Owning a mechanical watch comes with at least one guarantee: Every five or six years, it will require service.
That means, at a minimum, a watchmaker or technician must disassemble the timepiece, clean all its mechanical components, replace the mainspring and certain basic parts, clean and polish the case, and replace the gaskets.
Many owners get anxious about surrendering a prized timepiece for a complicated restoration, or even just some simple maintenance. “There’s a comfort in personally handing your watch to a watchmaker,” said Geoffrey Hess, a New York-based watch consultant for Phillips and founder of RollieFest, an annual gathering of Rolex collectors. “He’s almost like a doctor. You can sit down with the watchmaker and have a discussion about what’s needed.”
Yet that type of counsel is increasingly hard to find. And there’s a reason.
About 15 years ago, a number of sought-after Swiss watch brands, including Rolex, Audemars Piguet and Patek Philippe, began denying access to spare parts to some certified independent watch repair businesses in a gradual effort to consolidate service through their own networks of authorized retailers and service centers.
So you now have a choice: Patronize local repair shops, which have to pass along the extra cost of finding parts on the secondary market, sometimes by buying similar watches and stripping out what’s needed. Or use authorized dealers and accept the possibility that your timepiece may disappear into what has been called the black hole of watch repair.
“I have often been asked, ‘Why does it take eight months to fix my watch?’” said Andrew Block, a former Tourneau executive and founder of Second Time Partners, a New Jersey-based agency for luxury brands. “Then people look at their repair estimate and have a fit.”
The cost of a basic service on a mechanical watch varies by brand and by whether the model is new or vintage.
Repair work for a Rolex, for example, generally starts around $600 for modern timepieces and $1,100 for vintage models. Starting prices for Patek Philippe, however, go from $900 for a basic mechanical service to well into the thousands for a vintage piece with complicated functionality.
For some collectors, such as Lung Lung Thun, a securities broker in Hong Kong who favors modern complicated wristwatches by brands such as Audemars Piguet and A. Lange & Söhne, the peace of mind that comes with relying on authorized dealers is worth the time and money.
“I’ve always accepted the fact that often these watches have to be shipped either back to Switzerland or other countries and I may not get to see them for a while,” Ms. Thun wrote in an email. “I have also accepted the fact that at times, the bill may come as a shock, but to me, these are considerations that I have already thought about prior to purchasing any watch of a considerable value.”
For one vintage-Rolex devotee, however, the frustration over parts is palpable.
“I will never send one of my watches to Rolex,” said Matthew Donohue, a collector in Raleigh, N.C. “They will polish your case, replace your hands, replace your bezel — every single part that gives your pieces appeal and value.”
Mr. Donohue’s comment touches on the extraordinary sums that collectors are willing to pay for original cosmetic elements of vintage Rolex models (a single bezel, he said, can cost as much as $30,000).
In contrast, of far less importance are the interchangeable components that make up the inner workings of what the industry calls “tool watches,” like Rolex’s sport models.
“These are standard movements — the equivalent of a Toyota or Honda car engine,” he said. “And that’s the beauty of them. They keep perfect time.”
Wayne Addessi, owner of Addessi Jewelers in Ridgefield, Conn., also reached for a comparison with the automotive trade, which includes independent technicians qualified to service many European luxury cars.
“The watch industry isn’t like that,” Mr. Addessi said. “Let’s say I have a collection of Rolexes or Patek Philippes and want to get them serviced. We’re locked into one choice. The ability of any jeweler to service their customer — our hands are tied.”
Consumers who prefer the intimacy of taking their watches to an independent repair person may pay a premium, but they still have options. Mr. Hess noted that over the past six decades, for example, “thousands and thousands of workhorse Rolex movements, like the 1570, were produced for the Submariner and other iconic sport watches, and they’re readily available.
“Maybe it becomes a little harder for the watchmaker, and he has to hunt around a little longer and the collector has to exercise a little more patience, but after years and years, I have yet to meet a collector who can’t get a watch fixed,” Mr. Hess said. “In the rarest of cases, an independent watchmaker could custom make or fabricate a vintage part that simply couldn’t be found.”
But the outlook is more dire for the world’s dwindling community of independent watch repair sites. They are trying to survive as the popularity of smartwatches grows, buyers treat affordably priced watches as all but disposable and coronavirus lockdowns affect business.
Aaron Recksiek, president and acting executive director of the American Watchmakers-Clockmakers Institute in Harrison, Ohio — where membership has fallen to around 1,000 today from a peak of around 6,000 in the mid-1990s — offered a blunt assessment: “The independent watchmaker as we know it is disappearing.
“For centuries, people have loved the idea of the guy on the corner you can take your watch to and he can diagnose it, but those guys are either being pushed to work at a service center or a store that sells the product,” Mr. Recksiek added. “These brands are smart — they realize if you bring your watch back for service, you’re exposed to new product and it increases your chances of buying a new watch.”
The brands say that, by bringing service in-house, they are ensuring that watchmakers with the necessary skills and technical know-how handle their timepieces and are able to guarantee the authenticity of components.
Without that control, genuine parts could be acquired by unscrupulous dealers for what are known as “Frankenstein watches,” timepieces that combine real and fake parts taken from numerous models, said William Rohr, former managing director of the online watch forum TimeZone and founder of Massena LAB, which designs and develops timepieces with a broad range of watchmakers. Watches of this sort are generally found on the gray market, a term for unauthorized retailers who sell timepieces, usually online, for discount prices.
Representatives of Audemars Piguet, Rolex and Patek Philippe — the industry’s three best-selling brands — declined to answer specific questions about their service policies. But until the 1990s, they, like most Swiss brands, relied on independent watchmakers in the United States and around the world to act as crucial consumer go-betweens.
“The Swiss would flood jewelers and watchmakers here with technical guides on how to properly service their watches,” said David Christianson, a horology historian and a retired watchmaker in Kendallville, Ind. “So you go to these old watchmakers like me and look in their files and you’ll see drawers full of technical information about Swiss watches.”
Things began to change around the turn of the millennium, when the mechanical watchmaking renaissance picked up steam. An explosion of collector interest in the category spurred demand for trained watchmakers who could handle the volume of timepieces that were coming in for service.
“Watchmaking,” said Mr. Block of Second Time Partners, “has been a dying art for a long, long time. A lot of brands have spent a tremendous amount of money on recruiting and training watchmakers and need to recover their investment. How? By placing them in-house.”
Rolex has service centers around the world, including an eight-story facility it opened in 2018 in the Harwood District of Dallas. Designed by the Japanese architect Kengo Kuma, that center is adjacent to a building where the brand had operated since the 1980s.
But the company’s efforts to brand the service experience have consequences for the watchmaking profession. “The brands will always use the excuse that they need to control the quality and don’t want people without proper skill level working on their timepieces, and I understand that,” said Donald Loke, a watchmaker in Ridgefield, Conn., with 45 years of experience. “But at the same time, if they can’t get the parts, it’s going to have an effect on who wants to go into the industry.”
Some veteran watchmakers are seeing the impact of these decisions on their less-experienced colleagues.
Rik Dietel of Time Care Inc. in Seminole, Fla., lost his spare-parts account with Rolex in May 2019, and his accounts with Audemars Piguet and Patek Philippe a few years before. But he had the foresight to buy parts from fellow watchmakers who were retiring or leaving the business, and he is now enjoying the reduced competition.
“I’ve got well over a million parts,” Mr. Dietel said. “The younger guys who lost their accounts haven’t been around long enough to put stuff away in parts or make enough money to buy them. When they lost their accounts, all their clientele went online and found me. Five months after I lost my Rolex account, my business went up 500 percent.”
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