Finding the right person to repair/service your antique/vintage watch

“When your watch gets out of order you have a choice of two things to do: throw it in the fire or take it to the watch-tinker. The former is the quickest.”-Mark Twain

The demand for the “traditional watchmaker” has evolved over the years, but the skills needed are the same. First, let’s clarify the term “watchmaker.” A watchmaker does not make watches but is someone who is in the trade of repairing mechanical watches. With this in mind, it will be helpful to review some of the procedures and skills involved in watch repair before selecting someone to service or repair your watch.

To help understand what qualifies a person to repair watches, let’s break down some of the necessary skills:

  • Familiarity with the theory of watch mechanics and terminology.
  • Ability to identify the watch
  • Finding the parts. (Being familiar with suppliers, networking, and independent suppliers)
  • Owning the proper tools (a seemingly endless process)
  • Possessing the manual dexterity & patience needed to dismantle completely, clean, inspect, reassemble, oil, and regulate (time) the watch.
  • Make repairs to the case, bow, and stem assembly.
  • Replace a balance staff using a watchmakers lathe.
  • Make a judgment call to refer the repair if what is needed is beyond their skills.

This last point is critical. There are many different types of watches, and very few can claim to fix everything. But a modest artisan will know one’s limitations and be able to refer any repair job to someone who specializes in that particular repair or turn down the repair job. 

The following list would apply to someone who is able to provide services beyond basic cleaning and oiling of watches:

  • Possess the ability to make fine adjustments to a watch to obtain peak performance.
  • Manufacture parts needed, including balance staffs, flat springs, and flat elements such as set bridges.
  • Repair broken pivots.
  • Replace jewels and make new jewels settings.
  • Make new stems.
  • Make positional adjustments to match (as close as possible) original factory specifications.
  • Manipulate hairsprings (the very tiny springs that oscillate the balance wheel)
  • Vibrate a new hairspring to an existing balance wheel
  • Use methods and materials original to the period of the watch

Some watchmakers have the skill to work on esoteric escapement types (such as duplex, verge) and other period specialties (a fusee watch, for example). They all fill their niche in this disappearing trade. 

Accreditation is available but limited. The American Watchmakers-Clockmakers Institute (AWCI) offers certification to those who complete educational courses. A small number of schools throughout the world offer certifications using the “Watchmakers of Switzerland Training and Educational Program” (WOSTEP). The National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors (NAWCC) offers workshops throughout the United States.

Formal education is an option, but the drawback is that only a handful of these schools are left now. Some contemporary watch companies offer schooling (such as Rolex’s Lititz Watch Technicum in Pennsylvania) but can only turn out a handful of graduates a year. Apprenticeship under a master watchmaker is an option, but finding someone willing to take that on is difficult. That means that many qualified watchmakers/repairers do not have a formal education (or apprenticeship), and have learned their skills on there own.

So, how does one decide who is qualified to work on your watch?  One factor is establishing a level of trust with the person that is servicing your watch. This trust is especially important as it is often necessary to handle the repair of an antique timepiece via mail from a business whose storefront is a website. Here are some points that can help establish that trust:

  • The phone number should be identified on the website so one can quickly speak directly with the person who will be working on your watch.
  • Inquire what kind of warranty the watchmaker offers.
  • The shop should list a physical address (not just an email).

There are other factors to be considered, but hopefully, this information helps lay the groundwork needed to find a competent watchmaker. 

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