It can be a little galling getting a high-end watch serviced. Given the cost could be between £500 and £1000, it’s easy to feel you’re spending a lot of money just to get the same thing back again.
Perhaps it’s easier to swallow if you’ve spent 20k of your own money; but it’s rather less so if the watch is a fraction of that, or indeed was a gift.
It gave me a new respect for the work involved, and put the fee in perspective. In fact the whole process seemed closer to making a new watch than having it just checked and tweaked.
As you might expect, throughout I was drawing parallels with menswear – the artisan in the back of the store, the tools and techniques – and I concluded that the best comparison is with a bespoke suit. Like a suit, care and maintenance doesn’t make the thing look better (unlike shoes, say) but it is what the piece of fine craft deserves, and it also brings you closer to it – making you re-evaluate and value your possession.
There are a few things that go wrong with watches over the years, but some of the main ones are oils drying, screws failing and water damage.
The first two are so common that they’re part of the standard service procedure – cleaning and oiling, replacing all screws. The watchmaker gets a blister pack that contains all the likely required parts, and it’s a surprising amount. The mainspring is also replaced by default.
First though, the entire watch has to be taken apart, starting with the case and then working inwards. The pieces are placed in a segmented plastic tray, and it’s important to remember which is the top and bottom: because of the natural smoothing of the gold, the two ends (horns) won’t fit as smoothly against their opposing ends of the case.
When the front of the case has been removed and the whole movement taken apart, the balance spring and balance wheel are then put back in.
This is so the watchmaker can check how they’re running, and in my case finding that the spring was a little bent (one of the possible reasons it was running slow).
The incredible thing to me is that he then unbends it with a pair of tweezers. How this can be done precisely enough, on such a tiny spring, I don’t know. Most of the realignment is done at this stage, then there’s some fine tuning when the watch is put back together.
This stage uses a finer pair of tweezers than the ones used to deconstruct the watch. The points are so fine that they would apparently snap if used to remove the jewels. Each time he uses them, the watchmaker also sticks them in something that looks like Blu-Tac. Apparently it’s Rodico, which doesn’t lubricate them (as I thought) but removes tiny bits of dust.
It’s harder for Robert the watchmaker to work in this space – in the back of the Old Bond Street atelier – than in the main repair centre, which is in north London.
That larger space has a ‘positive pressure’ system, where filtered air is blown in through the roof, creating pressure that pushes air out whenever someone opens a door – so it’s much harder for dust to come in. In Bond Street there is no such system, and there are more random people (such as us) coming in and out.
When Robert took the hands off my Reverso (top image above), it was clear the watch had become magnetised because one hand immediately jumped up and stood vertically off the face.
The problem with the parts being magnetised is that they become attracted to other parts of the movement. The balance spring, for example, may be attracted to one part but repelled by another, making its rotation less smooth.
Another is a stray drop of oil, perhaps sticking two loops of the spring together. Some parts of the watch are put in a treatment liquid as part of the repair process, to give them greater surface tension and make sure oils stay stuck.
Magnetisation can happen fairly easily, through prolonged contact with the speaker of a mobile phone for example. Fortunately it’s an easy thing to remove: the watchmaker just places it on a small black box (above), presses a button and it’s done. It’s also something anyone can walk into the JLC boutique and ask to be checked.
According to Robert, little Reversos like mine are some of the hardest movements of this type to repair – there’s little room for error and they can be unpredictable. Colleagues of his that have worked on far more say sometimes a service can take a few hours, sometimes days.
I have to say, it was really nice seeing the movement of mine taken out and being able to hold it. It’s such an exquisite thing – and all finished beautifully, even though it’s never seen.
In a way, it’s a shame the watch doesn’t have an open back, so that could be appreciated. But of course that would take away from a fundamental aspect of the Reverso – that it can be flipped around so the back faces outwards. I’ve actually thought about ways to decorate that over the years, but have never taken the plunge. Maybe some other day.
After the deconstruction, testing the balance spring and a few other checks, the trays containing the parts are all placed into a desktop washing machine – which uses a nasty ammonia substance to cleanse (below).
That takes a few hours, including two rounds of drying, and then the watch is put back together with oil being added throughout, and each stage tested again. Further parts are replaced, and all the new screws are put in. I also had the crown replaced, the hands (they had become a little oxidised) and the crystal. As I said, it felt closer to building a new watch than just servicing.
The standard service fee of £570 included all these things, and polishing, but the new crystal cost £230.
I have to say I always found watch boutiques a little intimidating, or perhaps just off-putting. It’s probably that sparse, shiny look of luxury retail, plus the security guard.
But this experience, together with my one at Omega recently, have warmed me up. It’s a mixture of the service and the people: everyone at Jaeger was genuine and knowledgeable, unlike the vast majority of fashion boutiques, and advice seemed to be considered part of the benefit of ownership (try going into most big brands and asking about repairs).
Plus it’s nice to know there’s someone like Robert in the back of the store, beavering away, cracking jokes and chasing a misbehaving screw across the worktop.
Thank you Franck, Laurene, Stefania, Robert and everyone else at JLC for taking the time to explain everything to Alex and myself, watch naifs that we are.
Most JLC customers are not permitted to see watch services in progress, and a lot of servicing is done in the separate, larger location. But hopefully this piece gives some insight into the work that goes into it.
My Reverso is yellow gold, ref 250.140.862, from 1997. I bought it second hand 12 years ago. The clothes pictured are: