You Asked Us: Can Watches Be Polished?
On the surface, the answer to this question is pretty obvious. Yes, of course, watches can be polished, but it is not always a good idea. And that is especially true of vintage timepieces for a couple of reasons. Let’s dig into those now. As always, please feel free to share your own personal experiences of polishing success and horror stories in the comments section below.
I love watches in excellent condition. When it comes to buying pre-loved pieces, I always place dial and handset condition right at the very top of my list. I’m a little less militant when it comes to case condition, simply because one has to be. But that’s not to say I don’t steer clear of battered wrecks that will never look like anything but a hunk of junk on my wrist.
Wearing watches on a daily basis means they will soon pick up scuffs and marks. We can’t be too hard on ourselves (or our trusted tickers) for this. And we shouldn’t be scared of buying a pre-loved watch that has actually lived a life. A watch that has been used is an entirely different proposition from one that has been abused. None of us look as fresh as we did the day we rolled off the production line so it’s hard to expect a watch — especially one with any kind of history — to look pristine either. Scars are cool. They add character. Also, and I mean this in all seriousness, buying a slightly beaten beater does kind of take the pressure off strapping it on for the first time…
So should all watches be polished?
So here’s where we reach the operative word. All watches could be polished, but not all should. If your watch is made from solid steel, titanium, gold, or any other single metal it is safe to polish it without risking the removal of any surface coatings. However, there is only so many times you can effectively polish or, rather, “refinish” a watch before the removal of that material starts to affect the watch’s shape.
Collectors of vintage timepieces prefer sharp edges. They prefer a watch to reach them in as untouched a condition as possible. That places the decision of what to do with it in their hands. And so while it might be tempting to spruce up your vintage watch before listing it on Chrono24 for sale, having it polished to death to remove any signs of wear might not be the smartest strategy. In some cases, you’re literally paying to remove value from your watch. And so should you feel it necessary to have your watch refinished before selling it, request a light touch so as to not permanently damage its silhouette.
…a specialized craft…
If your watch is plated, treated, or coated — with anything — certainly do not attempt to refinish the case yourself. Certain treatments can be removed and reapplied by experts. This is, however, a specialized craft and not to be taken flippantly.
You will notice that a great many vintage watches have noticeably pitted cases. You may be wondering what this pitting is. In many instances, this is because a thin layer of surface chroming has been perforated by time or impact. Beneath that is a base metal (normally something pretty cheap like brass).
If you stick one of these vintage beauties beneath a polishing wheel, you will easily be able to strip the chrome plating away. This will leave the base metal exposed to the elements (and your skin) and ruin the look of your watch. My advice would be to avoid buying this kind of vintage watch unless you like that weathered look. However, it is possible to have watch cases re-chromed by specialists that are able to delicately remove the original coating and finish it anew.
…be aware of the risk…
This is expensive. It is also time-consuming. But above all, it rarely comes with guarantees. Old watch cases are awkward beasts. Even the most experienced case refinisher has run into tricky little devils that refuse to be reborn. And so be aware of the risk that your watch may never look the same again should you be tempted to submit it for refurbishment.
A final note
As always, please use the services of a professional when you want to have your watch refinished. It is always worth the extra time and money to give your timepiece — whether modern or vintage — to a trained artisan. Skills like case and bracelet polishing are not in every watchmaker’s locker. It is a separate skill and one that takes a long time to master. Do not underestimate its importance. If you do, you might end up paying a price far greater than something that can be measured in money.
Side note: I have recently acquired a beaten-up watch in need of re-chroming. I am going to send it off to a specialist and document the experience in a future article. Follow me on Instagram @robnudds.