The Good, the Bad and the Ugly of Restoration

By A Collected Man

Restoration is a sensitive topic at the best of times. Yet, it is an intrinsic part of the watch world, helping keep the promise that our timepieces, will outlast us. Why then is it so controversial, and does it necessarily have to be? A lot of the angst which surrounds restoration, comes from bad experiences people have had, either with their own watch, or with one they were hoping to buy. From components cobbled together, to reprinted dials that haven’t been disclosed, there are plenty of reasons to be weary.

However, despite these concerns, restoration is a more nuanced idea, and can take many different forms. Keeping the controversy in mind, we wanted to look at what goes into it, the different approaches taken and how it has been perceived by collectors over time. Typically, a restoration is only carried out on a watch that is at least twenty years old, or more. This is mainly because the amount of wear on a piece of that age usually puts it beyond the reach of a standard service. Parts may need to be replaced, or even made from scratch, and every decision can affect the perceived originality and coherence of the watch.

 

Two Rolex ‘Big Crown’ Submariners showing where restoration can be life saving for a watch.

 

Whilst there are clear risks when it comes to getting a vintage watch restored, there are also benefits that can, not only bring out functionality, but also potentially add value. Every project has to be taken on an individual basis, which is why we spoke to a number of specialist restorers, to get the inside track on how it works, and what the limits really are.

 

What Makes a Good Restoration?


 

This is a very subjective question, mainly because a good restoration is dependent on so many different factors. So many, in fact, that trying to categorise any one type of restoration as better than another, can be tricky. However, there is definitely such a thing as bad restoration. Think taking parts out and not replacing them, using solder in a movement or even adding the occasional touch of glue here and there. All of these things can ruin a watch and often cause more harm than good.

 

Bringing life back to any old watch can be tough work, courtesy of Master Horologer.

 

So, if we can’t categorically say that a certain type of restoration is best, what can we agree on? Well, we can look at how a restoration is being carried out, the techniques employed, the tools used, and the parts deployed. All of these things count, no matter the watch you’re working on. This is not a one-size-fits-all scenario either. All of these elements must be well-suited to the watch they’re being used on. A brand-new balance spring for a Rolex GMT-Master II ref. 116719BLRO won’t be right for a GMT-Master ref. 6542. Using period correct parts can be crucial for a sensitive intervention.

We spoke with Christian Lass, the former Master Watchmaker at the Patek Philippe Museum for close to a decade, who recently began his path as an independent watchmaker. For him, when everything is done correctly, you shouldn’t be able to tell anything was done at all. “This is where you can really see the difference between a quick restoration and one that is really done well, as you shouldn’t be able to see the difference afterwards,” Lass tells us.

 

Finding component from the right era can be a big challenge in carrying out an accurate restoration, courtesy of Antiquorum.

 

Of course, for watches of a certain age and rarity, getting period correct, new old stock components is close to impossible. As a result, the only option is often to build a new piece from scratch, which is when respecting period correct techniques becomes particularly important. If you were to simply cut a movement component out with a CNC machine and place it into a vintage timepiece, it would stick out like a sore thumb. Even if it looks convincing, it’s also not coherent. Making movement parts in the same way they were first produced for the watch undergoing restoration, will always result in a closer match to whatever is being replaced.

Taking this approach is often dependant on having period correct tools at hand. Not something that every watchmaker will be able to rely upon, if the timepiece is of a certain age. This is where using specialists can be especially important, though they can be difficult to seek-out. One such example is the Cadraniers de Genève, who specialise in the restoration of damaged dials. To understand the exact production process behind vintage Patek Philippe dials, they’ve gone as far as meeting former employees of Stern Frères, who first worked on the dials decades ago.

 

Just some of the resources that Cadraniers de Genève have at their disposal, courtesy of Cadraniers de Genève.

 

Producing dials for modern manufacturers such as F.P. Journe and Vacheron Constantin, the Cadraniers de Genève also possess the right know-how to carry out sensitive restorations. In some cases, they use original Stern Frères stamps to reprint dials, while also employing the closest equivalent in terms of ink and varnish to what was used back then. It’s not unusual for the process to take several dozen hours.

Most of the time, compromises need to be made in order to reach a desired goal in restoration. If you want an old pocket watch to run smoothly again, certain parts will always need to be replaced and finding new old stock components is often impossible. When these compromises are considered, they should always be made consciously and thoughtfully. However, if getting a good restoration done can be so complex, and the possible side effects so major, then why bother doing it at all?

 

The Case for Restoration


 

For Lass, a significant factor in how he approaches a restoration is the provenance of the piece he is working on. “If it is a historically important watch or was part of an important collection – like that of Henry Graves – then we can do things a little differently. Alterations that were made after the watch was made, like adding lume, are part of the watch’s story. So instead of returning the dial to its original state, we have to preserve these things as well.” For watches of real historical importance, a restoration can turn into preservation.

Take the example of the unique Vacheron Constantin “Don Pancho” Minute Repeater. This delicate timepiece from the 1940s came up for sale at Phillips two years ago, accompanied by an incredible depth of literature. When it was first discovered, it housed a badly damaged dial. The decision was made to create a new dial for the watch, according to traditional techniques, whilst also keeping the original one intact. Using tools available at the time and recovering as many original components as possible, Vacheron Constantin was able to fully restore the movement.

 

The “Don Pancho” Minute Repeater from Vacheron Constantin fitted with its new dial and accompanied by the original, courtesy of Phillips.

 

Taking other dials made by the manufacturer at the time and inspecting them closely, Phillips and Vacheron Constantin aimed to recreate the original design, focusing on details such as the shade of the opaline, or the thickness of the text. Since Radium has long been eradicated in watchmaking, a substitute had to be created specifically for the watch, which looks and behaves similarly to the dials of the time. This is what we think of when we talk about sensitive restoration. Ensuring that historical pieces not only continue working, but also remain in good enough condition to be appreciated for years to come is a vital part of restoration.

Something that collectors appreciate more and more at the moment is originality, which only goes to make the restorer’s jobs even harder. Steven Hale, the owner of a Rolex-accredited workshop and arguably one of the finest restorers in Europe, has amassed a sizeable stockpile of NOS pieces for all types of calibres. This means that whenever Hale and his watchmakers carry out a restoration on a watch and a component that is beyond repair, they can simply replace it with something that could have been made the same year, in the same factory.

 

A stockpile of spare parts in the Audemars Piguet restoration department, courtesy of TimeZone.

 

“We’ve managed to build up a good stockpile,” Hale tells us, “and we have to source these things from all over. We used to go to small auctions where boxes of these things would be sold off, often from retiring watchmakers. We were also once able to buy a shop that was closing where everything was about to be scrapped. Luckily, we managed to get in there and buy all the old stock before it was too late.” Before you start drafting an email to send to Hale, enquiring about buying movement parts for your old Rolex, do know he won’t part ways with any of his stock. “It’s more valuable to me to use them in a restoration, where I won’t have to machine a part that I might not have the drawing for, than sell them for a tenner each.”

An important factor to consider is that this sort of intervention can play a vital role in the upkeep of historical timepieces, which otherwise may have been lost to time. These include watches like Breguet’s number 160, better known as the Marie Antoinette, or Harrison’s world beating H4. Not to mention some of the more recent pieces to have crossed the auction block, such as those owned by Henry Graves Jr. or the aforementioned Don Pancho Minute Repeater by Vacheron Constantin. Giving these models a new lease of life is important, not only in keeping them running, but also so that they can be studied by historians and academics for years to come.

 

The restoration of a vintage pocket watch movement at Vacheron Constantin.

 

However, not every watch is as important in the grand scheme of things. In fact, most watches only matter to the people wearing them. This doesn’t diminish the case for restoration. In fact, it might even increase it. Some watches hold incredible sentimental value. While a regular service is always recommended, there are times when this just isn't enough. A restoration will go much further in prolonging the life of your grandfather’s watch. While there can be times where the cost of the restoration surpasses the monetary value of the watch, this can often pale in comparison to how much it is worth to a family who has owned it for generations.

One example that often gets cited in discussions around preserving timepieces is Rolex’s approach to servicing. As Hales tells us, if there is any sign of lume degrading on the hands, they instantly get replaced with a brand-new set. Why do this? Though this approach has frustrated many vintage enthusiasts in the past, it actually stems from a valid concern. As older lume ages, it can dry out and start to crumble, forming a light dust. If the watch were to receive any kind of knock, that powder can get on the dial and from there into the movement, clogging it up and affecting the timing of the watch.

 

Rolex hands are often one of the first things to be replaced in a normal service, courtesy of Chrono-shop.

 

However, as Lass told us, there is potentially a way around this. By putting some form of sealant on the back of the hands, a watchmaker can stop the lume from going anywhere. This can keep the hands original and protect the movement in one, undetectable step. We should also note that some hands need to be replaced every time they are removed, purely because of how they are attached the watch. When they’re taken off, they no longer fit the watch properly, so replacements might be inevitable for some pieces.

 

Patek Philippe Nautilus 3700 dial and hands showing patina for A Collected Man London

Spotting a relumed dial or set of hands can be tricky and with some models the original hands will age at a different rate to the markers. 

 

Even when parts such as hands need to be replaced, this can be done sensitively. Whilst we would no longer apply tritium or radium lume to watches, there are techniques now that make it possible to match the colour of a new set of hands to old dials. Modern reliability, with vintage appeal. “We can now get those new components to match the original lume exactly,” Hales tells us. “If you were to put a new set of hands on an old dial, it is an instant way to make an old watch look awful.” This goes to show how restoration, with its many different aspects, can meet the needs of a plethora of clients, and is not a one-size-fits all solution.

 

The Dangers of Restoration


 

However, for all its advantages, restoration also has a dark side. This is possibly a topic that many in the vintage watch collecting community will be familiar with, as the risks and possible after-effects of restoration, have spread far and wide. A real danger when dealing with the less scrupulous, is the risk that work may be carried out, but not disclosed. These murky restorations can be done to increase the value of a particular piece, by making it as visually appealing or rare as possible, whilst masquerading it as completely original and unrestored.

 

Rolex GMT red and blue pepsi bezel new old stock for A Collected Man London
Gold Rolex Oyster bracelets new old stock for A Collected Man London

Certain NOS Rolex parts can be hard to come by and cost a pretty penny, the bezel alone was sold for $32,500, courtesy of Antiquorum.

 

Relumed dials and hands, which have then been synthetically aged, can be tricky to spot, unless you have a trained eye and are able to take your time. Cases can also be soldered back to perfection and dials cleaned, with these interventions being kept quiet by some, or just lost to history. However, one massive advantage we have for some of the most important pieces out there, which can help mitigate this risk, is that many of these have already been shared, seen or photographed.

Not spotting unscrupulous restoration – if we were to generously use the term in this context – can often be an expensive mistake. Dr Helmut Crott, an auction veteran and Patek Philippe expert, gives a perfect example of when this can go wrong. A third series 2499 from 1961 first appeared at auction in 1992. Ten years later, in 2002, the same watch appeared at auction yet again, identifiable by its case and movement number. However, the original dial had been replaced with a silvered dial with applied Arabic numerals and an English tachymeter scale, typical of a second series. As you’d expect, the Arabic numeral dial is much more desirable amongst collectors, and therefore commands a premium, which is almost undoubtedly what motivated the dial exchange. Crott estimates that this mistake cost the buyer half a million dollars, when he bought the watch in 2002. Whilst access to original, period correct parts can be a blessing in some cases, it is a curse in others.

 

The archive of vintage components that they have at Patek Philippe to draw on when restoring a piece, courtesy of The New York Times.

 

Furthermore, the ability of some watchmakers today to restore beaten-up and over-polished cases can have a positive and negative side. In some cases, it is the only way to bring life back to pieces that have endured significant damage, as is often the case with vintage tool watches. In other cases, however, these techniques can be used to pretend that a watch is in unpolished condition. This can occur in the vintage Rolex world, for example, where seemingly unpolished cases with thick bevels can command a significant premium over others. One useful tip here is to consider the coherence of the different elements. Does it make sense for a vintage Submariner to have a completely faded bezel, tropical dial, yet also have a perfectly unpolished case with no marks, and no stretch on the bracelet? It can happen, but it’s rather unlikely. As ever, provenance and research are important.

 

How does the market view restoration?


 

Beyond the more obvious attempts at unscrupulous restoration, which are ultimately quite rare, there are more nuanced areas that bring up interesting questions around the value of this work. Even sensitive intervention, which is carried out with as much consideration as possible and disclosed openly, receives a mixed reaction in the watch world. This is exemplified by a pair of Patek Philippe chronographs, both Reference 530s, which came up in the same sale at Phillips in May 2018. One featured a spotless restored dial, while the other featured a considerably more aged, original dial. The original went for almost twice the price of the restored example. Though there were other factors that separated the two pieces, the condition of their dials seems to have been the biggest differentiating factor.

 

The two Patek Philippe ref. 530 chronographs that achieved wildly different prices showing the difference between original and non-original dials, courtesy of Phillips.

 

As Arthur Touchot of Phillips detailed in a comprehensive way, the restoration of one of these had been carried out in the most sensitive way possible by the Cadraniers de Genève. They used original Stern Frères stamps to reprint the dial, carrying out over a hundred individual print transfers to bring it back to life. Despite this careful restoration, however, the collecting community still seems to value untouched pieces and originality. Something needs to be as close as possible, to what it was like when it first left the manufacture.

This obsession with originality seems to be localised to the watch industry. If we take the closest comparative world, that of vintage cars, the attitude seems remarkably different. There is certainly a desire for a car to be as close as possible to its original state, but the means by which that is achieved, seems less under scrutiny. There are few calls for period-correct paints to be used on body work, or unused crank shafts to replace worn-out ones. This could have something to do with the functionality of cars. After all, they are only valuable as an asset and a collectable if they can be driven, which is a far more mechanically demanding feat than wearing a watch.

 

The idea of a ‘barn find’ in cars is well established and they are prized for the faded originality, courtesy of Classic and Sports Car.

 

However, even in the watch world, sensitive restoration is sometimes considered acceptable or desirable. Let’s take the famous “Unicorn” white gold Rolex Daytona that came up for auction a few years ago. Before it appeared at auction, the watch had been owned by Auro Montanari, otherwise known as John Goldberger, a veteran watch collector. When Montanari first acquired the piece years ago, the dial, pushers, and bezel were incorrect replacements.

 

The now famous “Unicorn” Dayton sold at Phillips, courtesy of Hodinkee.

 

As such, he decided to thoroughly search for original components. He found a period correct dial for the year of manufacture, with white gold indexes matching the metal of the case. He also replaced the incorrect bezel and pushers faithfully, in attempt to bring it back as close to what it would’ve originally been like. The Daytona also appeared on a white gold bracelet with a bark texture, which was in fact taken from an Oyster Perpetual model from the same era. Speaking to Phillips about his journey, Montanari shared that “out of respect for one of the world’s most important wristwatches, this uncompromising approach was the only option! I can only imagine the pleasure a collector of vintage cars feels when a top restoration is completed!”

 

Montanari was able to find components that matched the age of the watch for as true a resotation as possible, courtesy of Phillips.

 

Did collectors view this restoration negatively? Judging by the result of the auction – it sold for CHF 5.9 million – not really. The rarity of the piece and the hype surrounding the Daytona at the time, which was amplified by the thematic auction, helped it secure a price that would have placed it amongst the most expensive watches sold publicly that year. It also became the second most expensive Rolex sold at auction. Quite the result for a restored timepiece, where period correct parts were carefully assembled to bring the watch back to its original state. 

 

Parting Thoughts


 

The implications of restoration are – very much like intervention itself – nuanced and complicated. Undisclosed restorations do a disservice to the community at large, casting a long shadow over areas of the watch world. Soldered cases and replaced hands will likely continue to be a concern, especially in certain for those that collect vintage timepieces, where this type of manipulation can be a serious financial incentive for a seller. As ever, research, provenance and trustworthy intermediaries are important.

As for the rest of the restoration world, things can be more positive. In some cases, it is the only way to keep certain important historical pieces alive, like those antique pocket watches that sit in the Patek Philippe Museum or the inventions of Abraham-Louis Breguet. If it were not for talented watchmakers restoring their movements, often creating parts from scratch according to traditional techniques, these may have stopped ticking long ago.

In the rest of the watch world, restoration can also bring back pieces which have experienced severe damage, or that have a high emotional value for certain people. Regardless, one thing that we can be sure of, is that collectors at large remain divided on the topic, even when it is carried out in the most sensitive way possible. Sometimes, originality can have quite a narrow definition. In other cases, restoring a piece to its former glory can be seen as a valuable service.


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