Watch restoration - how far should one go?

Beat up old watches are a sad thing. It's sort of how I feel every time I look myself in the mirror; something that used to look much better than it does now. The urge to do something about them is strong, to bring out the beauty that once was. But how far do we go?

No, not that far
We certainly don't want to go that far

First and foremost; an original vintage watch in fine condition is to most vintage lovers more attractive and valuable than a watch that has been refinished. When selling a vintage watch in very fine condition it is very common to get asked if the case has been polished at all, showing how important originality is for buyers. But at some point an original watch falls below a certain condition where most would agree it needs to be restored.

A 50 or even 100 year old watch can be made to look brand new and shiny with a little effort. But would it look good, or perhaps more importantly; would it look right? If one goes too far, the watch would look fake. So how do we decide how far to go in our restoration?

The guiding element in deciding this is the dial. The dial is sometimes also referred to as the face of the watch, and it is for sure the watch element most directly correlated to our impression of the condition of the watch. A dial that is badly scratched, that has missing details or is water damaged will make that watch look pretty bad regardless of how nice the case, hands or strap is. On the other hand, a dial that is in pristine condition will bring the impression of the entire watch with it.

So let's base our decision of how far to go in our restoration on the condition of the dial. If the dial of a watch we are working on is at 80% of its new state (yes, I know that it is not actually possible to score it that way), then the second consideration is the coherence of the watch; how does the condition of the case, hands etc match that 80% dial? If the case is badly scratched, if the plating has partially come off, if it has been over-polished and thereby edges have been rounded etc, we would certainly say the case does not match the dial, and we would want to restore it. A restored case should have as close as possible to the original finish and angles, but when working with metal it is important to be aware that you're pretty much always removing metal. Thus restoring the angles of a case actually means making it a little bit smaller.

But what if the dial is in bad condition? Then we would need to consider refinishing the dial. That would mean we can no longer claim the watch being original, so we need to be very conscious of that, and it is of course a very subjective decision. What looks bad to one person might look great to another. Personally, I am certainly on the conservative side, preferring a somewhat tarnished but original to a refinished one unless it is in pretty bad condition.

If we refinish the dial, then in my view the dam has broken; if the watch is no longer original anyway, then there's no reason not to go for a full restoration of the entire watch. That is in some ways regrettable but if it means the watch will find new use, that is still the better thing to do. After all, watches are meant to be worn and loved. That's why we are all in this hobby!