How To Look After Your Watch: An Expert Guide

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How To Look After Your Watch: An Expert Guide

Words by Mr Chris Hall

22 May 2020

A lot of the time, it’s easy to forget that your watch needs looking after. It’s a testament to how well these little machines are made. They contain hundreds of miniscule components operating at extremely fine tolerances – we expect them to keep time 24/7 and soak up a great deal of punishment along the way. Here’s how to make sure it keeps on ticking: what to look out for, how to clean your watch and the simple truth about luxury watch servicing.

01. How to look after your watch, day by day

Lesson one: prevention is better than cure. So much of what can afflict a luxury watch – potentially landing you with a chunky bill – can be avoided in the first place with a little thought. Follow these tips and your watch (and wallet) will thank you.

Know your water resistance

All watches have a water-resistance rating, expressed either in terms of atmospheric pressure or water depth. We could (and will!) publish an in-depth guide to water-resistance, but in brief: 3 ATM/30m is splash-proof, 5 ATM/50m means it’s OK for the swimming pool and the shower (but please don’t wear your watch in the shower – hot water and soap can do their own damage), 10 ATM/100m means it’s fine for snorkelling and watersports, 20 ATM/200m and above means it’s fine for scuba diving. If you’ve exposed your watch to saltwater, rinse it off afterwards as it can be corrosive.

In addition, the older a watch is, the less likely it is that the rubber seal inside that protects the movement will be intact. Never use a watch’s complications, such as the chronograph, while the watch is submerged. When a watch’s pusher is pressed, it can compromise the seal and result in water damage. And don’t get leather straps wet.

Beware of magnets

Magnetic fields can affect the balance spring at the heart of a mechanical watch, seriously inhibiting its function or even stopping it altogether. Avoid leaving your watch too close to anything that contains a strong magnet, such as stereo speakers, refrigerators (especially with fridge magnets) or magnetic clasps on bags. Don’t put your watch down on your phone or iPad, either – not only are there strong magnets within, but the magnetic flip-cases will have an immediate effect. If you do, you may notice the watch gaining or losing time. A watch can stop working at 60 gauss (the measurement of magnetic strength). To put that in context, the magnet of a fridge door is about 50 gauss. The good news is that magnetic damage to a watch can be easily and quickly reversed; any decent watch shop should have the machine you need and it takes a matter of seconds.

Ditch the dirt

After water and magnetism, dirt is the main enemy of your watch. You’ll never be able to completely protect it from dust getting inside (that’s why watches get serviced, after all), but you can exercise a little common sense. You wouldn’t wear your Berluti brogues on the beach, so what are you doing at the seaside with that Vacheron Constantin Patrimony? Avoid using chronograph pushers if it’s dirty – you’re opening up a path to the interior of the watch – and don’t, as I once did, twist your dive watch’s rotating bezel if you’ve got sand stuck underneath it. Crunch.

Keep out of direct sunlight

This doesn’t mean you can’t wear a nice watch on holiday, but don’t leave it lying in the sun. Prolonged exposure to strong sunlight can fade the colours on your watch, may damage your strap and will dry out the lubricants within that keep the whole thing running smoothly. Similarly, watches will have a lower temperature limit, too; check the manufacturer’s manual for details. While we’re on the topic of temperature, older watches – whose water-resistance can’t be guaranteed – can fog up if you go suddenly from cold to warm (into a steamy bathroom, say) or vice versa, leading to condensation water damage.

Protect your watch from shocks

On similar “pick the right watch for the moment” lines, you should think about impacts that can damage your watch’s movement. You don’t need us to tell you that dropping your watch isn’t going to go down well, but what about playing golf? Cycling over rough surfaces?  Manufacturers’ guidance around shock resistance is hazy at best, and some watches are better protected than others, but as a rule, better safe than sorry.

Keep your watch ticking over

A watch’s movement is a bit like a car’s engine. It needs to tick over regularly or the parts can seize up, by which we mean try to give your watch some attention at least every few weeks. With hand-wound watches, give them a wind (taking care not to overwind, although most modern watches won’t let you). For automatic watches, you can also use a watch winder set for, say, 30 minutes a day, which will keep the watch parts in good order without wearing them out. Easiest of all, though, is if you’re lucky enough to own a lot of watches, just to wear them all from time to time.

Respect the crown

Don’t wind or adjust your watch when it’s on your wrist: you run the risk of pulling the crown up towards you, which can damage the winding stem within. For the same reason, don’t leave your watch resting down on the crown. Sturdy sports watches might handle it better than thin dress models (as they will every other hazard), but it’s a good rule of thumb to avoid it entirely. When you’re not wearing your watch, for example if you put it on your bedside table at night, lay it on a soft surface such as a suede or leather-lined tray.

Never change the date between nine and three o’clock (or should you?)

This is a real can of worms. It used to be gospel that you should avoid changing your watch’s date between 9.00pm and 3.00am (or 10.00pm and 2.00am, or other variants on the same theme). This is because on most watches, the gear mechanism that controls the date actually begins its steady advance well ahead of midnight and doesn’t finish until several hours afterwards. It uses less energy and makes the construction of the movement considerably simpler. The downside is that if you engage it during that time, you risk snarling the whole thing up.

In recent times, however, watch movements have improved and a great many “simple” watches with a date, or day-date function, now execute the change a lot quicker, and more complex calendar watches sometimes have in-built safety mechanisms that prevent “user error” from breaking the watch. But not all do, so our best advice on this one is to check the instruction manual that came with the watch or consult with the manufacturer. They may well advise you to follow the old doctrine of “never between nine and three” just to always be on the safe side, in which case now at least you know why.

02. How to clean your watch

Take a proper look at your watch. It’s almost certainly grimy in places you never even realised. It picks up grease and dirt from your skin and surroundings every day. Here’s how to keep your watch clean without damaging it.

Use simple tools to clean the watch

Use a soft damp cloth to give metal watch cases and bracelets a superficial clean. For getting into the tighter gaps – between the lugs and especially between the links of a metal bracelet – you’ll see cotton buds recommended a lot. These are fine, but won’t get into the narrowest gaps, plus they have a tendency to leave wisps of cotton between the joins. Personally, I think you’re better off with an old toothbrush and a wooden toothpick – moisten the end and you’ll get out most of the ground-in dirt.

Leave the soap alone

There’s also a lot of conflicting advice out there about which cleaning products to use. Never use solvents as they can eat into the rubber gaskets protecting the watch or cause damage to leather or fabric straps. If you can remove your metal bracelet, which is not always straightforward, it’s OK to soak it in warm soapy water, but that’s definitely not something we’d recommend for the watch itself. Unless your watch is absolutely filthy, you should be good with a little water on the cloth or brush. If it is really bad, consider taking it to a jeweller for ultrasonic cleaning, which shouldn’t set you back a great deal and will reach every last spot.

Once you’ve cleaned the watch and you feel like giving it a polish to get it looking Instagram-ready, all you need is a microfibre cloth. No polishing products necessary – you’re more likely to add gunk back into the crevices and you may damage elements of the watch.

Clean your watch strap

We’ve covered bracelets, whether they’re steel or gold, above. For other kinds of straps, here are your need-to-know cleaning tips. First, rubber straps: these are easy. Wash or wipe with a wet cloth and you’re done. Fabric or textile straps come in a wide array of materials. Check with the manufacturer if you’re not sure, but most Nato-style straps should be fine to either machine wash or scrub by hand with fabric detergent.

For cleaning leather watch straps, various opinions abound online. As a rule, you should avoid getting leather straps wet, especially untreated or unfinished leathers that are often used on softer, more laid-back watch straps (think shell cordovan). A quick wipe with a damp cloth if necessary should be sufficient if you dry it afterwards, but, in general, absorbing water and drying out again hastens cracking. You would be well advised to invest in a bottle of specialist leather cleaner, but again do make sure it’s OK to use on the specific leather of your strap. Such is the variety of leathers on offer so it’s best to check before you do anything.

03. Servicing your watch

It’s not always understood that when you buy a mechanical watch, you are committing to a lifelong programme of regular services to keep it running, much like a car. You should aim to have it serviced every five years or so by an accredited service centre or by the brand itself (think twice before going outside these options).

If you encounter any problems with your watch outside of that schedule, take it to a professional. Unless you’re an expert, don’t attempt to tinker with it yourself. Opening the watch in a non-sterile environment will expose it to dust, and the chance that you damage either the case or the movement is extremely high.

Having your watch serviced is not cheap, but they should do a thorough job. The watch will be stripped down and cleaned, relubricated, checked for accuracy and reliability, and have its water-resistance checked, as well as any repairs made. It should be sure they professionally seal the watch afterwards and pressure test the case to check it is watertight.

Many brands will repolish the case and bracelet, and replace the crystal if scratched, which can cause serious controversy especially on older watches, whose value often lies in their condition. Be entirely clear what will happen to your watch before you send it off and if you have any concerns about value tell them not to polish the watch, repair the dial or replace the hands or bezel. Collectors pay far more for an unpolished watch that has all its original features. A few scratches here and there and a bit of a patina are all part of a watch’s history.

Illustrations by Mr Joe McKendry

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