It was July 1987. Anyone who may have thought it unusual that Robert Cambridge was wearing a coat that summer day said nothing of it. From the folds of his garment, he withdrew a sawn-off shotgun, levelled it at two women and two small boys, and, from seven feet away, fired.

Thankfully, the little huddled group was separated from their assailant by a pane of laminate glass, and although the glass immediately in the line of fire was pulverised, the laminate held and spared Leonardo Da Vinci’s The Virgin and Child with St. Anne and St. John the Baptist from total destruction as it hung benignly against a wall in London’s National Gallery.

The Burlington House Cartoon, as the work is also known, is a charcoal and chalk sketch drawn over 500 years ago. In that time, it had endured a series of dubious attempts at conservation, some of which left the linen paper and its flax backing-cloth cracked and browned. The exploding glass also took its toll, spraying the area over the Virgin’s heart with shards and badly shredding the paper.

Much deliberation followed as to how to proceed with restoring the piece, whilst conserving it as a valuable and important artefact. Precisely how this was achieved is fascinating, but not relevant to this discussion. So as not to keep you in any further suspense, I can reveal that the drawing was successfully restored, to much academic and artistic acclaim.

What is relevant on the other hand, and is the reason I love this story so much, is that the methodology of this restoration perfectly echoes my philosophy on the subject of restoration and conservation of watches.

There is a principal test that helps decide how much intervention is appropriate when restoring a vintage watch, formulated as the question: How functional is the object expected to be?

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Form or Function

Answering this Functionality Test gives a “see-saw” output. The more valuable the artefact is, the less likely it is to be used. Also, the rarer the artefact, the more severe are the restrictions we place on how carefully it’s preserved. If the thing is expected to be used often, then it’s unrealistic to be too high-minded about pure conservationism.

In the case of Leonardo’s drawing, its function (which was to help the artist sort out the composition of a fresco) has long been rendered defunct. Its purpose now is to inspire and educate, things it can do by just sitting there, being. Its famous restoration adds to its interest and to its value.

In contrast, something like your typical vintage Rolex Submariner cannot enjoy such a benign existence. As collector-wearers we will insist that it answers specific yet wide-ranging demands. It has to keep realistic time, stay safely on the wrist, and remain waterproof, day in, day out, for years at a time. And yet sometimes we (unreasonably) also expect it to stay an unfading snapshot of the day it was made, to exist in an invisible time capsule, where metal fatigue, UV light, heat, knocks and scrapes have no effect. Surprisingly, a lot of watches actually do answer these demands fairly well, which is a testament to how well they were constructed in the first place.

In expecting these outcomes, we have to be prepared to accept that at least some aspects of the wristwatch’s originality must be sacrificed: gaskets and seals will be replaced, worn spring bars and bracelet links will need attention, mainsprings and auto-rotor bearings will almost certainly need changing.

These aspects are mostly technical, and shielded from the view and the conscience of the average collector. We accept that the replacement of some parts is a necessary attrition of the thing’s purity because we also want it to be useful.

Neither does the replacement of these kinds of technical elements seem to have much effect on the financial value of vintage wristwatches. Indeed in many cases, it’s impossible to determine, making the question more or less irrelevant. But more on that later.

When a Rolex “RCO” Paul Newman Daytona sold for a million dollars, what mattered was that the dial was original, had matching hands appropriate to its configuration, and that they all suited a watch of that particular serial number/date range. I would even (iconoclastically?) declare that we have no way of knowing whether the  crown and chrono pushers were actually the ones that started life with the watch – what mattered is that they were of the correct type. If a chrono pusher had once been replaced with the wrong kind, then it can be re-replaced later with another one of the right kind. It’s an industrially produced detail.

It is the tightly focused knowledge of the combination of these recondite details that exponentially increases the value of this kind of watch, and which separates the informed collector from the casual lover of old watches.

In keeping a watch on the right side of the Functional Test, there will always be some lost information. For example, did you know that many water-resistant watches in mid-20th century used lead gaskets to seal the case-backs? Lead makes a good seal because it’s soft, and squeezes into all the little imperfections that would otherwise allow moisture to creep in. Lead is cheap, and easy to shape. But, just like the elastomer seals we use today, it was sacrificial, meant for one-time-only use. So you’re very unlikely to find a vintage watch still fitted with its old lead seal – they’ll have been tossed into the bin decades ago.

Sealing The Deal

So when the old IWC Mark X that you discovered in a bucket at a flea market turns out to have its original lead seal, what do you do? You apply the Functionality Test and ask yourself how much use the watch will be expected to deliver.

Most watches like this are a little beaten up 60 years on, and we don’t need to be too precious about preserving them as a snapshot of history, which means we shouldn’t feel too guilty about discarding the flaky old seal. If it turns out to be a treasured “barn-find”, in perfect, unused condition, still in its stout brown cardboard MOD shipping box, the decision becomes a little harder, but whether to preserve it “as is” still hinges on whether it will be worn. Functionality again. What would be worse, the loss of an original seal or the risk of destroying a perfect dial because the old seal failed to protect the interior of the watch from moisture?

Watch collectors can learn a lot from the attitudes of vintage car collectors, who are on the whole much more technically- and practically-minded than the average watch collector. A vintage car-collector knows that his 1960s Alfa Romeo Stradale would be destroyed if he tried to drive it with an intact original head gasket.

So the replacement of functional components in a typical watch is something to be expected, provided the replacements are of a suitable type. Which raises an important question: Who determines what is a suitable replacement? The manufacturer? Other collectors? Your safe old watchmaker? I’ve been collecting watches for long enough to tell you that unfortunately there is a marked loss of pragmatism among watch collectors compared with the past. There is a tendency now for collectors to slavishly and unquestioningly adhere to none but the watch manufacturers’ pronouncements regarding the authenticity or historical details about a given vintage piece.

Unfortunately, a lot of those manufacturers are merely resurrected incarnations of companies that had ceased to exist during the quartz crisis, and with so much missing history, they are simply not in command of the full story.

My friend Philip Rathgen, the Hanseatic face of Classic Driver, articulates the situation very clearly: “When you contact some of these companies for information about the origin or authenticity of a given watch, what you’re likely to get offered is the result of a straight database search, as communicated by a 23-year old intern who has bitter little knowledge of horology, the product, or the (now forgotten) history of the company. And yet these are the same companies that howl ‘non-original parts!’ when any of their watches are restored by people outside their organisation.”

Old Customs

This attitude belies a lack of understanding or a refusal to acknowledge how the watch industry worked throughout the 20th century. Today, the Swiss watch industry has wrested manufacture, distribution and after-sales service into an internally-governed iron package with zero flexibility.

Until the 1990s though, it was much more common for independent agents in different countries to be in exclusive control of some parts of that process. Take for example Marcus in the UK, who had exclusive rights over distribution and service for Audemars Piguet. In Italy, the De Marchi brothers even had direct influence over the production of some Omega watches in that country, with the consequence that many watches that are legitimately part of the Omega canon do not fall within the domain of the “official” Omega archive.

I can also cite the example of the Rolex watchcases produced in Birmingham by the British casemaker Denison. This was arranged by Rolex to help offer UK customers’ watches without the heavy import duties imposed on precious metal goods in the 1950s and 1960s. Now that particular trail has gone cold and Rolex is unlikely to be able to verify the details of watches made under those provisions.

In the same way, Rolls-Royce and other old car manufacturers did not make their own car bodies. Coachwork was a specialism attended to by independent third parties like Hooper, Park Ward, and Gurney Nutting. We don’t expect Rolls-Royce to be able to supply details about one of their older models beyond the specs of the rolling chassis, but neither do we suppose they would insinuate that a vintage James Young Wraith is somehow tainted by being fitted with “non-original parts”.

The production of watch movements in Switzerland used to be a vast collaborative effort. Technical components like winding stems, balance staffs, keyless work, crowns, pallets, click springs, screws, and complete balance assemblies (with pre-fitted timed and overcoiled hairsprings), used to be manufactured and supplied in the tens of millions, not by brand-name watch manufacturers, but by independent factories and distributors like Froidevaux, Ronda, Flume, and so on. These are names that watch collectors are unlikely to even have heard of, but back in the day they were indispensable, producing the same components for both new watches and for after sales service, with the co-operation and blessing  of the watch companies whose names were printed on the tins. Unlike now, nobody would have dreamed of crying foul.

These companies existed by sheer economy of scale, and vast amounts of this old stuff, some of it branded, some of it unbranded (both identical because they came off the same production  line) is still knocking about. With this in mind, you can begin to appreciate the pointlessness of enquiries by well-intentioned but less-than fully-informed collectors who may now ask if their vintage piece has been restored “using only brand-name parts”? Well, no, I suppose not; the winding stem has been replaced with a Ronda-produced piece made in 1975, but then, Ronda made all the balance staffs for [Insert Watch Brand Name Here], so what difference does it really make? Can you reliably wind your watch?

I should add that my pragmatic attitude towards the use of new-old stock parts as supplied by mid-century makers does not extend to spare part substitution with inappropriate or obviously poor quality supplies.

Hands Off

I think that by now you’ll have detected that I’m flexible and matter-of-fact about vintage watch restoration. I do have one bold, fat red line though, and that’s in the area of the replacement or re-painting of dials and hands.

In their very materials: paint, ink, glue and lacquer, dials and hands become part of the lexicon of artists, not of mechanics. Their surfaces are much more fragile than the rest of the watch. Careless handling by watchmakers, exposure to heat, sunlight, moisture, all affect the appearance of these very sensitive parts. And yet that’s what the wearer sees most, day in and day out. The dial and hands are out there, catalysing emotional bonds with the wearer.

For these reasons, I argue that the dial and hands most acutely represent the life that a vintage watch has led, and must therefore be preserved at all costs if the watch is to remain an honest document of its history.

There is a hopelessly out-of date philosophy that still pervades watchmaker training: it is the watchmaker’s duty to leave any piece that crosses his workbench in as close to new condition as he can get, or better! This is nonsense, and simply doesn’t square with what the reality of the vintage watch market is telling us. We don’t love vintage watches because they look like new watches, dammit. We love them because they are old, they have character, they have tantalising histories, they look the part!

When the chronograph sub-seconds hand on a vintage Rolex Paul Newman is of the early, skinny type, the watch commands more at auction, even when the hand is a bit [rusty/flaky/patchy/take your pick]. That is a loud, clear broadcast message: don’t fight the market by trying to replace everything that looks a bit distressed. If everyone involved in the servicing of vintage watches isn’t hearing that message, then they clearly aren’t listening.

If the brand-name service workshops keep on insisting that they need to replace beautifully patinated old hands simply because there is a risk that maybe some old luminous paint might flake off at some indeterminate future time and therefore possibly affect the precision of the watch and therefore sully their good name, let them carry on. All they’re doing is making the remaining original-condition examples more valuable.

We are on the cusp of a very worrying time – there are important chronographs made since the 1990s whose hands are routinely cut off during service because of the way they were designed to be driven on super-tight at the factory, a one-shot solution, hands designed to be replaced at every service. However, when the watches were designed it was not anticipated that they would become rare or important. And now we are faced with the bitter choice of having to probably replace old (and correct-for-the-period) hands with new factory service hands whenever the watch is serviced. This type of problem supports my philosophy that there are questions of today’s artefacts that we haven’t thought of asking yet. Preserving them as close to their original aesthetic gives us options in future. We can only interrogate the artefact in as much as it contains original material capable of answering.

Just imagine if all the hands on old Rolex Military Submariners had been replaced (which a lot of them were). We would never have really known what they were like, and collectors would have had display cabinets filled with misinformation in the form of hundreds of Milsubs with the factory service hands.

Call The Experts

When restoring the Leonardo Da Vinci, the aesthetic and financial importance of the piece demanded careful conservation by the right people. Experts were brought in from the British Museum, Windsor Castle library and the V&A.

These restorers were not interested in “improving” what had otherwise become a fairly dirty-looking and distressed piece. Their motives were absolute: deference to the piece. In spite of their erudition, they did not seek to dictate to the picture’s owners that it ought to be renewed in any way other than to repair the damage inflicted by Cambridge’s shotgun. They had no inclination to somehow leave their own stamp on the work’s history by introducing even a single new chalk mark or charcoal line, even if that may have made the piece “look better”.

In horology, the right people to restore something might be the official service workshops. But they might not be. It depends on the watch, the work required, and its functionality versus its value. As collectors, it falls to us to make this judgement.

This leaves us under a moral obligation to the objects in our care, to educate and inform ourselves as much as possible so that our conservation choices will better serve horology. One result of this is that old watches, on their passage into the realms of vintage, will be allowed to gracefully age. Like the Leonardo, no matter what tribulations old watches had to endure, with appropriate and considered conservation, their value can be sustained and enhanced.

We began by comparing horological and art conservation. I leave you with an admonition not to let your watch become like the painting Ecce Homo by the Spaniard Elías García Martínez, after it was restored (to international derision) by a well-meaning but hopelessly ill-qualified old dear in 2012.

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