Our experience shows us that the best deals for the horology scavengers come from finding broken watches that instead have the potential to be restored. So, we at Luxury Bazaar have decided to publish a handy guide taking you through the entire process to find the best vintage watches and what typically entail to service and refurbish them in the best way, so to obtain new, fascinating timepieces to wear with pride.
If you have been bitten by the horology bug — and chances are that if you are reading this article you find yourself in this situation — one of the things that often happens is to spend your time to uncover some new “shinies” when you rummage around the attic or frequent the next flea market. And if you are like me, your mind eventually races forward, imagining that new lovely timepiece wrapped around your wrist.
But well, there are a few things to check before fantasizing too much about the catch of the day. And the first one is if the timepiece works. If it does, then you can cheer up — if given to a competent watchmaker, it is going to come back to life, almost as new.
The checklist below will help you understand what happens when you place your watch into your watchmakers’ hands for a needed watch service and cleaning — and remember, the golden rule says that this should happen every five years or so.
What happens behind the closed doors of his laboratory?
Now you have the chance to know. But first of all, let’s examine our movement.
THE BASIC ANATOMY OF A WATCH — AND THE THREE MAIN “BAD GUYS”
We can safely compare the average mechanical watch to a typical car. It has a body, and under the hood, it houses the engine — what is called “movement” in watch speak. When something happens to the movement, the watch stops — as your car would do.
So, what are the issues that happen more frequently in a watch? Let’s find out by examining the movement.
First, you have to remove the back of the watch, and then you can examine the movement. The backs are mainly of two kinds: applied by pressure or screwed in.
So, to remove the back of the watch case, you need to understand what kind of closure it is, and then, open it with the right tool. There are separate, specialized tools for that, so you need to be careful to pick the right kind.
Be careful not to scratch the case, or hurt yourself. If you are unsure, go to a jeweler, and ask him to remove the back for you.
Once the back is open and the movement exposed, three main elements cause around 80% of the problems, in regular wristwatches (that is, not chronographs and not automatics — these have many more elements that could go wrong, but we are just covering the basics).
And they are the winding stem/crown, the mainspring/barrel, and the balance wheel system.
1 — THE WINDING STEM AND CROWN
Sometimes you find watches that come without the crown, because it has fallen off in the past, and the user never bothered to install another. If this is the case, it is pretty obvious that you cannot wind the watch, nor regulate it.
Usually, if you look closely the movement, there is a tiny screw on the bridge next to where the crown is. The crown is secured to the winding stem, which goes into the watch, and it is held in place by this screw. But if the screw gets loose, the stem can easily slip out of its lodging and fall out.
Despite the peskiness of this occurrence, this is usually quite a simple repair.
As watches are industrially made, the movements are standardized, so pro watchmakers can find spares for everything or almost everything. This means that to find the correct winding shaft to use, all it takes is to understand which movement is powering your watch.
And Dr. Ranfft comes to the rescue. His online archive of movements is one of the most precious resources of online horology — and it is accessible to everyone, not only professionals. You can find it here: http://www.ranfft.de/cgi-bin/bidfun-db.cgi?10&ranfft&&2uswk
In the descriptions of the different movements, it is also noted which kind of mainspring and winding stem your watch needs — so, if you feel adventurous, you could order one yourself — but we warmly suggest you leave this feat to your watch repairman!
2 — THE MAINSPRING AND BARREL
When you look at the typical watch movement, you usually see two big gears next to the crown. These two guys are responsible for the watch winding. Under the second wheel to the right, there is the so-called barrel, which is a hollow metal cylinder containing what is known as the mainspring. The mainspring is what gives the power to a mechanical watch. It is coiled around a central axis, and when you turn the crown, you impart a torsion to the spring, winding it.
Sometimes, these springs — which get wound daily — break, so the watch has no more power and stops cold.
How can you check is the mainspring is broken?
If you rotate the crown and you feel the gears clicking but find no resistance, then the culprit is most probably a broken mainspring.
If this is the case, rejoice: generally, it is not a big problem. The watch just needs a new mainspring, and any competent watch repairman can fit a new one inside it quite easily. There are some which might be more difficult to find, as well as costly, but usually, the watch will be repair-worthy.
3 — THE BALANCE WHEEL ASSEMBLY
Now, we go to the opposite end of the watch movement where we find another very evident wheel. This is the balance wheel, and it is the one oscillating back and forth in one direction and then the opposite with a frequency of 5 to 10 times per second, thanks to the presence of a tiny little spiral above it (called hairspring).
As you can easily understand, this quickly moving part is one of the most delicate of the watch. Especially since this wheel is mounted on two tiny little pivots. When a watch hits a hard surface, the shock is transmitted to these two pivots — and sometimes, the shock is enough to break one. If this happens, as it is understandable, the balance wheel cannot oscillate anymore, and the watch stops.
You can check the conditions of the balance wheel staff and its pivots by gently turning it a bit, using a pair of tweezers. If it wobbles, then most probably one of its pivots is broken. When this happens, the damage gets more serious.
While a watch repair professional can easily find a replacement balance wheel assembly for the most common watch movements if you have a more esoteric one you would be out of luck because making a balance staff from scratch is quite difficult, time-consuming and costly.
If instead, the balance wheel oscillates as it should, this is extremely good news, as most possibly there is no damage present, but the watch movement just needs a good cleaning!
If you find a watch where you cannot rotate the crown (indicating that the mainspring is already fully wound) and the balance wheel, when gently moved, oscillates back and forth for a short while, then quite possibly the watch just needs to be disassembled and serviced (which, as you will see below, is a very affordable service).
A watch is a little, intricate mechanical assembly made by interlocking parts, so it must be properly lubricated to facilitate its operation. But as it works, particles of grime and dust deposit inside the movement bit by bit, and get into the bearings and the jewels of the watch. This slow accumulation causes increasing friction, rendering the movement of the gears more and more difficult, until one day, especially if the timepiece is left unused for a long period, you find that it does not work anymore even if you wind it.
Your watch repair professional can clean it, though. He dismounts it, washes it, and then lubricates every bearing and jewel with tiny drops of special oil. And suddenly, that old watch which did not budge anymore magically wakes up and starts ticking and tocking again briskly.
A NOTE ABOUT SHOCK-ABSORBING AND REGULATION
Remember when we talked about the pivots of the balance wheel? Well, watchmakers have invented something to counter this occurrence as well.
If you check the upper side of a modern balance wheel system, you can notice that there is a golden frame, which holds a red gemstone (it is an artificial ruby, called cap jewel). This frame, which can have several shapes, is a shock-absorbing device (one of the most famous is the so-called Incabloc).
The Incabloc has been patented around 1935, so its presence or absence is useful to determine the age of a watch. If present, then it must be from that date onwards. If it is not, either the movement is very, very, basic, or it is from before that period.
The age and quality of a movement can also be determined by the shape of the balance wheel. The best balance wheels in older movements had a series of tiny screws mounted radially on the balance wheel surface and were used to fine-tune its oscillations.
The presence of those tiny screws was indeed an element of quality, in vintage movements. So much that in some low-end watches, the balance wheels were adorned with tiny, fake screws!
Due to the evolution of materials that are used for the different parts of the watches, this micrometric regulation is not needed anymore in current timepieces. Every adjustment comes through a careful setting of the regulatory device. Many of these, which are incorporated in the balance wheel system, are shaped like a longish lever, that you can point on a scale so to regulate the watch.
This tiny regulation modifies the amplitude of the balance spring, and so, makes the whole balance wheel beat a bit faster or slower. This is the main way to precisely fine-tune the performances of your mechanical watch.
SERVICING A WATCH
When a watchmaker gets your watch, first of all, he disassembles it.
Disassembling entails extracting the movement from the case, removing the dial and the hands, and then operating on the movement itself.
Very basically, a movement (and we are referring to a mechanical movement) is usually composed of a set of different levers and gears (called “wheels”) which are contained between two or more metal plates. The bigger one is called the “main plate”; the other ones are called “bridges”.
The wheels have a central shaft, with two tiny pinions which are precisely housed between the main plate and the bridge(s). In good quality movements, they get into what is called “jewels”.
Typically, for each wheel, there are two jewels, one up and one down.
Apart from these elements, watches house different springs. The most important ones are the “mainspring” (which is wound to provide the power to the watch), hosted in what is called the “barrel”, and another one which is the balance spring, which is mounted on the balance wheel to make it oscillate back and forth.
Apart from the basic mechanism, you end up getting other parts when the watch has more functions. Every function of a watch is called “complication”, and so requires additional pieces that are designed to perform that function. A function could be the date, the chronograph, the lunar calendar. Whatever, from the most mundane to the most exotic.
So, our friend the watchmaker disassembles every part of the watch by removing the tiny screws which hold together all of this fine architecture and puts every element in an ultrasonic machine to clean them — or use other liquids if there are traces of rust to remove.
A watchmaker’s ultrasonic cleaning machine is somewhat similar to the ones used for cleaning jewelry, glasses and such at home. The tiny pieces are put into metal containers, and then ultrasonically cleaned until they become shiny as new.
After having cleaned every part of the watch, the watchmaker carefully checks every jewel, so to see if the watch is performing well. If he finds something odd, like an ovalized hole in a jewel, this would mean that there is an issue in the watch, which could be serious and require some more costly repair (like substituting the jewel or finding a spare part to replace the faulty one).
If everything is ok, he reassembles back the watch, piece by piece, adding special mineral oil when needed to lubricate the mechanism.
The mainspring is also unwound, disassembled, washed, and then wound back again in the barrel and greased so to perform well.
After the movement is reassembled, he checks its performances on a timegrapher, so to make it the more precise that he can — subject to the performances of the movement itself, of course, as some movements are inherently better than others, and regulates it until it is close to perfect timekeeping as he can.
So, now the “engine” is performing well. Let’s put our attention to the other parts of the watch.
The dial gets through the same process: it is ultrasonically cleaned (if possible — some old dials cannot be cleaned in this way) and checked so to see if it needs any restoration (and unless it is in very bad shape, it is much better not to). Then he applies a small layer of special wax to protect the dial from dust and grime and make it shinier.
The hands of the watch are also cleaned and refitted back after having been checked and eventually straightened.
If there was some lume present, both on the dial and the hands, it gets touched up if needed.
The case and the glass are subject to the same treatment. If the glass is badly scratched, it gets substituted, especially when it is a plastic glass (very common in vintage watches). If it is a mineral or sapphire crystal glass, things get more difficult and costly. When possible, the watchmaker tries to polish it so as to remove the most superficial scratches and improve legibility of the dial.
The same happens with the watch case. Normally, good watchmakers avoid heavy interventions on vintage watch cases, because doing this removes part of the metal of the case, and possibly, ends up making the watch lose its features and character.
More, several old watches from last century were plated — that is, there was a thin layer of gold or chromium applied over a metal case (usually brass), which could end up chipping and flaking away if subject to a deep brushing!
If the surface is deeply scratched and chipped, then re-plating it would be the only way to ensure the watch gets worn again. This treatment would make the watch more beautiful, but also, more fake-looking — so, as the modern theories about restoration favor careful conservation over a total refurbishment, proceed with care, if you must.
If the watch has a bracelet, it gets ultrasonically cleaned and gently polished as well, or if there is an old wristband, eventually this could be changed with a new one — and the original clasp detached and re-used.
As you imagine, there is a cost to do all of this. Typically in the Western world, you would pay around $100–$150 for a basic service like this for a regular watch, plus any other interventions or parts needed — e.g., the cost of a new glass or a new strap, or even the cost of the spares needed if there was something broken.
Also remember that the more complications there are, the more parts the watchmaker will have to disassemble, and so, the more costly the watch repair and service would be. Just to make you a typical example, a chronograph mounts 50% more pieces than a regular timepiece, so the service on a chronograph watch is likely to cost 50% more than a regular one.
HOW TO FIND THE PERFECT WATCH REPAIR PROFESSIONAL
Finding the perfect watchmaker is like finding the perfect spouse — so it is a long process which involves a lot of luck!
There are mainly two schools of thought here: the first trusts to the official network of the different brands, while the other prefers the independent watchmakers.
Each one of the two schools has its pros and cons, so we cannot say what is better: but we have discovered that there is hardly an overall better solution. Generally, watch servicing and repairing are usually best served on a case-by-case basis.
Indicatively, if your watch is new, it is better to resort to the official channel, as it could still be covered with the original warranty. If the watch is vintage, a good, trusted watchmaker would probably be the best option.
However, as there is a vast choice of watchmakers around, the best bet is trusting the experience of others. This is why we warmly suggest you checking the various forums of horology, and ask the watch fans who populate them their best advice to find the best watch repair professional there is for your specific case. Because in some situations, you might be better served by one specialized professional or another.