Friday, 24 August 2018

Reply To A Reader's Comment No. 1 - Patina On Old Wristwatches. Yay or Nay?

First of all, I wanna say 'thank-you' to all of you who read this blog of mine, and especially to those of you who leave a comment. Except for the spammers out there. You guys just waste my time and your comments - usually linked to roofing repair companies or fake watch sites - are promptly deleted. 
I try to reply to all comments and from time to time, I read a comment related to wristwatches and I feel that a longer reply is required on my part. 

Here's a recent comment;

I have been collecting typewriters for many years now, but only recently started to get interested in watches. One thing I learned is that watch collectors like their (valuable) pieces as original as possible, preferable without ever having been serviced. Therefor, the most valuable Submariners sometimes have hour and minute markers where the tritium almost falls out. I wonder if some time in the future, collectors will treat typewriters the same way, admiring patina and worshipping discoloration of keys. Maybe you should be careful when you swap the keys of your Smith Corona! Just kidding. By the way, I am waiting for a Seiko Marinemaster to arrive in the mail. It's officially far to big for my wrist, but I decided I don't care. Do you wear your huge Hamilton sometimes (I think to remember you wrote about it a while ago)?

I'm one of these collectors who wants a vintage watch to look as pristine as possible. Certainly, I have vintage watches that show their age, but wherever possible, I always aim for the best condition that I can afford. 
Needless to say, I've only managed to snag a couple of pieces that were in impeccable condition. And one of them was put-together from parts!

This circa 1962 Omega Seamaster was a real find. Snagged it from a watchmaker who sold vintage pieces back around 2002. 
Had it serviced a few years later by another watchmaker who only charged me $40 bucks. It's 35mm in diameter and the dial and hands are in beautiful condition. I've put it on an after-market bead-of-rice bracelet, but I think I'll switch it back to a leather strap sometime soon because I think it looks better that way. More representative of its era. 

 Does look good on the bracelet, though.

The other one was a WatchCo-built Omega Seamaster 300. WatchCo was a second-hand watch dealer which put period-correct movements into new-old-stock cases. Purists consider these to be Frankenwatches. This is a term used to describe a watch that has been cobbled together from parts. However, all the parts are correct for this model, and I have no problem with it. 
I spent about five years watching these Seamaster 300s come up on eBay. They were either heavily water-damaged originals or Vietnam-era fakes. 
The water-damaged originals would require extensive replacement of corroded parts, to the point where you'd end up with something akin to a Frankenwatch anyway. 
The Vietnam fakes - produced in the late 1960s and sold to unsuspecting GI's on leave in Saigon - would contain a genuine Omega movement and that's all. The cases, dials and hands were all fake. 

In the end, I contacted WatchCo and grabbed one of these before the parts ran out and the prices skyrocketed. 
The upside is that the dials and hands glow like a new watch and the case has been tested and is water-resistant down to 200 metres. Not that I've ever submerged this watch in water.
No regrets.

When it comes to patina on vintage wristwatches, I've noticed a trend over the last five or ten years, particularly with vintage Rolex sports watches, whereby the aspects that were once considered flaws are now considered attributes.

Spider dials.
                    There was a period where Rolex used a particular type of lacquer on the dial of their Submariner model which, over time, began to crack on the surface, giving it a webbed, mosaic pattern now referred to as a 'spider dial'. These models are quite sought-after by collectors, but I know my tastes well enough to know that this kind of dial would drive me nuts.
Sure, they stay intact and it is indicative of the authenticity and originality of the watch, but the cracked pattern would have me running to the nearest Rolex Service Centre to have it replaced.
Still, they are coveted by collectors looking for true original cosmetic condition that has been untouched. This 5513 model (photo courtesy of della Rocca looks like it has a mid-1980s dial on it.

Pumpkin markers
                       Any pre-1983 (or thereabouts) Submariner 5513 would have had plain white luminous Tritium dots on the hour markers, with a rectangular baton at three of the cardinal points and a V-shaped wedge at the 12 marker. Over time, exposure to UV light would begin to darken these white dots to a soft cream-coloured hue. Left alone, these dots would continue to change colour, to the point where they would achieve a pale, pumpkin-orange shade.

Now, given the choice, I would prefer pale white or cream markers any day of the week. However, if you were to offer me a spider dial or a dial with pumpkin-orange hour markers, I would probably choose the latter. Maybe.
This pic courtesy of Sweeping

Although, I spent a few decades yearning for a vintage Submariner (actually, it was about 1974 to 2015) and its entire design and look was so infused into my subconscious that I can pretty much declare with confidence that all I wanted was an off-white set of hands and hour markers. Expecting to find a vintage Submariner in pristine original condition with bathroom-tile white markers would be a long and drawn-out exercise.
Again, these pumpkin marker dials are quite sought-after. To me, though, they just look a tad too sunburnt for my liking.

Ghost bezels
                     Ahh, now this one particularly irks me.

The rotating bezel starts off as black. It is an anodised aluminium insert that's fitted to the stainless steel bezel ring. Over time, exposure to sun and surf can fade the bezel from a deep black to a faded light grey. And beyond.
I had a customer who once brought in an Omega Seamaster for servicing. The dark blue anodised bezel had faded to a pale blue. He informed me that, until recently, he used to go surfing every day. The salt-water had faded away the colour of the bezel. It looked great. It showed that the watch had been used for one of its intended purposes. Could I wear it? Nope.
A lot of dealers have been selling Submariners and GMT Masters with faded bezels and, again, a lot of folks love 'em. To me, though, it drastically changes the look of the watch.

Patina is one thing. It's nice to see a watch and notice the scuffs and scratches, to see marks on the crystal. It gives you an idea that the watch has been worn and worn well.
However...pumpkin markers? Ghost bezels? What next? Is somebody gonna drill a hole right through the watch and call it a 'ventilated case'?

To answer schrijfmachine's comment, yes, wristwatches can be a slippery slope. Collections can start off small and get out of hand.
Regarding collectors and their preferences for  originality, yes, many of them will go for patina from a cosmetic point of view, but a watch that's never been serviced will not run very effectively.
Loose tritium can fall away from the hands and get into the movement via the date window or central dial post aperture and one should always be careful regarding this.
When I took my Submariner to Rolex for a repair quote last year, they said the hands needed to be replaced because the tritium had become brittle. This was a deal-breaker for me. Changing the hands would change the entire look of the watch. I said 'no' to their quote and took the watch to a watchmaker who was able to stabilise the cracked lume by applying varnish to the underside of the hands, effectively gluing the lume in place.
If the lume ever breaks away, that's when I'll consider replacing the hands.

As for the Seiko Marinemaster being too big for your wrist, schrijfmachine, well I'm of the opinion that there's nothing wrong with having one big, loud wristwatch in your collection. 
Yes, I still wear the Hamilton Khaki from time to time. At 44mm in diameter, it's huge on my wrist, but that was the look I was going for. I wanted a watch that looked like a wartime spy's piece of kit.

I've had my eye on a more sedate 40mm Hamilton Khaki for a while now, but I'm not sure if I'll go for one. 

If anything, I think I should get the collection down before I add anything more to it. 

I hope this info helps, schrijfmachine. 

Thanks for reading!


  1. Interesting - this discussion on patina is something I never even thought of being a factor in the desirability of a watch. I'd sort of assumed that anyone who could afford to put $5k or so on their wrist would be the sort of person who got flaws fixed the instant they happened.

    1. From what I've seen over the years, Ted, collectors who have a very worn and patina'd Rolex also tend to have one or two more of the same model in much, much, much better condition.
      Me? I could only afford to buy one, so I wanted it to be as close to perfect original condition as it could be.
      All this talk on watch forums over the last five or ten years about spider dials and ghost bezels has basically created a mania for watches with what I consider to be flaws.
      But that's just me.
      One watchmaker even tried to convince me that Rolex produced a Submariner dive watch with a grey bezel. Nope. The bezels have always been black.
      It's a weird hobby and the advent of the internet has allowed a lot of misinformation to circulate among the info that's actually correct.

  2. I think the difference between a ghost bezel and a hole through the watch is that the first is a mark from normal usage through decades, and the second is just damage. If it were my watch, I would be proud on a ghost bezel, showing the long term relationship I had with the watch and how I wore it. So, I think we disagree on this.

    Even more, I hope that in the future typewriter collectors will appreciate these kind of wearing signs a bit more. Now, if a collector buys a machine, the first thing to do is cleaning it as well as possible, removing all signs of former usage. I guess that in a not so far future, certain marks of usage will add value to the typewriter. Once I cleaned off the bright red nail polish off the shift keys of a 50's desk typewriter; I regret that now, because they showed by who (probably a 50's secretary with long red fingernails) and how it was frequently used. It made this typewriter unique.

    The same for discoloured (or hard legible) keys, nicotin stains, typex marks and maybe even dirty typeslugs. If everybody cleans their old machines, the ones with authentic smudge and signs of use will be extremely rare and valuable in a not so far future. That will be the machines with a story of how these machines were actually used (not by hipsters, but in real life when no alternative was available).

    I think watch collecting is one step ahead with this.

    1. My “hole through the watch” comment was a joke, meant to highlight the way dealers put their particular spin on the description of a watch’s condition.
      For me, every little scratch and dent is evidence of the way the watch has been used and worn, but I draw the line at a very faded bezel because it drastically changes the look of the watch. It would be the same as having a vintage car and leaving a rusted or faded section of the bodywork unrestored.
      To each their own, schrijfmachine.

      And congratulations on the Marinemaster! I have a tonne of respect for Seiko.

    2. It would bother me on a vintage car, so I understand your point about the faded bezel. I would not pay a premium for a ghost bezel, but neither would I change it for a new bezel. I wonder how collectors' general opinions about this will develop in the fuuture (regarding both watches and typewriters). Will accumulated dirt on a watch ever be good for a premium price? Interesting stuff, thanks for writing about this!

  3. ah, and about the Marinemaster: It arrived last week. It's beautiful and wears small. I put it on a black Crafterblue rubber strap (CB03); really spectacular and it didn't leave my wrist since I got it (and doubt it soon will).