The First Cut is the Deepest

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Scratches build character. I feel like as a new watch enthusiast, back in the days before Instagram was the de facto meeting place for collectors, this was a thing you read on the forums constantly under topics asking questions like “Will this polish out?” or “Oh No! I’ve only had it for a week!” For as long as I can remember, I feel like there’s been a chorus of wise old pros calming down the newbies as they struggle with that first scratch, perhaps on their first “nice” watch (whatever that might mean to whoever is concerned). 

The first scratch is a moment that often defines our life with a watch. It’s universal; if you buy a watch brand new, something most of us have done at one point or another, it’s only a matter of time before you put a mark on it that makes it clear that it’s been worn. Reactions to the first scratch run the gamut. Petrified anxiety, reluctant acceptance, over the top anger, or a simple shrug of the shoulders are all reactions I’ve witnessed, and to a certain degree, through the years, I’ve experienced them all personally at one time or another as well. 

The author’s SBGH271, circa 2020. Now with more scratches.

I don’t think it will surprise anyone to know that when it comes to scratches, I try to take a level headed approach. They are, like Thanos, inevitable. But I had an experience with my relatively recently acquired Grand Seiko SBGA469 that brought me back to my early days in watches, where a scratch could throw me into a near tailspin. 

I remember that it was late at night on a weeknight, sometime during the depths of our most recent New Hampshire winter. I was just hanging out, probably half watching a movie, and I had taken my watch off, as one does, for no particular reason. Just to kind of admire it, feel it in the hand. You all do it, too, don’t even try to deny it. The light hit the case flank on the 9:00 side in such a way that it revealed what looked to me at the time, in my drowsy state, like a full fledged crack. Did I really put a chip in this watch of that size in the mere two months during which I’d owned it? Surely I’d remember whatever accident caused the damage, right? 

I turned on every light I could find because now I was wide, and I mean wide, awake. I examined the watch more carefully, and even brought out a loupe to take a more careful look. OK, it wasn’t a chip or a crack at all, but it was a decently sized scratch. The kind that definitely will show up when light hits it, and is actually fairly visible even when it’s not. It was more than a flea bite, less than ding, and somehow it consumed my mind for the next few days. 

Photo by Zach Weiss

What was happening to me? It had been years since I’ve put a scratch on a watch that I could honestly say I cared about at all. When I bought my first Tudor Pelagos, my spring bar tool slipped when I was removing the bracelet to size it (so within my first hour or ownership) and I somehow put a deep scratch clear across the lower front portion of one of the lugs, spanning the beveled area where the finishing changes. My reaction, in the moment, was a profanity followed by laughter. It’s such a brute of a tool watch, I didn’t care at all that there was a noticeable scratch that I’d see literally whenever I checked the time. At least after that initial moment of realization that my “new” watch could no longer conceivably be labeled as such, a sense of calm came over me and I didn’t think much about the scratch at all for as long as I owned that watch.  

I think the Grand Seiko was different for me because of the ornate qualities inherent in the design of the watch. There’s something about that fresh Zaratsu polish that I find to be incredibly beautiful, and knowing I had laid eyes on it in its purest state for the last time (at least until a years away service polish) was, if I’m being honest, a disappointment. But it’s all in the service of building character, right?   

The truth is, I’ve always found that maxim to be a little irritating. And also, kind of confusing. Does it imply that it’s building character in the watch’s owner? A personal ability to absorb the crushing and debilitating disappointment of physical evidence that a watch has been worn by a human being in the physical world? Or is it about the character of the watch itself? An implication that scratches add to the aesthetic charm of a watch. 

Just a little desk diving. Photo courtesy Everest Bands

I can understand that point of view, for sure, but I stop short of embracing scratches as an aesthetic bonus. At least in the abstract. On my own watches, I always come to a point where I just stop seeing them. But I don’t think a watch is improved, necessarily, by visible damage to its finish, especially when that finishing is core to the design of the watch itself, as it is with most Grand Seikos.

This naturally leads into the eternal question of whether or not to get scratches, dings, and so forth polished out when the opportunity presents itself. I’ve thought about this quite a bit. Obviously, everything is a matter of personal preference, so take what I say here with a grain of salt, but I have a strong belief that vintage watches, if they’re at all collectible, should be left untouched by a polishing wheel. For me, the most interesting thing about any vintage watch is its ability to double as a time capsule, and if it’s been made to look brand new, that appeal flies out the window. 

On new watches, though, I’d happily let the brand restore the watch to a state resembling that of when I acquired it, particularly if it’s a watch I plan to own for a very long time. The response I often hear is that “every scratch tells a story,” or something similar. But my stories are of bracelets rubbing up against the aluminum shell of my laptop, or of a shirt sleeve creating the dreaded “swirls” on a polished case flank. These aren’t momentous occasions I need to remember forever. 

My recent brush with scratch anxiety (a term that should be adopted by clinicians immediately) made me wonder if we ever really get over that first big scratch. I really thought I had this thing beat, but it turns out I’m just as susceptible to it as anyone. Luckily my case was short lived, but I’m somewhat envious of those who are truly immune, seemingly happy to slam their brand new watch on the Authorized Dealer’s door jamb as they leave with a shiny new watch on their wrist. 

Photo by Zach Weiss

As always, balance and sensibility is key. With his permission, I’ll share here the story of a friend who lacks both, to illustrate that a complete aversion to scratches on a watch can leave you perpetually frustrated, and perhaps even impact your vision over time, as you squint to see smaller and smaller imperfections. 

My friend is so obsessed with a watch’s condition, he has joked (joked?) about being blacklisted by a well known pre-owned retailer for returning too many watches for having undisclosed marks that would frankly be tough to see without a loupe, let alone in a product photo optimized for an iPhone. My running gag with this friend when he buys something new is to take a careful look at it and say something like, “What’s going on with that right lower lug?” Of course, there’s nothing on the lug, but you can imagine why this is hilarious. 

Recently, he acquired a new watch. A limited edition chronograph he had been after for a long time. It was pre-owned, but it passed his typical careful scrutiny of every photo available. A small group of us met for pizza right after his purchase to take a look at the new watch and celebrate, and when it got to be my turn to examine it I’m sure my friend knew what was coming next. I was ready to make my customary joke about a nonexistent imperfection when I noticed an actual imperfection, a tiny nick in the bezel right above 12:00. I handed it back and pointed it out, silently, as I watched the color drain from his face. 

Photo by Zach Weiss

I don’t really know if there’s a lesson here. It’s more or less just a funny story. This collector friend of mine is good natured about the hobby and recognizes that his standards are high and somewhat peculiar. Try as I might, I couldn’t convince him to hang on to the watch. “It’s tainted!” he told me. I have a feeling what he meant here was that because the scratch was unknown to him, created by someone else, he couldn’t have a part in it. He insists over and over again that he’s fine with scratches he puts on a watch, but can’t get over the idea that someone else might have roughed it up before him. As you might infer, pre-owned watches are tricky with this type of attitude. You never really know where something has been, or what someone has done to it.

And yet, this guy is among the most enthusiastic collectors I know. He genuinely loves watches, and is yet another example of an idea that I keep coming back to: that there is no wrong way to collect. I can’t imagine feeling the constant stress of negotiating potential damage – I really strive to wear all of my watches in a worry free way. But for him, it’s almost like fuel. Maybe, subconsciously, he wants to find a scratch, because it means he gets to hunt for another watch. Nothing will keep the cycle going like ensuring that the first scratch is also the last. 

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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.