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How Accurate is a Vintage Watch?

There was a nice post over at the "I Already Have a Watch" blog, which is generally concerned with more "modern" vintage, regarding the accuracy of vintage timepieces. This post has been removed, but it was originally here:


Here's a quote:

"While many of these old watches can be repaired and adjusted to run very accurately there are simply some that are old, tired, worn out antiques. Very often mechanical watches were sorely neglected especially in the post-1970 era when inexpensive quartz replacements could be had and watchmakers began getting harder to come by. Some vintage watches are lucky to be running at all after the way they’ve been treated for three or more decades.

"But in general it’s perhaps unreasonable to expect a decades-old watch to perform like new, and a +/- 1 minute a day rate for most any 30-60 year old watch with unknown or even no previous service history isn’t too bad in my opinion, especially for watches that may not have been capable of chronometer performance when new."

I agree, and the entire post is worth reading. It raises a few issues that I'd like to expand on here.

Most, almost all in fact, of the watches I work on are family heirlooms and of a wide variety of original quality levels ranging from budget 7 jewel grades, to the 21 and 23 jewel railroad models, and ranging from the mid 19th century through the 1950s. The accuracy of these watches after cleaning and repairing any serious faults (that is, faults that prevent a watch from running), also varies. The vast majority fall in the ballpark of +/- one to two minutes per 24 hours. There are outliers though, both more and less accurate, creating a wide range. Every vintage watch is a truly different, unique individual. The important thing is that the watch be functioning correctly, without fault. The actual rate of a watch can vary by several minutes per 24 hours in a completely properly functioning watch.

In my work, I strive to get the best mechanical state I can for each watch, while using as many original parts as possible - even if those parts are not in perfect condition. It may always be possible, in theory, to improve the accuracy of a watch by replacing slightly worn parts that are not ideal. But to what end? There are several issues to consider.

Most of the watches I deal with are American-made vintage pocketwatches. Even when they are slightly rare pieces, at least some replacement parts are at hand - and frequently factory new parts are available. But the more that is replaced, the closer we are to a different watch. If a part is marginal, but the watch runs, that is, within a minute (or two or three) a day, and does not stop in a certain position, for example, I would tend not do the replacement. It would likely be possible to marginally improve the watch by replacing more and more components with pristine parts, moving closer to an "ideal" or exemplar watch, but it would be far more practical to simply purchase a different watch that is in better condition, than to bear the cost of replacing each individual part until one watch is made over into another watch anyway. The cost of replacing parts, a lot of parts, in an antique watch approaches the cost of buying a different movement quite quickly for common pieces. For most people, since they are dealing with a family heirloom, replacing the movement is not what they are looking for, and rightly so I feel. And so accuracy is a secondary concern.

Even when a new, and presumably "better," part is not available, it can usually be made. In addition, factory parts in a watch might be tweaked and adjusted, perhaps using a modern method, tool or material, and again the accuracy of a watch improved. But the reason for putting the word "better" in quotes above is that, again, accuracy is not all that goes into the choices made. A watch should also be original. Boring a hole in a plate and adding a bushing to improve a worn, un-jeweled pivot, is a "repair," but it is also an irreversible alteration to an antique.

Further, is it really desirable to create a watch that is better than new?  In the early days of watchmaking, before railroad standards, accuracy of +/-10 minutes a day would not be unheard of.   Although 10 minutes is extreme, restoration of an antique to a level of performance typical of it's period seems reasonable and appropriate.

I should also make another point with regard to historic watchmaking practices. The considerations above would not have been taken into account by the old watchmakers that have previously serviced a piece in the 19th century. In those cases a watchmaker would in fact do whatever they needed to do to achieve the best timekeeping they could. Keeping in mind that watchmaking historically is a "by-hand" tradition, and was not all about standardized factory parts until much later, it is no surprise that hand-made parts and clever, jury-rigged repairs are pretty common in vintage pocketwatches. I see them all the time, especially in pocketwatches in use in the 1800s.

Sometimes these are awful hacks.  But these repairs are also part of the history of the watch and (hopefully) a tribute to the skill of the old watchmakers If they are not interfering, if they are working, it they are doing no harm, and if they don't require an alteration to another original part, I leave these fixes in place, even if a "proper" repair would improve the accuracy of the watch. In fact once or twice I have even "repaired" an old "repair".

Lastly it should be said that some watches should not be repaired. Occasionally I see something handmade, very old, and/or very rare or special in some way, such as having been owned by a significant historical figure. These watches are much more valuable in an "un-restored", as-found state. The best thing to do in these cases is stabilization, usually making the watch run (or at least tick), assuring general cleanliness and good lubrication, and replacing little if anything, depending on the circumstances. The original character of such items matters, not their accuracy.

And so regarding accuracy...   I am reminded of my Grandfather, who had forgotten more about watchmaking than I will ever learn in a lifetime, once expressed to me his puzzlement that anyone would want an old pocketwatch repaired. He asked me, "why would anyone want an old watch when the new ones are so much better and cheaper?"

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