An Overview of Considerations in Vintage Watch Originality - Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)
Is the dial on the vintage watch you are selling refinished?
When assessing a vintage watch, our focus is on the complete watch-- all of its attributes weighed together. We only sell watches we believe-in and would make a great addition to your collection in-consideration of the total sum of its attributes. If we know or believe with stronger likelihood a watch dial may have been refinished, we will mention it in the description. Otherwise, we describe the overall watch to the best of our abilities and allow the buyer to make their own assessment as to what is important to them. To aid with this, we provide very high-quality pictures that can be expanded to the full size of your screen depending on your computer/device and browser. To see a fully expanded version of a picture, touch or click on the large version of the picture once. In your browser, you will see a bullseye (plus sign surrounded by a circle) indicating that if you click once, you will fully expand the picture by clicking. When you are finished reviewing the fully expanded picture, click again on it and it will return to the standard view.
Why are dials refinished and how important is it?
There are some misconceptions amongst collectors on the history and practice of refinishing vintage watch dials and their relationship to vintage watch collecting. If you plan to purchase a watch whose value is primarily and largely driven by letters on a dial such as a Red Rolex Submariner, then yes you need to obsess over the dial's originality and go to great lengths to authenticate it. Also some unscrupulous sellers refinish a dial to change the brand of a watch to one that’s more valuable— this is dishonest, essentially makes the watch a fake, and the watch’s true value is reduced to parts value only once this is done. On the other hand, a vast majority of vintage watches, including many costing thousands of dollars, were handled by a large number of watchmakers over many years and in the process stood a great probability of having their dials accurately refinished and/or touched-up to-include the addition of luminous for enhanced readability. Years ago, these watches were used for a purpose and not as collectibles. If a watchmaker received a watch for service and the dial was worn or damaged, they frequently suggested that the dial be refinished or touched-up. The owner was thrilled to have their watch looking like new again. This was a very common practice, not something nefarious someone did to raise the value of a watch for resale. It is not unusual for ClockSavant to receive one-owner watches inherited and handed-down in the family that have refinished dials. All major watchmakers have a relationship with a dial refinisher. Some people prefer the clean look of a newer looking refinished dial-- that same refinished dial may bother some die-hard collectors. This is a matter of personal preference, not an ethical debate, unless of course the dial is intentionally refinished to raise the value of a watch heavily valued on unique original attributes of its dial.
What about poorly refinished dials?
An important topic though is how well the dial looks and does it reflect the brand and era of the watch correctly. There are poorly refinished dials with poor and incorrect lettering of all kinds. These can be less desirable and, in some cases, highly undesirable. What you will find is that some collectors are more keenly sensitive around some details than others, just like with other things in life, and will focus on certain details that others may not.
Do refinished dials lower the value of a vintage watch?
A new old stock original dial will always be worth more than any refinished dial. But perfect new old stock original dials are very rare. Instead, we are often trading-off a worn dial that may (or may not, more on that later) be original against possibly a cleaner refinished dial. Provided that a dial is refinished to closely match the original and done well, contrary to what some proclaim, a refinished dial does not necessarily lower value compared to a dirty or worn dial with the exception of examples previously noted aka a red dial Submariner highly valued because of its unique dial. It should come as no surprise that as a matter of personal choice, there are many buyers who prefer cleaner newer looking dials and are willing to pay a premium for them, just as the original owners 50+ years ago felt when their watchmaker cleaned-up their watch and dial. Other collectors prefer authenticity at the expense of a clean look. What is true in all of this is that, if a collector solely focuses on the dial-- its originality or how clean it is-- then they fail to assess the total quality and inherent value of a vintage watch. A watch's value and enjoyment are based on the total sum of its parts. Collectors that excessively obsess over one aspect, be it a dial or any other aspect, may fail to look at the watch as a whole and fail to come to a balanced conclusion. For example, many collectors focus on the dial but blindly overlook serious problems with the watch's movement and/or case that may not be repairable/correct/resolvable. It is incorrect, for example, to assume that every vintage watch can be brought to the same movement condition in an economically viable fashion through servicing. If you have a wonderful watch with a fantastic movement and case, and the dial was refinished decades ago but is beautiful, that watch may be far more desirable than a watch with a dial presumed (more on presumption in a moment) to be original but with a movement that is heavily abused.
How do you know if a dial is original?
First, we should assure we have the right terminology. Even refinished dials are themselves original dials—it’s the paint that was changed. Relative to ascertaining a refinished dial, many collectors make the mistake of assuming that dirty or old looking dials could not have been refinished. As we discussed earlier, watch dial refinishing has been done since the beginning of time. Just because yours is worn doesn't mean its paint is original. Sometimes buyers contact us and want us to assure them with "100% certainty" that a watch dial’s paint is original. You simply cannot do that unless you know the original owner/provenance of the watch and all those who touched the watch have a great memory as to its history. We have at our disposal at ClockSavant massive levels of high technology magnification, an online internal searchable knowledgebase we built over 20 years with extensive historical manufacturer data, and a huge library of brand and watchmaker related books. None of this will guarantee our assessment of a watch dial to 100% certain paint originality. At best, we can offer an opinion and probability. After all, this is paint we are talking about and we don't see anyone carbon dating watch dials to a specific year of watch manufacture. If the dial was refinished accurately and well, there are limits on what you can discern if the printing/painting is correct in its detail. Also note, manufacturers, with older watches, sometimes completed the dials by-hand or their equipment introducing further variance in dials and making perfect certainty even more challenging.
One other area of difficulty in all of this is the sheer volume of watch dial variations watch manufacturers had over the years, again with the exception of some watches/models/brands that followed known fixed patterns. Unless we are looking at a very specific and heavily repeated model such as an Omega Speedmaster, it becomes difficult to know for a fact if the manufacturer, for some market, made changes to a dial design that you haven't seen many (or any) of in the past. When you see a vintage watch, know enough about it to understand what is basically correct for the era in terms of design. If you haven't seen the dial design, then you need to ask yourself if you like it and if it makes sense to you for the watch and the brand. If you haven't seen the dial design and yet that particular watch model followed very fixed/known patterns, then you may have an inaccurately refinished dial. Look at the watch overall and the sum of its parts-- movement, case, dial, hands, and crown (originality of these are discussed in a separate FAQ item) and ask if they look visually pleasant to you, do they hang together, and do they look correct for the watch, the model, and its era.
How important are hands, crystal, and crown originality?
The hands, crystal, and crowns of a watch routinely wear-out or fail. Watchmakers keep cabinets of crystals, watch hands, and crowns in-stock for this reason. Vintage watches have typically been serviced by a large number of watchmakers over many years. During servicing, it is common for a watch's hands, crystal, and crown to have been changed. Depending on the watch model, the original crystal, watch hands, and crown may be generic in-nature and virtually indistinguishable from a watchmaker's replacement. Some models, however, have known fixed attributes and markings that reflect originality of the crystal, crown and hands. It is incorrect to assume, for example, that all Omega watches have an Omega branded crystal or crown or that all military watches have military markings. The obsession that collectors have with, for example, branded watch crowns has sometimes created the opposite effect of driving sellers to replace a correct unbranded crown with a branded crown that was never originally sold with the watch. We see this also with buckles, sellers install an Omega or IWC branded buckle for example on an older watch and proclaim it "original" when, in-fact, the manufacturer never used or manufactured such buckles during that era. In light of this, when evaluating a vintage watch, take the watch as the sum total of its all its attributes. If the watch's model calls for strictly defined crown styles for example, then decide if the particular crown on the watch you are looking at matters to you in-light of its other attributes.