JESSICA’S CORNAVIN DOLPHIN
by Walt Odets
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
Jessica has worn the watch ever since–for the last
24 years. Having once banged the watch into the side of a post office,
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!”
One 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
“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
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?”
The 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
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). But
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
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
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.
Because 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
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.
What 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.