Just after Christmas, there's a certain category of inquiries that stands out: questions from those that have received an antique watch as a gift this holiday season. One of the most common flavors these inquiries come in, are those from people that have broken the crystal on their "new" watch and would like to have it replaced.
Now, I get emails about watch crystals every week. But for about a week after Christmas, I get at least one, and often more, every single day. Firstly, I do not generally replace crystals (this may seem odd, but consider that your auto mechanic and auto body and paint work are probably done in separate shops). Replacing crystals and other case repairs call for specialty services with a large selection of crystals on hand, and possibly the machinery to custom cut the glass to fit.
Here are few other things to know about vintage watch crystals...
Because of the content of my web sites, I mostly receive emails about broken crystals on Elgin pocketwatches. The first thing to point out about early pocketwatches is that, like other American companies, Elgin never made pocketwatch cases. Under well into the '20s, the majority of watch companies did not sell watch cases at all. The common practice was that a customer would pick out a bare movement and a case separately at the shop and the watchmaker or jeweler would assemble them together. Because of this your movement and the case don't "go together" in any hard set way. Someone needing a crystal for an antique Elgin pocketwatch is not looking for a standardized Elgin part. A description of the watch is of no use in determining the crystal it needs.
This is one of the reasons that the business of replacing crystals requires having a large variety on hand. Add to this the fact that antique items are simply not as standardized as modern manufactured goods. As with the watches themselves, every watch case may be a little different, even for two cases that are supposed to be the same.
And because of this, there's another thing to know; when you have a crystal replaced, you will have to send your entire watch in for the job. Even if you can measure the diameter required accurately, there are different styles of the profile of the edge. And the crystal has to provide clearance under the glass for the hands, both at the center and at the out side edge. It's not a simple matter of pulling off the shelf a crystal for watch XYZ and snapping it in place. If you want it done right, send your watch to a professional.
One more point about hunting case crystals, that is crystals for cases with front covers, like the one pictured here... Be aware that glass hunter case crystals are extremely fragile. The glass is like eggshell. It shouldn't be touched at all. And keep in mind that glass crystals are literally extinct in some sizes and can not be replaced, except with plastic substitutes. When it's destroyed, it's gone.
Once every month or two I return a hunter cased watch to a customer, only to receive an email a few days later inquiring about replacing the newly broken crystal. This is heartbreaking. These watches are fragile antiques. Parts have not been made in decades, please handle them gently.
Your watch may be 100, or 150, years old, or more. It has survived a long time. Treat it with care and respect and it will be around for the future to enjoy as well.
And finally, here's a few words about daily use antiques, and also here.