How does one break into the confusing, esoteric world of watch nerdery? Our new column, “How to Be a Watch Guy,” aims to answer all your new watch guy questions, and help you navigate the always exciting — but sometimes intimidating, complicated, and pricey — world of watches.
You were ticking this morning — but your watch wasn’t. Maybe it’s vintage, maybe it’s brand new. Maybe it hasn’t been serviced in five or 10 years, or ever. Maybe you just dropped it. Maybe you haven’t wound it in a few months. One thing’s for sure: you need to get it serviced.
A watch repair shop is like an auto mechanic or a gastroenterologist: you absolutely want to go to the right one. “I hate to say this, but I think it’s true,” says Steve Kivel, whose family has run Grand Central Watch, in Grand Central Station in Manhattan, since 1952. “The majority of people servicing watches shouldn’t be.”
“I hate to say this, but I think it’s true: The majority of people servicing watches shouldn’t be.”
The stakes here are high. Your watch, if it’s mechanical, is a complicated and precise machine. If you open up its case back and poke around its movement, it is far easier to cause damage and disaster than it is to fix a problem. How should I know? Well, like you, dear reader, I don’t. So I asked Kivel, who I’ve interviewed for GP before about watch repair, to help me out.
1. Educate yourself
Repairing a relatively affordable vintage Zodiac Sea Wolf might cost more than the watch itself
A few months back, my vintage Zodiac Sea Wolf with its baby-blue Bakelite bezel stopped keeping correct time. I was trying to set the date, which on this ancient machine can only be done by advancing the time. I stupidly did this for 20 days’ worth of hours, minutes, and seconds, after which the minute and hour hands stopped correlating to time as we know it in our dimension.
The watch is vintage, and it cost me around $800. With repair options, watches fall into a few different buckets. If your $5,000 Rolex stops ticking, you should send it to Rolex, or to a Rolex-accredited shop (hint hint: Grand Central Watch is one). But say your $600 Hamilton, or $800 vintage piece, stops telling you what time it is — then, your best bet is to find a great repair shop on your own. If your $100 Seiko stops working, you can try to get it fixed, but it’s probably going to cost more than the watch itself to fix — it may be best to simply buy a new one.
I Googled my watch and its problem — as you, too should do. This is the first lesson: knowledge is power. You’re not going to fix the problem yourself, and you’re probably not even going to help the watch repair shop figure out what it is. But you’re going to display your knowledge like a flag that reads: I Will Not Be Taken Advantage of.
But you are not there yet. First, do some more Googling. Find repair shops near you. Look for decent Google and Yelp reviews. Then, put your shoes on and hit the store in person.
2. Understand the narrative of watch repair
A full service on a vintage watch is going to be expensive, and you have to careful about sending it back to the manufacturer — it can come back with modern replacement parts that can kill its value
On your way to the shop, think about your game plan. This will largely have to do with what’s wrong with your watch, and your budget. A watch that was made after 1990 will be easier to fix than a vintage watch; if your watch is less than three years old, Kivel recommends sending it directly to the watchmaker — who might just fix it for free, if it’s still under warranty.
Let’s say that like my watch, yours is vintage. Unlike modern cars, which mechanics can either literally plug into to receive diagnostics, or poke around in without too many issues, mechanical watches are tiny. To find and repair a problem — especially in a vintage watch — it’s more than likely that the horologist will have to do a “full service.” In a perfect world, this means taking the entire movement apart, looking for issues, and replacing the gaskets and oils that make a watch run smoothly.
The good news: a full service, if done correctly, should keep your watch running for many, many years. A watch with a good full service should only need to be serviced every five to 10 years after that, max, and those subsequent jobs ought to be much cheaper; the full service should preclude many other problems, as long as you don’t drop it or run over it with your car.
The bad news: A true full service is time intensive, and doesn’t come cheap. For a vintage watch, Kivel regularly charges $900 for this kind of work. That, however, is the high end of the price range. On a more modern watch, the price could be between $250 and $600; and of course, this all depends on the age and make of the watch. (For Kivel, servicing a vintage Rolex starts at $2,500.)
As concerns price: If it seems too good to be true, it is. “Anyone that says they’re giving you a full service for $100 or less, understand what you’re getting,” Kivel says. “They’re likely dipping the whole movement in oil without taking it apart. Sometimes they’re doing more harm than good.”
“Anyone that says they’re giving you a full service for $100 or less…sometimes they’re doing more harm than good.”
This is not to say a full service is strictly necessary. If your watch is newer, or has been serviced recently, it might not be necessary. Still, the watch will need to be opened up, the problem found, and the offending part replaced. You can expect, for a $1,500 watch, to spend at least around $300, Kivel says.
And as you wince and think of your bank account, remember: if you only have to do this every 10 years, it’s not that bad.
Next, you’ll decide where you want to spend your money.
3. Scope out your shop
Repair benches at NYC’s Central Watch
When you walk into the shop, look immediately for a few things. First, cleanliness. “Someone who is going to take a lot of pride in fixing a watch, they make sure that the front-of-house space is open, and free of dust and dirt,” Kivel says.
I’ve had several run-ins with crusty, haughty men behind the glass counters of watch shops before. All of them made me never want to do business with that shop owner again. But there’s an interesting balance here, Kivel notes. “This is a tough industry we’re in,” he told me. Think of the watch repair person as a chef — somebody that might not have the best front-of-house etiquette, but who also might know a ton about fixing your watch. Of course, you shouldn’t have to put up with rudeness. But take any social awkwardness with a grain of salt — this is, after all, a person who spends most of their time alone, hunched in a small room, staring through a loupe at a finicky piece of machinery. Curmudgeonliness is a common side effect.
Don’t just worry about the front of the house. The shop should have pictures of the space where your watch will be fixed; the owner might not be able to take you to the workshop on the spot, but they should be willing to make an appointment to show you. If the repair shop is offsite, that’s OK — as long as the shop is open and honest about it. Find out where the workshop is, and what their qualifications are.
4. Keep these points in mind
A kit costing $14 from Amazon can save you time and money when it comes to simple repairs such as bracelet swaps
While you negotiate and discuss with the watch repair shop, keep these red flags and tips in mind:
•Some people will give you an estimate for free, but it’s not unusual that an estimate costs $25 or $50. It takes time to open up the watch and carefully look for what’s wrong. You’re paying for that care.
•If they claim they’re going to do a full service, ask for pictures of the watch fully disassembled.
•Know what questions to ask. How will the watch be tested? It’s fair to expect the watch to be tested for pressure/water resistance and timing during a full service.
•Though it seems convenient to have a watchmaker crack open your watch’s case back then and there, Kivel says that’s a bad sign. They can’t fix the watch on the spot; that’s not how it works. “Run for the hills,” he says.
•Avoid places that repair both jewelry and watches. “The margins are better on jewelry,” Kivel says. “So they tend to focus more on that end.”
•Important: You can change batteries, swap straps and add or remove links yourself with an inexpensive kit from Amazon or Esslinger. Learn how to do these simple tasks yourself and save trips to the professionals for professional tasks.
“Here’s the biggest thing,” Kivel told me. “This is a tough industry. There are not a lot of good options. Don’t be afraid to put watch in mail and send it to the right place.” It might not be in your town. A high percentage of watch repair shops don’t do their own full overhauls — meaning there’s already a middleman taking a cut. You might as well try to find the source, and work directly with the people who are repairing your watch, and doing it right.
“It just takes putting your watch in the wrong watchmaker’s hands, and it’s game over. Even a modern watch.”
So what ever happened to my vintage Zodiac Sea Wolf with its baby blue Bakelite bezel? It’s on my wrist right now as I write this, telling the wrong time. I don’t have the budget to fix it properly just yet, so I’m waiting a few months. Better to be cautious, and pay someone you trust a fair price, than to rush it. “It just takes putting your watch in the wrong watchmaker’s hands, and it’s game over,” Kivel told me. “Even a modern watch.” So be smart, ask the right questions, and find someone you trust. It’s worth your time.
Chris Wright, a former Gear Patrol editor, is a freelance writer based in L.A. Write him with your watch questions, comments and concerns at firstname.lastname@example.org.