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Tips for buyers of Vintage Watches.

I often see watches on internet auctions that are described as running but "no guarantee as to time keeping." Now what do you suppose this means? Let me give you a good analogy. Suppose you went to the used car auction and up comes a 1969 muscle car. The auctioneer says, "Oh, yes, isn't it a beauty, the paint is just sparkling. (he just had it repainted for $49.95), see the nice seat covers (which hide the holes in the original fabric seats). It is a great car. It was owned by a grandmother and she only used it to visit the grandchildren one a month. See it starts and runs. It may need a little tender care and a tune up and oil change. So, what am I bid?? Would you buy this car??

The truth is more like this, the car was owned by about a dozen people. The last owner was a teenager who raced it every weekend at the drag strip. He spent all of his money on his girl friend and beer and didn't have any left over for oil changes or maintenance. He also didn't make payments, so the car was repossessed. The engine is shot, the piston rings are worn out, the valves are clicking, the crankshaft is worn, and it probably wouldn't make it down the road 5 miles before it gave up the ghost!!!

Unfortunately, some not so honest dealers say the following for watches. The watch is near mint (they have polished the case and the brass underneath the gold polishes up like gold for a few days, before it tarnishes), the dial is mint (it is a cheap replacement dial, or the wrong dial), and the watch is running strongly. (Could be they got the watch not running, put some oil on top of the dirt in the jewels, pushed on the gear train, dunked it in lighter fluid, or whatever to get it going). Of course, I cannot guarantee the timekeeping . It would likely need a cleaning to run to your timekeeping standards. Or one of my favorites is, "I don't know much about watches, so I am sure you can make your own judgement." Now doesn't just about everyone wear a watch from the time they are 6 years old? How can someone say I don't know anything about watches?

Now we are all smart enough to know that anyone can wind up a watch and see what it does in at least one position (like lying on its back) for one day. When someone says they can't guarantee the timekeeping the following may be wrong: The watch may gain or lose 3 or more hours a day. The watch may run, but the hands may slip due to worn parts, so it may loose 6 or 7 hours a day or the hands may not even turn at all. The jewels may be cracked (or if no jewels the holes in the plates are worn) and the gear pivots are worn nearly out. Even though running, the watch is only good for the watchmakers' graveyard. Another common reason for bad timekeeping is the heart of the watch, the balance wheel and hairspring. Now if the hairspring gets rusty, and I see a LOT of rusty hairsprings, the watch will no longer keep good time. So, always examine the hairspring with a magnifying glass and look at the screws in the balance wheel, too.  They should not be filed off or asymmetrical.  If the balance wheel is damaged, look out unless it is a common watch and you happen to have a spare one. Now, to get a hairspring replaced can be a $100 job. And to find a new balance wheel for an old watch, whew, that is hard. So, your bargain is suddenly not much of a bargain! The repair bill to fix it up could easily be $200 or more, if it can be fixed up to keep time at all.

A watch is a delicate mechanical instrument. A car engine is not delicate, but must be maintained.  So, you can compare a car engine to a watch. If the owners did not maintain the watch and get it oiled every couple years, then dust and grime would get into watch and do irreparable damage. As the gears turn, the dust and grime eat away at the gears. Suppose you drove you car in a very dusty location without an air filter. How long would the engine last? The grime would go into the engine and wear out the piston rings. If a watch was used for 30 or 40 years, like a lot of pocket watches and even some early wrist watches, then it may have lots and lots of problems. Just like an old car with 250,000 miles. Another complicating factor is that even if an old watch were serviced many times, one or two of the "watchmakers" may not have been too good and may have done some terrible things to the watch. Like doctors, a watchmaker should DO NO HARM. Do not do anything that cannot be undone. But when someone starts filing the balance bridge or the pallet bridge because they think the balance wheel is hitting it (instead of fixing the wobbling balance that has a bent staff), you have problems that cannot be fixed!! Anyway, just a warning. In my 30 years of watch restoration, I have seen a lot of horror stories!!!

BEWARE of FAKES Another problem is fakes of vintage watches.  Rolex watches are faked the most.  However, Omega, Cartier, Patek Phillipe, and all expensive vintage watches are faked.  Even Seiko is faked.  Sometimes the name on the dial is not spelled quite right to fool someone who just glances at the dial.  For example, Sieko for Seiko, or Omiga for Omega.  I have seen a lot of Omega fake watches marked on the back in large letters Omega 18K.  Once the watch is worn, the plating wears off and it likely fools no one.  I will put some pictures of fakes on my web if I can find some good examples.  

I plan to add more tips for buyers of vintage watches, so if you found this useful, check back.  Also, let me hear some of your stories.

Happy hunting for those elusive scarce and rare vintage watches.

Dr. Ed (watchdoc)  Back to WatchDoc Home Page