How to Determine Watch Condition

When selling a watch, it is natural to ask, “How do I determine the condition of my watch?”

Previous installments of this series examined the process of researching pre-owned watch price ranges; therefore, the question of condition will determine where in a given model’s price range your specific example falls. Fundamentally, “condition” describes two separate ideas: cosmetic condition, functional condition, and water resistance. In this, the first of a three-part discussion, cosmetic condition will be considered in depth.

Cosmetic condition is the easiest of the three issue areas to evaluate. Simply put, cosmetic condition is best when metal retains all of its factory finish and definition; the crystal is unmarred by scratches or chips, the dial and hands retain their factory state and appear untouched, and the bracelet or strap appears as new.

Metal condition on most watches relates to components such as the case, bezel, bracelet, crown(s), and clasp. The most common defects in these components are scratches and dents.

Scratches represent channels drawn across metal. They may be deep enough to feel with the fingers or so shallow that only the eyes can discern these flaws. In general, scratches can be removed with professional refinishing. However, scratches will have an impact on sale value that is directly proportional to the value of the case metal (e.g., gold will deduct more than steel, platinum will deduct more than gold).

Dents are a more serious matter than scratches. A dent is defined as damage that deforms the metal of a watch at a fixed point. Dents can have depth like a divot, or they can take the form of a plane of flattened metal where an impact occurred. In general, dents cannot be removed from a case without exceptional effort and expense when compared to the relatively benign “scratch.”

Laser welding – an uncommon refinishing service – can be used to restore a divot-style dent, but flattened dents often defy total restoration; only reducing the metal around the dent can lessen its impression. Watch refinishers prefer to avoid this type of reduction since it results in a dramatic change to the metal mass and case lines of the watch.

When asking, “how do I determine the condition of your watch?” be certain to evaluate both the presence of scratches/dents and any evidence of past refinishing that may have resulted in metal reduction and lost case definition. The classical example of this phenomenon can be viewed on many older Rolex watches.

Misguided attempts to “polish” these watches through many sales cycles reduce the robust hand-beveled steel lugs to rounded stumps. Any Google search for “over-polished Rolex” will illustrate the point; lower your pricing expectations if any part of your watch exhibits these traits.

Additionally, case coatings such as “PVD” layers of black or colored surface deposits must be unmarred and exhibit no scratches down to the bare metal. If signs of this type of damage are evident, they reduce the sale value of the watch because re-coating a PVD case generally is impossible. Simply coexisting with the scratches or costly case replacement are the most common options.

Ceramic watches, which feature kiln-fired composition similar to floor tiles, generally resist scratches well. However, these cases are like sapphire crystals in that their hardness renders them vulnerable to chipping, cracking, and fracturing. Ceramic damage precludes repair of any kind and requires replacement of the damaged components; costs are high, and damage seriously degrades value when such a watch is offered for sale.

Bracelet, strap, and clasp condition are important considerations when assessing the cosmetic state of a watch for sale. Bracelets adhere to the same principles of definition, clean factory-style finish, and minimal refinishing that govern case grading. All of these are critical to determining value when you choose to sell a watch.

However, bracelets add another factor: links and screws. Check your bracelet to ensure that all original links and retaining screws are in place; if not, check your boxed accessory sets for the remaining links. Call the manufacturer if you need to determine the correct un-sized link count or circumference of your bracelet. If this is not possible, assume that any bracelet sized for a wrist smaller than 7.5in/18.75cm has seen links removed; you can measure this by lining the interior of your bracelet with a piece of masking tape then removing and measuring that length of tape with a ruler.

Crystal and dial condition are important factors that help to determine the value of a watch.

Most modern watches feature crystals made of synthetic sapphire. These clear lenses have the same fundamental composition as rubies or natural sapphires, so they are extremely resilient against scratching. However, this extreme hardness means that sapphire crystals are vulnerable to chipping, cracking, and fracturing. Because these flaws cannot be repaired, any physical damage to a sapphire crystal requires replacement in order to restore condition before you sell your watch. Sapphires with camber – curved or angled surfaces – are the most costly to replace.

Certain vintage and specialty luxury watches feature thermoplastic (Plexiglas) crystals for optical effect or shatter-resistance. While these are far less likely to shatter or chip than a sapphire, thermoplastic is soft and prone to scratching and cracking. While shallow scratches can be removed with a jeweler’s abrasive compound, any damage with depth will require replacement.

Dials and should appear unmodified and spotless. This is the condition in which the watch would have left the factory, and it represents a 10/10 grading scale outcome. When watches are serviced, less accomplished watchmakers will leave marks when they remove dials and hands; eyelashes and dust left on the dial require laborious correction. Marks left on polished or coated watch hands require replacement of the hands.

Moreover, so-called “refinishing” of older watch dials does not improve the value of the watch; this dramatically reduces value. Where older watches are concerned, collectors universally prefer an “honest” dial that’s imperfect but “factory” original in its color, printing, and index placement. Think of it as an unrestored 1960s Corvette with patina of age vs. a slick restoration – collectors will take unrestored every time.

The second installment of this discussion will address how to determine functional condition and gauge its impact on value when you choose to sell a watch.

PART II: How to determine the condition of a watch: Functional condition.

When selling a watch, the question of how to determine the condition of the watch starts with cosmetics and proceeds to functional features. The functional condition of a watch is less evident than cosmetic integrity, and a complete assessment usually requires the assistance of a local watchmaker or jeweler. Four areas concern owners who chose to sell watches: mechanical, bezel and crown function, and clasp or buckle operation.

The movement of a watch is the watch’s engine. As with any power planet, optimal operation requires regular maintenance, periodic observation, and careful use. When choosing to sell a watch, the first question to ask is whether the watch runs. If not, assume that the negative impact on sale value will be great.

To determine the condition of your watch beyond basic “running,” check to ensure that the hands advance over time, the watch sets correctly, the date wheel jumps at or close to midnight, and any complications such as a second time zone or chronograph operate. Precision is important; a date that jumps hours before or hours after midnight, a chronograph that stops unintentionally or does not reset precisely to “12,” or hands that do not move despite audible “ticking” indicate problems that must be addressed with service; all of these reduce the value when you sell a watch.

Each mean civil day features 86,400 seconds. A watch that loses 20 seconds per day is 99.98% accurate, but that is considered disastrous for a mechanical watch. For this reason, many an owner will insist that his watch “keeps good time” on the wrist when he seeks to sell a watch. A person’s senses don’t suffice to measure watch accuracy; a watchmaker or jeweler’s tools and experience are necessary.

Prior to sale, a watch owner should have his watch timed in several standard positions and tested for power reserve to determine the condition of his watch. Timing will determine seconds lost or gained per day, and “power reserve” will test whether the watch runs as long as the manufacturer states when fully wound and allowed to discharge.

Other watchmaker lingo thrown around to describe the mechanical condition of a watch include “amplitude” and “beat error.” The first is considered more important than seconds gained or lost because it reveals how “vigorous” the movement is.

Amplitude is the number of degrees (out of 360) that the mechanical watch’s balance wheel “bounces” between “ticks” of the watch. 300-320 is excellent; 250-280 is acceptable; anything less suggests dried lubricants, a weak mainspring, damage, or some combination of these factors.

Amplitude is more important than accuracy when determining the mechanical condition of a watch. A watch that is gaining time but shows robust amplitude can be regulated to be accurate; an accurate watch that registers 220 degrees of amplitude will begin to damage itself or simply stop in the near future.

“Beat error” measures how much farther the balance “bounces” to one side when gyrating back and forth between “ticks” of the movement. It is measured in milliseconds, and any number greater than “.2” suggests damage, displacement, or sticky contaminants on the hairspring or regulator.

The crown(s) and bezel of a watch represent external features that must move as designed – no more, no less. Crowns come in two forms: screw-down and push-in. A screw-down crown threads into the case until it is flush. A push-in crown can be pushed into its resting position flush to the case. A screw-down crown that does not thread all the way in may feature damaged components, or it may be the incorrect part for that particular watch. Crowns that “wobble” when withdrawn may feature internal damage to their stems or stem tubes.

A rotating bezel should move freely in at least one direction. Conduct Internet research before you sell your watch, and be sure to note the correct direction or directions in which the bezel should move, and always test it. Bezels that do not move or move only with great effort likely require repairs. Post-1980 bezels that do not feature crisp incremental detents when turned often require attention. Be sure to take note of this function when preparing to sell your watch.

The clasp or buckle of a watch contributes to the watch’s functional condition. “Deployant” buckles that fold should do so unencumbered and should snap solidly into place. Triggers that release clasps or clamshells that fold to secure the clasps should move freely and exhibit crisp release or latching action.

Finally, any additional clasp functions such as incremental sizing adjustments should operate without binding or excessive slack. Watches with “diving” extensions designed to increase bracelet size for use over a dive suit or coat should open without excessive force and remain closed securely when not in use. Be sure to evaluate the operation of clasps before attempting to sell a watch.

The third and final installment of this series will examine the importance of measuring water resistance and how it helps to determine the condition of a watch.

PART III: How to determine the condition of a watch: Water Resistance.

Water resistance is key information when selling a watch. Water “proof” is a term watchmakers never use, because no watch is immune to water. “Resistant” is the term used to describe a watch that can exclude water from its interior, and the original manufacturer rates each watch to a certain “test depth.” This can and must be tested before you sell your watch.

To determine the condition of a watch, take it to a jeweler or watchmaker who can subject the watch to a non-destructive “dry” water test. Specialized desktop pressure chambers employ vacuum, low pressure, and high pressure to compress a watch and measure its water resistance.

Several types of water resistance are measured during this test. Vacuum and low-pressure tests are designed to measure how well a watch resists water intrusion when it is submerged in shallow water. It seems counter intuitive, but many watches see their resistance improve as test pressure increases and seals are compressed. Low pressure/vacuum tests measure whether a watch will admit water when under no compression (e.g. wading in water).

High-pressure tests typically run from 3ATM (30 meters) for dress watches and run as high as 100 meters or more; Rolex tests its Deepsea Sea-Dweller dive watch past the watch’s rated resistance of 3,900 meters.

However, any watch billed as a dive watch must be able to meet the ISO 6425 minimum of 100 meters of water resistance and withstand a test to 125% of rated depth. In all other instances, determining the condition of a watch demands understanding whether it meets its factory-declared test depth. For reference, this number often is stamped on the caseback; virtually all dive watches will feature the figure blazon on the dial. This number should be verified when you sell a watch, and failing to meet the figure could be grounds for a lower sale price.

A water test requires only five to ten minutes. A watch that is not water resistant is vulnerable to the single greatest killer of quartz and mechanical luxury timepieces. Case damage, crystal damage, aged seals, and dry seal lubricants can sap even a dive watch of its water security, so never assume any watch is water resistant unless it has passed a recent pressure test to its rated limits.