How often does a watch need a service?

How long is a piece of string?

Most manufacturers have an answer to this question, and it tend to be around 5 years. So every 5 years, you may fork out a small fortune to have your beloved watch serviced. Not a cheap pleasure, but you want to keep the value of your watch, so you just have to bite the bullet.

Let’s see what happens if you don’t.

This lovely Rolex Oyster Perpetual Datejust Chronometer belongs to my father. He bought it new in 1973 for around DM 800 (= EUR 400). He has been wearing it ever since, and he rarely takes it off. It goes into the shower, swimming, and wherever he goes.

In the mid-80s, he forgot to screw the crown in after setting the watch, and went for a shower. Some water got in, but he brought it straight to his watchmaker, who dried it out and serviced it.

Since then, the watch has never been opened again. So we are looking at at least 25 years without a service. Guaranteed.

Accuracy is still good, and my father sets the watch once a month, and then has to make up for a couple of minutes.

The proof is in the pudding, or on the timegrapher in this case.

I find it hard to believe what I see. This watch is 39 years old, and the last service is over 25 years ago. If you would show me this graph and ask me if this watch needed a service, I would say that it doesn’t. No beat error, still a decent amplitude, and a constant beat rate.

This is the watch in crown right position, and we can see a slight beat error, and a small decrease in amplitude. Which you would expect. Yes, if the watch were freshly service, this could look a tad better, but probably not. Note that the beat rate hasn’t changed at all!

Now we’re of course all curious what the watch looks like inside. And I will have to disappoint here. Because I won’t open it.

The watch still has a seal and is watertight. And I’ll keep it that way. And I want this little experiment to continue.

So how often does your watch need a service?

Simple answer – when it starts changing its beat rate. If you observe that, over time, your watch starts going faster or slower, and if it gets more irregular, it’s time for a service. If it keeps its beat rate, it doesn’t.

And, if you have water ingress, every hour counts. You have to have it opened and dried out, and then serviced. Same for dirt and dust.

I’m sure I will get a lot of flack for this, and people will point to web sites with gory pictures of damaged watches. I would bet a lot of money that the inside of my father’s Rolex looks pretty good, and that the watch has no damage whatsoever. If you want to insist that not servicing a watch for 25 years causes untold damage, I invite you to a little bet. We’ll both put £1000 down, get my dad to give me the watch on loan, and open it together. I get the grand if there is no unusual wear (for a 39 year old watch), and you get it if there is unusual wear. I count the rotor axle as usual wear – I always feel sorry for the poor chaps at Rolex who can’t afford to put a ball bearing there. It must be tough in Switzerland, and I’ll send a care packet with some ball bearings over one day 😉

As I said, the watch goes everywhere 😉

30 thoughts on “How often does a watch need a service?

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  2. Hi Christian,
    I am told a freshly serviced Rolex Submariner 16610LV with a movement 3135 when freshly serviced should have an amplitude of 270-310 degrees at full wind. However, mine has just been serviced and the average amplitude at all positions averages as 311-315 degrees at full wind, which is slightly above the ideal range I highlighted? Is this something to be worried about or is it in fact good, as I have read that over time amplitude decreases. What is your view?

    The watch it self seems to be consistently losing 2 seconds a day which is good I guess, as it’s consistent. Although I don’t know what the beat error is and if there is one.

    Many thanks in advance and look forward to hearing from you.

      • Hi Christian,
        Absolutely. To rephrase my question am I right in thinking, all other things being equal, an amplitude of 315 degrees is better than one around 290 degrees for a freshly serviced watch?

        Just for my knowledge

        Many thanks for all your help,
        James

  3. Since the original post was 5 years ago, would you please put the watch back on the timer, to see how its doing.
    That’s if the watch is still going and unserviced of course. Which I hope it is. i would love to see if its results have if any changed.
    Thanks

  4. Old post, but so interesting. I’m just thinking that it helps that this is an automatic watch. Could this work with a manual watch considering that I would have to unscrew the crown and wind it every day or two? How do you think the small amount of exposure will affect the watch?

    • I think you are right. It’s mainly that no dust or humidity gets to the movement. The gaskets in the screw-down crown would not have survived that long would the crown have been unscrewed daily.

  5. I’ve had my Roger Dubuis Excalibre for a couple of years now. Worn it almost anywhere I go, whether that be rock climbing, hiking, work etc.

    Pretty good for such a delicate looking watch.

  6. I own a 1971 Rolex ref. 1601 Oyster Perpetual DateJust in Stainless Steel with the 18kt White Gold Bezel and the famous Rolex Caliber 1570 that still has the original 6251H folded Jubilee Bracelet. According to the original sales receipt dating to June 28, 1972; my watch was purchased for $250 Canadian ($255 U.S. Dollars).

    I am fortunate to own this Rolex timepiece, as a complete set with the original box and paper along with the Green Schwimpruf and the Red Rolex Chronometer Tags.

    How much did I spend?
    I’ve traded my 1965 Cadillac Coupe de Ville for the watch!

  7. I’m kinda happy with this approach of “only service it if it needs doing – which is when it shows, through running fast or slow or stopping, etc”

    It’s different to servicing a car, which is designed with consumables like brake pads which are designed to wear out and be replaced – they need to be checked as part of the service and replaced when necessary, it’s a safety issue.

    Other than quartz batteries, this doesn’t apply to watches, no consumables intended to wear-out and be replaced.
    And your watch running 30sec slow isn’t the same safety issue !

    Car manufacturers are also stuck in a dilemma because
    – the engineering dept will say “we want the servicing interval to be 6000 miles because we want the oil/filters/antifreeze/etc all changing as frequently as possible to minimise wear to the engine and gearbox”
    – the sales & marketing depts say “we want the service intervals to be 20000 so our customers can see the servicing costs of our car are less than our competitors”

    Neither know if you are going to drive your car often or seldom, whether you drive in a dusty hot environment or in the snow, so neither know what are the actual appropriate service needs.
    – though modern cars can be a bit more ‘intelligent’ and work-out their own service intervals based on not just mileage and time but also the way you drive : lots of short trips vs few long ones, driving fast and running hot vs slow and gentle, etc

    Watches however, unless you actually do use them at the Pole or in the Sahara, their conditions of use don’t vary much
    They are sealed, dust and moisture free (if the seals work and you don’t do anything silly like open the crown underwater)
    And the movement is very specific, they just keep ticking, nothing like the same variables as a car.

    I guess how much wear the mechanism of a watch gets does depend on how much use it gets – your other article on “should I/shouldn’t I use a watch winder” is quite illuminating on this !!
    :o)

    I have an Orient, it’s not an expensive watch, servicing it might actually be more than the price it cost new.
    I really don’t like the idea of it being a throw-away item, like a disposable paper plate, so if at some stage it starts showing me it needs attention then I’ll have it serviced.
    But until then, I’ll just let it run.

    You’d agree with this, Christian ?

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  9. I’ve only just seen this blog post and I’m curious how modern lubricants used in watch servicing compare to those from 20 years ago or more. I have heard they are much improved since then but also that watches need to be run at least once a month to keep the oils in good condition. From what I have read leaving a watch unused for a few years and then running it without a service is the real danger.

  10. Good to hear this, I’ve got a 1988 GMT Master (16750) that’s been serviced once, back in about 1998-1999 so mine hasn’t been serviced for about 17 years. Recently I’ve been thinking about biting the bullet on the £600 but now, maybe I can get another decade if I live long enough. 🙂

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  12. my father in law has a rolex GMT master that he received as a wedding gift from his wife in 1969 (i believe it cost about $300 at the time). he worked for many years as a lineman for the power company, climbing telephone poles and making repairs. he wore his GMT every day for probably 35 years. it was last serviced in 1980 (the jeweler destroyed the back trying to get it off without using a rolex caseback opener). when he showed it to me last year, it was scratched up, the bezel was faded, and the crystal was almost opaque, but it was still keeping time within +/- 6 seconds a day. we ended up sending it to a rolex specialist in dallas, who completely overhauled the watch, presenting it back to him as a father’s day present. today, it looks brand new now (apart from the torn-up back, which we decided not to repair), and he wears it every day. pretty amazing for a 40+ year old watch.

    • $300 sounds a bit expensive for a GMT in 1969; the top of the range Omega SpeedMasters Neil Armstrong et al took to the moon that same year cost NASA $82 from an AD in Dallas (this in a year when the average US household income was $8,500 per year)… and I cant see a GMT costing nearly 4 times as much?

      Having said that, a watch that has been worn every day for 40 odd years and which is still going strong clearly doesn’t owe your owe your family anything even if it did cost $300!

      By the way, I know this because I did some research on the first Quartz watch which was released the same year by Seiko Japan costing $1,250 each, but all 100 of the first production run sold out in a week! If you compare the cost of that to the then and now prices of SpeedMasters a Quartz watch would cost $156,800 today 😉

      • My Oysterdate Precision cost £217 in August 1981, brand new from my local Rolex dealer, which is approximately £760 in 2012 values! A second hand replacement watch will cost me far more today. On the day I bought the Rolex the exchange rate was; £1 = $1.875. So an Oysterdate Precision should have been around $406 in 1981.

        Agree that $300 does read too expensive for a GMT in ’69.

        Interestingly I found a web site where a Diver received his Comex Submariner for £175!!! This was just 5 months before I purchased the Oysterdate…in the same City! Scroll down near the bottom of this page for proof http://diving-watch.org/COMEX-ROLEX-

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  14. I am curious, is the watch so good that it doesnt need servicing because it is a rolex, or would the story be the same for any other mechanical watch?

    Rolex is renowned for its robust movement and hardy casings, right? I wonder if so called “lower end” brands watches (sporty models, not dress watches).. maybe tissot, oris, etc can take a beating for 25 years and keep on ticking?

    • There is nothing special about the Rolex movement here … but the Oyster case helps a lot. As long as no dirt or water gets in, and the oil doesn’t dry out, the watch will continue to perform as it should. Any other watch can do that, as long as the case is dust and water tight …

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  16. I think the 15XX series of Rolex movements were really well engineered. The later, high beat, 3035 and 3135 definitely won’t run for 26 plus years without a service.

  17. Man that’s a fine piece of watch, proven!
    This makes people who worship their watches in drawers look not that good, after all, how many of 39 years do you have in your life?
    Better start wearing em!

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