As Mick Jagger emoted in a 1964 Rolling Stones tune, “Time is on my side, yes it is.” Anyone with even a passing interest in fine watches can attest not only to the importance of time, but also the instruments that keep track of the minutes and hours with unfailing precision.
As with most things that are functional, especially scientific or technological items, careful use and proper maintenance are often at the center of longevity and quality of service.
The American Watchmakers-Clockmakers Institute (AWCI) offers these basic guidelines to follow in caring for timepieces, which Jordan shared with us:
- Wind completely once a day, making sure the winding action does not result in the crown reaching the point of being taut.
- Wear the watch regularly, not only because it gives you the opportunity to enjoy a timepiece in which you have invested, but also because a constant temperature is conducive to accurate timekeeping.
Consistency of temperature leads to one of the first things the AWCI warns watch owners about:
- Avoid exposing watches to extreme temperatures. This kind of shift in temperatures can compromise the timekeeping device.
- Make sure watches are not placed within close proximity to perfumes, powders, or chemicals.
- Don’t let more than five years pass before taking watches to a certified watchmaker (many of whom can be found through the AWCI directory) for maintenance. Just like with an automobile, maintenance is a mainstay in preventing costly negative impact.
Men’s stainless steel, quick set, diamond dial with a diamond and sapphire bezel. Entered in Jasper 52 auction Feb. 12, 2017. Estimate: $9,000-$11,000. Jasper52 image
To learn more about the care of wristwatches, we reached out to Jordan Ficklin, who serves as executive director of the AWCI.
Jasper52: The AWCI recommends tune-ups for timepieces. What is involved in a tune-up of a watch and what is the cost someone could expect to pay for a tune-up?
Jordan Ficklin: Fine timepieces are machines. They have components that can wear out. They require a clean, dry environment with proper lubrication. In order to ensure proper functioning, they need periodic maintenance. For modern mechanical wristwatches, the recommended service interval varies by manufacturer; but typically ranges between three and seven years. During a routine service, the watch is completely disassembled. The case is refurbished, and the gaskets are replaced to ensure continued protection of the movement. The movement (works) of the watch is also disassembled. Each component is checked for damage, cleaned, and reinstalled with fresh lubrication. It is a very delicate and time-consuming process. Prices can vary greatly based on many factors. For a Rolex, you could expect to pay between $500 and $1,000 for a service.
What advice would you offer regarding replacement of batteries?
Replacing batteries is not difficult, but even inexpensive quartz watches are quite fragile. Simply touching the wrong part of the watch can cause permanent damage. It is best to have a trained professional replace the battery in your watch. At the same time they change the battery they should also check and/or replace gaskets and test the water resistance of the watch.
Vermeil ivory dial tank watch, Cartier, circa 1980s. Entered in Jasper52 auction Feb. 12, 2017. Estimate: $1,500-$2,000. Jasper52 image
Since there isn’t a regulatory body for watchmakers, what are some of the considerations when selecting a professional to service a fine timepiece?
You can ask your watchmaker where he learned the art. Thirty years ago there were many watchmaking schools, but today there are fewer than a dozen operating in the United States. Being self-taught or not having apprenticed under a master doesn’t disqualify a potential watchmaker, but you will certainly want to learn more about their skill set.
More important than training or certification is the attitude of your watchmaker toward the profession. If you are able, you should take the time to meet the watchmaker. Don’t take up too much of his/her time, because they are busy – if they aren’t, they’re probably not the best in town. Find out how the watchmaker feels about the job, their attitude toward spare parts, tools, and continuing education. If you want a good watchmaker, you need one who loves what they do.
Insider Tip: Specific brands of watches require special tools to adjust timing, test for water resistance, and open the case back.
Can any watch problem be fixed, such as not keeping time accurately?
Watchmakers aren’t miracle workers. Your grandmother’s Bulova watch that was unadjusted when it left the factory will not keep perfect time unless your watchmaker adjusts it. This requires a lot of work and the watch probably isn’t worth it. But if your watch is a chronometer, you should expect it to keep time within its set specifications. Ask your watchmaker what their expectations are for the timekeeping of your watch and make sure they match your expectations. If your expectations are in line with the factory specifications, there should be no problem. If your expectations are higher than the factory specifications, a good watchmaker might charge you more for the necessary time to make the watch meet your expectations. Or, they may tell you that your expectations are out of line.
Ladies 18K white gold watch, Elgin, 1921. Entered in Jasper52 auction Feb. 12, 2017. Estimate: $550-$800
Watch repair can get expensive. Why is that?
Watchmaking is very labor-intensive and detailed work. You should expect to pay a good price for it. Remember, a watchmaker probably can’t do more than two complete watch services in a day. In terms of a warranty, the major brand service centers are now offering a two-year warranty on their repair work. Your watchmaker should match that warranty. For other watches you should expect six months to a year.
If you were to explain what it is about horology that you find so appealing, what would you say?
From the time I first was exposed to mechanical timepieces I was in love with the artistry and engineering. Starting with the ticking of the timepiece and then the regular motion of the gears, they are beautiful to watch. Trying to figure out how they work and troubleshooting problems adds to my enjoyment. I have found watchmaking to be an extremely rewarding career. I can start my day with a cherished but broken timepiece on my bench, and by the end of the day I have restored it to its former glory. When I return it to the customer, they are overjoyed to have it back in their life.
Jordan Ficklin is the executive director of the American Watchmakers-Clockmakers Institute. He began his watchmaking journey in 2001, working at an independently owned jewelry store in Tucson, Arizona. He attended the Lititz Watch Technicum from 2004-2006 where he graduated with a WOSTEP Diploma and AWCI CW21. From 2006-2013 he worked as a watchmaker in a retail jewelry store in Albuquerque, N.M., and served on various committees at the American Watchmakers-Clockmakers Institute. In 2013, he was hired as the executive director of AWCI, where he now works full time promoting the professions of watchmaking and clockmaking.