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Informations: Troubles with Old Watches

Old Watches

- originally designating the age of whine - is today used to upvalue almost everything. More to the point is old watch; this means just that the normal useful life was exceeded.
     Watches, still performing well after centuries, prove that their intended useful life can be exceeded widely with good care. And this makes them collectible: They can be used.
...and their Troubles

Problems arise only if time and/or money for service are saved the wrong way. Shifting a necessary service or unqualified repair attempts make troubles worse, and the examples on these pages demomonstrate that the initially cheapest solution becomes the most expensive in the end.
     Important! The examples are by no means extreme disasters, but just arbtrarily picked out cases from practice.
Balance Troubles
Back Can't Be Opened
Enamel Damages
Master Disaster
Normal Madness
Oil Disasters
Pallet Jewel Broken
Watch Doesn't Run
Wrong Parts
Screw too Long
To OverviewTo Overview


Bad Message First

Often watches which became out of fashion were only maintained with cheapest means. So many old watches are already critically ill after some unqualified repair attempts, and some get the rest when extending their run time just enough to sell them as enthousiasts objects.

Good Message

Still watches are left, which were regularly serviced by qualified watchmakers. They don't represent the major fraction, but as not everybody is a collector, there is enough supply of watches in decent condition, which require not to sink lots of mony in them.


Distinguishing trash from collectibles is difficult: For rare Watches there is no choice: They must be taken as they are, or be left out. And among precious watches a worn down sample may be reasonable, if one can't or won't efford a better sample.
    For a hobbyist even a low grade watch in poor shape can be reasonable. He can book his work as hobby, and needs not figure out the economical point of view.

Every watch should hold what the seller promises; therefore some simple rules:
1) If possible buy no watch without return privilege.
2) Buy no watch without having seen the movement.
3) Check a bought watch carefully, if necessary consult a watchmaker.

Crap Repairs

Wear or breaks belong to the minor problems of old watches. Most problems and the most expensive are caused by unqualified tinkering.
    I've seen within many years damages which are impossible without the influence of a watch destructor. The examples here are arbtrarily picked up, just to give collectors an imagination, what they should expect from old watches.

Between Ignorance and Fraud

Often sellers don't know what they sell. No problem at all if the buyer doesn't know either, and also not if a fair agreement between seller and buyer can be found, e.g. return or discount.
     But it happens that sellers sell watches as flawless, well knowing their deficits. The more ingenious mention a deficit as marginal, and leave it to the buyer to find out the whole extent of the disaster. And if the buyer complains, they say that they had indicated the flaws - a pretty subtle kind of fraud.
Up Up

Pallet Jewel broken
The lever is not subject to repairs; it is one of the longest lasting parts of a watch, and especially a pallet jewel will never break.
     But it happens: The example watch (movement in Fig. 1) was designed for eternity. Despite its age (made 1925) it was in decent shape: Neither corrosion, nor noticable wear, just minor marks as inevitable after many services.

Fig. 1

Fig. 2
Magnify images by clicking them

The amplitude (oscillation width) of the balance was unsteady, and between different positions the speed varied several minutes per day.
     If speed is varying due to damages of wheels it repeats periodically depending on the revolutions of the causing wheel. If variations are erratic, usually a failure of the escapement is the reason.
      Fig. 2 shows a pallet jewel with chipped off edges and planes, considerably compared with a new (on the left). The pallets are cut and arranged to draw them into the escape wheel. This keeps the fork away from the balance roller, reducing friction, as indended for a detached lever escapement.
     Such a damaged jewel can't do this job. The lever fork slips over the roller, causing variing position errors and amplitudes. Moreover the top surface was damaged. As this surface transmits energy from the escape wheel to the balance, only a reduced erratic fraction of the energy is available for the balance.

No need to know or understand all these details. Simply imagine that nobody would cut and arrange the jewels so precisely, if an unshaped pebble could do the job.
Repair What Could Have Happened?
Unfortunately the repair is troublesome and expensive:
1) The parts are tiny. The jewels shown magnified here are just 0.22mm wide.
2) Replacements are available in all widths, but varying lengths would let stock keeping efforts explode. So the replacement must be shorted to matching length - not easy for such a midget.
3) Appropriate tools (heating plate, alignment aid) must be purchased, but are scarcely used because usually the complete lever is replaced. So the costs have to be distributed over few repair jobs.

Fig. 3

In Fig. 3 the new shorted pallet is mounted, and the old damaged aside. The result is astonishing: The speed became steady as expected, but the position errors even grew bigger, but were now constant for every position.
1) The watch was since long out of fashion, when the owner wanted to have it repaired as cheap as possible. The uncle of a friend of the neighbour's daughter was an expert for lawn mowers, first choice though.
2) He started with correcting the pallet position with pliers - for dubious reason. Pallets withstand the beats of escape-wheel teeth eternally, but not the zillionfold power of the pliers.
3) The watch still refused to die, but ran with small amplitude and big position deviations.
4) Unfortunately one can suspect that it was a watchmaker: The position deviations were compensated by a tiny correction washer under the correct balance screw, and by increasing the play of the hairspring between the curb pins of the regulator - procedures not actually common for hobbyists.

And indeed, the increased position error after replacement of the jewel was gone after removing the improper compensation measures, mentioned in 4).

No idea about the origin of this disaster. Remarkable that replacing the jewel brought the movement back to a performance as new: A maximum position deviation of 20s/day is good for such an old watch without shock device. Remember that chronometers from present production may have 10s/day. So nothing ever "happened" to the watch by usage; it was simply damaged by a repairer.
Figures  (cf. Service Prices)  
EUR  10.00  removing and reinserting movement, hands, and dial
EUR  60.00  replacing the pallet
EUR  15.00  removing the improper position error compensation

EUR 85.00   total  (in 2010)
Acceptable for such an outstanding gold watch. For a watch of moderate value one can only hope to find a complete lever or a donor movement for some bucks.

Regardless what was the reason for this destruction, the work was too expensive, even if free of charge.
Up Up

Screw too Long
ebay seller: renram, item: 120475436924:
schöne Herrenuhr Etern a Centennaihe
Closed: 10-11-2009, for EUR 86.00
No functional deficits mentioned.

Fig. 1

Fig. 2
Magnify images by clicking them

The reality: At midnight the watch stopped running. If set further, the date advanced. The quickset didn't work.

Tiny cause, huge (and expensive) consequence: A screw is lost and nobody creeps hours on the floor the find it, since replacement is no problem. Take a matching screw, and look what is going on with its end, because the end may lead to damages.

The first indicator for tinkering: A missing screw at A in Fig.1. Not actually professional, since the manufacturer had good reasons to mount the rather thin date plate with four screws.

Without date plate the reason for the not working quickset was visible: The date corrector B was missing (in Fig.2 already added). But even with the added corrector the quickset didn't work, because the date plate was seriously distorted.
What Has Happened  

Fig. 3

Fig. 4
Near the date jumper D the end C of a too long screw stuck out (Fig.3). Not fatal at the first glance. But if a tooth of the date disk pushed the jumper D to the right, its spring E passed the end C of the screw (Fig.4).
Still no problem without the date plate, but with the plate screwed on, above C no space is left for the spring E, and the jumper D got stuck.

The Crap Approach

Since the date stuck with tightened date plate, the screw over the date jumper D was left out. As the date still remained a bit sticky it was operated by  quickset until the teeth of the date disk were enough deformed to pass the sticky jumper now and then.
  Fig. 5

The tiny (in Fig.5 strongly magnified) date corrector B works usually eternally. But it is operaded via even more tiny rods on its bottom, and these surely didn't resist this treatment, and broke. So this part was left out - no urgent need for a quickset feature.

A watchmaker imagines that a watch properly worked when leaving the factory. And if there is any malfunction, he simply restores the original state. The approach of a watchbreaker is different: He pokes until the watch functions by accident  - or simply not.

Fig. 6

Fig. 7
Back to the Roots

After cleaning and lubricating, and with replaced date disk, -plate, and -corrector the movement presents in the shape it had before the tinker touched it.

The date disk is not the same as before, but there were various models, and 50 years after the birth of the watch one can be happy to find any. Moreover the silvered disk matches the silvered dial beter than the white.
 Figures  (cf. Service Prices)  
EUR  10.00  removing and reinserting movement, hands, and dial
EUR    8.00  partial disassembling to replace the too long screw
EUR  20.00  diagnostics, disassembling and assembling date mechanism
EUR    6.50  date corrector
EUR  14.50  date disk
EUR  18.60  date plate

EUR  77.60   total  (in 2010)
These are only the costs directly caused by the too long screw. For additional EUR 35.00 the movement was cleaned and lubricated, to make sure that no swarf from the date disk will stop the watch eventually. So the total is EUR 112.60. Without botch the service costs would have been EUR 61.00  But now the total for the watch including the purchase price became EUR 206.60, and this didn't return when the watch was sold later.

Finally botch is too expensive, even if free of charge.
Up Up

Watch Doesn't Run

  Fig. 1
Magnify images by clicking them
ebay seller: harrybr67, item: 230466699214:
Alpina Taschenuhr
Closed: 05-02-2010, for EUR 35.50
Original text: "Leider läuft sie nicht. Ich habe keine Ahnung wieso nicht, da ich die Uhr nicht aufbekomme. Deshalb verkaufe ich die Uhr ausdrücklich als DEFEKT." (Unfortunately not running. No idea why because I can't open it. So I sell the watch explicitely as DEFECTIVE.)

The Apparent Beauty

Fig.1 shows a watch in perfect shape, without any visible marks of usage

Regarding the exterior shape, an experienced collector expects as worst case a broken balance staff. Price, shipping charge, and replacing the staff would then add to a total of some EUR 120.00, an attractive price for an n.o.s. watch from about 1940. And with some luck it would have been the famous little something, and this made this gambling reasonable.
  Fig 2
The Ugly Reality

After opening the back it became obvious why the watch didn't run: Instead of a movement, Fig.2 shows a plate especially made for display dummies, with drill holes for the dial feet, riveted posts A for the hands, and a spring B holding the stem in place. The dummy plate is even designed for several calibres, as the center punches C for other drillings indicate.

The Problem

This is no watch, just a dummy. A normal seller would have said: "Sorry, my mistake - return it". Or he would have negotiated a fair price for the case and the dial. But it is possible to turn an error to fraud: Refering to his item description (I mentioned that the watch doesn't run), he refused any agreement.

Not respected own advice:
Never buy a watch without movement photo.

Up Up

Back Can't Be Opened


Fig. 1

Fig. 2
Magnify images by clicking them
ebay seller: wein1939, item: 230315529178:
Universal Geneve 1969
Closed: 12-26-2008, for EUR 197.89
Original text (translated): "Runs accurately....sorry, unable to open the back...".

Fig.1 shows the watch in April 2011, but except a crystal with some tears it looked similar in 2008. And in fact, even with all my expensive case-opening equipment I couldn't open it either - I even broke off the handle of a matching wrench for this back.

O.k., the timing machine displayed a straight line - no sign of wear at all, and the appearance held what the seller's photos promised. No reason not to give a positive ebay feedback, and to put the watch aside for later solving the problem.

A year later I remembered this fine timepiece, and first time applied a super-special opener (Fig.2): A sufficiently heavy  lathe, a plastic bobbin, a wooden block, a hammer. This opens almost everything without remarkable opening marks.

Fig. 3

Fig. 4

No Surpise

Fig.3 shows the reason for the bomb proof back: It was glued with epoxy adhesive.

Real Surprise

Fig.4 shows that the back was not sealed because a part of the gasket was missing, but to prevent anybody to look inside too early after the purchase - and this actually worked. The complete micro-rotor assembly was missing, and I'll never understand why such a valuable watch was butchered that strange way. The rotor assembly is almost indestructable, with its tungsten carbide weight and its ball bearing. The missing parts are therefore almost never needed, and accordingly nowhere available, at least not for an effordable price.
  Fig. 5 The Solution

Fig 5 shows the only solution: The missing parts would be available anywhere in the world, and for one part this troublesome approach is reasonable. But here several parts were needed. So the only way was to search for a movement or a donor watch. Still not easy, but managable if one watches the market continuously anyway.

But this still lasted another year, due to the following reasons:
1) The Universal 69 belongs to the rarer calibres, compared with the predecessors 215, 218 or the sucessor 1-69.
2) Most bare movements come from gold cases without efficient protection for the movement. Many are therefore corroded. And as the movement of this watch was in clean shape, the replacment, or at least the needed parts shoud be in comparably good condition.
3) Due to dried out parts supply for these movements, even rusty trash is expensive.

However, a movement, even one in still better condition was found, and after a service implanted into the watch.
Figures  (cf. Service Prices)  
EUR 202.39  uncomplete watch including shipping
EUR 101.00  bare movement including shipping
EUR   54.00  standard service automatic
EUR     9.00  additionally for date
EUR   12.50  crystal, plastic round, reinforced
EUR     4.00  replacement back gasket
EUR 382.89  total  (in 2011)
A bit much, but with fresh service and guarantee still acceptable (not calculating all the hassle). As this transaction provided movement photos and data for the archive, and as the replaced uncomplete movement can wait for future use, the achieved price needs not cover all costs.
     However, the watch was sold, and the high bid fortunately covered all costs, but of course not the invested work; but this can be regarded as hobby.

Not respected own advice:
Never buy a watch without movement photo.

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Dr. Roland Ranfft
Erkelenzer Str. 98
41844 Wegberg
phone +49 (0)2434 6034670

email:  info@ranfft.de
Last update:  07-12-2018