Antique Pocketwatch Restoration, Repair, Cleaning and Service

     Jeff Sexton
     jsexton@elgintime.com

Specializing in Elgin National, American Waltham, Hamilton, Hampden and other early American makes

"The release of atom power has changed everything except our way of thinking... the solution to this problem lies in the heart of mankind. 
If only I had known, I should have become a watchmaker."

- Albert Einstein



I learned watchmaking from my Grandfather, and have been proud to carry on the work he cared deeply about his whole life. Every timepiece is unique and special, and every one should be in the best condition it can be. If you have an antique watch you would like repaired or serviced, please look over the information here. I specialize in servicing vintage American watches, but I'm also happy to try to answer any questions you may have about your timepiece, regardless.




To get complete details on vintage watch service and repair:


There much more about antique watches at the elgintime.com home page!



What is Watch Cleaning?

Mechanical watch service and repair is traditionally referred to as watch cleaning, and it's important for vintage watches.  The oils that where once used were organic (from sea animals), and would eventually turn gummy. Grit particles stuck in that gummy oil become abrasive, and cause damage as the watch runs. People used to get their watches cleaned every year, but modern synthetic oils last far longer. So getting the old stuff out of there, and getting dirt out, gets your watch ready for the long haul as an antique. And if there's any trace of rust that may have started decades ago, cleaning will make sure it doesn't get worse.  

Running a mechanical watch without cleaning and new lubrication is very much like running a car without changing the oil.

Watch cleaning includes:

  • Complete disassembly and individual cleaning of all the parts of your watch.
  • Inspection for damaged parts including worn or broken pivots, cracked jewels, bent or missing teeth, and more.
  • Repair or replacement of any and all parts found worn, damaged or otherwise unusable, including proper rebuilding of balance assemblies, other staffs, springs, wheels and jewels.
  • Cleaning, adjusting and re-seating of jewels and other pivots as needed.
  • Removal and cleaning, or replacement, of the mainspring.
  • Other procedures such as hairspring adjustment, setting to beat, pivot polishing, etc. as needed.
  • Reassembly and proper lubrication throughout.
  • Basic timing.


There seem to be services available that "clean" a watch by simply removing the entire movement from the case, perhaps replacing the mainspring, and running it as-is through an ultra-sonic cleaning machine (here are a couple examples I have seen here, and here), and replacing it in the case. In doing this, dirt will tend to just settle back into the watch, usually in a much worse place. This method is also unlikely to completely remove old oil. Proper watch cleaning always involves complete disassembly.

I use period techniques and materials throughout the work. All the tools, procedures and materials I use with antique watches are consistent with the original recommendations of the Elgin National Watch Co. I have taken care to learn and apply professional, and frequently old-fashioned, methods.

I learned to do this work from my Grandfather, Everett Sexton, who attended the Elgin watchmakers college in the 1930s. He had a long career as a watchmaker of some reputation. He never lost his fondness for Elgin products. At school, Everett Sexton was recognized for unusual skills and was personally instructed by William Samelius. I am very fortunate for this. Although I've read a lot of books on watchmaking, and I can tell you that there is much I learned from my Grandfather, that you won't find in a book.

If you have more questions that are not addressed on this page, I have a repair FAQ, here with more information.


Elgin Movement Serial Numbers

You can learn quite a bit about your Elgin watch from the serial number of the watch works, or movement, inside.  Check here for information on how to open a pocketwatch case, to access the movement number.  Look here for an online database of Elgin watch production history.

If you already know the serial number of your Elgin movement, enter it here for complete information!


Post-1960s Watches

I receive a fair number of inquiries regarding the repair of newer Elgin watches, including brand new quartz movements. Sadly, the Elgin National Watch Co. went out of business in 1968, and in fact never produced a quartz watch. It's the antique Elgin products, and other early American brands, that I work with. Watches are produced to this day under the Elgin name. These watches, many of quite good quality, have been made over the years by a variety of Asian and European brands, but are not products of the original Elgin company, and so are not watches I can help with.

If you would like to locate a good watchmaker in your area, visit the the website of the American Watchmakers-Clockmakers Institute. On the AWCI home page, you'll see a link for finding a watchmaker near you.


Other Makes of Watches?

Do you have a Waltham, Hamilton, Hampden or other American make? Send me an email about what you have, I'm happy to help with these watches as well! While I specialize in Elgins in particular, I also like to work with the products of other classic American companies. The history of American watchmaking is fascinating, and there is something special about every American pocketwatch.


Stories

Every watch has a story, and I have been told of some wonderful histories watch owners have of their families and their watches. Let me know what you know!


Cases

I typically do not do more than a surface cleaning of cases, to remove dirt and dust that could damage the movement. It is my personal preference to retain the character of old pocketwatch cases where possible. Of course I do replace bows, crowns, stems as needed, and crystals where I happen to have a one suitable. However the movement itself (including the dial and hands) is what interests me the most.     


Dial Refinishing

I do not do dial refinishing. However, in the case of white enamel dials, as many antiques have, a certain degree of repair is practical and I do these from time to time. Every instance is different. In most cases, the dial is best left as part of the character of the piece, flaws and all.


A Word About Antique Mechanical Watches and Pocketwatches in General

Antique pocketwatches are objects of great beauty and significance. They occupy a special place in the history of human technology, the understanding of time, mechanics and of industrial development, particularly in America.

Luckily, many antique pocketwatches are relatively common and affordable, which makes collecting pocketwatches an accessible and rewarding hobby.

Even today, many antique watches, properly cared for, can provide decades of faithful service. However if you are interested in buying an antique watch, and you are not already a collector, there are a few things to keep in mind. An antique pocketwatch is not at all like a modern quartz movement.

  • Antique watches are fully mechanical devices - tiny machines. They are very easily damaged by physical shocks.
  • Antique watches are not remotely water resistant, and are subject to damage due to
    •  temperature, salt air, even tiny amounts of dust, moisture and other environmental factors.
    • An antique pocketwatch in regular use requires regular maintenance, by a skilled watchmaker, to function correctly overtime. While these watches were once used everyday, but they typically received a complete overhaul every year to year and a half.
    • Antique pocketwatches are not accurate by today's standards. A good but common watch, cleaned and adjusted
         with care, can usually achieve an accuracy of +/- a minute or so per 24 hours. Better grades are more accurate.
      • Always store an antique timepiece in a dry and dust-free environment. Plastic bags are not recommended as they trap moisture and condensation.


      Want more details about getting your vintage pocketwatch repaired? I have a repair FAQ, here!



      Jeff Sexton on