Disassembled Watch Movement

Collector GuideWe Must Repudiate “Recently Serviced” – A Manifesto for 21st Century Watch Buyers

Documenting watch servicing with photos should be standard practice among all watchmakers and dealers. Why isn’t it?

A Manifesto

In the 21st century we are delightfully awash in untold millions of old watches. Less delightful is that most of those old watches are in need of repair. If a watch has a clearly documented service history, we can be sure of how it’s been cared for; we can sell and buy it confidently; and we can begin to build it a service record and provenance for future custodians. It should be our collective mission to document these horological treasures and keep them ticking for posterity.

Unfortunately, when buying a used or vintage watch, the service history almost always remains a mystery. Rather than admit this, too many sellers attempt to reassure us with the phrase “Recently Serviced.” Don’t let this meaningless phrase placate your concerns about the running condition of any watch. Let the phrase “Recently Serviced” sound an alarm. Let it become the first thing you ask about as you vet not only the watch but also the seller.

It’s time we buyers take control of the conversation, demand proof of service, and repudiate the ubiquitous vague reassurances sellers pawn on us. Remember: we are ones with the money.

A Hueur Monza disassembled during service at Grand Central Watch. This photo was taken with an iPhone.

What a Watch Service Requires

We explore this in more detail elsewhere, but what’s needed to service a watch is full disassembly so that parts can be cleaned, lubricated, repaired and/or replaced and/or upgraded. Therefore, proof of service is as easy as seeing a photograph of the disassembled watch. You’ll want more details about what was done, how, and why, but without a photo you’ll never know if the watch was serviced in the first place.

A proper cleaning of all components requires full disassembly. This photo by David Flett makes that obvious.

Get Photos or Get Screwed

Without date-stamped photographs of the watch disassembled during servicing, you should assume the watch has not been serviced, and you should approach the sale as such.

The photos should include the case back, dial, and any other components with a serial number or other markings that indicate the specific watch. Taking the photo should consume about 30 seconds of the watchmaker’s time, and posting the images should take up about 60 seconds of the seller’s time. It’s beyond easy to do, and it’s the right thing to do. There are no shortcuts.

A Vacheron Constantin for sale in Italy includes this image of the watch fully disassembled. Image: Dual Time SLR.

So why doesn’t anyone take or post photos of the disassembled watch?

Comrade, I hate to be cynical, but we are a wily species, our moral fibers worn thin by centuries of capitalist justifications for cheating each other. However, horology is an honorable hobby, and we must uphold its wholesomeness. It is up to us, the ones with the money in hand, the buyers, to demand honesty and transparency of watch sellers.

Take Control Of The Conversation

So, if the listing says “Recently Serviced” and there’s no recent photos of the disassembled watch, it’s time to push back and demand transparency.

In the absence of a photograph, do not let the seller tell you what’s been done. Ask for the service mechanic’s name and phone number. If you don’t get it, bail out. If you do, then ask the mechanic directly what they discovered during the service, when they worked on the watch, and ask if they might provide images of the disassembled watch. Speak as if this is a reasonable and normal expectation, because it is.

And, again, be ready to come up short walk away with your money.

A quick search on any watch sales site will reveal endless lists of watches with no photos of servicing, yet which claim the watch for sale was recently serviced.

If even a few of us start holding sellers to this higher standard, we will make a difference. It’s up to us, the buyers.

You’re likely to piss off some watchmakers and certainly you’ll piss off sellers (I speak from experience), but that’s better than being misled and allowing low transactional standards to proliferate in our hobby. The conversation may grow cold – even a little ugly – yet I’ve found that a seller will show their true colors when pressed to explain what “Recently Serviced” actually amounts to. Sadly, more often than not, I’ve had to conclude that “Recently Serviced” means nothing, because sellers either can not, or for some reason refuse, to prove to me that anything has been done. 

Upon my asking what servicing entailed and whether there was any proof of it, one seller claimed I was being “aggressive” while another flat out ghosted me, and still does. More often than not I get some form of push back, and almost never do I get any proof.

I’m going to start telling watchmakers that I won’t pay them if I don’t get photos. I hope you will too.

Seeing Past The Smoke & Mirrors

Again, nothing but photos of the disassembled watch can serve as proof of service. Including the following:

Service Receipts – A receipt from a watchmaker is not proof of service. It’s a piece of paper. A receipt could legitimately indicate a full service, but without photos all you’ll know for sure is that you’re getting a piece of paper. The actuality or extent of the claimed service remains a mystery.

(Note: one reader recently suggested that detailed receipts from reputable mechanics are sufficient. Perhaps. I would argue that snapping a photo shouldn’t be a problem for reputable mechanics.)

Time Grapher Results – Some sellers will send you images of a watch hooked up to a time grapher, a machine that shows the movement’s error in seconds/24-hours, the amplitude of the balance, and the beat rate. The meaning of this data relies on your literacy, and David Flett has you covered here. However, even when well understood, time grapher results don’t tell you whether the watch was “Recently Serviced” any more than taking your pulse indicates that you’ve just been to the doctor.

This is the reading of a time grapher. Th watch is fast by 64 seconds a day.

I’ve seen 50-year old watches with cheap pin-lever escapements that have never been serviced perform within the standards of certified chronometers. And even a brave amateur can adjust a movement to perform more precisely without servicing it. So, while time grapher results are useful as diagnostic tools, they tell us nothing about when or if a watch has been “Recently Serviced.”

Warranties – Many dealers of used and vintage watches include a one-year warranty, and some offer two-years. Quite a few collectors (including our own David Flett) believe a warranty indicates a recent service was done. I disagree. There’s nothing about offering a warranty that constitutes a service record. Warranties for 12-months simply mean that if the watch stops working as it did upon sale that the seller will then have it serviced. Odds are that the watch will hang in there for 12 months, and so the sellers play those odds to their advantage.

Some Sellers Lie, Quite a Few Fudge

For fear of libel, I wont name names, but some sellers do lie, and many fudge, about servicing. I know they do, because I’ve traded and sold watches to sellers who have them listed within hours as “Recently Serviced,” knowing full well that the watch has no service record. Also, I’ve witnessed conversations in which watchmakers acknowledge that they only look over a watch, and then I’ve seen “Recently Serviced” on the listings of those watches.

Another sad tale: I recently paid $350 to have a beloved older watch serviced because the date setting mechanism wasn’t working correctly. After two return visits, it still didn’t work, and I lost faith entirely in this so-called mechanic. I ended up taking the watch to another watchmaker who swiftly fixed the date mechanism and told me that there was no lubrication anywhere in the movement, meaning that the previous mechanic had lied. I’d asked for photos, but he said he forgot to take them. Unfortunately, this dishonest guy repairs for major sellers in North America who write “Recently Serviced” in their ads.

It’s all so disappointing.

Many sellers use “Recently Serviced” to indicate any range of attention paid to the condition of the watch: from a vague check up with the case back off to time grapher readings to a quick adjustment to the balance regulator. But, in my experience, these fudgy sellers usually won’t tell you what was actually done. Be wary of sentences like: “We had our watchmaker go over it, and it checked out great.”

Again, only photos of the disassembled watch serve as proof of service.

A photograph of a disassembled movement expositng clearly the condition of the pallet wheel, pinions, and so on. this image is from David Flett’s workbench and goes a long way toward establishing the provenance of this watch.

Honesty Gets You Higher Than Dopamine

Because servicing is expensive, dealers of vintage and pre-owned watches are incentivized to spend as little as possible – and preferably nothing – on servicing the watches they sell. Service fees either eat into profits or renders pricing uncompetitive. A free-market capitalist might exclaim with libertarian vigor that this Darwinian race to the bottom lowers prices for consumers, but it also lowers the standard of quality and erodes any tendency toward transparency between seller and buyer. Watches aren’t bananas. They’re sophisticated, delicate, and often expensive micro-machines traded to passionate collectors who have committed themselves – via this manifesto, to be sure – to establishing provenance for the world’s watches on behalf of posterity.

Reassembled Seiko movement from David Flett’s workbench.

It’s not just the dealers who have lowered the standards and eroded transparency. Out of laziness, ignorance, fear of losing access, willful optimism, or pure lust to consume, we buyers tend to trust dealers blindly. We are driven by passion and impulse, seeking yet another horological dopamine response in the great hunt that never ends. I’m here to tell you that the satisfaction of demanding transparency and honesty is far greater and longer lasting than the satisfaction of adding another watch with a dubious service record to your collection.

A New Era of Transparency and Blunt Honesty

I’m asking you to join me in setting a new standard for the 21st century.

I’m calling on all who buy, sell, and repair vintage and used watches to give birth to a new era of transparency. In this newly dawning era, the phrase “Recently Serviced” will need to include photographs of the work done. No photos, no proof. No proof, then either no sale, or remove the cost of a proper service from the price of the watch.

If there’s a community that can uphold basic fairness, transparency and decency, I’d hope it’s this horological one in which I usually find those characteristics in abundance. It’s time for all dealers and watchmakers to join in and do what’s right. If you’re really fully servicing the watch, then it should take less than a minute of your time to prove it.