Around June 2016 a “suggested story” scrolled past me on my Facebook feed, the story was one mans search for Amelia Earhart’s missing plane, not a wild goose chase, but a search driven by evidence unwittingly gathered by an army unit in Papua New Guinea during the Second World War.
I could not attempt to do that story justice, so please read the in depth blog about it Here it’s a story, the effort that spans decades.
As I write this article David Billings is currently in Papua New Guinea searching for the missing plane. He intends to publish his findings by July 2nd 2017, the 80th anniversary of Earhart’s disappearance.
When I read the story I loved it and decided that I wanted to build a Watch around this theme, subconsciously I had been searching for something meaningful to build a Watch around, it all made sense.
I did some research on Amelia Earhart and discovered that she had given her watch to H Gordon Selfridge jnr (Selfridges department store) just before her disappearance.
He had given her a watch in return and it was believed that she was wearing this on 2nd July 1937. The story of Earhart’s “transatlantic watch” continued, and was subsequently worn into space by Astronaut Shannon Walker in June 1990. You can read about that Here
The 1920’s and 1930’s were interesting and hard times in America, Art Deco was changing to Art Moderne, Its architectural style emphasized curving forms, long horizontal lines, and sometimes nautical elements, and this fit to the navigational global aviation and maritime theme I was looking for.
I had never built a Watch case before, and if I were to do the project now it would probably be different, but at the time I wanted to use sterling silver for the case and dial, machining was not really an option for me at that time. I knew the downfalls of silver, and straight away built aspects into the design to compensate. For example a spring bar system for the strap would not work, the silver would wear too quickly, so a screw bar system was designed around.
I used a 3D modelling system to design the case, this meant I could “print” the case to see what it looked like in life. The idea was to use the print to create a casting mold for the silver, but eventually I settled for a wax print being made so as little of the design was lost in translation as possible.
I had to learn a lot quickly about case dimensions & movement dimensions when designing the case, casting was going to be costly and I really did not want too many failures as I may run out of money for the project.
As it turned out servicing, building, and selling watches throughout the year funded most of the project, so the project would start, stall, stop and then start again constantly.
The design of the case drew heavily on the original blog story I had read, so the case bears Earhart’s planes engine designator “R-1340 S3H1.” on one side and “C/N1055” on the other, this is the aircraft construction number 1055 (an Electra model 10, the 55th built) which is commonly believed to be Earhart’s.
The dial was a journey within itself, in many ways it still is. Trying to find contacts for dial making can be very hard, no one likes to really share their hard earned resources, maybe it’s a right of passage.
If I were making the dial today I have various contacts in various countries, however a year ago it started with looking for inspiration. I knew I wanted a navigational theme, but I also knew I wanted a GMT dial as I liked the idea of someone traversing a time zone a day on a plane flight around the planet in 1937.
I found a few images I used as inspiration and reverse engineered aspects of the design to suit hand lengths and how I imagined the watch.
Most half decent vector programs are good for designing dials, and since I love Adobe Illustrator I used that. A note for future reference is that whilst a design may look good it’s advisable to check with someone who has to work with the file later, a stroke line may need to be a solid fill area for “cutting”.
I decided after striking out trying to find someone to make the dial that I would produce it myself, I opted for laser engraving after finding a company that were up for the task in the UK. After a couple of trials I had the finished dial, and taught myself to solder dial feet into place with the minimum intrusion of heat into the dial. That last thing to do was add some patina to the dial.
The case, movement holder and case back arrived in their raw state. I saw the potential in the parts but had a few challenges to overcome first. Silver has a certain degree of shrinkage when cast, and thin pieces tend to warp when they are large.
These points are important when it comes to fitting a movement securely but not too tightly into a holder, and fastening a case back into place.
Luckily for me I am comfortable working with silver as I have worked with it for a few years now making jewellery, and in a few weeks of evening time work mixed in with the odd day off I had the parts where I wanted them, mostly.
I am a huge fan of patina on silver as it adds character, and a tip for anyone interested is liver of sulphur and hot water followed by a 2000 grade emery cloth to bring back highlights.
I went for an ETA 2893-2 movement for the watch as it featured the fourth GMT hand I wanted. The fourth hand takes 24 hours to do a complete rotation of the dial, the hand can be set independently with the crown in one of its other positions and can therefore be set to display a second time zone using a 24 hour clock display.
Whilst all this was going on I had been looking at straps, or more to the point teaching myself to work with leather and make straps. I had been heavily inspired by the German Luftwaffe straps on the FL23883 watches, I loved the idea of a strap being worn over a flight jacket and remaining adjustable, and more over, loved the look.
I made many straps over the year and sold a few on watches I had made. Some customers also ended up with sterling silver buckles on their straps I made to match the design and the final watch I was making in the background.
I eventually finalised the design with a press stud at the end to compensate for having the design style I wanted, but at the same time allowing for different size hands for the strap to go over.
I stocked up with many sundry parts over the year whilst looking for the correct crown, the correct crystal, or the correct hands. The hands were such an important part as they were the main face of the watch and I went through many looking for the right colour, or size, or shape.
The design of the hands changed slightly as the year progressed and eventually the design inspiration came from the original image that had been used for the basis of the dial design. Of course the colour was going to be a challenge and at one point I thought I had that solved with “silver plated” hands I had found online, these could have patina applied.
It turned out however the hands were not silver plated, this was a sales trick, but after reading an article about how to “heat blue” steel at home I was freshly inspired. A dozen tests later I had the hands I was happy with.
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The crown was always going to be an issue, as silver does not like to be over worked over long periods of time, and certainly does not like holding a 1mm screw thread with too vigour. I spent months mulling this one over and eventually decided that functionality must win in a battle of “totally silver” vs “totally functional” when expenses meant that I did not have the money to employ a company to machine one from sterling silver. After all this a one of a kind watch, a large production run would of course be different.
The case back engraving turned out to be one of the simplest tasks, I stumbled upon a great guy close to home that loved watches, loved aviation, loved unique projects, and had an engraving business. He will be getting more business from me in the future when customers are looking for engraved watch builds for sure.
The last part of the project was to assemble the watch and snag the final issues, the sterling silver movement holder was friction fit but I wanted screws to hold it into place
The watch is now for sale (£2250), days before the 80th anniversary of Amelia’s disappearance, David Billings is in Papua New Guinea, and I wait with excitement to see what happens.
I will post better images of the final watch next week, but in the meantime these are the early “excited” images I shared with friends.
The next project is a dive watch, a limited run of 8, but more about that later
If you have any questions, please use the contact form to contact me.