JESSICA'S CORNAVIN DOLPHIN

by Walt Odets


Cornavin DolphinIn 1974, my friend Jessica was living in New York and working as a waitress in an average coffee shop on Canal Street. It was here that she came across the first--and last--horological love of her life, her Cornavin Dolphin. Out on the sidewalk in front of the shop, a hawker with a table wanted one dollar for the Dolphin. Jessica felt, even in 1974, that one dollar seemed like a reasonable deal. But, just as she was about to fork over the money in nickels and dimes from the morning's tips, her boyfriend arrived. They had a terrible fight, and witnessing the whole thing, the hawker took pity on her. He gave her the watch. That's how Jessica acquired her Cornavin Dolphin and saved a buck in the bargain.

Jessica has worn the watch ever since--for the last 24 years. Having once banged the watch into the side of a post office, she Dial detailhad to have the stem replaced. This was done by a man with a tiny watch shop behind the doughnuts and crackers in the corner of her grocery store on Second Avenue. Beyond that, Jessica assures me that the insides of the Cornavin Dolphin have never been touched by human hands.

This is a remarkable thing. When I saw Jessica a week ago, her only complaint about the Dolphin was that the seven marker had come loose and was floating around on top of the dial. Every now and then it obstructed the progress of the red sweep hand until Jessica knocked it out of the way by giving the Dolphin a good, hard rap on a table or other suitable object. She wondered if I could fix it.

"How does it look?" Jessica asked, watching attentively as I removed the back.

"Well, er. . . well, ah . . . it looks like a Rolex," I said, squinting at the Dolphin through the microscope in disbelief. The similarity of concept and execution was immediate and unmistakable.

"Oh good," she said. "I knew it was a good watch!"

Keyless worksOne look at the movement also substantiated her claim to never having serviced the Dolphin: it was devoid of oil and absolutely filthy. A peek at the keyless works (right) gives an idea of the magnitude of the condition. If I'd taken the dirt from this single watch and distributed it evenly among 100 Pateks, I am quite sure it would have brought all 100 to a dead stop.

"It runs fine," Jessica assured me, "except that every month I have to set it back because it's two minutes fast."

On my electronic timer, it looked just as Jessica had described it: plus two seconds a day and strong as an ox. Beyond the inconvenience of resetting monthly--and, of course, the nomadic seven marker--Jessica had no complaints at all. Amazing.

WHAT IS A CORNAVIN DOLPHIN?

I don't know.

The inside of the case is marked "Hong Kong," the back of the dial "Taiwan," and the movement with a couple of numbers. Not a maker's mark in the lot. Perhaps it is one of those Russian movements one hears so much about, a Poljot or Khrushchev. Perhaps a reader knows something.

Full movementDescriptively, the Dolphin is a handwind, full bridge movement of obviously sturdy construction: 12.5 lignes (28 mm in diameter), about 5 mm thick, and seventeen jewels. Held in a very massive stainless case by a nylon movement ring and a stainless screw back, the movement is shown at left, after I'd cleaned the dirt off the visible surfaces and blown the moisture out of it. In visible areas, the unplated steel case is surprisingly well finished (blue arrow), though the less visible areas are very rough (yellow arrow). The faceted acrylic crystal was mounted in a way that appeared to provide no water resistance whatsoever. On questioning, Jessica remembered at one time seeing a thin black "string" protruding from between the case and crystal. She had pulled it out completely and thrown it away.

"That was years ago," she explained, seeming a bit concerned. "Was it important?"

"Apparently not."

Balance shock protectionThe escapement of the Dolphin uses a conventional smooth (I think, Glucydur) balance and regulator, with shock protection provided by a Russian-style Incabloc look-a-like. The cap jewel and retainer spring are each three or four times the thickness of anything I have ever seen in an authentic Incabloc.

THE OBVIOUS COMPARISON

Everything in the Cornavin Dolphin is thicker than anything I've seen in a contemporary Swiss watch--except for the Rolex Explorer that I examined several months ago (see The Rolex Explorer Ref. 14270). In fact, the engineering concepts, execution, and appearance of the Dolphin and Rolex are surprisingly similar, and my initial, inescapable impression was borne out by further examination. Detail after detail reminded me of the Explorer. No doubt, the creators of the Dolphin had the Rolex in mind. No doubt, the creators of the Dolphin had a Rolex in hand.

BraceletThe case and dial of the Rolex are much more finely made than the equivalent parts of the Dolphin. I would judge the metal bracelets roughly comparable in quality, although the Dolphin's small links provide a suppleness lacking in the larger-linked bracelet of the Explorer. Both use an almost identical stamped-steel buckle assembly. Surprisingly, the hour markers of the Dolphin are true applied markers, with small pins fitting holes in the dial surface. The dial alone suggests that, even in 1974, the Dolphin was probably not a dollar watch, but a $50 watch.

With regard to the movements, the Rolex provides automatic winding, the Dolphin a non-quick set date, making the movements of roughly comparable complexity. The general finishing of the movements is similar, both in style and quality. While the Dolphin provides generally nicely finished decouvertures for the jewels (yellow arrow, below right), and the Rolex does not, two of the jewels in the Dolphin were set very badly off center (blue arrow). Jewel 1But only a single jewel hole in the Dolphin (inset) suggested the rough machining seen throughout most of the Explorer movement. The automatic winding section of the Rolex (a module attached to the top of the movement) is of much better quality than the basic movement in either watch.

As for the rest of the Dolphin movement, it shows a slight advantage over the Rolex in one area, slight deficits in another. On the whole, however, the Dolphin has a cleaner, more workmanlike approach to both construction and finish. Several items in the Dolphin, including the balance wheel, escape wheel and pallet lever, are of markedly better quality than the equivalent Explorer parts. And the Dolphin is executed without the pretense to elaborated surface finishes so poorly executed in visible areas of the Explorer. The Dolphin is simply brushed on most of the plate and bridges, and very clean. Like the Explorer, some surfaces remain unfinished.

Center wheel Balance
Plate edge Plate


HOW DOES THE DOLPHIN SWIM?

The Dolphin's movement was very badly contaminated and also literally swimming in moisture. (The moisture may have been providing the watches only lubrication.) But this 24 year-old Dolphin showed remarkably good performance. The only attention I gave it was blowing the moisture out of the movement and a cleaning of visible surface dirt, both without any Dial up tapedisassembly. Strangely, the watch was almost entirely free of corrosion or rust, possibly because it was kept continually wet. Dial-up performance (right) was within two seconds per day, and the amplitude of 271 degrees is extraordinary given the condition of the watch. (One would normally expect a minimum of 275 degrees in a freshly serviced watch.) I could not improve on the (already very good) 0.3 millisecond beat error, though cleaning of the escapement would almost certainly help. Variation between the fastest (dial-up) and slowest (crown down, +13 seconds, 0.4 ms, 246 degrees) positions was only 11 seconds, also a remarkable performance.

While the Rolex Explorer performance figures were considerably better than those of the Dolphin (three seconds, slowest to fastest positions), the Rolex was a new movement--albeit contaminated with brass debris and sloppily oiled from the factory. It is difficult to project the performance of the Rolex out 24 years without service and in the poor condition of the Dolphin, but it is hard to imagine anything performing better under the circumstances. The durable performance of the Dolphin is very, very impressive.

CONCLUSIONS

Plate engravingBecause of differences in public image and cost, it is not easy to accept a comparison between a Cornavin Dolphin and Rolex Explorer. But empirical observation suggests that, case and dial aside, these are very similar watches. Despite the huge difference in cost between these watches, their movements are of roughly comparable quality.

Each judged in its respective price class, both the Dolphin and Explorer are surprising. The Dolphin is a surprise for it's excellent manufacturing quality, durability, and reliable running for a "one-dollar watch"--perhaps, more realistically, $300 in today's economy. The Explorer surprises for it's poor manufacturing quality for a watch in its price class. While the Rolex case, and especially the dial, are markedly superior, these alone cannot begin to account for the cost difference between the two watches.

Sweep hand with hairWhat surprises in both watches is the excellent running performance given the relatively poor quality and condition of the movements. There is no doubt that sturdy, simple, thick construction provides an advantage in this regard. More elegantly constructed and complex movements demand consistent, quality servicing. The Dolphin, however, also provides an obvious benefit of this kind of simple construction not offered by the Rolex: good value. Estimating a cost of $300, one might have eight Cornavin Dolphins for the cost of a single Explorer. Perhaps the Dolphin even comes in different dial colors for those days when Caribbean Blue doesn't meet your needs.

If that doesn't entice, you should consider one final incentive. How many watches are available with a human hair embedded in the hand-applied factory paint of the sweep seconds hand (yellow arrow, above right)? That hair has been trailing faithfully behind the second hand for 24 years. Talk about rugged.




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