-set the time and date; I figured out how to set both the day and date by pulling the crown out to the second position then spinning the crown clockwise to set the date and counterclockwise to set the day of the week.
Next to the Seiko was a gold dress watch on a black strap that was shiny with rectangular scales irregularly sized and I ventures to guess it was fashioned from a reptile of some kind, perhaps an alligator or lizard. The dial of the gold dress-watch looked very similar to my vintage Jolus chronograph. I do not remember reading a brand name or model on the dial but I remember the two smaller sub dials at three and nine o’clock. The dial had the same champagne colored, aged and patinated coloration with Roman numerals and a host of other tiny numbers on the far perimeter of the dial that confused me.
I realized that the Roman numerals were only represented at three and nine o’clock and the rest of the dial had little slit markers for the remainder of the hours. It was possible to read time without the hour numbers being present. I had never thought previously that one does not need any marker to represent the numbers and that the position of the hands on a circle is all one needs to tell time. Even a blank dial with two hands would work and one could create anything around the dial to represent hour indices and this was part of the artistry of a watch. The two additional buttons besides the crown also perplexed me and sometimes pressing the button would start the second hand and sometimes pressing one of the buttons did nothing. I was nervous about pressing these pushers, it felt like something might break. It required significant force to engage and start up the second hand that I thought should be moving if the watch was running. I determined that the little hand on the nine o’clock dial was doing what the center second hand normally did.
I did not realize that this was a chronograph; a stopwatch within a watch. The numbers written on the outskirts of the dial represented a telemeter scale. These telemeter scales were commonly seen on military timepieces. The telemetric scale worked in conjunction with the chronograph to measure the distance of an enemy firing off mortar shells. Or it could measure how far away lightening was during a storm based on its relationship to the sound of thunder. If a soldier had such a watch, he would engage the chronograph right when he hears the explosive launch of deadly aerial bomb, and then stop the chronograph when the explosive hits. The number that the second hand lands on is the distance the enemy stands from the point where the mortar landed in kilometers. This is clearly a very useful tool during wartime, and one that underscores my respect for what must go through an infantryman’s mind during the heat of battle.
The other similarity I remember between my Jolus watches and my grandfather’s gold dress watch was the large circle present on the hour hand. Known as a Breget or ‘pommes’ (apple) hand, I had never seen this and was intrigued by it. I remember staring at that circular flourish on the hour hand wondering if there was a magnifying glass in that circle to enhance readability as it passed over the smaller numbers on the sub dials. This was my thought but it turned out to be incorrect, yet I have always thought about designing a watch that had a magnifying glass on one of the hands to make it easier for older people to read their watches.
My grandfather was not a watch collector but he appreciated a fine watch. He wore that steel Seiko everyday unless he was dressing up for church or a special occasion, then the gold piece came out. When a special occasion arose, my grandfather was sure to dress for it and everyone knew it was not an ordinary day. There were no people wearing cargo shorts and beach flip-flops to church back then. Just as I observed Ivar’s every move while he went about his day in the burgundy chair, I studied his ritual while he dressed and prepared for a special event. It was an elegant and masculine series of movements and gestures as he shaved and combed and performed all his ablutions. I modeled my own habits after his and incorporated into my own ablutions and dressing routines many of his traditions. Ivar still lives within me and, consciously and unconsciously, my rituals and movements model him to this day, but that is fodder for another story.
After he and I prepared and dressed, we would descend the stairs and walk along the streets of old Brooklyn greeting neighbors and grocers and other familiar faces on the way to something that probably was not overly important. But the ritual and tradition attached to these moments in time carved deeply ingrained memories for me that I cherish now that he and the neighborhood are long gone. We did not drive. Being on foot produced contact and interactions with others that was important and would surely be missed if we were held captive inside an automobile. His dress watch was secured to his left wrist, we both took on the world that day way back when, and if not for a watch that provoked these recollections I might not relive these memories as I do today.