Whitney Smith from Huntsville, Alabama, USA asks:
What happens if you get a mechanical movement wet? What would a professional do to correct this issue and what are some things one could do at home?
What Can a Watchmaker Do?
The first thing a watchmaker would do is determine where the leak was coming from. They’d conduct a dry water resistance test and if the watch passes it normally means the customer has immersed the watch in water whilst the crown was left out. This can then be verified by looking at the crown stem and crown tube when the watch is opened. If the dry test fails or is inconclusive, then a wet water resistance test is carried out and if there is a leak it is easy to see where the leak is from (you may see a stream of bubbles from the edge of the glass for example). The watchmaker will now know what area needs attention to prevent further leaks.
Once the watch is opened, it is important to see if there is water damage to the dial (enamel bubbling or lifting, or dry water residue marks) and whether this can be remedied with simple cleaning or whether a new dial is required. Sometimes, if the customer has gotten the watch to a workshop quick enough you can just clean and dry the dial and then it will be safe to use. One problem with water on the dial is that it will make the luminous paint discolor and stop being effective (even if the paint looks OK), so when a watchmaker suggests a new dial he isn't trying to get more money from you, but trying to get the watch back to a useable condition. Another area to be examined is the anti-glare coating on glasses which is often damaged by moisture and many times a new glass will be needed.
Then the movement will be examined to see how bad the water damage is. Sometimes, if the water damage is recent, your watch care professional can just strip and clean the movement in a cleaning machine, reassemble, re-oil, regulate and you’re good to go. But, if there is any rust, then these piece may need to be cleaned, repaired or replaced which is more expensive and time consuming. You need to be especially careful with the hairspring as any water marks on this can change its dynamics and the way it functions and affects timekeeping. Some reversing wheels used in automatic works and the rotor ball bearings are also very fragile and prone to malfunction when affected by water. The tiny springs holding various jewels in position and for other purposes may become weakened by rust and these will often need to be replaced as well. The movement clamps that hold the movement steady within the case are often an area that need attention as water sits underneath them and rusts. This can affect the mainplate which the clamps are screwed to and sometimes a new plate is needed.
The case is usually completely stripped down during a service and a good workshop will use compressed air guns and hot plates to ensure all moisture has been removed from the case before reassembly. Often the crown tube and crown will be replaced as standard when there has been water damage.
What Can Be Done At Home?
The short answer is not a lot. Old wives tales say to place the watch in a bag of rice, or dry it on a radiator. The first option is useless at removing internal moisture and the second option may only cause further damage to the movement and dial, as the heat will speed rusting and may cause paint to lift. It can also create steam and condensation within the watch which will cause further damage. The best thing a customer can do when they get water in their watch is get it to a qualified workshop as soon as possible. The faster you get the watch looked at and stripped back, the less damage will occur and the easier (and hopefully cheaper) the repair will be.
What Can I Do To Prevent This?
The main lesson from all of this is to ensure whenever you change the time that the crown is screwed back down properly and to take your watch to be water tested regularly. A common mistake is when people go on holiday, change to the local time, forget to screw down the crown properly and then go swimming while wearing the watch with disastrous results. As part of an annual battery change or water resistance check, any reputable workshop will change the gaskets at the same time and provide a receipt to prove water resistance has been retained.
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