Ulrich Kriescher is a master watchmaker. He advises clients everyday on the ins and outs of watch maintenance, both in his workshop and on television. He’s joined us to answer some of the most common questions he receives on the job. One such question is: What happens when I hand my watch in for an inspection?
“Do you still repair watches?” This is how many conversations begin in my workshop. As a master watchmaker, repairs are indeed one of my primary tasks. This is no longer common knowledge, however, as I am part of an increasingly rare and aging breed – a watchmaker in their mid-40s is considered a youngster these days. In my day-to-day work, countless timepieces pass through my hands. If I had to give a piece of advice to every owner of a mechanical timepiece, I’d recommend arranging a complete inspection of the movement at regular intervals.
Why get an inspection?
Similar to a car engine, watches are powered by technically complex systems that require maintenance every now and again. It’s recommended you change your motor oil every 10,000 miles. Yes, you could probably get away with driving 100,000 miles without changing your oil, but you run the risk of a shot gearbox due to excess friction. It’s no different when it comes to watch movements. Here, internal friction is also minimized by lubricants, so it makes sense that regular servicing would be necessary if you want to enjoy your timepiece for a long time. Each bearing in a watch movement is lubricated with a single micro-drop of oil, meaning your watch should be serviced every 5-7 years at the very least. High-speed calibers like the Zenith El Primero require servicing even more frequently.
What happens during an inspection?
Before I even think about inspecting and servicing, I have to make an accurate estimate of the work involved. I examine the watch closely and assess the condition of the case, strap, clasp, and dial.
Next, I take an initial reading with a timegrapher, which tells me how the watch is currently performing. This usually gives me some hints as to what requires closer inspection once I’ve opened the case. Viewing the movement reveals if it’s dirty or rusted, for example, or if it has any loose or worn components. This is usually enough information for me to make a rough estimate of the costs involved.
1. Taking Apart the Movement
Once I get the go-ahead from my client, the servicing begins. To start, I remove the movement from the case and carefully work my way into it, piece by piece. Each step reveals whether or not the watch is damaged. It’s very important to unwind the spring before getting started, otherwise you risk sending gears flying across the workshop, making reassembly quite the task.
2. Cleaning the Movement and Watch
Every component is then passed through a machine with a number of different cleaning solutions. Each cycle lasts around 45 minutes and by the end, the entire movement will be free of any dirt or residual oil. In the meantime, I work on the case and band. I start with cleaning, unless otherwise indicated. Some clients explicitly decline a deep clean because they appreciate the worn look of their timepiece. For some vintage models in fact, a thorough polish of the case or band can actually decrease the watch’s value as it will no longer be considered in original condition.
If, however, my client does want a deep clean, I go to work polishing, grinding, buffing, polishing again, or perhaps replacing a pin if needed. Next, I put the case and band in an ultrasonic bath. This process often reveals why it’s such a good idea to clean your watch. Over time, dirt collects between bracelet links and in the case. You may not see it with your naked eye, but it’s certainly unhygienic. Thus, I recommend giving metal bracelets an ultrasonic bath at least once a year.
3. Reconstructing the Movement and Watch
Now it’s time to put everything back together. I reconstruct the watch piece by piece, starting with the gears. Next comes the spring, escapement, and balance wheel system. I add lubricant or oil to components as necessary. The dial and hands are then reassembled before placing everything back in the case. This is the perfect opportunity to replace any worn seals as well.
4. Functional Checks
To finish things off, I check the watch’s performance again with the timegrapher. My clients value accuracy above all. Of course, this will differ depending if you spend your day at a desk or working a drill for eight hours at a time, as every arm motion impacts the way your watch runs. These factors can be built into the testing process.
The most time-consuming part, however, is testing the power reserve of automatic watches. We have an industrial watch winder that can hold up to 50 timepieces at once (not like the aesthetically-pleasing ones you might have at home). We leave each watch in the winder for a day to test the automatic functionality. Then, we see how long the watch runs after a full wind. We’ll repeat this process again – or even twice more – to ensure everything is working properly. Thus, testing can last up to 10 days or even longer.
Servicing Vintage Models
As mentioned, there are some differences when it comes to servicing vintage watches; not only in the process, but also in sourcing replacement parts. Components for newer models are relatively easy to come by, but vintage models can prove more difficult. That’s why it is so important for vintage watch fans to find a watchmaker with a large network of vintage parts dealers.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that servicing a vintage timepiece is more expensive. In fact, it’s usually more affordable to service with an independent watchmaker than the manufacturer themselves. For example, if you’re in Germany and have a Rolex that’s more than 40 years old, the manufacturer will send it to Switzerland for maintenance, a service that can cost in the five-figure range – and that’s from a neighboring country.
A proper inspection will always include an extensive test phase, meaning the process from start to finish can last up to four weeks. If the service requires specialized replacement parts, that can stretch even longer. Costs vary greatly depending on the model and watchmaker. Roughly speaking, expect to pay around $170 to service a “normal” manual watch. I recommend, however, getting a quote in advance. This should be complimentary and explained in detail by the watchmaker.
For me, a flawless service is one that leaves the watch undamaged, running accurately (no more than 10 seconds deviation per day, depending on the movement), and most importantly, the client should return home feeling good about their timepiece.