Despite a plethora of contemporary electronic watches and clocks (not to mention cell phones) available for purchase today, many people still seem to own at least one mechanical time-keeping device, whether it be a wristwatch, desk clock, mantle clock, wall clock, or “Grandfather” (tall case) clock. It has been my observation that for the most part, owners of such devices are often under the impression that these things have somehow been created with the unique magical ability to run forever, with absolutely no maintenance required — and are then astounded when their old reliable timepiece mysteriously stops working!
There really is something wonderful about mechanical clocks and watches that can become treasured family heirlooms, but the thing is that they must be inspected and serviced at regular intervals, or they will not only stop working, but will be in need of expert repair by the time this happens. Allow me to give you a perfect analogy. Would you even think of driving your car for years on end without having the oil changed, or the car serviced? Of course not. Newsflash: Mechanical time pieces have geartrains that will run for the equivalent of 40,000 miles a year — but they have been designed to do just that. If, by some miracle, you were able to run your car for 40,000 miles without changing the oil, the chances are pretty good that by that time, you would need a new engine.
Having a mechanical watch or clock serviced is by no means inexpensive, but consideration should be given to the value (whether it be intrinsic or monetary) of the piece in relation to the cost of the servicing or repair. If you are among the many people who enjoy having a fine mechanical timepiece, it always pays to keep it maintained in good working condition— unless of course, you just happen to like the way it looks on your wall, in your hallway, or on your mantle. (A non-working mechanical watch, on the other hand, is really not suitable as a wrist decoration.)
If you own a mechanical timepiece (clock or watch) that is not used on a daily basis, one of the best things you can do would be to to wind it once a month, which will help to keep the oils in the best condition possible. On the other hand, a mechanical clock or watch that has not been used in 10 years or more may very well run as soon as it’s wound— but running it could prove to be a serious mistake. When unused over a long period of time, oils (especially older “natural” oils) tend to congeal, placing unnecessary strain on the gears, leading to excessive wear and eventual breakdown. Any mechanical timepieces that have been dormant for long periods of time should be professionally oiled and serviced before being used.
So, let’s assume your clock or watch is in working order. How long should it go before servicing? (Unlike you car, there are no “idiot lights” to indicate when an oil change or servicing is needed.) Timepieces vary quite a bit, but as a general rule, fine mechanical clocks should be serviced once every 2 to 3 years. Mechanical watches can hold up a bit better, with servicing recommended only every 5 to 7 years. I should also point out that fine, battery operated quartz watches should be inspected and serviced every 8 to 10 years, and under no circumstances should batteries of any type be allowed to remain in a timepiece for more than two years, whether the battery continues to work or not. A fact of life is that seals on batteries weaken and break over time, and an old leaky battery can cause extensive damage.
It should be noted that the movements of mechanical timepieces (with the exception of wristwatches, the mechanisms of which are sealed in an outer casing) can be influenced by environmental conditions inside the home, such as wood-burning stoves, kerosene heaters, cigarette smoke, dusty environments, excessive vibration, and even very high (or sometimes very low) humidity. A clock kept under any of these conditions would certainly be a good candidate for servicing at more frequent intervals than those described.
I should mention that fine timepieces of any type should be listed on your homeowner’s insurance policy, as doing so will generally have no effect on the cost of your premium, but these items will most certainly not be covered (in the event of a loss), unless your insurer has a record of you having owned them. For antique or “family” items of this nature, the only reasonable way to present proof of possession and value is by having a written appraisal, a copy of which should be submitted to the insurance company, just as you would with your good jewelry. (Keeping a photographic record, while not actually necessary, is always a great idea.) Fine clocks and watches may be handed down and enjoyed from one generation to the next, but in order to keep things in good working condition, valued timepieces should be maintained with professional servicing — from time to time, that is.
Joe Brandt is a local resident, and President of J.L. Brandt Company, offering diversified fine jewelry advisory services to the general public since 1928. Readers are invited to submit questions or comments to [email protected] Names or contact information will not be used for publication, and all inquiries will be answered promptly.
* Special thanks to Marcus Krutolow of Krutolow Jewelers in Danbury, CT for his invaluable insight and contribution to this month’s column.