Classic watches, watchmaking, antique tools, history, vintage ephemera and more!

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On Broken Balance Staffs

Q: I was looking at the pictures you posted today on Google+ and made we wonder. About how many of your jobs are to replace broken or damaged balance staffs? Seems like a lot based on the number of repairs you post. This seems like a design flaw in watches? I can imagine back in the day those repairs kept food on the table for watchmakers?

A: Replacing a balance staff is the most common repair, outside of the normal maintenance process. The balance pivots are very, very small rods of hardened steel, running in jeweled bearings. This arrangement creates a bearing that, when properly cleaned and oiled, will last pretty much forever without wear. But the hard steel balance pivots are also very brittle, so any sharp shock will break them. I've never kept track, but probably 1 out of 4 or 5 watches I see needs a new staff.

My Grandfather told me that at one of hos first jobs the shop owner insisted that the balance staff get replaced on all the watches that came in for service, regardless. And they charged for it! This is pretty extreme, not to mention unscrupulous. He didn't work at that place very long.

But anyway, I suppose one could call it a design flaw. Then again the top speed of a Model T is only about 40 mph too. These watches were designed and built using the best technology of their time.

The only other thing that eventually breaks or wears out on a watch that is otherwise perfectly cared for is the mainspring. The old steel ones in particular eventually go, no matter what.

Unfortunately almost all of these parts - balance staffs and mainsprings - have not been manufactured for many decades. Because those parts were the ones most often needed, the watch companies left us with mountains of them. But we're running out. It is going to be a lot more expensive to repair watches in the near future.

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