Several years ago, Mike Piela, a commercial real estate agent who lives in Brooklyn, took his newly purchased vintage stainless-steel Glycine Airman watch to a neighborhood repair shop for a routine service. When he picked it up a couple of months later, the watchmaker’s work wasn’t what he had expected.
“He 100 percent made it worse,” Mr. Piela said. Several of the watch’s functions weren’t working, including its distinctive hacking mechanism, which stops the sweep seconds hand when the stem is pulled out for winding, and its water resistance had been impaired.
“I wore it out of the shop and the next day it rained,” he said, recalling that he looked down at the dial and, “I’m like, ‘It’s foggy in there — that’s not right.’”
Mr. Piela faced the same challenge as many other watch owners: finding a watch repair business that is both reliable and not overly expensive.
“There are a lot of different workshops that they say that they can fix any watch, and that is unfortunately not a hundred percent true,” said Scarleth Rivas, director of repairs and services for the Watches of Switzerland Group’s retailers in the United States, which include the Mayors and Betteridge chains as well as its own brand stores. “There’s a lot of education that goes into becoming a watchmaker.” (The industry routinely uses the term watchmaker for anyone who works on timepieces, including service technicians.)
Choosing a business to work on a rare watch — or even an unusual model from a well-known brand — may be particularly risky as even a well-trained watchmaker may not be familiar with it. “To a degree, you’re crossing your fingers,” said Nicholas Manousos, executive director of the Horological Society of New York.
Brand or Independent?
While many high-end companies offer to service the watches they make, owners have described the process as the “black hole” of watch repair: Timepieces may be sent to centralized facilities, often in Switzerland, and it is not uncommon for months to pass without any word about progress.
That route also can be pricey. At Patek Philippe, for example, servicing a complicated chronograph can cost as much as 2,300 Swiss francs ($2,381), and simply changing a quartz battery can be 130 francs. Rolex does not share the price of its in-house service.
Although the price of watch parts, like so much else, has been increasing, using an independent repair business can cost considerably less. But an owner shouldn’t automatically assume that an independent would use the same tools and parts as an in-house repair specialist.
“People come here because it’s going to be an awful lot cheaper than it is with Rolex,” said Shane Ede, a Toronto-based watchmaker who has been servicing timepieces for nearly 50 years. His prices, he said, start at about 350 Canadian dollars ($262) for a vintage piece, and 450 dollars for a more modern watch.
And Russell Talerman — who runs a repair workshop in the Mayfair neighborhood of London, a short stroll from many boutiques that sell the high-end brands he and his team of four watchmakers work on — charges 384 pounds ($438), plus tax, as the starting price to service a mechanical watch from a luxury brand and 36 pounds to replace a quartz battery.
Like many independents, Mr. Talerman’s team is authorized to work on several brands’ watches, a recognition that generally indicates their watchmakers received specific training from the brands and that brand-made parts were used. Brands such as Rolex , for example, often refuse to sell parts to unauthorized repair centers and in some cases Rolex actually may refuse to repair a watch that had been handled by an unauthorized center.
“A lot of different people that are not authorized have generic parts that could damage the pieces,” said Ms. Rivas of Watches of Switzerland Group. (The group’s U.S. staff of 12 repair technicians, based in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., has been authorized to service a wide range of high-end brands.)
“Usually they go in trying to save a buck or two, and they actually get surprised that their watch has now been converted to a Frankenstein,” she said.
Generic replacement parts, or damage done when a repair technician uses the wrong tool, can go unnoticed for years.
And once the case back is replaced, you may never discover such problems until the next time you have the timepiece serviced, said Scott Hall, an investment fund manager based in Orlando, Fla., whose collection includes pieces by Audemars Piguet, Rolex and Patek Philippe. “I’m just not one to take that chance,” he said.
Mr. Hall said he always brought his watches to their manufacturers, or authorized service centers, especially since he took a Rolex Explorer to an independent watchmaker who excessively polished the case, lessening the value of the watch. It was, he said, “a lesson learned the hard way.”
Mr. Manousos of the Horological Society suggested that owners who wanted to use independent repair centers should check to ensure that their staff members were trained by internationally recognized programs (such credentials usually are mentioned on websites or in social media). The Watchmakers of Switzerland Training and Educational Program, commonly known as Wostep, is a well-respected example, as is the Swiss American Watchmakers Training Alliance, or SAWTA. There are other accreditations to look for, too, like certification from the American Watchmakers-Clockmakers Association, or AWCI.
Still, some highly regarded repair specialists don’t have that type of training or accreditation — they learned the old-fashioned way, by apprenticing with a veteran. That was the case with Harris Freedman, who mostly works on vintage watches for dealers and collectors and is based in upstate New York. He sees his background as a plus.
“When you work at a manufacturer, you’re trained directly from a manufacturer,” he said. “They don’t teach preservation; they teach restoration.
“That’s great if you want the most modern, highest functioning thing,” he added, “but for vintage, most of the value comes from originality, so the dial, the hands — I will leave those in there as is.”
Actually, Mr. Talerman said, the time-honored method of asking a friend for a recommendation may be an effective way of finding a dependable watchmaker. “The most important recommendation is by word of mouth or referral from somebody who has used you before,” he said.
And while searching online can provide some information, relying on the internet for recommendations “might not be the best way,” he said. “It’s probably better if someone has some personal experience.”