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March 03, 2015

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Not All Wrist Watches Can Be Repaired

Disposable Watch Repair

Here at TimeScapeUSA we make it our mission not just to service your particular wrist watch, but as many varieties of timepiece as possible.  We can't help with the sundial birdbath in your grandparents' back yard and the clock in the shopping mall sign is outside our purview, but we know at least a little something about everything else. But every once in awhile, to my shame as a technician and Student of Horology, I have to tell a client “No can do!”  Considering that I pay my mortgage by providing service to you, why would I withhold it? Not all wrist watches can be repaired and here's why.

Why Repair an Inexpensive Timepiece?

There's a reason why your vintage Optimues Prime Transformer cannot be refurbished and repaired: it was designed to be enjoyed and then discarded. The vast majority of watches fall into such a category.  Whether the Wild Kratts wristlet that accompanied your son's happy meal, the Swatch you wore at prom, or Grand Pappy's precious Elgin in the hunter case, all of these timepieces were created to occupy space in a landfill. Some things you should consider when or if you should repair an inexpensive timepiece. Our “heirloom” pocketwatches are the cruelest surprise, but most were the Swatch watches of their day: stylish, mass-produced, shoddy items, priced to sell to people of varying means. Does this make such things impossible to repair?  Of course not.  It makes them impossible to repair at a reasonable price, commensurate with the value of the piece itself.  Parts are often unavailable, or made in such a way that they cannot be installed, so I must reluctantly council the client that to proceed would be folly.

A Competent Certified Watch Technician

Rolex watches minnesotaIt's no secret to TimeScape customers that we endeavor to supply a certain level of service.  I am a watchmaker certified by WOSTEP (Watchmakers of Switzerland Training and Educational Program) in addition to experiencing instruction at various brand-specific platforms here and in Europe.  These are not decorations out of a cereal box, and hopefully they testify to my competence as a certified watch technician. However!  At least once a day, I find myself uttering that disappointing phrase: “I can't get the parts.” How could an industry dedicated to the sale and enjoyment of fine timepieces allow this to happen?

Let us use Rolex as an example.  There is a reason that your Submariner is the next best thing to a bar of gold, and that reason is a history of brand protection.  Rolex goes to almost comical lengths to ensure that only qualified Rolex-trained technicians are permitted to service their product.  And while it remains true that any monkey with confidence and a chisel can open your Oyster Datejust, only certified technicians can access replacement parts.  The requirements are strict – in addition to training, Rolex requires particular (and expensive) equipment, furniture, accommodations, and affiliations.

Does this absolutely guarantee stellar service?  No, but the industry is interested in probabilities, and Rolex can claim to make every effort in enforcing a level of quality in their technical offerings.  If your watchmaker can't acquire Rolex parts, your timepiece can be sent to one of the official Rolex repair platforms here in the United States where it will be well taken care of.

Ulysee Nardin factory

While many brands restrict access to components, even going so far as to require the return of the watch for repair, this does not always mean a happy outcome.  While Rolex, Ulysse Nardin, Breitling, and many other maintain a Swiss-trained and brand-managed service presence here in America, that is not always the case. Many times, I have opened a watch to find tool marks, scratched hands and dials, and other evidence of mishandling.  The confused client will protest that it only just returned from a journey to brand service, but what they don't realize is that smaller Swiss brands often contract with independent American platforms.  Are Americans poor watchmakers?  Perish the thought – American deck chronometers won World War II, thank you very much.  Domestic technicians trained, supplied, and managed by a brand, can do excellent work. But an independent service center without these safeguards could be hiding behind the imprimatur of the watch you love so much.  If the watchmaker you trust can't get pieces, how do you know the anonymous one who can is any good at all?  How is the client to know the precious timepiece is safe?  How indeed.

When Watch Parts Are Rare or Non-existent.

Ernest BorelMany of these issues disappear with older product, and there exists a vibrant community of enthusiasts and collectors who traffic exclusively in rare or non-existent watch parts and pieces.  As a rule, once a brand ceases to support a particular model, it doesn't care who touches it – if the brand still exists at all.  No one will come knocking at the door to protest the service of an Ernest Borel automatic or an Angelus chronograph, though that proud name does still adorn a rooftop in my favorite town in Switzerland. But in the case of even pedestrian vintage pieces, terrible problems of rare or non-existent watch supplies can arise.  Is the balance staff on your vintage Daytona broken?  Rolex won't sell you a new one – they don't have one!  Nobody does, so look forward to paying someone to cut you a new part from scratch, or investing thousands of dollars for a broken donor movement.

When watch parts are rare or non-existent, prices become extreme.  In addition, the prospect of finding a certified watch technician conversant with old products and methods can be daunting for even a dedicated watch enthusiast.  Combine these issues, and the hyperbolic curve of cost begins to approach the asymptotic of effort in a way that not everyone can stomach.  Faced with even the most desirable of pieces, it's a wise watchmaker who knows to take a pass when a job is too complicated, too broken, or too costly. Consider the price of failure if, God-forbid, I break something that no longer exists and cannot be fabricated. And bear in mind: it is rare to find a shop that will provide a contemporary warranty on vintage work.  The watch you just had repaired at a cost of thousands after a wait of months will most likely be protected for only ninety days.

Every qualified enthusiast I know owns a desk, and in this desk is a drawer, and that sacred space contains beautiful pieces finally put to rest.  Does love mean never having to say you're sorry?  Better to say that the true love of watches resides in the knowledge that there's a better one (that actually works) right around the corner.

Craig Zaligson
Craig Zaligson


1 Comment

Ruth Possehl
Ruth Possehl

April 23, 2015

So fun to read your comments because of the superb writing…not so fun to get the Rolex message.

What do you suggest …. Seems near impossible to fix my watch with Rolex parts?
Can it be refurbished with other watch-friendly part to just make it useable?


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