This month I had the pleasure of speaking with Nathan Bobinchak, Head of Watchmaking for the independent brand Oak & Oscar. Nathan is a former journalist and TV news writer turned watchmaker, with an obsession for finding the best way to experience sound through home audio setups.
“I had my midlife crisis at 26.” Nathan delivers a dry joke as he recounts his career shift from local TV news, to his decision to go to watchmaking school. Specifically, Nathan attended The Litiz Watch Technicum, a watchmaking school outside Lancaster, PA that was founded in 2001 by Rolex. After graduating from Litiz, Nathan worked for a shop in Connecticut, eventually moving to Chicago at the beginning of 2020 and landing the job at Oak & Oscar.
“I first got into Oak & Oscar with the Jackson. The Jackson is a very cool chronograph with the Eterna 3916 movement in it. It’s a very neat, super complicated, pretty movement. It has a column wheel and flyback chrono…just very cool.” Nathan explained to me that in modern watchmaking you do a lot of the same things, but said he was fortunately certified to work on watches like the Rolex Daytona, as he has a lot of fun servicing chronographs. “I can go on all day about the art of lubricating a chronograph. That is some nerdy stuff. It’s like paint drying.” I was interested, so I asked him to expound.
“The only thing that makes watches hard to work on is the user. We knock them, move them around, a movement will run great until we touch it. Watches need to survive all that. Even the most well-built watch can be easily destroyed by YOU. If you really feel the need to break something, it’s not hard at all to break a watch. It cannot stand up to you. So, if you feel the need, just break it. It won’t hurt anyone except the watch, and then I’ll be paid to fix it. One of my instructors told in school used to say, that the only thing that’s free in watchmaking is capillary attraction. Essentially, oil will creep all over the place if you give it a chance. Lubricating a watch, the movement, the oil goes in the jewels. There’s the pivot, the jewel, and the sink, and you have to get it right. There are rules about how you’re supposed to do it, and how it should appear. There has to be enough oil that it’s lubricated, but not so much that you can see it. The capillary attraction will bring the oil down underneath the jewel, so you won’t see it in the sink, but the oil will be down on the bottom side. That’s a really high-end Swiss way of doing it. That kind of lubrication takes its own talent. But chronographs there are all these pieces that are flat and polished and it all needs to be greased, and grease is uglier than oil. You want to be able to properly lubricate the chronograph.” While my interest hung on Nathan’s every word, it was at this point that I realized we could do an entire series on lubrication alone, something I hadn’t considered prior.
In regards to Oak & Oscar, Nathan loved getting out of the prescriptive end of the watchmaking industry, strictly servicing watches in a store, to being a key player in the design process. “The nice thing about nice watches is that they’re designed to be fixed. I make sure that all of our watches are designed in a way so they can survive for a lifetime. That they can come back and easily be serviced.”
When asked how he got into watches, Nathan looked up to search the recesses of his memory before replying, “You know, it’s something that’s so old in me that I couldn’t tell you when it started. My parents say that as soon as I was old enough to articulate liking something, it was clocks.” He would spend Sundays looking at advertisements to see what watches and clocks were for sale, and his parents would take him to jewelry stores and other shops just to see them. “When I was three my dad and I were Hickory Dickory Dock for Halloween. I will preface this by saying I’m an only child, so I get what I want. The sensible way to do that costume would’ve been for me to be the mouse that runs over my dad’s shoulders and he’d be the clock. Instead my dad was a huge mouse carrying a clock on his shoulders. I wore that clock costume all the way through high school. It got smaller and smaller until it was more of a medallion I wore.” I cracked a joke about Nathan slowly turning into Flavor Flav; he laughed, “EXACTLY! I have pretty narrow shoulders, so it essentially took up my chest.” There wasn’t a time in Nathan’s life without watches, so his career seemed inevitable.
Nathan’s personal collection consists of about ten watches, “it’s funny to think about, to watch collectors like you and me, ten watches may not seem like a lot, but to everyone else they’re like ‘Woah! TEN watches!’” It’s important to note that he has a real love for Timex. His first “real watch” was a Timex Ironman Triathlon that he saw at a rummage sale. Then he reached and pulled out a Timex Reef Gear, and a Timex Chronograph. He also has his own Timex Marlin he customized, the new Timex Q seconde/seconde Pepsi, a Timex Galli S1, and more. Before continuing on to his other watches, he proclaimed that “Timex is just so easy to love.”
“I liked watches with a bunch of stuff on the dial. The more stuff the better. As a kid I wanted the Citizen Nighthawk Blue Angels, and this watch.” He pulled out a Casio Pathfinder. “I was 10 years old and I’d look at this watch every time we went to JC Penny. It was $230, which was so much money for a 10 year-old kid. It may as well have been a billion. But one day I walked in and it was $40, and I was like TODAY IS THE DAY! The problem was that the watch was accidentally placed on the wrong rack. But the manager was in earshot, and told the salesman that we have to sell the watch for the price it’s marked for. So I got the watch for $40. It was the most awesome! Then I broke it in watchmaking school. I put it in this machine called a Fathometer with its 20 year-old gaskets and I just put water in it. It died.” At this point we paused to laugh at the history and humor of this destroyed watch Nathan was holding, and as the laughter began to fade Nathan said, “…and then I got a Rolex.”
Nathan reached down to grab his black dial 16570 Rolex Explorer II. “I got this watch in 2012. It’s still my main watch and I wear it all the time.” He also has a Tudor Chronograph that Litiz graduates get as a gift, “but you have to put it together yourself.” And, finally he spoke to me about the Geneva School Watch. “That’s a really fun watch. Essentially it’s a Rolex that no one can buy, which makes it crazy. You have to sign paperwork that says you can’t sell it. Design students at Rolex made this movement based off a 1930s design, and then you get the pieces of it and decorate the whole thing. You do the beveling, the anglage, the striping. I did the dial for mine. It looks like a watchmaking student made it, which is what it’s supposed to be.”
“I really love fidelity — clarity of image, clarity of sound. The fidelity of something is of persnickety, paramount importance to me. I don’t know where I got this, my parents are not like this. I’ve always been annoyed by the sound of cheap speakers. Like the single little paper drivers in your TV just make me crazy. I perceive that it makes my ears hurt; I’m sure it’s all psychosomatic. We have this whole range of sound, and we usually only consume this little bit of it, because your phone, your computer, your TV only has this narrow band speaker in it, and that’s no good.” It was immediately clear that the science and engineering behind many things in Nathan’s life, aside from watchmaking, is considered.
Nathan has been into speakers for almost as long as he’s been into watches. “I had this horrible setup in my old house. I liked how Bose speakers could be pointed in different directions to reflect sound around to create a sound bubble. So, I had all these speakers that could swivel, and had two on each side. And then I had two big tower speakers below them. I didn’t have any kind of amplification to make them work well, so it sounded like absolute crap but I was like ‘oh, I’m on the way!’ And these days I know better.”
He is a real hobbyist when it comes to audio, proclaiming that he “wants all the speakers because they’re so cool and I just want to experience everything. I like getting to a point with my sound where it feels like there’s nothing in between you and the music — to feel as though you are able to hear all the nuances in a recording.” Nathan then reached for a CD.
“This is Reach by Jacky Terrasson. He’s a French pianist. This album came out in the 90s as a demonstration CD for the high end audio brand Cello. This was recorded in a small room with a single microphone, and when you listen to it in a proper setup, it sounds like you’re listening to a piano trio in a small room. You can hear the confines of the space and the way the sound reacts to the space.” I asked Nathan about how his passion for music may inform his audio hobby. “That’s the part that makes me feel like a hack,” he said. “I’m not always into the music for really good musician reasons. I’m more into the equipment and experience of it than I am into the music itself. That’s not to say that I don’t like the music, I do, but it was secondary. And I really think my passion for audio and finding that sound caused me to find music I like and enjoy. A lot of jazz. So, there’s really a lot of facets that play into this: enjoyment of the music, enjoyment of the equipment, and since a lot of this is on vinyl, enjoyment of the process of extracting that sound.”
After this explanation, I inquired about Nathan’s love of hobbies that require him to be hands-on. “My grand unified theory of this hobby, and by this hobby I mean audio, watches, cars, cameras, typewriters… it’s all analog and precision grinding. It’s the very last bit of what we can mechanically cut. At a certain point only the grinding is left. It’s the last bit of intelligibility we have for the thing.” I found this theory comforting, and perhaps as watch enthusiasts something we should dwell on more, our physical connection to the things we choose to interact with. We may not be watchmakers ourselves, but we wind our watches, we change straps, bracelets and batteries, and generally interact with complications that were designed and oftentimes worked on by people who enjoy that analog interaction as much as we do.
Nathan has audio setups in both his home, and his workspace at Oak & Oscar. “It’s nice working alone, I can listen to whatever I want,” he tells me. Nathan smiles and pulls out an album titled Jazz in der Tschechoslowakei 1961. “It’s a really cool sound,” he pauses and laughs, “definitely not for everyone. But it’s just me in here, so I get to listen to whatever I want. Especially after everyone goes home. I stay and work a little later.” Nathan then pointed out that he doesn’t only have a stereo setup in the Oak & Oscar workshop, but also in the front lounge area. “I’m kind of obsessive about this kind of thing. Wherever there’s a room, I put a stereo in it. People think there are only certain spaces you can put a stereo in your home, but that’s really not true if you’re conniving about it.”
Finally, I wanted to get Nathan’s advice on what a proper audio setup is. “The first and most important thing, and this is where a lot of people will drop out…at least two speakers that have to be fairly large, far apart from each other, and away from the wall, all in order to pick up the full range of frequencies. Then you would need a good amplifier. And an extra would be a good subwoofer.”
Nathan asserts that even if someone claims to not care much about audio, that when they’re placed in a room with a good setup they will be surprised by the difference, as the full range and extraction of sound will inevitably allow them to appreciate the music on a deeper level. And, to be honest, I find the same with quite a few of the people who open themselves up to discussions about watches for the first time. I believe that everyone has the ability to recognize human ingenuity and the extra bit of effort that’s taken in the last bit of precision grinding we’ve left for ourselves.
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