Your Vintage Watch Has Needs

03/22/2013 12:30

Now that we are fully ensconced in the era of disposable, mass-produced quartz watches, many of us have forgotten--or are too young to have ever known--that vintage mechanical timepieces are not only beautiful works of art but also delicate machines that need care and maintenance.  Therefore, I asked professional watchmaker Jeffrey Shimp to share a few words on what your vintage watch needs to not only look beautiful but also to run smoothly and accurately for generations to come.  So, without further ado, here's Jeff.


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I recently watched the 1973 Woody Allen film "Sleeper", in which Miles Monroe, Mr. Allen’s' character, is awakened from a long cryogenic sleep.  In one particular scene, Miles stumbles upon a 200-year-old Volkswagen Beetle hidden in a cave.  He opens the door, starts up the engine with the first turn of the key, and exclaims, "Wow, they really built these things, didn't they?"  After which he begins driving the car to his next destination.


What does this have to do with vintage watches, you might ask?  As a full-time watchmaker, on practically a daily basis, I draw a parallel between that movie scene and either a watch belonging to a customer, an eBay seller, or a watch collector on one of the many internet forums.  The real life story typically goes something like this. . ."I found my father's/grandfather's/uncle’s old Bulova watch that's been sitting in a drawer for at least 25 years. I wound it up, and it's been running perfectly ever since!"


The hard fact is that you SHOULD NOT run a watch with a questionable or unknown service history any more than you should drive a car that has not had an oil change in years! 


There was a time, before the advent of the quartz movement, when all that got us to work on time was our trusty and faithful "wind-up." It was understood that routine maintenance of our watches was required to ensure their reliable and continued function.  Many people owned just one watch (unheard of today) and it was an investment to be well cared for.  At that time most watch manufacturers, including Bulova, Hamilton, and others, recommended that a mechanical watch be serviced AT LEAST ONCE A YEAR!



I understand that this is not exactly the news many collectors around the globe want to hear.  After all, the resurgence of the vintage watch market of late has driven prices of these Horological gems to a premium.  Putting together even a modest collection can be costly, so adding the prospect of then servicing each one can be rather off-putting.  But please remove your hands from over your eyes for just a moment and read a bit further. 


The average mechanical watch from, let's say, the 1920s to the 1950s was produced without case back or crystal gasket, and, in most instances, without a waterproof crown.  I am inclined to believe that it was once at least generally understood that watches and water did not mix well together, so the use of such waterproofing measures was unnecessary.  Today, however, I see severely water damaged vintage watches on a regular basis.


I recently came across a new old stock Hamilton from the 1940s, and I was amazed at how tightly the case snapped together, how perfectly the original glass crystal fit the contours of the bezel, and how snugly the original dust-proof crown fit against the side of the case.  That is not the condition of many vintage watches on the market today, most of which have seen decades of use and have not been consistently and properly maintained.  The majority of 60-plus-year-old watches have ill-fitting case backs, incorrectly matched and installed replacement crowns, and/or crystals that have been improperly fitted and sloppily glued in place.  All of these situations leave gaps that are just begging to be infiltrated with moisture, dust, flakes of wrist skin, and even tar from cigarette smoke, which can invade the movement and discolor and corrode the dial.


Over time, these tiny particles act like sandpaper... scoring pivots, damaging pinions, and wearing jewel holes.  The presence of moisture will wreak havoc on a dial's finish, rust and pit once shiny hands, and, of course, rust steel parts, such as those in the setting mechanism, all in a surprisingly short period of time.  Even without the presence of these destructive forces, the lubricants will break down and dry up over time.  A fragile set bridge will break under force from dried up or non-existent lubrication.



All of this brings me to another topic involving a favorite auction site and bountiful source of these vintage treasures.  We've all seen the claims, "runs perfectly", "keeps perfect time", "ready to wear".  However, I have found that, when pressed with a few questions about their "running perfectly" watch, the seller typically ends up answering with "I don't really know anything about watches...All I know is that I wound it up, set it on my desk, and an hour or so later it was still keeping time." 


LET ME BE VERY CLEAR...the criteria of a well-running watch is more than just whether the little second hand is going around and that it "seems" to keep time!  What of Amplitude, Beat Error, Positional Error, and of course Acceptable Rate?  All of which can be determined quickly using the proper diagnostic equipment.  Equipment, by the way, that you’re not going to find in a kiosk at the mall, but rather in the shop of a well trained, experienced watchmaker.  Most of the watches I have purchased as "running great", but with an unknown service record, were found to be in DIRE need of a cleaning, lubrication, and adjustment to avoid being damaged from continued use.  I'm not trying to be overly critical of vintage watch sellers.  The fact is that most people would hardly notice a 30 second gain or loss in the single hour given to "testing" the watch before listing it as perfect.  But that seemingly small loss translates to a gain or loss of 12 minutes in a 24-hour period....hardly worthy of being represented as running perfectly, or even acceptable, by most standards.


Another claim I hear from customers (usually with a tinge of pride) is something to the effect of... "I've worn this watch every day for the last 30 years, and it finally just stopped a week ago.  It ran all that time without a problem, so it probably just needs to be cleaned."  Well, there is a problem now... that watch is most likely worn out.  Remember our old car illustration?  We need to keep in mind that the mechanical movements that bring these Horological marvels of human engineering to life are tiny machines with many moving parts, most of which, at some point in their lives, have run 24 hours a day, sometimes year after year.  Can you name one other machine that would not have some degree of wear from that kind of use, particularly if not periodically inspected, cleaned, and lubricated? 


These wonderful watches have moved through time from being every day timekeeping workhorses of necessity, to collectible works of art...delicate things of beauty to be cherished and cared for, and hopefully passed on in good working order to the next generation.  SO... collect them, appreciate them, take good care of them, and, of course, wear them with pride. Maybe once in a while, someone will even notice the beautiful little piece of Horological history smoothly ticking away on your wrist!


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Jeffrey Shimp is a full-time watchmaker, collector, restorer, and dealer in vintage watches.  Located in northeast Pennsylvania, he services and sells watches to/from around the world and ships worldwide.  He can be reached using the contact information below.


Jeffrey Shimp

Time Restoration, LLC

P.O. Box 161

Luzerne, PA 18709


eBay Seller ID:  Timerestoration