Part 1: Ball Fireman 43
If you don’t know about Theseus, mythical king and Athenian war hero, then allow the Twelve Gods to enlighten you.
Who was his father? Some scholars have said Poseidon (“god of the sea, storms, earthquakes and horses”) while others have said Aegeus (aka “the goat man”, yes, seriously), the King of Athens. If that was not ambiguous enough, it has been suggested that Aegeus was himself raised by Poseidon, who clearly has quite the intergenerational staying power.
The myths about Theseus are some of the most formative narrative ideas in Western civilization. This, after all, was the man travelled to a faraway land to claim the recognition of the father who abandoned him, slayed the Minotaur, and at some point was fused to a large rock that made him paralysed, to be eventually saved by Heracles.
So far, so Ancient Greek, and very George Lucas.
For me, the most powerful idea connected to Theseus is more of a question. The story goes that upon returning from Crete after an adventure - where, presumably, he murdered and freed Cretians in equal measure - his people decided to preserve his ship for posterity.
Eventually time, and Theseus himself, would pass. The timber decayed on his museum ship. The Athenians, desperate, decided that the only way to preserve the boat (and thus his memory) would be by replacing the weathered wood with newer, stronger ones, over time, as the need arose.
It took Plutarch, the Greek philosopher, to ask a rather obvious question with a very un-obvious answer:
By the time all the planks of the Ship of Theseus were replaced, one by one, could we legitimately call the Ship of Theseus The Ship of Theseus?
And if not, then at what point does it become another ship?
The Business of Emotion
Haute Horology notwithstanding, the vast majority of modern watches, (mechanical and quartz, cheap and expensive) are marketed around stories. Stories that are answers to the question, “What emotion are we selling? Why would a person buy another watch when they already have one?”
Often, that boils down to “heritage”.
If you have a history, sell it. If you don’t have one, be inspired by someone else’s. If you can’t be inspired, write your own myth.
I thought I would like to examine the idea with three pieces in the current Five:45 catalogue that fall somewhere in that continuum. They are the Ball Fireman II, the Formex Essence Brown Dial and the MWC Swiss Series 1000m Diver.
As the title of this piece suggests, this will be the first of three pieces. The question is, at the end of it all, which seems to make the strongest case that it is still the same ship?
Perhaps Ball Watch Co. is a good place to start. As far as origin stories go, few are better.
I am willing to bet that when he woke up on the morning of April 19, 1891, Webster Clay Ball, Ohio jeweller, did not know that an accident in nearby Kipton would change his life. Though he himself was not a casualty, nine men were - six of them postal clerks - when Mail Train 14 and the Toledo Express collided head on.
Investigations would later reveal that one of the engineer’s watches had stopped for four minutes. When you factor in the era and the technologies available, you can put two and two together.
By July 19, 1891, Mr. Ball was appointed “Overseer” and “Guardian of Time” for the Cleveland area, and soon he would put together a system of strict standards for watches, including a list of approved watches. Ball called the consultancy that sprung from it the “Ball Railroad Time Service”.
Ball declared that railworthy watches could only be inspected by approved watchmakers, who adhered to the Ball “Railroad Standard” which monitored the appearance of the watch, its robustness and its accuracy. The business expanded, and soon covered 75% of the country's rail network. This would be one of the United States’ first nationwide standards in any industry.
That was the idea, but what about the watches? Those, naturally, were of the pocket variety. They were not made by Ball. Instead, they would be made to “Ball Standards” by Howard, Hamilton (yes, that one), Waltham, and later Record, when we moved into the wristwatch era.
So, to catch up, the Ball Ship of Theseus is not based on hardcore watchmaking, like JLC or Breguet, but more a process. In modern parlance you could say that Ball held the Intellectual Property and the empire spun off that. Geographically, Ball would shift from Cleveland to Chicago in the early 60s. It rememerged again in the mid-80s and now it is based entirely in Switzerland.
So, Is there a line between this Ball Fireman II 43 and its history?
Visually, there’s tons.
The words “Railroad Standard” and “Since 1891” are on every modern Ball dial, from the oversized version in the limited edition and sporty Fireman Ducks to the smaller typeface in the more classic Engineer II Ohio.
Naturally, the caseback gets a deep engraving of a steam train. Look closely and you can see Ball’s name on the train’s front plate. In fact, the name of this whole line of watches, the “Fireman”, is a homage to those whose job it was to keep the steam train's engine running throughout the trip it made. They shovelled the coal that made the fire that made the train move - and consequently, the steam.
The overall Ball portfolio features a mishmash of styles, and in their market segment, which generally plays it safe and leans on nostalgia, Ball focuses mostly on the modern.
This Fireman, for instance, starts off traditional: a mid-century evoking centre-facing cardinal triangles dial. The middle, though, is pure modern Ball. Widely set, aggressive flieger hands (a la the Sinn 556) take over. Because their lower thirds are painted black, on a matte black dial it really is possible to lose everything but the colours on the hands. The second hand doesn't miss out either. The pointy half is yellow, but the squint-to-see-it counterweight hides a finely crafted cursive “RR”, something that also comes as standard on every modern Ball.
Whereas most Ball watches are polished to within an inch of their lives, this Fireman gets a beautiful satin finish. That translates to a visual footprint of less than the actual 43 mm diameter. and provided you have the wrist for it, this stealthy black and dampened green/yellow colourway complements Ball’s USP: the use of Tritium gas tubes.
Whereas Marathon approaches Tritium from a function-first perspective, Ball experiments. They do because they can. Their product range is much wider. Look through their catalogue and you will find Tritium in multiple shapes and thicknesses. There’s the ultra narrow interpretation on the Fireman Enterprise, the chunky Kit Kats on their in-house Marvelight M and the almost artistic and entirely bonkers Engineer Starlight.
When your eyes adjust to the darkness, the implementation on the Fireman II is well organised. The cardinal indices have slightly shorter tubes, and the minute hand has a considerably longer tube than the hour.
If you’ve been around watches long enough, you know that not all 100 m feel 100 m water resistant. This Fireman II easily does. It feels dense, and just the right amount of heavy. Where the fully brushed bracelet with its butterfly clasp meets the case, there is zero give. The sizing is adjusted by screws. On my 17 cm circumference wrist I could just about pull it off, but in reality this is a perfect daily driver for the thick-wristed.
Here is who I think this is for.
To be sure, this is a somewhat confounding piece. It is a sport watch inside a case that shares a lot with traditional railway watches: a lot of dial and gentle bevels and slopes instead of the stoic minimalism of, say, a pilot or field watch. The dial is an explorer dial but the handset is very much a pilot-style.
Which makes this the perfect watch for someone who wants an excellent Swiss piece and is still understanding his or her preferences. My first Ball Fireman, in 40 mm, was one of my first “expensive, isn’t it?” pieces. And wearing that case every day felt like a real time capsule. To boot, the tightness of the construction, the heft of the bracelet and the accuracy of the movement drove home what it feels like to wear a real high quality watch.
I also think this fits in perfectly for those collectors who have a high-end sport watch in their box, say, an Explorer, or an Aqua Terra, and feel like they need something that is a little more under the radar, a watch, if you will, they wouldn’t mind putting a few scratches on.
Is it the same Ball if you replace so many of the panels?
No, and yes.
The company isn’t owned by a member of the Ball family anymore, and they don’t make their watches in the USA. But consider this: they never really made watches in the first place. You could argue that, having moved to Switzerland, Ball genuinely started the act of making a watch. They tapped into Switzerland’s rich horological platform and evolved.
Perhaps the need to tell a story to flog a watch is what has made the company double down on the things that make it a genuine Joker in the pack when it comes to watches in that $1500+ category. With period correct cases and handsets underlying a very distinct design language, perhaps in the case of Ball Watch Company, the answer to our thought experiment is, in fact, a question: does it really matter if it is the same ship?