Timely repairs Featured

A watchmaker's view of fine watches today


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27 November 2013

It could be a dying art. The watchmaker in a small high street shop, sitting at a bench strewn with small tools, loupe in his eye, capable of repairing just about any type of watch... but most mechanical watch brands have increasingly stringent policies on after-sales service, and don't issue spare parts to independent watchmakers. I spoke to Francesco De Honestis, whose repair shop is on a busy street outside the main shopping centre of Milan. 

Things have changed a great deal from when you started?
“Today, the high-end watch industry has changed beyond recognition. The complications existing today are far more complex than anything seen before. Girard-Perregaux’s Constant Escapement L.M. has a vibrating blade in silicone, just 14 microns thick, six times thinner than a human hair. This sort of movement would be very difficult to repair.”

So, what is your role today?
“Repairing old watches, of course, by brands that no longer exist. But local watchmakers can also be invaluable in adjusting complicated watches. Often, people forget that an automatic watch that has been put away for a while has completely run down, and when you take it out again and put it on your wrist, it takes it some time to reach full power. Another problem is that all too often, people don’t read the instructions, particularly for complication movements. Some watches can be adjusted only in certain conditions, for example when the hands are in the bottom half of the dial. In this case, a client can unwittingly cause considerable damage to the movement.”

Do you have any advice on brands?
“I have some personal preferences: in my opinion, Rolex offers a very good quality-price ratio, with an excellent after-sales service, and a movement designed in segments which makes repair simpler. The Submariner is one of the first watches that I bought for myself. Parmigiani creates extraordinary watches. I also love Jaeger-LeCoultre: the Master Compressor Diving Pro Geographic Navy SEALs is a remarkable piece, a diving watch with a mechanical depth gauge. The Vulcain Cricket was a lovely piece with the alarm function, loud enough to wake the user – its chirping sound inspired the name. It was widely sold in the U.S.A., and its users included many presidents. Ghandi had a Zenith alarm pocket watch, one of his few material possessions: he used it to signal his prayer times. It was auctioned recently, with some other personal possessions, for 1.8 million dollars. I was particularly impressed by the Freak by Ulysse Nardin, a milestone for the materials used and the crazy design. The Primero by Zenith was the first watch to run at 36,000 oscillations per hour, for greater precision. Then there are the grand complications, by brands such as A. Lange & Söhne, perpetual calendar watches that need adjustment only once every hundred years. This means that regulation is not easy if the watch stops. They should be purchased with the special winding box that keeps them wound even when you are not wearing them.”

Do you have any advice for people who are thinking of buying a second-hand watch?
“If possible, buy a watch that has its original papers, or at least a guarantee of its provenance. Then, remember that a second-hand watch will nearly always need maintenance, and this can add to the final cost, particularly if they are by one of the hundreds of brands that existed up until before the quartz revolution. Repairing these can be difficult, because spare parts are hard to find, and sometimes they have to be crafted ex novo on a lathe."

Presumably some repairs are quite straightforward…
“Some repairs are more about sociology than watchmaking. I have one customer, an old lady, who came into the shop with her Rolex. She said that there was a problem of power reserve, and this is very strange, because Rolex is a brand that has an excellent automatic winding mechanism. One day I happened to see her on the street while she was out walking the dog. Her left arm was immobile, hand firmly clasped to her overcoat lapel, and she was walking very slowly. I later learnt that she didn’t move much at home either… all I could do was to suggest that she could wear the watch on her other wrist!”

Of all the watches that you’ve seen, is there one in particular that you remember?
“The Patek Philippe Nautilus had a very special design, unusual when it was launched in 1976. Every time I see it, I fall in love with it all over again. Chronometers by Zenith chronometers dating to the 1960s and 70s, and by Vacheron Constantin. The Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso. But they are all beautiful. Remember that a mechanical watch, though it may have a relatively high initial cost, is something that can last for 100 years or more. It can be with you for much longer than your car or apartment! What else is there that lasts for so long, with such technical perfection?”

Gioielleria Zingaro Dal 1952
Via Giuseppe Ripamonti, 3, Milan, Italy
Tel. +39 02 5832 1172