Talking Vintage Watch Restoration Ethics with James Lamdin, Eric Ku, and Eric Wind

The vintage watch world in 2019 is a minefield. There’s no other way to put it. While there are exceptional vintage dealers and resources available to consumers who want to be educated, there are just as many, maybe more, out to make a quick buck in a less than scrupulous way.

This past summer, we ran a story about Kamil Dunkowski, an expert in the restoration of vintage Seiko and Grand Seiko cases, Zaratsu polishing and all. His work left me and many of our readers awestruck, and a debate quickly brewed in the comments section of the Worn & Wound Instragram: how good is too good? If a watch case can be restored to factory specifications, what stops a dealer from advertising a vintage piece as “New Old Stock” that has actually been restored using laser welding techniques, completely masking potential earlier damage that was done to the watch?

We wanted to find out more, and to get the perspectives of some well known and trusted vintage watch dealers. So we reached out to James Lamdin, proprietor of Analog/Shift, Eric Wind, of Wind Vintage, and Eric Ku, who runs 10Past10 and, notably, LA Watch Works, his watch shop that does movement and case restoration, as well as other small jobs like matching handsets and swapping dials.

Left to right: James Lamdin, Eric Ku, and Eric Wind.

Analog/Shift has been a staple in the vintage watch world for a number of years. Known for providing a huge selection of expertly curated watches at various price points, the love and respect for vintage comes through in their detailed product descriptions and beautiful photography that showcases the timepieces as they are, imperfections and all.

James’s point of view could not be clearer. “Anyone who is dismissive of restoration is completely missing the point,” he tells me, in no uncertain terms. The point, he says, is for these things to be used, and to be kept alive. Refinishing, in his estimation, can give new life to a watch that may have been mistreated over the years, and a subtle touch up should never be sneered at. “Watches are very commonly spruced up and made to be better,” he says.

Eric Ku has a similar outlook. “It’s a very subjective matter, but I personally believe that there is nothing wrong with wanting your watch to look as good as it can,” he told me. And what “as good as it can” means to each individual collector can vary wildly.

Some of James’s customers, for instance, desire that weathered look. They want their old watches to appear old, to look their age. Still others want pristine timepieces that have been in the back of the jewelers safe for decades.

Eric Wind has a slightly different philosophy. “In general, I do not like laser welding and case refinishing,” he tells me. “What ends up happening in many cases it that the watches get to look like cyborgs in my opinion, where things like the bezel insert or even dial and hands show a watch that has had some wear, but the case looks too new. I prefer honest vintage watches that show they have lived a life.” Even so, Wind concedes there are times when laser welding is appropriate, and even necessary. “Laser welding is warranted in cases of significant corrosion on cases,” he told me. “Steel from that era had higher levels of carbon in the mixture and if exposed to moisture the cases could rust,” Wind explained, just as cars from the era need to be treated against the spread of rust, so it goes with watches, which sometimes need pre-emptive measures taken to ensure their long term survival.

“Anyone who is dismissive of restoration is completely missing the point.”

– James Lamdin

For those who want their watches to be as mint as possible, restoration services like Ku’s can be a massive help. “Offering a service that restores watches as close to factory spec as possible is something that the collecting community wants and needs,” he tells me. “It’s been 3 years since we started, and the demand has been tremendous for our services, which in my eyes validates our objective.”

Some honest patina, via Analog Shift.

While there is little disagreement restoration has its place and should even be encouraged, both for personal use and at the retail level, a concern remains among some consumers that they’re being taken for a ride when purchasing a piece that looks new but has possibly undergone an aftermarket transformation to bring it back to factory spec.

James sees a huge opportunity for vintage dealers to do the work of educators when selling watches. In a hobby, and a market, that’s growing year by year, he deeply understands the importance of communicating a watch’s honest condition and history. “Wrist watches are just beginning to become incredibly collectible,” he says, “it all comes down to education.” It’s how a good dealer builds a client base: you teach, you provide something of value, and they keep coming back.

At the same time, James understands the risks associated with throwing so much information at a new enthusiast. “Dealers are afraid to educate,” he says, “because you can talk [a customer] out of a sale” by fully disclosing what some might consider flaws, but what a seasoned collector understands to be normal by products of a solid restoration.

An “Ed White” gets the restoration treatment at LA Watch Works. From their Instagram account.

“You can scare newer clients by overloading them with information but at the end of the day they’ll be the best clients.”

“It is a treacherous market,” says Wind, who sees a vintage watch landscape full of potential disaster for the inexperienced consumer. “The nature of watches themselves,” he says, “lends itself to a lot of swapping of parts as well as undisclosed restoration. I certainly prefer watches in more easily verifiable original condition, with ties to the original owner if possible.”

“That is why it is important to trust the seller,” says Wind, “and why I think new collectors should find someone they trust who educates them about these things.”

Eric Ku would seem to agree. “There definitely is a market for watches that have been restored using laser welding, but the real question is: how often does a seller disclose that this work has been done?”

“I prefer honest vintage watches that show they have lived a life.”

– Eric Wind

Ku went on to explain that he’s OK with selling watches that have been refinished in a professional and respectful manner, but that he would never describe it as unpolished, or new old stock, or use any of the other potential buzzwords that watch geeks seek out when searching for a rare vintage piece. Instead, he says, “I can talk about how symmetrical the crown guards are, how thick the lugs are,” and so forth.

A Rolex GMT-Master 1675 “Mark 2″from Wind Vintage.

On the topic of transparency, Wind sees some obvious potential pitfalls. “It is concerning,” he says, “I have seen my share of supposedly NOS watches where the case has been totally restored and the owner is unaware.” Not only does this signal some potentially shady business activity, but the sour taste it leaves in the customer’s mouth can have a ripple effect on the industry, and its reputation. “In many cases,” says Wind, “that collector gives up on collecting vintage watches altogether and the market suffers.” We’ve all read horror stories from anonymous posters on watch forums and other websites, and eventually that information seeps into the collective consciousness of the enthusiasts who prop up the hobby.

Part of the challenge of educating the public is making sure that we’re using and understanding the vocabulary of the vintage watch world correctly. Both James and Eric Ku agree that certain words should be avoided when discussing vintage watches.  For James, it’s “original—the most overused word in vintage.”

To make his point, James draws an analogy to the vintage car world. With a vehicle, everything is stamped with a common identification number (a VIN number, or a serial number). “Watches are not that way,” he explains. With so much parts sharing between manufacturers of cases, movements, dials, hands, and other components, watches were never produced in a way that made “originality” easily trackable. An “original” watch, then, might be something that a customer thinks they want, but when they realize it’s never been given a polish (and looks like it), and has never had a service so it’s not in working order, their mind can be changed.

Similarly, Eric Ku has banned the word “unpolished” from his watch vocabulary. “This is the most misused and outright false adjective when it comes to vintage watches,” he says. “Without owning a watch since new, how can you be certain?”

The answer, of course, is you can’t, and this represents yet another opportunity to inform and educate the customer. “Before watches were collectible, a normal factory service included a detailing of the case,” Eric Ku tells me. Nobody knew then (and many still don’t) that it would be detrimental to the value of a watch in the long term for the case to be worked on. As James put it during our discussion, in the past, “If you spent your money on a shiny watch, you wanted to keep it shiny.”

Both James and Eric Ku agree that certain words should be avoided when discussing vintage watches. For James, it’s “original—the most overused word in vintage.”

The axiom of “buy the seller” is perhaps a bit overused, but only because it tends to be incredibly useful in the watch world. From speaking with Ku, Wind, and Lamdin, the one thing that became abundantly clear throughout our correspondence was just how enthusiastic they are for the hobby, and for talking watches, whether they’re selling them or not. If you’re a buyer and you’re unsure, simply asking about a watch’s history seems like a good option. If the seller doesn’t oblige, or doesn’t know, it might be best to move on.

As Eric Wind puts it in extremely clear terms, “If a dealer or auction house just replies ‘trust me’ when you ask how they know something about a watch and don’t try to educate you, run!”

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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.