FAQ: Are Vintage Watches Waterproof?
In this article of our FAQ series, we want to talk about an issue that crosses the mind of every potential or new vintage watch owner. Are vintage watches waterproof?
If you want to use a vintage watch on a daily basis, it’s very important that you know its capabilities and limitations.
No, not really. Although in some cases they might be waterproof.
The capability of keeping water out depends on the case design, and the condition of the case itself.
Let’s put aside the watches that were never meant to be waterproof (press-in back, non-hermetic crown). The design of the case back and the crown are what matters most. So does the condition of gaskets.
Relying only on the tight fit of the case back, the crown and the stem won’t do the trick. A tall threaded collar on the case back alone doesn’t take care of the problem. Not even if there’s also a screw-down crown.
So, a soft seal squeezed between the case components is absolutely vital. Such a seal is called a gasket or a washer.
Threading on case parts tends to wear out. For example, a lot of hand-wound Rolexes with the Oyster case have a worn crown/stem tube. That’s because as opposed to automatic ones, the hand-winders had to have the crown unscrewed every day, in order to wind the mainspring.
Fortunately, at least in Oyster cases the crown tube can be replaced.
Is it possible to replace the gaskets?
Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t. With a 1960s watch using typical O-ring rubber gaskets, it isn’t a problem. Earlier case types can be a problem in that respect.
A common solution used in 1940s and 1950s cases were lead gaskets. They were efficient but they tend to deform over time. If a lead gasket can be restored or made, you can assume that it will do its job well. So-called “safe queens” and NOS watches usually have the lead gaskets intact.
A good example of a case that’s hard to make waterproof again is the Taubert case. Often wrongly called Borgel cases, they were one of the best case designs of the era.
The case relied heavily on a cork crown gasket. After the company ceased to exist, the stocks of gaskets were running out, and no one has made generic replacements. Sadly, the stocks ran dry years ago. Unless someone can make a replacement on their own, it’s impossible to make a Taubert case waterproof again.
Waterproof press-in backs
While vintage watches with press-in backs were usually not meant to be waterproof, there are exceptions. Omega has used gasket-secured press-in backs since the 1930s, starting with the Naiad model line.
The Naiad line was discontinued in the early 1940s, but waterproof press-in backs returned a decade later, in 1950s Seamasters. That’s also when Tissot, along with Omega a part of the SSIH, started using them in the Camping models.
Gasket in the back, no crown gasket
This was the case with a lot of case designs. Such cases would only provide basic protection against humidity and accidental splashes. The case was only protected by grease in the stem tube, which rules out any possibility of submersion.
Can you trust a “waterproof” vintage chronograph to keep water out?
No. The pushers are the weakest spot of any chronograph case. Besides, people often operate the chronograph function just for fun. You can expect the pushers to be worn enough to compromise the case’s water resistance.
The most reliable waterproof cases found on vintage watches
Many people would probably say “the Oyster case.” True, if in very good condition, these can be relied upon, even with submersion. However, before you go for a swim with one, ask yourself if you really want to risk damaging your vintage Rolex or Tudor.
Unishell cases – for example, in the Omega Seamaster De Ville – protect against sweat and splashes. As long as the crown is well-sealed, and the crystal’s a tight fit, they’re safe.
Are there any vintage watches that you can safely use in the water?
Yes. The Wostok Amfibia is certainly one of them. While Soviet watches can be a “love it or hate it” thing for many, an all-steel Amfibia is one of the most reliable vintage dive watches out there. You can find them for 50-60 euro or thereabouts, and the parts are cheap and easily available.
If you feel like always having to wear a vintage watch, even in the water, the Amfibia is the only reasonable option. Even if it fails, it doesn’t hurt (economically and mentally) that much. Certainly not as much as flooding that vintage Rolex or Tudor would.
Do you have any vintage watches that you wear during a swim? Let me know in the comments below.