Restoring order: Swiss watchmakers who repair old objects
“We are totally committed to maintaining and repairing every watch we have ever made,” promises Christian Selmoni, Style and Heritage Director at Vacheron Constantin.
Such an attitude is increasingly rare in today’s disposable society – and the fact that the Swiss brand actually repairs any watch that has left its Geneva factories seems all the more remarkable given that the company was founded in 1755.
As the oldest watch manufacturer to remain in continuous production, Vacheron Constantin has always welcomed customer requests to keep their beloved heirlooms running smoothly for another few decades.
But the explosion of interest in vintage watches that has occurred in recent years has put the brand’s restoration service into overdrive and prompted many other watchmakers to step up their after-sales service, even for century-old models. or more.
Rolex, which once had a reputation for prioritizing the sale of new watches over servicing many of its historic models, now operates a restoration workshop at its headquarters in Geneva. Here, hand-picked master watchmakers use a combination of traditional and modern techniques to ensure vintage pieces work like new while retaining the patina of time.
It’s a similar situation at other top-tier manufacturers, such as Audemars Piguet and Patek Philippe – the latter requiring any watch over 35 years old to be returned to its Geneva manufacture in order to “preserve the state of origin of technology. and aesthetic perspective. This means using original parts and “legacy techniques that date back to when the watch was made” – it’s a process that can take up to two years.
According to Selmoni, Vacheron’s restoration workshop is one of the company’s hidden gems, in which the same tools – including pedal lathes and other all-analog machines – are used to ensure components can be redone according to the exact specifications of the originals.
Last year, to mark a century since the launch of its 1921 American driver’s watch, the workshop used 100-year-old designs, tools, techniques and components to produce a faithful recreation of one of 24 original copies.
“The American 1921 from that year is an incredibly rare watch and we have very few of them in our collection,” says Selmoni. “Recreating it in exactly the same way it was made all those years ago allowed us to show exactly what the restoration workshop is capable of.”
Indeed, its capabilities are such that when a unique tonneau case, minute repeater and retrograde calendar watch was entrusted to Phillips in 2019, the auction house sent it to Vacheron for restoration before offering it to the sale.
Previously considered lost, it was a special order for a wealthy Spaniard known as Don Pancho (a nickname later applied to the watch) who paid 3,750 SFr (£3,300) for it in 1940. After arriving at the restoration workshop in a neglected state, after spending years locked in a damp cellar, the watch left as it would have been new, but with its originality intact. It was sold for 740,000 Swiss francs.
The LVMH-owned Zenith brand has a similar commitment to preserving the past, despite a blow in the early 1970s when its then owner – the Zenith Radio Company of Chicago – tried to rid itself of much manufacturing machinery and spare parts in favor of a switch to quartz. movements.
Fortunately, the vast majority of the inventory, as well as the vital tooling needed to manufacture Zenith’s famous El Primero automatic chronograph movement, has been hidden away for future use by rebel engineer Charles Vermot.
To visit the archives of its manufacture in Le Locle today is to go back in time. The shelves are crammed with not only spare parts for watches dating back to Zenith’s founding in 1865, but also original straps, bracelets, buckles, antique movements and even unsold complete watches. “We do an annual audit and, although I don’t know the exact number, I can say with certainty that there are several million historic components available, allowing us to service, repair or restore virtually any watches we’ve ever made,” says Romain Marietta, Zenith’s Director of Product Development and Heritage.
He says there has been a “huge boom” in the number of older watches being sent back to Zenith for repair and restoration, both due to the brand’s increased awareness and the success of its Icons offering – a range of fully restored watches and guaranteed vintage models that can be purchased at the company’s global boutiques.
Since the initiative launched in 2019, 22 Icon watches have been sold and, according to Marietta, the plan is to roll out other restored models from the late 1970s and 80s before gradually moving on to other manufactured ones. In the 90s.
Unlike some high-end manufacturers, Zenith also gladly accepts vintage watches from its short-lived quartz era for restoration, as well as its traditionally more valuable and sought-after mechanical models. “Zenith made extremely cool quartz watches in the 1970s, like the Time Command world time model,” Marietta explains.
Marietta estimates that up to 3,000 vintage watches return to the factory for restoration each year. “We recently received a Reference G381 chronograph from February 1969, which means it was one of the very first made. It was sent for restoration but needed absolutely nothing but basic maintenance as it had been locked in a safe and never worn. It was owned by the owner’s family from the start and eventually we bought it from him and offered it to him through Zenith Icons. It sold for 50,000 Swiss francs.
According to Nicholas Biebuyck, Heritage Director at Tag Heuer, preserving such originality is essential for a restoration department – especially in the case of highly collectible Heuer models made between 1958 and 1979.
“There has been a big philosophical shift in the watch world,” he says. “While it was once considered a good idea to return an old watch to mint condition without asking the customer if that was what they wanted, it is now considered much better to keep as much as possible – so , although we can renew everything, we tend to advise against it, especially with rarer models.
Biebuyck says the restoration department has returned to perfectly working watches dating back to 1916, as well as several Autavia dashboard timers from the 1930s. She often calls on the ultra-high-tech Tag Heuer institute for its 3D scanning and manufacturing facilities, which make perfect replicas of parts otherwise unobtainable.
“A very important aspect is that any redone component is always stamped ‘TH’, so there is absolutely no confusion about originality if the watch is then offered for sale,” he says.
The authenticity of some watches, however, is never in question – as in the case of the ultra-rare, 18-karat gold Heuer Carrera that arrived at the Heritage Department last year for service and a refreshment.
“It happened to be the watch Jack Heuer presented to five-time Le Mans winner Derek Bell when he was driving in F1 for Ferrari – and of course Derek still owns it and clearly loves it.
“We have a special affection for him at Tag Heuer, especially because he was the one who taught Steve McQueen to drive the Porsche 917 in the film. Le Mans, which made the Monaco watch famous. That alone makes Derek part of the brand’s history – so there was no way to charge him for servicing his watch.