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Care and Handling of a Vintage Wristwatch

December 28, 2016 12:40 PM
"Chris S." of Milwaukee, Wis., writes:

"Hi Bruce: I recently received my first vintage watch for Christmas. Can you give me a little education session of vintage watch service and care? Thanks!"

I get this question fairly regularly, so decided to turn this into a blog entry.

To some extent, it depends on the age of the watch. The first wristwatches from the WWI era are officially "antiques" this year, reaching their 100th anniversary with America's entry into WWI in 1917. These watches almost need to be handled as "relics," i.e., worn only occasionally and not for everyday. I liken it to taking a 100-year-old Model T on a cross-country drive. Beside being incredibly uncomfortable, no Model T owner in his right mind would subject a car of that vintage to such punishing conditions. The same with a 100-year-old watch. Original attachments (bands, bracelets) if they are present should be removed when wearing the watch and preserved for when the watch is passed to the next owner. Despite being amazingly durable (hey, they lasted 100 years, right?) the watch's internal parts have nevertheless become fragile, especially the tiny pivots that allow the balance to swing back and forth. A sharp bump, such as dropping the watch on a hard floor, can break them.

Contrast that with a fairly modern vintage watch, let's say an Eternamatic, from the 1950s. By this time, most movements are built with shockproofing mechanisms to protect the balance and its pivots. The number of jewel bearings has been increased on most watches by this time to 17, from seven jewels in early watches, so the general wear and tear on the movement is less. This is the type of watch you should expect could be worn for everyday use. Original bracelets, if they are present, can usually be worn for everyday use as well. Original leather bands should only be worn occasionally, or removed and replaced with something generic for harder and/or longer wear.

That being said, there are some general guidelines for the care and maintenance of ALL vintage watches, i.e., those that are:

* Made before about 1975 before the widespread use of disposable quartz watches;
* Made during the mechanical watch renaissance that began approximately 1985.

First and foremost, keep your vintage watches away from water. Water is Kryponite to vintage watches, regardless of age and whether or not the watch was originally sold as "waterproof" or "water resistant." Casual splashes, getting caught in the rain, or normal sweating are OK. But anything beyond that, remove  your watch first.

Avoid excessive or repeated shock. If you're an avid gardener or engage in any number of manly pursuits such as chopping wood, working on cars or motorcycles, or most anything involving lots of sweat and/or dirt, remove your vintage watch first. This goes for workouts, jogging, and most any contact sport as well. I have a number of clients whom I urge to buy a "weekend watch," an inexpensive, durable (i.e., stainless steel case) watch that they can knock around and not be out hundreds or thousands of dollars if they break or lose it. Metal bands or bracelets are preferable here, because they do not become gross with sweat and dirt like leather bands do. One notable exception is that I would urge NOT wearing metal bracelets if you are working on engines or anything with moving parts that can snag a metal bracelet. Better to wear a leather band and lose the watch rather than losing a hand or arm!

Replacing/repairing bands and bracelets

If your watch has a leather band, a replacement is inevitable at some point. They simply become gross and rot. On MOST watches, this is an easy job, and I urge you to learn to do it yourself. Youtube has several good tutorial videos on this ... just go to youtube.com and search "replace watch band."

Metal bracelets and bands can be more tricky, especially if they need to be repaired or resized (due to weight loss or gain) versus merely replaced. This is particularly the case with watches that have what I refer to as "proprietary bracelets." These are bracelets that are integrated to the case in some way that makes replacement impossible with any type of generic attachment. I typically tell my customers to avoid these kinds of watches, but I understand some models only come this way. So collect these at your peril. My own rule is that if I can't remove the bracelet, I don't buy the watch! In any event, working with metal attachments may require the help of a professional. I advise finding an experienced  jeweler or watch technician to do this. A fair price to expect to pay is in the $5 to $10 area, more for large cities with higher overhead. It all comes down to time ... how much time it takes to do the repair and how the watch technician prices his or her time. If in doubt, call first and ask for a ballpark estimate, but I find most replacement and repairs on metal bracelets can be done in 5-10 minutes, unless fabrication of parts is required.

Regardless of the level of help you may need with bands or bracelets, I can't stress enough the importance of AVOIDING discount department stores and most mall jewelry stores. I have found almost universally that the help in these stores have utterly no sensibility or regard for a fine vintage timepiece. Many discount department stores won't even touch a watch any more (vintage or otherwise) for fear of liability. And most (but not all) mall jewelers will simply jam things together to get you out the door because your repair doesn't represent a high dollar commission to the salesperson. Seek out an independent jeweler (someone with a watch technician on premises) or watch repair shop. If you don't know one, get on the Internet discussion groups and ask around. And, as I mentioned earlier, learn how to replace/resize/repair bracelets yourself. Usually it just requires a few simple tools available online from any number of suppliers for around $20.

How often to have your watch serviced

There is no end of controversy to this question, so I am merely going to state my opinion on this and urge you to ask around, confer with fellow collectors on the various chat groups or wherever, and arrive at your own answer on this.

The short answer is, if it ain't broke, don't fix it. Seriously. If a watch is running and keeping reasonable time (to within a couple minutes a day or better) why incur the expense and risk opening a Pandora's box of potential issues that inexplicably (and with greater frequency than you might expect) arise when the back of a watch is removed. I have literally had watches in my collection for 20 years or more, and I have NEVER had them serviced. It's only when one of my watches stops all together, or keeps erratic time (stops and starts) that I take it to my watchmaker. As a dealer, I trade and sell so many of my watches anyway, that I rarely need to have a watch serviced. (One in ten, if you were to ask me a number.)

Heresy, you say! Well, maybe, but my "philosophy" has kept me out of the poor house, or at the very least afforded me more money to buy more watches instead of paying my watchmaker's orthodontic bill for this four kids!

On the other end of the spectrum, you have those who say an annual servicing is required. This kind of horseshit is usually propagated by Rolex dealers who want to lighten your wallet by upwards of $1,000 every year for a clean/oil/adjust an "authorized Rolex service technician." This is pure overkill, and scandalously overpriced at that (most any experienced watch technician can provide this same service for $250). But if you are one of those who insist on "regular scheduled maintenance," I would suggest that a servicing of the movement every five years is more than sufficient.

I will offer one piece of preventive advice that I'm sure has saved me many a watch servicing: If you have so many watches that a number of them are in storage (such as a safe or bank vault) take them out once a month or so, and give them a good wind, and let them run. This will help distribute the oil throughout the movement and keep it lubricated and prevent "gumming" of the oil. Gummy oil or dry spots within the gear train will cause a watch to seize up for sure. If your collection is small enough that you rotate through it once per month or so, then you should be in good shape as far as keeping your watches sufficiently lubricated.

If you collect battery operated watches, such as Accutrons or Hamilton electrics from 1957 through '69, there are a few extra common sense considerations with regard to batteries, but all the other things mentioned above apply. Remember that vintage battery operated watches still have mechanical moving parts and require the same care and maintenance as purely mechanical watches. That's all I will say about battery operated watches, as I do not collect them myself and I try to avoid selling them. That's just a personal choice on my part; I prefer purely mechanical watches. If these are your particular cup of tea, I urge you seek advice on the various discussion groups out there on the 'Net.

I hope the above has been helpful. With just a little care and some common sense, your vintage watches should last you a lifetime and the lifetime of the next person who is lucky enough to own it. Considering there are somewhere between 75 to 125 individual parts to a mechanical wristwatch (and more if the watch has complications) and that many of the parts are in constant motion (some as much as 18,000 times every hour) mechanical watches are amazingly durable and reliable. Ask the average vintage car collector if the same can be said for his automobiles, and you'll agree that vintage watches are a breeze to care for and maintain.

Happy collecting,

Bruce