FAQ: What Determines the Condition of a Watch?

 In Collecting Watches

One of the most asked questions on watch forums is: “what do you guys think about this watch?”

Generally, watch geeks have so much fun evaluating watches that it doesn’t even need to be asked. The community will answer it anyway.

But what are the details to pay attention to?

Dial condition

Since dials are the hardest – and usually impossible – parts to source, you really want to be able to tell if a dial is all good. Identifying redials is one thing, evaluating the condition is another.

There’s a fine line between patina and damage. Patina is usually appreciated by collectors but if it reaches a certain point it turns into damage. Dark, green-ish residue, spots where paint has cracked and falls off, leaving bare metal visible etc. You really don’t want to have one of these.

Condition of a watch

Lemania 105 chrono. Patina or damage…you decide.

Damage has the unfortunate tendency to get worse over time. Besides, the damage described usually has a lot to do with humidity. A dial in bad condition often tells you, that even if a watch hasn’t been flooded, it’s been kept in conditions that affect the movement as well.

If you buy a watch with all the signs of water-induced damage without movement pictures, the movement likely has as much rust on it as a 1990s Honda Civic (read: a lot).

“I think it’s a bargain, but the crystal’s so battered that I can’t see the dial!”

In this situation, it seems fitting to quote one of the icons of one-liners, Inspector Harry Callahan aka Dirty Harry: “You’ve got to ask yourself a question: do I feel lucky?” Well, do you?

If you’re risking just a few dozen euro/bucks/quid/whatever at a flea market or on eBay, you might end up with either a bargain or a basket case.

Movement condition

To say that appearances can deceive is a massive understatement in this case. Few, very few sellers/shops offer fully serviced watches. In all other places, it’s a matter of pure luck.

If a movement has traces of rust, damage to the finishing on the bridges, it’s an obvious no-no.

Grease and filth aren’t necessarily a deal-breaker. Then again, it all depends on how much you’re willing to risk, and you’ll have to factor in the cost of servicing. A service is actually best-case scenario.

A movement can appear clean, but it can hide horrible flaws. Worn parts, or worse, nasty surprises like rusty screws stuck in the base plate.

Here comes the worst part: you won’t notice it in the pictures, not even if you personally inspect the watch.

Pontiac dress watch with ETA 1260 movement

ETA 1260 in a Pontiac dress watch. Looks good, right? In the end, the mainspring, the pallet fork, the escape wheel, and the center wheel needed to be replaced. That’ll cost $60 easily. On top of the service itself.

What about NOS?

NOS (New Old Stock) watches are a separate issue.

If the claims of NOS condition are true (and they rarely are), the movement will need servicing if you intend to wear the watch. That’s because a true NOS watch still has the same oils that it left the factory with. This means that it’s almost as if they weren’t there, since after decades, they’re useless. Most modern oils and greases have a shelf-life of ca 7 years.

Case condition

This is different for cases made from a single metal (gold, silver, steel, nickel), and plated base metal ones.

In case of plated cases, heavy brassing is generally a no-no. Usually, just a tiny bit of wear is inevitable in a watch 60-70 years old. Someone has been wearing it, knocked it against this or that a few times.

Keep in mind, that the deterioration of a case with some wear to it will continue. Don’t worry, if it’s going to be one of 10-20 watches in your collection, it’s likely going to outlive you. Well, if the plating is of good quality, that is. I can’t say that of plated cases in certain brands. For example, Doxa was known for nice dials, modified generic movements, and awfully low quality plating.

The most vulnerable spots of a plated case are the lugs and the left flank, but the inner sides of the lugs don’t fall far behind. If a watch is plated and comes on a bracelet, the inner sides of the lugs are often worn. That’s because the end piece of the bracelet has been rubbing against it for decades.

Of course, plated cases can be replated, but this obviously takes away from the value of a watch. Also, it’s rarely done right.

Omega Seamaster Cosmic with Omega 601 movement

Omega Seamaster Cosmic with heavy wear of the case back and left flank.

Steel and gold cases are a different story. The worst that you can encounter are overpolished cases, or ones with heavy pitting and deep scratches. Yes, this can be fixed, although a pro restoration will hurt your wallet. Oh, and yes, it’ll take away from the value of a watch all the same.

Checking the authenticity of case finishing is one of the harder things to do. Essentially, if the ordinary signs of polishing aren’t present, you need to check how the watch compares to other specimens of the same thing. Obviously, this takes finding other examples of it first.

The usual signs are blunt edges on the lugs, often uneven. But what if a case had all the edges blunt and rounded from the start? Well, go figure…

Broken lugs?

Unless you’re dealing with a trench watch with wire lugs, this is an absolute deal-breaker.

A wire lug on a gold or silver case can be fixed by a jeweller.

Lugs on standard cases theoretically can be fixed by a case restorer. However, unless you’re dealing with a very collectable watch, it’s not worth it in monetary terms.

Bracelet condition

This matters a lot, if you’re buying a watch with an integrated bracelet.

Vintage bracelets usually were more “rattly” than modern solid link ones. Still, you don’t want a badly stretched one. First of all, it won’t feel solid. Second, it can pinch hair on your wrist even more than it did when new. Besides, there are few craftspeople who can restore a bracelet in terms of eliminating the stretch. It’s possible, yes, but hard to come by. It’s also costly.

Also, there’s plenty of watches, where the original bracelet contributes heavily to the price. That’s due to the fact, that the bracelet alone is often collectable. “Beads of rice” bracelets by Gay Freres, Jubilee and Oyster bracelets on Rolexes and Tudors, you name it. Do you want one that won’t be comfortable on the wrist?

Always look carefully at the photos, and compare a number of specimens to check the spacing between links. This will give you a certain idea of how far the stretch has progressed in a particular specimen.

Best avoid plated or gold-filled bracelets with any damage to the plating.

Lume

This point can also be split into two categories, authenticity and technical condition.

Radium and tritium lume almost always change color with time. Sometimes, it turns a dark gray-ish green, sometimes to nicer colors – from light cream to amber.

There are, of course, exceptions – for example, the tritium lume used by Rolex since the early 1960s can remain slightly pale, especially in “drawer queen” specimens.

Gray-ish green lume, combined with a tarnished dial, can suggest that humidity made its way into the case (applies to tritium and radium alike).

In case of watches with different aging to the lume on the hands and dial, things aren’t that obvious. It’s necessary to check if that’s consistent with other specimens of the same watch. It can mean that the hands were relumed, however it may be, that the thickness of the layer of lume influences the way it ages.

Always compare the watch to other specimens that you can find online. This will tell you a lot about the consistency of lume application quality and patterns of aging.

Best avoid watches with lume cracking and falling off the hands. As it is with damage in watches, this will continue happening. Of course, that’s unless you simply plan to put the watch on display. However, a watch with missing lume hardly makes a good specimen to be put in a display case…

What is a GMT watch

GMT Master 6542 with lume missing from the minute hand. Photo credits: Bob’s Watches

Summary

All in all, even one or two of the mentioned “no-no’s” can disqualify a watch.

Not that it’s not possible to fix it, it often is. The question is whether you want to have a watch that needed heavy restoration, or one that has been taken good care of from the start. This obviously excludes dial disasters, I’d never give a “green light” to one of these.

Certain signs of wear are always reassuring. They mean that the watch is less likely to have been tampered with. However, never take just the patina and signs of wear as proof of authenticity. They aren’t that. For example, old and patinated redials do exist.

If you want to be safe from bad specimens, just avoid the ones where you see an issue other than a scratched crystal and a dirty case.

1940s Roamer dress watch with MST 372 movement

Obviously, the crystal is cracked and scratched, the crown is worn, and the chrome plating has some slight signs of wear. Still, the dial and the hands look in good condition so with a new crystal and crown it would be a nice fresh piece.

“Ahhh, that’s nothing, it’s fixable” can easily turn into “aaarghhh, why can’t it be fixed?” That’s a scenario you want to avoid at all cost.

Do you have minimal requirements for the condition of a watch? Let me know in the comments below.

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