As a former jounalist and editor, I have very little time for most mens’ lifestyle magazines. Buzzword-infested copy, lavishly photoshopped tech porn pictures and page after page of thinly disguised press releases, sponsored by big brand advertisers keen to sell gadgetry to men with `all the gear and no idea.’
Wired is a classic of this genre, with cod-scientific articles predicting various prism-shifting vistas of utopian city-dweller futures, where soy-boys compare their latest purchases on Instagram until the poorer guy cracks up and starts smoking Spice in back alleyways.
Here’s a link to a recent promo piece in Wired, which sells the idea that pre-owned, even truly vintage 100 year old watches, will be bigger than the new watch market one day. Total BS. For one thing consumers will soon tire of owning a watch that doesn’t keep accurate time. But we will get to that later.
In the Wired feature the guy from Armand Nicolet asserts that by changing the mainspring and hairspring, many decades of life may be miraculously extended from vintage movements. Hmmm, well maybe. Another bloke claims that vintage pocket watches are in some ways superior to modern examples.
OK, allow me to present a bit of reality into the equation readers, because this grade A baloney is giving me a headache;
Old watches are generally worn out. By this I don’t just mean the hairspring is gummed up with WD40 and the mainspring is slacker than the knicker elastic on a Love Island detainee. This is especially true of things like Victorian key-wind pocket watches. Think about 120 years of coal fires, rattletrap train journeys, factory machinery and tools hitting the poor old Elgin or Waltham, raggedy children winding the thing until the fusee hooks beg for mercy.
About 50% of the project pocket watches I’ve bought from car boot sales, customers in the shop, or at antique fairs, never – that’s NEVER – manage to go for more than 4 hours and keep the right time. It isn’t just about replacing mainsprings, and stripping and cleaning the parts. Once you wash all the gunk out of old pocket watches you find worn out jewels, allowing the balance staff and other pins/pivots to run out of true, plus gears have worn teeth, escapement wheels and pallet stones are also usually clapped out.
For those who don’t know – such as hipster-bearded, Birra Moretti drinking Wired readers – let me explain that the balance assembly, with the lever and the pallet stones flicking the escapement wheel with total precision, is where the power of the mainspring is weakest. ANY resistance, any wear, anything out of alingnment, will make the watch stop as the spring uncoils and obviously the power is reduced.
That explanation is physics, not casual opinion sponsored by advertisers.
You don’t get to by-pass the overall wear and tear, the myriad problems an old watch has, simply by replacing two springs. It ain’t that easy. Even top winder pocket watches, which are generally more resiliant than fusee chain types, cannot cope with modern life.
Here’s another fact, modern pocket watches, made by computer aided machines, virtually untouched by human hand, are much more reliable timekeepers, and in need of less cleaning and oiling than old pocket watches. The tolerances are far, far closer, the parts are lighter and much more resistant to magnetism too. Even an unsigned, Chinese made basic mechanical pocket watch with a Seagull movement can whup the ass of a 100 year old Waltham in everyday life. Less fragile, more accurate, longer power reserve – no character of course, but definitely better at doing the thing a watch should do, tell the bloody time.
No Wristwatch Born Before 1970 Was Designed To Survive a Digital World
Here is another fact of life regarding classic mechanical and automatic wristwatches. Most of them, even the ones that say anti-magnetic on the dial, are in no way equipped to handle modern life. Every month we get buyers coming into the shop with Breitlings, or Tissots, gaining vast amounts of time. The owners usually work with computers, tablets, park the watch next their phone overnight etc. That screws up your watch, even the nice one you bought from Chrono24 for over £400.
There’s no escape in the open too. Phone masts, on-street wifi in shops, businesses and pubs. Even your modern car has magnetic fields buzzing around inside as it manages all the engine management functions, warning lights, Sat Nav, phone commands etc. Your vintage watch, even after a full overhaul, may still be useless as a timekeeper if you insist on being a dipstick and wearing it every day in an office full of computers – it isn’t designed for that life!
The Problem of Parts Supply
You can refurbish popular old watches by essentially pillaging the supply of dead watches still knocking around ebay, Etsy, car boot sales and contacting specialist companies. But let me explain the reality of classic watch ownership for you.
Dials that peel and pickle require highly skilled re-enamelling, or repainting. Obtaining a genuine mineral crystal for many less popular Swiss automatics is another wild goose chase – then you have to pay someone to fit it. Who is going to set up a factory and mass-produce parts for all these vintage watches? Amazon? Don’t make me laugh.
No, the truth is that if a simple service with new springs and a clean gets an old watch going nicely, then there’s little wrong with it – you dropped lucky. Take my advice and use that watch sparingly. Keep it well away from microwaves, pesky kids, workplaces, drunken nights out with the lads or magnetic fields. Treasure it as a piece of engineering history like an Alfa 164, a Ducati 750SS or a Foden lorry and know that servicing it every five years, or restoring after damage, will almost certainly cost you hundreds of pounds.