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Watchmaker Shares Truths About Watch Service & Repair

Watchmaker Shares Truths About Watch Service & Repair Featured Articles

As an aBlogtoWatch guest, Hugh Taylor from Xupes.com (a pre-owned watches and luxury goods dealer in the UK) once again interviews their in-house master watchmaker, Mickey Nolan, as they talk about the often mysterious and typically expensive world of watch service and repair. Oftentimes, the only “true” account of watch repair comes from the men and women who are actually fixing the watches. We attempt to clear up myths, explain the source of delays and costs, and offer a watchmaker’s perspective of the watch service and repair process.

A few weeks back, I read over the story that Rolex was bumping up its guarantees and service intervals. All new watches were to have five-year guarantees, and the recommended service interval had miraculously jumped from three years to a whopping ten. This must have come as a thunderbolt to their rivals, I thought, but how come such a hefty confidence boost? As far as I knew, Rolex hadn’t made any drastic technical changes on the level of such a considerable policy alteration.

Rolex was potentially stirring up an industry movement, and for once, it would be one that would save clientele a lot of money. But instead of being contented with this, I started wondering about the watch servicing industry and whether or not we really need to send our watches in as often as they say.

Watchmaker Shares Truths About Watch Service & Repair Featured Articles

So I fixed another meet with Mickey the watchmaker at pre-owned luxury watch retailer Xupes, and went in to try to dig out his point of view. By now, I had a few other questions saved up, mainly about the costs and occasionally baffling wait times, i.e., do we need to send our watches into the brand, or will a third party do the job just fine? What makes up the cost? How do we make sure to find a competent watchmaker that doesn’t throw in extra charges because he’s fully aware we have no idea what he’s doing?

It was over 25 degrees that day in Hertfordshire, England, which is, regrettably, what we call a “heat wave.” Mickey was servicing a Cartier Tank and a Rolex Submariner. The reggae in the air said he was in a feel-good frame of mind, perhaps why he let me into the business end of his trade.

Watchmaker Shares Truths About Watch Service & Repair Featured Articles

Hugh Taylor: Hey, Mickey. So, you already know where I want to start. Basically, given the Rolex announcement, I wanted to find out if we need to service our watches as often as they say?

Mickey Nolan: Well, I know where you’re coming from, but there’s a lot to take into account. Your simple answer is, if a watch is new or it’s been serviced well previously, and it’s been looked after and kept away from electrical appliances, then it can go a lot longer than the suggested time. I’ve known Rolexes that have never been serviced and still run like they did out of the box.

I look at it like going to the dentist. People say once there’s a problem then the damage is already done, and it could’ve been curbed by regular trips. Others say if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it. I guess it depends what type of person you are. Taking it apart, re-oiling it, and cleaning it where necessary will prevent parts wearing. Worn parts can damage others, but it all costs money, and you’re probably only going to need to replace a part or two, I suppose you could ask yourself whether or not the cost of that part outweighs the cost of regular services.

Watchmaker Shares Truths About Watch Service & Repair Featured Articles

(Mickey swaps to brass tweezers so as not to scratch the steel. He tells me that despite being stainless, these parts mark very easily.)

Hugh Taylor: Warranties: are they useful or worth it? Are they actually helping to save people money or are watch repairs something that typically exist outside of warranties?

Mickey Nolan: A service warranty should always increase the value of the watch or at least make it more desirable if you want to sell it. Damage or accidental damage can happen at any time, inside or outside of warranty.

Accidental damage generally isn’t covered by warranty. For example, if a watch is dropped from a height onto a hard surface, and impact marks are clearly visible, then this is usually chargeable.

Watchmaker Shares Truths About Watch Service & Repair Featured Articles

Hugh Taylor: What should we expect from a standard watch service?

Mickey Nolan: Other than the usual clean, polish, and re-oil, you will always have wear in a watch where metal is acting on metal. Always expect that some parts will need to be changed. This means damage to the case, bracelet, or crown too. This nearly always means an extra charge.

Wherever you end up going, a service is always going to cost, because you have to pay for an expert to dismantle the whole thing and lubricate the parts.

Watchmaker Shares Truths About Watch Service & Repair Featured Articles

Hugh Taylor: You’ve worked for different brands and you’ve worked independently, what would you say are the pros and cons of sending a watch into the brand?

Mickey Nolan: There are many. For a start, you’re always sure to get original parts and longer guarantees, but their services can be a lot more expensive. Many brands replace parts automatically, regardless of whether or not they need replacing, because it’s their protocol. So they might give a full service to the watch because there’s been damage to the case, when perhaps it’s not always necessary.

Finally, because of the amount of work they get and the amount of bureaucracy they have to go through, wait times are often a lot longer at the manufacturer. So you can see why third party servicing is getting more popular.

  Watchmaker Shares Truths About Watch Service & Repair Featured Articles

Hugh Taylor: How do you find a decent third party watchmaker?

Mickey Nolan: Nowadays, a lot of watchmakers are set up online and should have a stack of reviews. Reading those should give you an idea, but you also want to make sure the company gives its own warranties and services its watches or has them serviced.

Then, you need to think about the quality of the watch and how complicated the movement is to repair. I wouldn’t want to send a Richard Mille or a tourbillon movement into a watchmaker who’s only worked on entry-level watches.

Ask what experience the watchmaker has: have they been trained by any of the brands? Have they been certified by any of the brands? Each brand has its own specific exams. Only once you’ve passed the exam, which are sometimes very tricky, can you get access to instruction manuals and parts. You’ll also need to buy specific equipment to be able to service that brand.

Hugh Taylor: Is accreditation from the brand essential?

Mickey Nolan: It’s going to be difficult to find a watchmaker who’s been accredited by everyone. There are so many different brands and so many different movements that watchmakers are learning until the day they retire. But there are plenty of watchmakers out there that have the tools and experience to do the job; you just have to check them out first.

Watchmaker Shares Truths About Watch Service & Repair Featured Articles

Hugh Taylor: How can you trust them to only do the necessary amount of repair?

Mickey Nolan: Well, it’s difficult for a customer who doesn’t know much about watches to understand what’s necessary. You won’t know what’s been replaced unless you ask for the old parts back and request timing machine readings. Maybe you should just get a couple of quotes from different places and take your pick.

After the service, you can check the watch against a digital clock to make sure it’s accurate. Ask for a breakdown of the service too. What work was needed to achieve the desired standard of the warranty?

Watchmaker Shares Truths About Watch Service & Repair Featured Articles

Hugh Taylor: OK, so someone who has, say, a few years experience working different watches and has accreditation from a couple of brands could be good enough to do a service. But how can they do the job if they don’t have access to the manuals, specific equipment and official parts?

Mickey Nolan: Well it doesn’t stop everybody, it just holds them back. What I mean is you can get parts by asking around other watchmakers, and there’s a big market for generic parts. The information is out there too, as is the equipment.

Hugh Taylor: By “generic” do you mean fake?

Mickey Nolan: They’re not fake, no. They are exactly the same as the official parts but they don’t come from the brand. Most of the time, they’re just as good, and they’re a lot cheaper.

Hugh Taylor: Do you notice the difference between a Rolex part and a generic one?

Mickey Nolan: It’s not always easy. Some of the parts are identical.

Watchmaker Shares Truths About Watch Service & Repair Featured Articles

Hugh Taylor: So do you ever just use those then?

Mickey Nolan: Not personally. Our company policy is to use official parts. Yeah it probably wouldn’t harm the watch, but we take the line that if the client has paid for a Rolex then they deserve Rolex parts. If they ever sent it off to Rolex instead, then Rolex would definitely say something.

Hugh Taylor: When can a watch service turn into a costly nightmare and how can we avoid it?

Mickey Nolan: There can be many reasons why a service repair can turn expensive. Some parts are pricey, like dials, for example. Also, if the watch is old, and parts are hard to get, or the movement is obsolete, even, then this can be extremely expensive, sometimes to the point of not even being worth it. I worked on a lovely 18-karat gold Pasha de Cartier a few months ago, but the movement was a mess, it’d been all over the place. The movement was obsolete too, so the owner needed to go to Switzerland for a new one. They’re probably looking at three grand for that.

Another big one is water damage. That can get very costly if not dealt with soon. If there’s a lot of moisture inside the case, then parts can rust very quickly. So if you do notice water damage, then send it in as fast as possible to minimise the damage, or it will get more expensive day by day.

Watchmaker Shares Truths About Watch Service & Repair Featured Articles

Hugh Taylor: Do you come across many watches that have been butchered by inexperienced watchmakers and filled with generic parts?

Mickey Nolan: All the time. Most of the time, it’s pretty obvious too. You’ll see it in the screws for a start, they’ll be all chewed up. I mean, some of these guys aren’t even sharpening their screwdrivers, you know. You get all sorts of issues with them.

The thing with watchmaking, you see, is that so much can go wrong even for experienced professionals, and fixing it isn’t always easy. If you’re working on a watch with obsolete parts, and something springs out, and you can’t find it, then you have to make a new one. That can be a real challenge.

Hugh Taylor: Does that happen often?

Mickey Nolan: Well, if people are working on a new watch without necessary training, then yes. Some things are spring-loaded, you see. So suddenly you’ve removed a wheel, and something’s pinged across the room. Now you have to search the place for a spring the size of a pinhead. I’ve heard stories about parts turning up in people’s shoes a week later. Imagine losing a little diamond!

Watchmaker Shares Truths About Watch Service & Repair Featured Articles

Hugh Taylor: Yeah, it can’t be too difficult to lose one of those. 

Mickey Nolan: Yes, that’s the problem. People do it all the time. What’s more, all these screws look very similar, but if they’re putting the wrong one in the wrong hole, it could snap. Sometimes, the screw will fit in somewhere, but it’s not actually the right one for that thread, and then you’ll find out later on because one screw won’t go in somewhere else, and then you have to go back over your steps. There’s one here where the thread is the other way around so it doesn’t unwind.

Hugh Taylor: So there’s plenty that can go wrong then?

Mickey Nolan: I’m telling you about all the things that can go wrong for the inexperienced or unlucky, but generally, for those with the right training, it goes smoothly. And anyway, a company that provides warranties would be responsible if there was ever any issue, and would contact the brand if they needed to.

Hugh Taylor: Finally, watch restoration: how can we get what we want and not what we don’t?

Mickey Nolan: Watch restoration can be a grey area. Generally, it’s a lot more work and can incorporate a lot of hidden costs. All I can say is to check the watchmaker out first. Always ask for an estimate of costs before going ahead with any work. And get a few quotes.

Watchmaker Shares Truths About Watch Service & Repair Featured Articles

(By now, Mickey has finished stripping down the movements, and all parts are ready to go into the ultrasonic cleaner. From here, he’ll re-oil the wheels and jewels, and check parts for wear and tear.)

We’d been in there for two hours, altogether, and I’d been trying to maintain close attention while Mickey rolled through the motions and chatted away about what I was watching, but by that point, I was more than ready to get out into the tail end of the sunshine. I felt satisfied that I’d learned what I went in for. Well, mostly – although Mickey hadn’t enlightened me on how Rolex managed such a sizable jump, I’d guessed they’re just that confident in the quality of their latest watches. Anyway, more importantly, I had a far better understanding of the watch servicing and repair industry, and I felt confident that many third party watchmakers like Mickey were more than qualified to do the job.

Looking back, I’ll admit my appreciation for the Rolex empire is up since that day too. I mean, given Mickey’s explanation, ten years is a very long time not to go to the dentist.

Written by Hugh Taylor, editor of Xupes Magazine; photography by Owen Davies, Xupes.

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  • Zhengyi Zhu

    Most luxury mechanical watches have been sold in the past 2 decades that probably the entire history of the industry. These watches are going into the period where they start breaking down and need servicing but there simply aren’t enough watch makers to service all these watches. Not even close.

    The 3-5 year recommended service interval is definitely a cash grabbing move. Personally I feel a mechanical watch can last 10 years without servicing easily. Currently watch manufacturers are feeling the strain in lack of trained manpower to service all these watches. Rolex is leading the market to decrease the number of watches coming in for servicing.

    I have an Omega Speedmaster sent in for restoration and it’s been in the workshop for 6 months. It’s in quite a mess but still 6 months is just not acceptable. Even for a Rolex the estimated lead time is 2-4 months.

    • BIG CHRONO

      There are other “indie” authorized service sites that do outstanding work, with quick turnarounds. If you’re located in/near NYC, I know of 2 such stellar places in mid-town Manhattan. Six months is asinine under all circumstances. They should deduct some of the charges for your extended waiting & anguish.

  • Raymond Wilkie

    Very interesting article

  • Peter Byford

    I’ve often wondered myself if 5 years is too short a service period. Not all watches are of the quality of a premier brand though, so the interval could be shorter or the watch owner not justifying the expense on a cheaper piece ? With the advances made in watch materials, ceramic & the like, & particularly in synthetic lubricants , I think 10 years may nowadays be
    the norm. Having said that , I’ve read that people wait until their watch exhibits signs of malfunction &/or poor timekeeping, having not had a service for yonks ( or at all from day 1 ! ).
    By this time , my feeling is that the damage has already occurred for which a re-lubrication will
    not remedy………A chronometer is the most accurate mechanical measuring device in the world,
    accurate to 99.9975% or thereabouts, stops & starts 10 times a second, year in year out maintaining that accuracy. Yet people begrudge the cost of a 5 yearly ( hopefully 10 now )
    service, but spend loads of money annually in servicing &/or repairing their cars….go figure !

  • Larry Holmack

    Very interesting, and well written article.

  • Wolverbilly

    Rolex never officially said ten years, and for that matter they never officially said three. Why do you keep repeating this rubbish? The only thing thy’ve ever stated to customers in print is “periodically.”

      • WolverBilly

        Yes, I’ve seen this a dozen times. This is not an official statement to the public from Rolex. It’s something somebody posted on the web. When Rolex sends me a copy, then we’ll have something. But until Rolex officially notifies customers that the service interval on their watches is ten years, this means absolutely nothing. People can now go in after five years with a watch that stopped, get charged a fortune for servicing because parts wore out because of lack of lubrication, and when the customer says “Rolex said get it serviced in ten years,” the AD can say ‘Where does it say that?”

        • spiceballs

          Fair comment. Has anyone ever sought an “official” comment from Rolex on this claim and/or this letter? ABlogToWatch – – ?

  • spiceballs

    Very interesting – thank you. Very unimpressed with official Rolex servicing in HK (IFC) which was very expensive & unsatisfactory, so seriously considering an alternate.

    • cheerss

      Can you elaborate on the experience? Interested in hearing a lot more.

      • spiceballs

        I can, but I don’t propose to air my personal grievances with Rolex HK on a general forum such as this. If you would like to contact me direct or provide me with a contact I would be happy to provide more details of my unfortunate experience.

        • cheerss

          I understand. Thanks for responding. I have been to HK numerous times, and while I have not had watches serviced, I have frequently browsed and occasionally bought from the ADs. Let me tell you, the retail experience is terrible – often big jewelry chains staffed by the lowest quality people. They are judgemental, pushy, and clearly don’t see a watch for its qualities but merely for its status. They are so unsophisticated and rude, a cashier at a fast food chain could do better. The thing that pisses me off each time is, 99 out of 100 times, when I take my own watch off to try on a piece, they will always find an excuse to touch my watch, handle it, and sometimes even polish it, all without my permission or request – i believe usually out of curiosity. They have no restraint, respect, or tact. If I don’t take it off, sometimes they reach out and grab it, or point at it with their fingers.

          I would personally never have my watch serviced in HK and your experience furthers my conviction. I believe it is a societal problem. No matter if its restaurants, or watch stores, it is rare to find people with integrity, and respect for what they do. You go to a restaurant and you see dirty dishes and you get sick from the food all the time. Ride a taxi and the driver will be swearing from point A to B. You go to a shop, and they will usually be playing with their phones, unless they are on commission, in which they will hound you to death. Unsophisticated, selfish, lack of integrity and respect for others and their professions, zombies whose minds are wandering as they ‘work’. Not all, but a much higher percentage of such people in HK I have observed.

          These are not people I would trust servicing my Rolex. Or attending to my food. Or health. Personally, I would take a watch abroad, perhaps Japan, or Switzerland to get service done, even though it would cost me extra.

  • SuperStrapper

    Luckily, I have a fairly local watchmaker that I have used in the past, who does excellent work. It ca b hard to find worthy 3rd party watch services beyond battery changes.

  • Great interview and inside informations, but, this new “mobile-friendly” layout looks terrible on iPad.

    • mtnsicl

      Yeah, I agree, terrible on the iPad!

      • Greg

        Strange, it’s fine on mine, almost identical to the ‘reader’ view.

  • mtnsicl

    One of the best articles I’ve read here!

  • I_G

    LOL that part about parts pinging across the room is very true! damn it…

  • cheerss

    Great article. Shows how important it is to send a watch to someone who knows what he/she is doing. The scratches and ‘generic’ parts swaps frighten me.

  • Mom Of Chac

    Great article Hugh, thanks for writing this! .. If you’re stuck for help, check out
    http://TimesTicking.com I have used them many times. Very helpful!

  • Dad Burger

    This is all incredibly complicated stuff, no chance i could even attempt any of this stuff on my own even with the right tools. I do think of myself as a hands on guy, so i often try fixing batteries and simple stuff with watch repair guides like these https://watchdoc.co.uk/watch-care-centre/ but even then i cant check if my watch is still water resistant! Thats why now ive got a kinetic watch so hopefully there shouldnt be any more work?

  • PM

    After spending $$$ on a Rolex, there is no way that I am going to attempt to do anything to the watch except wear it periodically if not regularly. There is too much to go wrong even in polishing the case.

  • Gopalakrishnan Ramaswamy

    I bought an Orient automatic with Day&Date in 1980.Still,it is in good condition and running
    accurately despite it fell down twice on the metal road while driving my motorcycle,as the bracelet pin
    got loosened and came out,resulting in the detachment from one lug of the case.There are
    some brand watches that work smoothly and for long without requiring any service or oiling.
    It also depends upon luck and proper maintenance.I am a watch enthusiast and have scores of
    watches of different brands that need service and spare parts.Spare parts availability is remote
    and scarce and hence these watches lie idle that disheartens me.I do prefer to mechanical
    watches and use to enjoy their movements.Though Quartz watches are said to be accurate,
    some of them run fast upto 10 minutes,I have one wall-clock,two desk-alarm clocks that are
    fast by 10 minutes and I have to synchronize every 2 months.Clocks depict the motion of the
    planets and the very `similarity` of mechanism in watches/clocks makes me wonder and causes
    an affinity for them.Unfortunately,the number in `experts` of servicing and repairing the
    mechanical watches is declining and the unavailability of spares in these days the very
    reasons discourage going for `mechanical watches`.I solute those who invented,modified
    and designed the watches/clocks,those manufacturers and `experts` in horology,servicing
    and repairing watches/clocks,especially mechanical ones.Yet,mechanical watches may have
    a future,as the cost of batteries/cells for Quartz watches, are going up.

  • Barry Fisher

    In all due respect, and I take all the comments seriously from serious worthy people, yet it is simply true when individuals opt in for any mechanical timepiece they are knowingly opting in for great expense, worry, anxiety and problems for the the esthetic experience of something emotionally engaging instead of simply obtaining the correct time. All the misery and intrigue is part of the show, the drama, that is present to fill certain emotional aspects of mechanical timepiece ownership. It is akin to choosing to have children and becoming a parent or not although several thousand degrees less. I have yet to bring myself to buy a mechanical watch although I am weakening. When I do my attitude is whatever I buy I will amortize at ten years after which I anticipate simply throwing the watch away. That defines the amount I initially spend on a watch. Just think of the Automatics and their cousins as Quartz watches with benefits. Who would want to toss out a ten-thousand dollar watch? Only the abysmally wealthy. Most of the arguments for owning an Automatic etc are specious. People get tired of the same item over a forty year period. Some don’t yet most do. Few ever pass along an Automatic to a grandchild. The same watch for thirty years is boring. Human-beings like variety. It’s built into us. To constantly fiddle with something that becomes a surrogate infant on ones wrist is taking the place of feelings best expressed in real ways. Buy a dog. Once upon a time there were no timepieces that were actually very accurate and then Quartz came along. Mechanical watches are an obsolete concept. Imagine spending thousands or tens of thousands of dollars for prestige or to watch a second hand flow. Common, that ineffable “romance” that is alluded to is actually bizarre when one is spending so much on an item such that the item causes so much trouble and anxiety. I’ll buy a nice Hamilton Auto with eighty hours of power reserve for around five bills and if it goes South in ten years then it will have cost me fifty bucks a year for the “romantic thrill” of automatic fiddling around ownership and that’s it. I can toss it out if it breaks down after ten years of service at a cost of ownership of a buck a week. Otherwise, for decent timekeeping with nearly no hassle there are plenty of great Quartz watches that are available. Don’t get me wrong…little machines with lots of little gears is intriguing and keeping them running on time is a challenge…but not intriguing enough nor posing a commanding challenge enough as to become silly about it all and loosing ones self in what is really just a past time, a diversion, something to play with. There are more important things in life at that point.

  • Helen Brown

    I had bought a watch, and as I had a mishap with the battery and the belt, I was recommended https://www.watchrepairshop.co.uk/ and it was the maximum
    They do an excellent job, and economical.

  • wandyknight

    Very useful article. I’m new to owning real timepieces and not some $60 stuff. I’ve only gone to the watch salesmen in the mall kiosks and now only recently started using myjewelryrepair.com. Massive difference, but I’m interested in visiting real watchmakers. The myjewelryrepair.com guys are certified and work was great, but I’m not exactly learning anything from them. Thanks for the info again

  • R.O. Ferrer

    great article- i mostly collect vintage pieces and i learned a lot reading this!

  • Sagar

    Very nice article, came across while researching about maintenance on automatic/mechanical watches. I am planning to buy Christopher Ward Trident 600, but not sure on how much would it cost me to send it for repairs/maintenance to UK from USA.

  • Great Post. We also in the same field. We also providers Best Watch repair service in USA.