The problem (or not?) of servicing vintage watches

There's something about vintage watches. Maybe it's the attraction of bygone days, a different era where things were less complicated and stress levels were much, much lower. Maybe it's the joy of finding a 50, 60 or 70 year old item that kind of looks its age but still looks fantastic. Aged, yes, but with pride and grace, maintaining the exquisite features that made it beautiful when it was new and still today so much later.

Vintage watches are generally much more affordable than new watches. The most sought after vintage makes and models generally cost much less than their new counterparts, which makes it easier to build a collection. For the author of this post, that was the start of this whole adventure. At one point I found myself having 42 vintage watches and when I wanted to service one of them I discovered it could be very expensive. Which brings me to the point of this post.

Say you already have a few newer watches and decided to buy yourself a nice vintage watch to vary your collection a bit. Maybe you're a fan of a particular brand and have an established relationship with an affiliated store and watchmaker for the brand. So it's perfectly logic to take your newly found beauty to your brand watchmaker and ask for an evaluation of it, just to make sure everything is in good order, as the seller stated.

A few days later when you go back to the watchmaker, your heart sinks and your blood starts boiling when he tells you there is a lot of wear in the watch and to get it back into good order you need to change half the parts and pay almost as much for that as you paid for the watch in the first place. What the *%$@# happened? Is the seller a crook? Should you ask your money back or give the seller the worst review humanly possible to get revenge?

Well, it's not that simple. To become a brand store and a certified watchmaker for a brand, there is a lot of training and investment to be made. It is crucial for a watch brand that their customers can rely on the brand's watches to be in as perfect order as possible. But, and it's a big but; this really only applies to newer watches. The reason lies in how the brand's business model works.

Back in the old days when your vintage watch was new, business was also less complicated. The whole concept of business strategy with cost optimization, automation, touch-less manufacturing, end-to-end integrated supply chains and so on did not exist. You simply made as good as a product as you could and maybe your marketing people were a little better than the rest (here's looking at you, Rolex) so that you had a small edge over your competitors. Apart from that, it really mostly depended on building the best product you could.

They used the best materials and spent the time necessary to ensure that their movements were the best they could be. There were no hedge fund corporate shareholders requiring a certain return on their investment every quarter and there was no outsourcing of high volume production to low-cost countries. Everything was made within the local community, often spanning only a village or two in the same valley.

As a side note, it might be interesting to know that in Switzerland, houses are built to last for 100 years and much of the watchmaking community actually developed from farmers needing other things to do in winter. That built-to-last mentality directly translated into the watches they made.

Nowadays, it's a whole different ballgame. Big money owns most of the big watch brands and corporate profits are the thing that matter most. Yes, you want to build the best product you can, but within strict requirements. There should be no waste and correspondingly nothing should be better than required, as that impacts the shareholders' bottom lines. In highly automated production lines, it is critical that the machines run uninterrupted as much and as long as possible to save costs. Re-tooling or human intervention costs a lot of money.

To avoid such costs, the steel used to make watch pinions and pivots are softer and more easily machinable than back in the old days. The soft steel does not wear the machines or the tooling as much, and when it is highly polished it provides excellent results, leading to great timekeeping. So that's a perfect solution then, right?

Well, no. This business model is the reason it costs you many hundreds, maybe thousands of (insert your currency here) to service your new-ish watch. The softer steel wears down very rapidly, and the brands know that if these steel parts are not replaced, timekeeping and their brand image will suffer. If left in place, the part may wear right through in another 5 years. So they replace anything that is slightly worn, and they train all their affiliated stores and watchmakers to do so. It is not only due to the wear right now, but due to future wear, which will rapidly accelerate in the soft steel.

If you've managed to follow me all the way down here, great! Because this is where we get back to our angry buyer from the first few paragraphs. He took his old watch which was made to last 100 years for an encounter with the aggressive business models of today. The brand store and watchmaker only followed what is sound advise for today's business model. But it is the wrong advise for something that was built to last 100 years. The wear that would necessitate replacing a 5 year old part made of soft steel, has occurred over 50, 60 or 70 years and it will not accelerate. The steel in your vintage watch is hard tool steel that will last another 30, 40 or 50 years. It was made to last as a matter of pride to the craftsmen, not as a matter to increase profits for hedge funds.

TL;DR: The best option for servicing your vintage watch is frequently not the brand stores. They are trained to take maximum care of the current range of products, built with a completely different approach to business. Find yourself a good independent watchmaker, ideally one who specializes in vintage watches, and you will find that having your precious vintage piece serviced costs you no more than a nice dinner out for two.

And if you have a looooot of watches, you might want to start tinkering with servicing yourself, as having a nice dinner out for two 50 times is still a lot of money. But that's the topic for another blog post in the near future!