FAQ: Are Vintage Watches Reliable?
In this series, we tackle the questions that people ask in various places. Regardless of the nature of the question, we’ll answer it to the best of our abilities. This time, it’s a good one.
So, you’re fascinated with vintage watches. You want to buy one. However, you wonder if you can use it as your daily beater. You want to know if a vintage watch is reliable. As with most questions like that, there’s no single answer. Well, there is…it depends.
We have to break it down into different parts to not leave it at a cliche like that.
This point is complicated. First of all, that depends on the condition of the movement.
Some buy a watch in poor technical condition with the aim of restoring it. If you do so, it can go three ways.
The first way, what you’d likely want, is that from under a layer of filth on the movement, something decent will emerge after a service. Sometimes, you’ll get lucky. And it’ll run accurately.
The second way is that the result won’t necessarily look all new and shiny, but it’ll run well. Or at least it’ll have an acceptable average daily rate.
The third way is the one that everyone is afraid of. The movement can be impossible to save. This can be due to parts being obsolete, or to extensive damage to all the vital components of the movement. Even if it can be revived, it won’t run well.
Then there’s the nature of the movement itself. The grade of finishing might be low, but that doesn’t mean that a movement can’t be accurate. For example, French movements were known for their industrial finishing. However, they can be fine-tuned to run at well within +10 seconds per day.
This is a good result, even by the standards applying to brand new watches. If a movement has been serviced regularly, it should be a reliable timepiece.
That’s unless its design and quality were never good. If it never ran well in the first place, why should it run better now?
Just the fact that a movement has a shock device doesn’t mean that there’s nothing else in it that can break.
Some movements have a reputation for certain parts breaking all the time. Sometimes these are the keyless works. Sometimes, like in A. Schild movements with a date quickset function, it’s the quickset mechanism that can go wrong.
With no shock device to protect the balance staff, they aren’t exactly the height of durability. Of course, they’re fine as long as you’re careful with them.
I had a few situations, where I’ve unfortunately knocked some of my non-shockproof watches against something. In neither case did the balance staff break. However, I’ve no idea if it was just luck, or if the balance staff is harder to damage than I thought it was.
Non-shockproof pocket watches
Pocket watches usually weren’t equipped with any shock device.
The concept of shock protection was known since the 18th century and Breguet’s Pare-Chute device. However, it was used by just a handful of manufacturers, and on a small scale. Quite simply, pocket watches weren’t thought of as something exposed to shocks that could break the balance staff or any other component. That said, if a pocket watch is what you want, you want to be careful with it.
It’s hard not to mention pocket watch movements in wristwatch cases here. Keep in mind, that these movements weren’t designed to handle the shocks that a wristwatch movement is usually exposed to. This applies to legitimate examples like the B-Uhr and the IWC Portuguese, as well as to marriages.
We’ve talked about water resistance of vintage watches before. Theory and reality are two very different things. Example? A trench watch with a Borgel waterproof case can keep water out. However, you can’t expect it to do so.
Of course, it’s good to have a watch with a waterproof case regularly inspected, and gaskets replaced. However, it’s still best not to expose an old watch to water. Would you want to risk it?
Watches with lumed hands and dials are better off not exposed to shocks, even if the case is pretty solid and the movement does have a shock device. Old lume isn’t as durable as when it was new and can crack and fall out.
If you notice that the lume has already started falling out at some spots, you have to be careful. That kind of damage doesn’t only hurt the value of the watch; you don’t want that debris to enter the movement.
Various materials have a different degree of resistance to scratches, chipping, dents, and so on. Stainless steel doesn’t gather deep scratches so easily. Sure, scratches can be more or less visible depending on the finish of the surface, brushed or polished, for example.
Gold, in general, scratches easily. The higher the purity of gold, the easier it scratches. 9-carat gold, common in British-made cases, is probably the toughest, but there’s only 37.5% gold in that alloy. That’s not a lot. 14-carat gold tends to be something of a middle ground between the durable 9ct, and the more pricey 18ct, which is a real scratch magnet. Still, you’re better off handling it with care.
Plated cases are generally not expected to last very long. If the coating has started to deteriorate, it’ll only progress. How fast that’ll be, depends on how often you wear the watch, and how careful you are. If you have a collection of a dozen watches or so, or if you don’t wear this plated watch that often, you don’t have to worry.
Sometimes, a vintage watch needs to be treated with kid gloves. And some of them, like the Wostok Amfibia, you don’t have to worry about at all. No single rule applies to all vintage watches.
It’s always best to treat a watch in the best way possible. Just assume that even if it’s a tool watch, its days as just that are long gone.
Treat it well, and it’ll be a trustworthy daily timekeeper.
How do you treat your vintage watches? Let me know in the comments below.