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An Alarm on the Wrist

Once you hit the alarm complication on your journey into vintage watch collecting, there is no turning back. This complication is for those with an exceedingly mature palate, like picking out sandalwood notes in a 2010 Chateau Margaux.

As is with drinking an expensive and special bottle of wine, wearing a Vulcain Cricket or JLC Memovox entices conversation. Conversation not derived from the price or value but from the craftsmanship and experience, not uppity but heady.

Every collection should have at least one alarm watch and luckily, options are plentiful. From a vintage perspective, Vulcain leads the charge with their Cricket line, favored by US Presidents for over 50 years, but JLC offers some higher-end options as well. Heuer made some alarms in the 1950s, most for New York-based outdoor retailer Abercrombie & Fitch. From Rolex, collectors have to look to “little brother” Tudor who offered the oyster cased Advisor from 1957 into the 70s. Lesser-known brands got in on the action as well including Fortis with the “Brain Matic” which is just a stellar name. Seiko’s “Bell-Matic” of the 60s and 70s is also worthy of note. The moral of the story, alarm wristwatches were extremely useful and in-demand in the 1950s and 60s particularly after popularization by Vulcain.

Not so much of a vintage fan? Patek’s relatively newly introduced and polarizing reference 5520p is the most expensive way of scratching the alarm itch. With smartphones now in our pockets, brands have shied away from the alarm complication but those with history in the space continue to offer options out of nostalgia. Tudor’s Heritage Advisor boasts an in-house movement and has been in the catalog since 2011 and Fortis has a few great, aviation-inspired chronographs with alarm functionality.

Early Development

Relative to other complications we have covered in this series, the alarm has been around for a short period— there will be no 205BC time equation devices here. One-off pocket watch movements with an alarm complication date back to the 17th century but the first patent would not come until 1899 when the Durrstein brothers created the first alarm movement for serial production.

Now would be a great time to explain the basics of how this complication works, quickly and without bore. An alarm indicator or hand is set to a time and, if fully wound, when the hour hand hits that time, a lever releases energy from a power source to drive a hammer hitting against something to make noise and vibration. For the Durrstein’s movement, that power source was an especially large mainspring, the same power source as the time.

Tudor Advisor A popular option for a vintage Alarm wristwatch

Criminally overlooked in the vintage market, Eterna took the reins in 1904 by licensing that Durrstein patent and improving upon the design in a pocket watch with a unidirectional rotating bezel to set the alarm hand. Complications arose in these first mass-produced and marketed alarm pocket watches as the bezel was easily bumped, changing the alarm time, and the vibration of the alarm affected timekeeping accuracy. Furthermore, to fit in a smaller case, the mainspring was downsized meaning the alarm did not go off for very long. Furthermore, turning the bezel the wrong way, clockwise, would break the movement. The last issue was remedied in 1908 with Eterna’s patent for a bi-directional bezel in this application.

Wristwatch Alarms

Eterna, still at the helm of the complication’s development, in 1914, the brand introduced the first serial produced alarm wristwatch. With a movement in the same family as their pocket watch takes on Durrstein’s patent and a bi-directional bezel setting the alarm, a lot of the same issues continued to plague the wristwatch as did its older brothers, and new challenges arose. Alarm time was knocked around by regular movement of the wrist, alarm vibrations caused havoc on the time of day, and to fit a smaller wristwatch case, the mainspring was downsized meaning the alarm did not go off for very long at all, about 7 seconds.

Eterna’s alarm wristwatch did not quite catch on with the masses— the issues were too much to look past or deal with. The development of the complication really stagnated for about three decades until Vulcain revived the idea of having an alarm on your wrist.

Vulcain saw an opportunity in the watch market to bring a viable option to consumers with an alarm complication. The company began heavy research and development on the topic in 1942, eventually introducing its Vulcain Cricket in 1947. The offering was met with great fanfare and, importantly, solved all the issues consumers had known of alarm wristwatches. The advertising campaign says all you need to know:

“They said it would take a miracle of engineering. And here it is — the Vulcain Cricket — the watch that keeps you on time? Easy, precise alarm setting — even to ring but a few minutes hence! Rings right on the dot — loudly, clearly! In every way, a triumph of watch craftsmanship … brilliant beauty … elegant slimness … functional perfection.”

The Cricket’s movement was and is a mechanical marvel. Rather than utilize a single mainspring, Vulcain’s caliber 120 housed two barrels, one to drive the timekeeping and one to drive the alarm. Winding the crown clockwise or “up” wound the alarm where winding counter-clockwise or “down” gave power to the main timekeeping elements of the watch. The pusher at 2 o’clock allowed the wearer to stop the Cricket’s chirp, saving power in the alarm barrel.

It must be pointed out that this is a different time. This is the 1940s where timing was completely mechanical— obviously, there was no setting an alarm on your phone. The Cricket was extremely useful and popular.

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Above: Lyndon B. Johnson was a vocal supporter of the Vulcain Cricket – gifting them to White House visitors on a regular basis. 

With Crickets in the market for a few years and having success, Jaeger LeCoultre developed their own in house alarm movement and rolled out the Memovox in 1949 or 1950. JLC’s version, powered by their manually wound caliber 489, opted for two crowns to control the time and alarm setting. A striking feature of the Memovox is the inner dial disc that serves as the alarm indicator rather than a fourth hand as is the case on the Cricket.

In 1956, LeCoultre, in continuing innovation in the alarm complication space, introduced the first automatic alarm movement. An automatic rotor powered the main timekeeping components where the 2 o’clock crown was to be wound manually to power the alarm. This caliber 815 became the heartbeat of the memovox product line going forward and found its way inside of two of the most famous alarm watches ever produced— JLC’s Polaris and Deep Sea Alarm.

The rest of the swiss watch industry quickly caught on. The alarm complication can be found in some form throughout brand catalogs of the late 1950s and early 1960s with the main exception being Rolex. While there has never been a Rolex branded alarm, the Tudor Advisor came out in 1957 and was offered by the Crown’s sister brand for about 20 years. Thanks to the A. Schild caliber AS 1475, an “off the shelf” or generic alarm movement created in 1954, it was much easier for brands such as Tudor, who utilized the AS 1475 in the advisor, to add an alarm to their offerings. Reportedly 780,000 AS 1475s were manufactured and can be found inside Tissots, Walthams, Bulovas, and Girard Perregauxs just to name a few.

Collecting the Alarm Complication

There is no better complication to focus on when collecting than the alarm. Sure, chronographs have been around for longer and are certainly more plentiful but, with that, everyone has chronos in their collection. Alarm watches are the perfect mix of funky and classic— the perfect “if you know you know” vintage watch.=

Look out for earlier Crickets (if Eric Wind doesn’t already own them all) and early Memovox models, both can be had at a great value. The Tudor Advisor is seriously nothing to scoff at, although it has a generic movement, the 34mm oyster case with only 12mm of thickness is subtle and wears so easily. A few brands used the alarm complication to perform specific tasks such as the Memovox Parking, counting down a parking meter, these are especially great. The Seiko Bell-Matic is an extremely well-made option as well, opening up yet another option. Higher in the market is the JLC Deep Sea Alarm, Vulcain Cricket Nautical, and JLC Polaris, all are gorgeous vintage watches well worth the extra cost.

Rich Fordon is a writer and vintage watch expert based in New York City. When Rich is not writing, he can be found consuming as much content as possible. For more of his work, please visit richfordon.com.

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