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Some of the most common questions to be asked of anyone engaged in the sale of vintage watches relate to the servicing of the items that have been bought or are being considered for purchase. Unlike their modern equivalents which are built from the outset with the intention that they will only last perhaps a decade or so, a wristwatch by one of the famous makers from the golden age of Swiss watch making has the potential to, literally, last almost forever, ending up as a very personal heirloom piece that can be passed through several generations.
While they were beautifully made with an incredible degree of attention to detail, the movements in these high grade vintage watches were robust and often quite over-engineered. Just as with a classic motor car from the same period or indeed any other piece of complex machinery, the key to trouble free ownership of a vintage watch is to keep on top of its servicing at all times. There was a very informative guarantee document produced by Rolex in 1958 on which the fascinating fact was stated that if running continuously, the balance wheel in a Rolex Oyster travels a distance of 7000 miles in 18 months. Or as Rolex memorably put it, “that’s time for an oil change”.
When a watch is run without servicing for a long period, the very light oils used to lubricate the pivot points in its movement dry out. In turn, this increases friction and leads to accelerated wear. By sending a movement in for routine cleaning and oil replacement on a regular basis, wear can be kept down to an absolute minimum and one’s watch enjoyed for many decades.
The question as to how often a vintage watch should be serviced brings up considerable debate among enthusiasts. The Rolex document mentioned above goes on to say that “every year or 18 months, take your watch to an official Rolex servicing agent for oiling and cleaning”, though I have to say that we don’t know anyone who has their watches maintained as frequently as this. A lot will depend on the conditions in which the watch is being used and the regularity with which it is worn. A collector in baking hot India or South Africa who wears his vintage watches regularly could well choose to have them serviced every two years and reap a quantifiable benefit from doing so, but for those of us living in Britain, Europe or North America, having this work performed every three or four years should be perfectly sufficient to keep our timepieces in peak condition.
It is important to choose the correct establishment to service one’s watch, and this is actually a less straightforward decision than one might initially think. Quite reasonably, most buyers assume that the best people to maintain their vintage wristwatch are those who manufactured it in the first instance. So if we own a classic Rolex Oyster, then the most prudent course of action would be to send it back to Rolex in Bienne, either directly or via one of the company’s official agents worldwide. This is in fact not always the case. Factory servicing of this kind is of a very high quality, but it isn’t always sympathetic to the watch being worked upon and as such, often isn’t ideal for those with vintage, rather than recent, watches. For instance, we have seen examples of 1960s models by Rolex and Breitling that have had their original hands, in which the radium based paint was discoloured and no longer luminescent, replaced with brand new hands during official factory servicing. The same comment can be applied equally to bezels, winding crowns and in some extreme instances, God forbid, even dials. Similarly, we’ve recently encountered several period Omega military watches from the 1940s and 50s that have been returned from Omega’s historic servicing section at considerable expense, but have been fitted with howlingly incorrect hands and winding crowns during this procedure. IWC seem much better, and we were impressed by their recent servicing work done to a very tidy Mark 10 pilot’s watch that is currently for sale on this website, but even so, we’ve encountered instances when they have replaced component parts with equivalents that were not entirely correct for the age of the rest of the piece. These changes certainly have the effect of making the watches to which they have been applied more useable, but at the same time they reduce the degree of component originality that is of paramount importance to the serious collector or investor.
Some of this problem occurs because the majority of these houses today are not actually terribly knowledgeable about their vintage back catalogues. And really, if we think about it logically, why should they be? These concerns are in the business of manufacturing and selling large quantities of brand new watches, not obsessing over the details of which hands and winding crown types they used on models that were retired from production forty or fifty years ago. Over the years, we have noticed that a lot of our customers also enjoy collecting classic cars and motorcycles and this point can be illustrated by drawing a parallel between the two. If we wanted a Jaguar XK120 from the late 1940s serviced, I have no doubt at all that we could take it into our local Jaguar main agent, where this work would be undertaken. However, it can be said with confidence that the mechanic who worked on the car there, who normally would spend most of his day servicing cars sold brand new in the last three years, would be unlikely to have any great familiarity with this vintage model and its exact specification and in fact, may never have even seen another one like it before in his life. We could stroll into an official Rolex dealer in any major city in the UK this afternoon and ask them to service a 1931 Prince, a 1948 bubble back or a 1968 Turnograph and they would happily arrange to do so, but they wouldn’t have handled any of these models before and would almost certainly be slightly out of their depth if asked to offer any meaningful comment on them.
From our own experience as professional watch dealers, the highest standard of servicing that also is sympathetic to vintage watches from the perspective of retaining total originality is to be found via long established independent watch repairers who have been in the business for many years and worked on many of the more recent, 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s, models when they were current. A lot of these one-man watch making concerns have the most remarkable encyclopaedic knowledge, built up over several decades of day in, day out exposure to these products and, most importantly of all, have accumulated large volumes of original vintage spare parts for almost every variant you can think of. Interestingly, and this is something we’ve often noticed, most of these repairers have very little idea as to the commercial worth of the items they are constantly exposed to. In many instances, they are totally familiar with the component variations that a given model went through during its production lifespan, but don’t know in the slightest how these various states effect sale value. We’ve discussed this regularly over the years here and come to the conclusion that this comes about because watch repairs are invariably just that: repairers. They are not dealers and have no role in the buying and selling of watches, hence they never actually have reason to familiarise themselves with the commercial value of the pieces that are brought to them servicing and repair.
As with a lot of things, the extent of the support you’ll need will depend very much on the scale of your involvement. If you have only one or two vintage watches, then it seems a little excessive to spend a lot of time building up a relationship with your local watch maker. You’d be better off simply sending your watches back to where they were purchased for servicing, particularly on account of the policy on this site of always supplying very high quality servicing on any watch bought from us at cost price, for life, without any profit being made from routine maintenance work at any time.
However, if you really intend to become heavily involved in the vintage watch collecting field, sooner or later you’ll need to find your own tame repairer, just as those who are fanatical classic motor car collectors always have strong links with a trusted specialist mechanic who, over time, will get to know exactly how they like to work and, hopefully, will prove himself to be far less costly than their local Ferrari, Rolls-Royce or whatever agent. When you locate this chap, treat him like royalty. You’ll find that he will have accumulated an awful lot of experience and you can learn a great deal from him. Don’t try to haggle his servicing bills down, flatter his ego a little from time to time and make sure he gets a bottle of single malt every Christmas. To have a local facility for top quality, vintage-friendly servicing at a price that is a fraction of that charged by the main agents is indeed a wonderful thing, and the benefits of knowing an honest, conscientious and knowledgeable traditional watch maker in one’s own vicinity cannot ever be overstated.
Over the years, something we’ve noticed is that serious collectors and dealers are very reluctant to disclose the details of their watch makers. Pondering it logically from their point of view, this makes sense. Having spent time and effort in nurturing their relationships with these individuals, and being aware that most good watch makers are already very overworked, they are unwilling to share the benefits with third parties. This situation is not unique to the vintage watch world either. There are close parallels with high level English antique furniture dealers who, having found a talented restorer or upholsterer, then regard the details of this individual as something of a state secret to be guarded at all costs.
To the casual browser reading this, the picture might seem rather grim. Where does the novice find one of these princes among independent watch makers and, more worryingly, how does he avoid entrusting his high value vintage Rolex or Omega to a cowboy who may well damage it while attempting to service something he doesn’t really understand ? Again, from experience over many years, we’ve found that those repairers registered as being accredited by the British Horological Institute, based at Upton Hall, Newark, Nottinghamshire, are extremely competent and more often than not, also very fairly priced. The BHI is strict about which companies and individuals it recommends and to achieve this status, they have to prove their ability at a demanding technical level. While our own watch maker is nothing short of a gem and works to probably the highest quality standard that we have encountered, with the result that he now performs virtually all the work needed in connection with sales related to this website, we have on occasion needed servicing in other parts of the UK. In these instances we have contacted the BHI to find the details of a repairer in the region required and can honestly say that in over twenty five years, we have never been anything other than completely impressed with the standard of workmanship performed.
As a final word on this subject here, it should be stressed emphatically that anyone who buys a vintage wristwatch from this site should be very aware that they will have our full support for however long they own the item, be this one, five or twenty-five years. At no time will we ever turn our backs on an item that we’ve sold and while if carried out through us, future servicing will be charged for, this will only ever be at cost price + VAT, without any attempt ever being made to obtain a profit. Similarly, we will always get involved to lend a hand, completely free of charge, if assistance is needed in liaising with your local repairer, should you prefer to have servicing done in your immediate area, or in confirming purchase or replacement values in the case of an insurance claim, matrimonial split, deceased estate or similar. Such matters are never a problem and purchasers should not hesitate for a moment to get in touch if help of this nature is required.