Here’s Why You Should Learn To Service Your Own Watch
“Here’s Why” is back with a new installment, and today I focus on a topic very near and dear to many of you out there: servicing a watch.
As has become apparent over the past few years, getting your watch serviced, especially with any group-owned brands, can be a major thing. It can take many months, and even up to a year to get a watch back from a simple maintenance service.
The reason, of course, is that there are only so many qualified watchmakers to service these watches, and brands are overrun with a gargantuan backlog of service requests.
That is the cost of success, I guess. This means that while your watch is gone for nine months, it is probably sitting in a very long queue of watches waiting for their turn at the bench.
Once your watch gets opened, the servicing may only take a day (in many cases) as the movement is disassembled, cleaned, and reassembled before being adjusted and timed for accuracy. Then the watch is sent back to you along with a bill for a sometimes princely sum.
That doesn’t even take into account that some brands will choose what service a watch needs regardless of what you sent it in for. Usually a watch will need at least one part replaced, and many will have the cases refinished, adding time and cost to the owner.
There have even been stories of vintage watches going in for a cleaning and coming back with new dials, completely destroying the collector value of the piece.
Brands do state that the goal is to return the watch in the best condition possible. Let’s not forget, watchmakers are also perfectionists, so it’s in their nature.
But it’s also not surprising in another way; consider that almost any automotive repair shop will tell you what else they found in need of repair hoping for more work. There have been laws passed making it necessary for auto repair shops to inform the client and ask permission before performing any additional repairs.
This is not so for watch brands.
At least not yet.
The backyard mechanic . . . or watchmaker
Granted, there are not a lot of backyard watchmakers heading to local watchmaking part stores to buy generic balance wheels and OEM replacement dials to make sure their watches run smoothly for the daily commute. It’s a different business and a different product, so the comparison gets muddled.
But I am here to say that you should consider becoming a backyard watchmaker, tinkering in your garage (or study or kitchen) and doing a complete tear-down and rebuild of your mid-1990s TAG Heuer or your late-model IWC.
How else will you truly learn about the engine on your wrist, and what it takes to maintain it?
Before the collectors among you shout, “Only original parts and work by the manufacturer on my watch, otherwise it kills the value!” just stick with me until the end.
Let’s take the automotive analogy and run with it for a while. When I was young, my father worked on all of our cars and encouraged me to help and learn. That way, when I was older and had my own vehicle, I could at least take care of it, do the basic maintenance, and understand problems as they arose.
Being fairly mechanically inclined, I learned as much as I could so that I wouldn’t have to take my car to the repair shop and pay high shop rates.
As I got older, I encountered problems that I could fix on various vehicles, but eventually I also encountered problems that were beyond my skill to repair. They were also beyond my tools – and they also required a good connection to even get certain parts.
This is what the watch industry is like in many cases. A majority of people who love and buy watches will not even have a tool for changing a watch strap, let alone a case knife, or a decent set of tweezers and watchmaker screwdrivers.
Actually, I wouldn’t be surprised if many laugh at the idea of a “good” set of tweezers and might assume a screwdriver set for eyeglasses is more than adequate.
The flip side of the coin
And yet those same people might have a garage full of Snap-On tools, including many specialty tools for working on their cars and bikes. That’s because they know what it takes and costs to upkeep and service a car, but most of us don’t grow up learning to service watches.
And following the quartz crisis in the early 1970s, it simply has been a specialty skill that has become rarer than ever.
But even so, in the last decade or two the number of people tinkering with watches has been growing steadily, as has the number of people wearing vintage timepieces. This upswing might be said to coincide as people may want to work on their new purchases instead of trying to find a neighborhood watchmaker that can ensure that their vintage Seamasters are keeping accurate time. Instead of paying Omega to repair them, possibly replacing parts and whatever else along the way.
And that is exactly why many people work on their own cars, because as long as they can fix them for less and with the tools they have on hand, it seems like a much better proposition.
Of course if you have a 1960s Ferrari or a mid-century Patek Philippe chronograph, both driver and WIS might need to have their objects professionally serviced lest they destroy one of only a dozen in existence.
Reality sets in
But in all honesty, most watches aren’t anything special, really, and treating them as such is kind of a waste of time and a lost opportunity to really own and understand your own possessions.
Few classic cars are comprised if not fixed with completely original or branded OEM replacement parts. Work done on them was almost always done by general mechanics in local shops working with tools that you may also have at home. And those cars are still worth lots of money, not because it was only Ford who serviced that Mustang for the last 50 years, or because the oil was Ford oil; it’s valuable because the owner cared for it and made sure it stayed in the best possible shape for its entire life.
I do that with many of my possessions. The enabling power of working on your own things is incredible, and you begin to realize that paying to have something done that you can do yourself is silly.
I’ll bet that many of you have tinkered and toyed with your car at some point, or fixed your own bicycle when you were a kid. Or maybe you even took it upon yourself to learn a new skill specifically to fix something around the house or with an electronic gadget you bought.
Do it, really, just do it!
You have the ability to do that with your watch too, and very easily. Or at least you did. The other side of reality is that brands have become intent on limiting anyone’s ability to possibly service their own watches, or have them serviced by a qualified – but not brand-authorized – watchmaker.
Parts are nearly impossible to obtain, and trying to find a local watchmaker who does have access is like trying to find water in the desert.
But that also doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. There are many places to buy tools, and for relatively little money.
Granted, I have purchased the really nice tweezers and the very good screwdrivers to work on my watches, but there are good quality tools at affordable prices that can give you the ability to truly strip your watch down to individual parts, give it a very thorough cleaning, oil and reassemble it and have a watch that runs like new.
If you wanted to learn even more, you could advance to adjusting and timing your own watches and changing out broken parts for new ones (if you can get them).
Most may never make it to the level of replacing a broken balance staff or shaping a new hairspring, but then again I probably won’t custom make a new set of gears for my car’s transmission or fabricate suspension components on my own either.
But even if you get an affordable Seiko 5 (or, gasp, a cheap Chinese mechanical) as your first home service attempt and you completely ruin it, you will have learned loads in the attempt and not ruin your valuable watch.
And when it comes time to service your Rolex or something even more high-end, maybe the sting of a service will be a little bit less now that you know what they are doing and have an appreciation for the patience and skill it takes to do that with dozens of different watches every day.
And that is why you should learn to service your own watch: because it creates a complete picture of your watch for you to understand and it makes it your own. More practically, it makes the process of having it serviced seem less like a company stealing your soul and more like an expert performing advanced technical work on your machine, like a race shop tuning your Porsche.
Gaining skills is fun, and working on your own possessions makes a larger impact on your life than you might realize. And who knows, maybe if enough backyard watchmakers take up their tweezers and demand parts for their watches, the secondary parts market will exist again and local watchmakers will not just be a thing of the past.
Hey, a guy can dream, right?
The FHH (Fondation de la Haute Horlogerie) runs three-hour Introduction to Watchmaking courses in Geneva, the USA, and during a few international watch exhibitions. For more information on learning about the basics of watchmaking, please visit www.hautehorlogerie.org/change-places-with-a-watchmaker.
And in the USA, the NAWCC (National Association of Watch & Clock Collectors) runs a course called Servicing a Swiss Wrist Watch I WS-230.