Thursday, May 24, 2012

Watch Primer: Servicing & Maintenance - The Hidden Cost (and Trouble) of In-House Manufactures


This installment of the Watch Primer series looks at something that many watch buyers may overlook altogether when selecting a fine mechanical watch: servicing and maintenance.

The vintage watch market abounds with stories of watches that have endured decades of wear and continue to keep accurate time to this day.  Such performance may be attributed to quality of design or manufacturing, but the hidden factor in the longevity of the most dependable vintage watches is periodic servicing, in which movements are cleaned, re-lubricated, and have worn-down components replaced.  Periodic servicing is an essential component in the long-term performance and life of a mechanical watch, as it compensates for the wear that accumulates and ensures that damage isn't exacerbated over longs stretches of time.

Most mechanical watch producers suggest servicing at 2-to-3-year intervals, approximately the same amount of time most quartz movements can go before a suggested battery change.  But in general if a watch is keeping time accurately and without performance concerns, some owners go as long as 5-10 years before bring their watches in for servicing.  A small number even advocate the don't-service-until-it's-broke approach, waiting until something tangible goes wrong with a watch before bring it in to the watchmaker.  My local watchmaker subscribes to the last approach, but personally, I find that it courts with disaster, as allowing lubricants to dry out will increase the wear on the watch's components, inevitably making the eventual service cost that much more.

The cost of servicing depends on a number of factors, including the nature of the work to be done, the number of parts that need replacement, the brand of the watch, and the complication of the movement itself.  A simple regulation - where the timing of the movement is adjusted to reduce the amount of seconds it gains or loses per day - can often be had for around $30, while a full service - which includes disassembly, relubrication, assembly, regulation, and often times case polishing and resealing - can go between $300 to well over $1000 for high-end brands and more complex movements.

Unfortunately, servicing costs are hardly something that a prospective watch buyer will take into account while admiring shiny new models in a display case.  The basic rule would be that the more expensive the watch - which is itself a function of brand, complication, and so on - the more expensive the servicing.  This is even more strongly correlated when it comes to models with in-house manufacture movements, where you might be hard-pressed to find a watchmaker outside of the brand's own servicing department who is familiar enough with the movement to service it.  The monopoly on skilled labor for those movements means that you won't be able to potentially save money on servicing by turning to independent watchmakers, and will likely require you to forgo local workmanship as you send the timepiece to the brand's main repair / servicing center, which, depending on the brand, may require international shipping.

This problem grows exponentially when you have a larger watch collection to tend, which is one reason I've been working steadily to cull down my rotation, which is down to three mechanicals, only one of which is an automatic.  I purpose chose an auto with a ETA-based movement - specifically the Omega 1120, which is based on the venerable 2893-A2 - so that I would have a wide range of serving options beyond sending it to Omega's facility in New Jersey (or, as some WUS users advocate, the main facility in Bienne).  My Speedmaster Professional is a ubiquitous enough model that most watchmakers are familiar with it, and even Omega's servicing cost (reported to be a bit over $400) is very reasonable for a chronograph movement.  But my Nomos is powered by an in-house movement, and will probably have to travel all the way back to Glashutte for its servicing.  

The need for periodic servicing of mechanical watches - along with the absence that accompanies the servicing period - is what leads many collectors to maintain at least one quartz watch in their rotation, as both a grab-and-go option for days when you don't have time to reset and wind up a mechanical watch, and also to tide you over while the mechanicals go through their servicing.  Quartz watches also offer lower maintenance option for both adjusting for lost/gained time and service intervals, as a simple battery change is usually all that is needed to keep them going strong.  And when their movements eventually reach a point where work would need to be done, it's often less expensive to replace the entire movement than to service it to the same level of detail that mechanical watches require.