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Vintage watches can be valuable keepsakes, but they were also built to be worn and used. Whether you’ve just bought a vintage watch or inherited one, or suddenly remembered where you’d stored one away, you’ll probably find yourself wondering what it would take to get your old timepiece in proper working order.
Plenty of knowledgeable repair experts can fix your watch’s mechanism, replace worn parts, and freshen up a vintage watch’s look. Whether they should is another story.
One of the Catch-22s of watch collecting is that the more actively we take care of our timepieces, the less valuable they become. Vintage watches are special, after all, because they represent the craftsmanship and design of the times in which they were built. Tinkering with them, even to keep them working as originally intended, can make them less desirable as collector’s items.
Before deciding to upgrade or even to repair a vintage watch, then, owners should take a moment to ask whether the tradeoff is worth it.
Modern watch manufacturers advise owners to bring their pieces in for service every three to five years. This is perfectly fine advice for a watch you wear every day, but vintage watches do not require the same attention. Older watches tend to be built to last, and to incur less wear and tear. If you only use a vintage watch once or twice a month, a service schedule of five years or more is probably sufficient.
On the other hand, an entire industry has grown around the frequent servicing of timepieces, both modern and vintage. Your watch might not need the kind of frequent attention recommended by some experts, but it will need service at some point. You will have to decide when that time comes, and the extent of the work done.
You may be able to send your watch off to its original manufacturer for periodic service, but this can be a costly and time-consuming option: in-house service can take several months. Fortunately, independent watchmakers and repair experts can do just as good a job, often more efficiently. The trick is identifying the right repair expert.
Only consider repair experts who have extensive knowledge of your brand, and can prove it with certification and a portfolio of previous work. Certification alone can prove that a watchmaker has technical expertise, but may not demonstrate that they are ready to restore your vintage watch in exactly the way you prefer.
Among the choices you’ll need to make is conservation or restoration. Restoring a vintage watch may bring it back to its original appearance by upgrading older components, but this can significantly diminish its value. Conserving your vintage watch on its original terms may not bring it back to its original glory, but may preserve its value by limiting repairs to those more in line with its original construction.
Not all damage to vintage watches—or to vintage items in general—detracts from their value. Damaged hands, dials, and bezels can add character to older watches, and can even support higher valuations. Rolex collectors in particular tend to prefer battle-scarred original components to better-functioning replacements. If preserving your watch’s value is an important objective, you might speak to a dealer in rare timepieces before deciding on a maintenance strategy.
Before you commit to any repair expert, be prepared to specify exactly what you want them to do, and how you want them to do it. Many professionals will polish the case, for example, unless instructed not to; persnickety collectors may find that even this routine bit of service diminishes your watch’s character and therefore its value. The same applies to bezel inserts: make sure that your repair expert understands that no aftermarket pieces should be added to your watch.
Be absolutely sure that the repair shop does not borrow parts from other movements while working on your piece. Scavenging parts makes plenty of sense from a functional perspective, but such Frankenwatches can see their value fall through the floor.