Demystifying Watch Servicing with Steve Kivel of Grand Central Watch

Anyone who’s had the experience of buying a car knows that getting it serviced is a factor that looms large in the decision making process. If it’s a new car, the dealership is probably telling you about all the options to have it serviced right there, and they might even want to schedule you for that first oil change right after you buy it (unsolicited advice: don’t do that). If it’s a used car, hopefully you’ve asked questions about the vehicle’s service history, and you might even have it checked out by a mechanic of your choosing before writing a check or signing any paperwork. Because most of us drive a car, or at least experience cars on a regular basis, we understand them to be complex mechanical creations that need some attention from human beings who know them inside and out to keep them in top form. Intervention is just part of the deal. 

The connections between cars and watches is sometimes overplayed, but in the case of service and general maintenance, it’s a real parallel. Watches, of course, are small machines that also need some human intervention now and then to keep them working. But if everyone who owns a car has had the experience of patiently waiting in a little room for an oil change or tire rotation, it seems like fewer people, even among watch owners, know what to expect during the watch servicing process. And it’s somewhat of an afterthought during the buying process, as well. For whatever reason, there’s a real mystery around watch servicing for many. 

We recently had the chance to pose some basic questions about watch maintenance to Steve Kivel, owner of Grand Central Watch in New York City. We wanted to demystify the watch servicing process, and get some insight into real world servicing concerns that average watch owners might have  to deal with throughout the course of actually owning a watch, including the buying process for a vintage or pre-owned watch.

Steve Kivel, left, and his father Larry

If you have questions you’d like us to pose to a watchmaker, let us know in the comments or shoot us an email. For more information on Grand Central Watch, check out their website

Assuming there’s isn’t anything seriously wrong with a watch beyond normal wear and tear, what is going to happen when it’s sent in for service, and how long should someone expect to be without their watch? 

When a watch comes in for a comprehensive maintenance service the entire watch is disassembled and all of the old oils are removed. Each part is carefully examined and anything that is damaged or worn is replaced. We also replace the mainspring as that is the energy source of the watch and needs to be periodically updated in order to ensure optimal functioning. The entire movement is reassembled and the end shake is adjusted. End shake is the amount of play between each part and the upper and lower jewels or bushings that hold it. Part of a general maintenance service also involves updating the seals. This is critical in preventing costly moisture damage. Just because a watch was water resistant when it was manufactured, does not mean that it remains so indefinitely. All of the gaskets that create the seal age out of effectiveness over time. They need to be changed and the seal must be retested after the watch is reassembled. Finally, it goes through a series of quality control testing and any small adjustments necessary. The whole process usually takes about 6-8 weeks.

If you buy a pre-owned or vintage watch and the seller lists it as “service history unknown,” should it be serviced even if it seems to be running fine and keeping time?

Absolutely. That is typically a good indicator that the watch has not been serviced in a very long time. Even though it might be keeping time at the moment, damage can be occurring inside. It’s like not putting oil in a car. It will run for a while, but then when it stops you’ll find out just how significantly you damaged the engine by running it without lubrication. When the oils in a watch dry out the gears are running against one another metal on metal. This eventually stops the watch but also destroys the original movement parts that could have been saved if the watch were properly maintained.  

Can you give a brief explanation of what a Timegrapher does, and how it works? If Timegrapher data is included in a sales listing for a vintage or pre-owned watch, how should it be interpreted and what should we be looking for?

Timing machines give you three types of information. First, the rate; fast or slow per day.  Second, the amplitude. Amplitude is the number of degrees that a balance rotates inside the watch.  The optimal amplitude is different for each watch and is determined by the manufacturer. The most common issue is a low amplitude which is an indication of a problem in the movement. Finally, a timing machine gives you the beat error. The beat error is the difference between the swings of the balance.  

Buyers have to be careful when interpreting the data provided by timing machines. It is a measurement of the watch’s function in the moment but does not provide any meaningful information on the condition of the movement. Timing machines are a tool for watchmakers to check their own work after they have already restored the movement to optimal condition.  They are a watchmaking tool, not a sales tool.  The only way to accurately assess the condition of a movement is for an experienced watchmaker to open it up and examine it by hand.  

Given that mechanical watches can’t be expected to keep perfect time, what, from a watchmaker’s perspective, is a reasonable expectation for accuracy? 

It’s more than a watchmaker’s perspective, manufacturers also set an acceptable margin of error for each caliber they produce.  In modern watches, typically 2-3 seconds fast per day is considered acceptable. Vintage watches are held to a different standard for two reasons. First, the technology available when they were manufactured only allowed for a certain accuracy in timing. Second, as part of normal wear and tear all of the movement parts have worn one another down over time.  Unless every single part was replaced with a new old stock original part, there will be wear that will impact the accuracy. In a vintage watch, 30-60 seconds fast per day is acceptable.

What is the difference between regulating and servicing a watch? How is a watch regulated, and how do I know if I need a regulation or a full service? 

These are two totally different processes. In a modern watch that has been serviced relatively recently and is off by 30 seconds per day, it can likely be regulated. If it has been more than 3 years since the previous service or it is off by more than 30 seconds, it should be serviced. A complete service involves completely dismantling the watch and replacing any worn movement parts. Regulation is done by using a lever or screws over the balance wheel to adjust the watch faster or slower. Regulation can fix minor timing issues, but is in no way a substitute for a complete service.

Is there anything an average person can do to keep their watch running well between services?

It is good practice to wind any watch once a month just to distribute the oils through the movement. We only recommend the use of watch winders for watches with multiple complications that are challenging to reset and can be damaged when improperly set. For the vast majority of watches, winders are just a way of putting extra wear on the movement, like adding unnecessary mileage on a car. The best practice is proactive maintenance, like updating the seals. The most costly repairs we complete are the consequence of preventable moisture damage. Even condensation can cause rust and decay. It is critical to update the seals every few years or be vigilant about keeping your watch dry.  

Finally, you have to know and accept the limits of your watch. All watches are not created for the same purpose. A thin case vintage dress watch was not designed to be worn at the gym and it will not do well if you insist on wearing it there. If you take good care of your watches, they will keep you right on time for many years to come. 

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Zach is a native of New Hampshire, and he has been interested in watches since the age of 13, when he walked into Macy’s and bought a gaudy, quartz, two-tone Citizen chronograph with his hard earned Bar Mitzvah money. It was lost in a move years ago, but he continues to hunt for a similar piece on eBay. Zach loves a wide variety of watches, but leans toward classic designs and proportions that have stood the test of time. He is currently obsessed with Grand Seiko.