Restoring antique watches

Regardless of whether you collect old cars or antique watches, everything will eventually need a little TLC to restore the item to its best quality. With vintage watches, there is a right and wrong way to restore them. The wrong process can drastically decrease the value of your watch, so it pays to understand and know the correct processes that go into restoring these timepieces.

This guide looks at the spec regarding vintage watch restoration, whilst preserving the historical integrity and value of the piece.

movements inside antique watches.

The crown

The crown of the watch is one of the most important aspects of your vintage watch. If your watch is missing its crown you should not wear the piece; however, as a temporary fix, a crown that fits can be installed. If your watchmaker finds a crown that is not part of the original watch, this piece can be easily replaced with a suitable alternative that matches your antique watch. Watchmakers generally keep a stock of vintage watch crowns in their workshops, or these parts can be found online.

The glass

The glass is particularly important for your vintage watch; regardless of how bad the scratches are, it is best to keep them in place to preserve the iconography of the timepiece. Vintage watch glass was often changed era to era by the watchmakers who made them and that is why details like this matter.

If you want to wear the watch everyday then you must consult your watchmaker on replacing the glass, as broken glass can affect the functionality of the watch.

The movement

If your watch is working, cleaning should be kept to an absolute minimum. When your watch is cleaned, the servicers will dismantle the whole movement, where each part will be cleaned individually and re-assembled. When this is done the servicing department may notice that certain parts of the watch may need to be replaced, especially if they appear worn; internal parts will only affect the value of the watch if the piece is iconic. With some iconic watches the components add substantial value to the watch, with many antique watches having components signed by the maker.

Old parts

It’s always good to hold on to or ask for the original parts when buying an antique watch. Giving the old parts alongside watches you are selling should be judged on a piece by piece basis. This is because if you give a potential buyer a bag of old parts you may be indicating that the watch has had a hard life and this could de-value the piece. On the other hand, some antique watches, particularly ones from the twenties, were sold originally with spare parts that are becoming increasingly rare to find. These should always accompany the watch to any owner.

The dial

The movements of watches are very technical, so replacements can often be inevitable. If they are replaced to the manufacturer’s specifications potential buyers will not mind if this work has had to be done. With many antique watches, though, a distressed dial can be just as valuable as a pristine one. Evidence of aging should not be restored.

The hands

Finding historically accurate replacements for the hands of your vintage watch can be slim, and there will often than not be very subtle details that won’t match up to the original. Trained valuators will easily spot these changes and the value of your timepiece will decrease.

It’s best to keep the hands untouched. While many manufacturers may say you need new hands, the original hands will always be better than any replacement. Cleaning should also be carefully considered with your antique watch; ultrasonic cleaning will clean the dirt on any metal hands, but polishing can also be detrimental because of how fragile the hands are.

The bezel

A faded bezel, like the dial, can be an appealing feature for watch-lovers. The gentle aging of the bezel can signify the age and character of the piece which will inevitably add value. Saying this, it will not significantly affect the value if you replace this part of the watch. However keen watch-collectors will always want old and used bezels that are a more appropriate fit to the watch, so always bear this in mind when sending your watch in for any repairs or restoration.

The case

Always avoid over-polishing the watch, as this is the fastest way to de-value it and is a process that cannot be undone. To achieve a good shine, a thin layer of metal must be removed with an abrasive polishing compound and a buffing wheel. Watch-case polishing is becoming a dying art form amongst watchmakers, so always do your research and look at reviews before handing over your watch. With any vintage watches, over-polishing can change the shape and ruin the integrity of the water resistance. Making sure you consult specialists will mean you can avoid any mistakes being made. Just remember that not every scratch will need to be fixed, so keep polishing at a minimum.

The strap

If your antique watch has a metal bracelet this can be cleaned ultrasonically, however, if it features a leather strap the process will be completely different. Leather straps will often have to be replaced because of the lifeline of this material. It’s always best to store any straps, or ask for the old original strap if you have had it replaced. Make sure you keep an eye on the original buckle as well, this feature can be transferred between straps.

Top tip to remember

Make sure you get everything you want done or not done to your antique watch in writing, because your watch is likely to pass hands in the process of repairs and restorations – making sure everyone has a copy of instructions will mean that there will not be any crossed wires.