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Wristwatch Store In Parkville Shows Even Older 'Wearables' Are Still In Style

One of the latest trends in fashion and technology is based on a very old technology.

Even as cellphone manufacturers and other tech companies are trying to pack every possible gadget into a "wearable" device, some people, young and old, are opting to wear old-fashioned wristwatches.

That's good news for John Putnam, the owner of Cool Vintage Watches in historic downtown Parkville, Mo. He’s been selling wristwatches through a mail-order Internet business for 25 years to customers all around the world.

Just two years ago, though, Putnam opened his brick-and-mortar location.

The store is filled with antiques, taxidermy, LPs, and of course, a large collection of vintage watches. He says all types of people come into his store, both sexes, young and old. President Barack Obama even made a visit last summer.

Putnam says part of the lasting appeal of old wristwatches is that it’s just such a personal item. All the watches are different in some way and have their own story.

“I mean because you have your cell phone you can look at the time any time of day,” says Putnam. “But with a vintage watch, and even some of the higher end watches today, it’s all about personality, style and ego.”

The watches range in styles and prices, and are from many different eras. Putnam takes special care to lock them away every night to protect them, and he does cosmetic maintenance to keep them up. But watches that are 50 to 100 years old or more can have other problems beyond a broken leather band. Old watches will stop ticking if they’ve been sitting in a drawer for too long, get dropped or haven’t been serviced.

Jim Summers is a watchmaker who likes to hang out at Putnam’s store. They met through a watch enthusiast group that meets monthly to talk about watches, and to buy, sell and trade them.

“It’s really hard to understand unless you get involved in it,” says Summers. “But I’ve never met anybody that was exposed to this that didn’t become addicted to it.”

Summers is wearing a 1970s Seiko Skindivers watch. It looks industrial and has a black band. He says he doesn’t even know how many wristwatches he owns. He shows the difference between a railroad watch made 100 years ago and a newer watch made in China.   

“This is a modern day quartz watch,” he says. “Stamped out plates, no jewels, very poorly made. It satisfies a need and lasts a satisfactory period of time, and then you throw it away and get you another one. But this one was designed to last forever. “

The old railroad watch has 200 different parts, a balance wheel, springs, and gears. All of these things are part of the "movement" or mechanism of the watch. Summers knows about all of them.

“There’s much more to it than just a timepiece. It’s like a mechanical art form,” says Summers.  

Summers learned this mechanical art from an old watchmaker that his father introduced him to when he was 10 years old. He’d take a watch apart, break it, get stuck, then figure out how to fix it, and put it all back together.

Summers, 65, says that he’s intrigued by new high-end watches, smartwatches, and what people will be putting on their wrists in the future. But for now, his favorites are still the older watches made before the 1970s. They're better quality, and he knows how to work on them.  

Summers is retired now. He says although there are watchmaker schools out there, it’s getting harder to find people like him who have comprehensive hands-on experience. Plus, old parts are getting harder to find. Which is too bad, says Summers, because a lot of people are still interested in old watches.

“You can just fix them forever,” says Summers. 

Now, Summers only fixes watches for friends, which he says is a good thing. He says there are only so many hours in a day. Wise words, especially coming from a watchmaker. He’s spending those minutes and hours of retirement with grandkids, riding his motorcycle, and, of course, continuing to get together with other watch enthusiasts. 

Every part of the present has been shaped by actions that took place in the past, but too often that context is left out. As a podcast producer for KCUR Studios and host of the podcast A People’s History of Kansas City, I aim to provide context, clarity, empathy and deeper, nuanced perspectives on how the events and people in the past have shaped our community today.

In that role, and as an occasional announcer and reporter, I want to entertain, inform, make you think, expose something new and cultivate a deeper shared human connection about how the passage of time affects us all. Reach me at hogansm@kcur.org.
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