A watchmaker’s work is often left unappreciated as it is hidden inside the case. The fact that the watch is keeping time and functioning as it should are the only outside indicators of a well serviced watch. When studying to become a watchmaker we were often told the mantra that “you can’t see a good watchmaker’s work”; meaning that the work should be so clean and precise that there’s no evidence of any intervention.
The outside of the watch, specifically the case and bracelet, are different as they form the tactile part of the watch. Refurbishing the material so that it has the finish, shape and function as when new is something that the customer can immediately appreciate. It is also what I find to be one of the most satisfying parts of being a watchmaker.
Watch polishing is a full-time job at most large repair centres, and specialised people will do nothing but refurbish cases and bracelets all day.
Watch bracelet and case polishing can also be referred to as refurbishing, refinishing and valeting.
Please note that this is commercial polishing and so no more than an hour is taken on any watch. Better finishes, in particular a higher mirror finish, come from using additional grades of polishing compound to achieve a more graduated removal of scratches. But the overall time spent polishing offers diminishing returns and so it is generally not financially reasonable to go beyond what is demonstrated below.
The before and after of a refurbished watch bracelet
There are two main finishes that a watchmaker will want to achieve.
- The first is highly polished, or a mirror finish; basically trying to make the metal as reflective and smooth as possible.
- The second is a grained or brushed finish, which is where there are deliberate scratches made in the metal in one direction.
The example above shows a mirror finish on the centre links and a brushed finish on the side links and safety clasp.
There is also a sand blasted finish, but I will not be covering that here. This is a finish that is done by firing sand at a high speed through a nozzle in an enclosed area. It creates a mottled effect, with the technique to achieve it similar to airbrushing with paint.
Understanding the different properties of the metals used in watch cases and bracelets is vital if you wish to work proficiently with them
Steel: When polishing cases and bracelets most of the refurbishment will be done on steel, as it is relatively cheap to manufacture and very commonly used. It is hard wearing and can give a number of satisfying finishes
Gold: This is a very soft metal that is very easily polished to a mirror finish. With gold, the watchmaker will try to remove as little material as possible in order not to devalue the piece, and so heavily scratched gold generally cannot be refurbished completely. Most watches are either 9ct or 18ct gold
Titanium: Some watches use titanium, which is a very light and tough metal that you cannot bring to a high polish without a lot of effort. As it does not mark easily most work is generally just a case of refinishing the original effect – which is most commonly brushed
Platinum: Only used on the highest end watches, particularly Patek Phillippe. Platinum is harder than gold, but the same polishing techniques apply. You shouldn’t use an abrasive compound on platinum as you will devalue the piece
POLISHING TOOLS AND MATERIALS
All case and bracelet polishing is done on a lathe, unless otherwise mentioned. This should be a purpose built polishing lathe with air extraction and decent lighting.
Always wear safety goggles. Some people would recommend wearing latex gloves to help avoid staining your hands with polishing compound.
Polishing compounds are used with mops. A felt mop such as this are used to remove scratches for when you want a high polished finish. You spin the mop in the lathe and let the compound rub off onto the wheel
A cotton mop is used for buffing. You can use the same compound on a different mop and the abrasive effect will change. The amount of pressure you use on the mop has a huge effect too
An Aluminium Oxide wheel is used to give a brushed finish. The brand I use is Bufflex
Gold is polished with a cotton mop with an Iron Oxide compound. Here I’ve covered the brushed steel parts in Protective Tape to isolate the polishing effect
For removing heavy scratches on steel you use a grit wheel; this brand is Artiflex. This is a rubber-like wheel that you do not use with a compound. It can even out all the marks, but due to the fact it will scratch the steel it is not appropriate if you want to later have a high polish finish
When dealing with a scratched bracelet that I will later want to have a polished finish, you can use a wheel made out of an abrasive block. The brand Garryflex make different grades of block and I have found that if you cut a piece off a Red Garryflex block and turn it into a circular shape, you will find that it is great for evening out scrathes, without being as harsh as a grit wheel. Some people use a wheel made from a Blue Garryflex block when they are graining small areas of steel
There are special polishing compounds that look like bars of soap and come in different colours depending on their grit size. I’ve experimented a lot with the different types and found what works for me; although most people have their own preferences and get similar results. I use a brand called Dialux
For steel I use blue to polish and green to finish. For gold I use their red block.
If you are wanting a super-fine finish then you can use their white compound, which is what you can also use to polish acrylic glasses and finish gold.
For the highest-end of mirror finish, the black compound together with a Swansdown mop will get superb results, although this level is generally unnecessary.
Different brands have a different colour scheme, but for Dialux;
- Grey to cut
- Blue to polish
- Green to finish
Gold and platinum
- Red to polish
- White to finish
Watchmaking is not always a pretty occupation. Even an outwardly well kept watch can have years of build-up of dead skin and dried sweat in hard to reach places; such as behind the extension clasp or underneath the bezel. You should always clean a watch before you start to polish it, to ensure that the dirt is not transferred to your polishing mops – plus it makes it a lot more pleasant to work on
- Gold plating or folded gold should never be polished. At best the layer is only a few microns thick and will wear off very quickly
- Never cross-contaminate mops i.e. never polish with green then go straight to blue without cleaning the previous compound off. You want each mop to be as pure as possible. I store each mop in a bag after use to stop it from becoming contaminated
- For when you have a two-tone or two-finish then you should start with the polished and/or softest areas first. So if you have gold and steel, you will start with the gold, if you have a brushed and polished finish you will start on the polished part. Once that part is finished you then tape over the finished area so that you can work on the other area without damaging your previous work
- When polishing gold, less is always more. Gold is so soft that you will remove a lot of material fast if you are not careful. I use the red compound, which is Iron Oxide, on a cotton mop and go over each area for a few seconds only. I will never polish the edge of a case-back or inside edge of a case; as you can very easily change the shape so that the watch case will not fit together any longer. To get a brushed finish on gold I will use a Garryflex block and do it by hand by pushing the gold in one direction on the block; you should never mechanically grain gold
If you cannot remove the glass easily, or a new glass seal is unavailable in case of the old one being damaged, then be sure to cover the glass in protective tape if you are working on the case. Sapphire and mineral glass cannot be polished without specialist equipment, and instead you will be left with an unattractive frosted look on any area you scuff
HOW TO POLISH AN ALTERNATE FINISH BRACELET; TAG HEUER LINK
This Tag Heuer Link is very heavily scratched. The black lettering on the bezel has worn off, and there is a scratch to the glass off centre towards 10 o clock. Most watches can tell a story to the watchmaker who repairs them. You can confidently say that for this watch to be so badly damaged it has been worn by someone all-day every-day, no matter what they were doing
The scratches are so severe that the original finish has been completely lost. This bracelet should have a pattern that is a highly polished link then a brushed finished link alternating
If possible, if it best to remove the glass when polishing the case. To ensure that the glass is replaced in the same direction I mark where 12 o clock is. This ensures that the scratches and marks are in the same place as when received; otherwise a customer may think their watch has new scratches, when it is actually just their old scratches rotated to a new position. The bezel should always be removed and worked on separately. The tool is a claw that holds the bezel from three points as you twist and lift it off
Usually you would not use a grit wheel when you are going to aim to later achieve a polished finish. However this bracelet is in such poor condition that it is necessary. Notice how the bracelet is being held. It is slowly fed over the top of my finger. Never hold an object you are polishing too tightly, as if it ever catches on the mop/wheel you will want it to be safely pulled out of your hand; and not to pull your hand with the object into the lathe
Here the left hand side is done and the right hand side is untouched. You are wanting to create an even finish that you can then work with
All of the big scratches have now been removed and have been replaced by the roughly uniform marks left by the grit wheel
We start with a cutting compound on a felt mop. As is is only the alternate link that is polished, we do not need to work on those links that are later going to be grained
This is a different watch, however the effect is clear. If you only polish in one direction you will get tracks along the surface, as shown on the side of the case here
By moving the piece in a circular motion and polishing from different angles, you can achieve a more even finish. This applies to using all wheels and mops, with the exception of when you are trying to get a grained finish
After the cutting compound has been used, we have reduced the scratches we made with the grit wheel
Then I use a finishing polish on a different felt mop. This is to remove the scratches that the previous abrasive introduced and leave a higher level of finish
You can see each alternating link has now been polished. The finish is quite even but it will not yet be good enough
To give the final polish to achieve a mirror finish I use a cotton mop. You can add a polishing compound to the mop, but I normally leave the residue from the previous mop on the bracelet which will then be picked up. This will leave you will a very smooth and even surface
After the cotton buffing mop has been used the links are now polished to a high enough level that I am happy with. Their true lustre will not come through until the bracelet has been thoroughly cleaned however
As it is always easier to work on smaller pieces, I dismantled the bracelet as much as I could to give myself less work for the next step
The next step is to add the brushed finish to the links that are not polished. Some of the links cannot be easily dismantled and so we must cover the existing polished links in a protective film to avoid them getting accidently scratched. This style of bracelet is particularly time consuming to wrap up, and this is the main reason why I was keen to dismantle the watch as much as possible earlier
To give a good brushed finish you will want to present the piece in a straight line. Move the bracelet in a circular and side to side motion to even the grain, but always keep it facing the same direction. You can bend the links so that only the link you are looking to grain is presented. When you have finished, turn the bracelet 180 degrees and grain it from the other direction to get a more even finish. Don’t forget the side of the link, and ensure that they are grained in the same direction as the top surface
The finished grain. When using the Aluminium Oxide wheel be careful to avoid running the brush over the tape, as it will break through given enough force and ruin the polished finish underneath
The final step is to remove the tape, re-assemble the bracelet, and then give a brushed finish to the underside of the bracelet
After each stage the bracelet should be thoroughly cleaned to avoid any cross contamination of abrasives. When you use each mop and wheel you want to be confident of the finish you will achieve, which you can only be if you keep each mop as pure as possible
After the final steam clean followed by an ultrasonic bath, the watch bracelet comes out looking like new. The flash of the camera will highlight some imperfections, however as I said at the start of the article, we are aiming for a time-sensitive, commercially-driven result. Based on the condition of the bracelet as it was received, I can be highly confident the customer will be satisfied with the result
HOW TO REPAINT A BEZEL
When refurbishing a watch, special attention should be paid to the detailing on the bezel. The bezel is at the front of the watch and borders the dial, and so is very prominent for the customer. Often if a watch is worn then the numbering and/or lettering on the bezel and case can become worn. After the bezel has been polished, you can re-paint the numbering in the recesses.
Many customers believe that special paint is used on a watch, however most watchmakers – even those working for famous brands – use enamel paints that are designed for models, and paint them using an old oiler. Through experimenting I have found that nail varnish is superior, as it is hard wearing, quick drying, water-proof and naturally leaves a smooth finish. You can buy nail art bottles, which have a small nozzle at the end that are perfect for repainting the features on a bezel or case
When dry, nail varnish is very easy to remove with direct force. You can use some sharpened peg wood to clean away any of the excess paint on the surface of the bezel
Using a tissue dipped in a solvent, such as isopropanol, you can wipe the surface of the bezel to clean away the remaining excess paint and thereby leaving the varnish in the numbered recesses only
The finished bezel
Some watches will require for you to repaint the luminous dot. To do this first paint the black border in the recess and allow it to dry. Then mix the luminous powder with 2 part glue and using a large oiler place a blob in the recess. When it is partially dry, place another blob on top of it; as the size of the dot will have reduced as it has dried. Once you are happy with the result and it has completely dried, make another small amount of two part glue and paint a thin glaze over the entire marker. This will protect it and make the dot waterproof
HOW TO POLISH A TWO-FINISH BRACELET; OMEGA SEAMASTER
The bracelet of the Omega Seamaster has two finishes. Moving from the outside inwards the finish is; grained, polished, grained, polished, grained, polished, grained, polished, grained.
The polished parts are quite small and so are difficult to isolate, and so this bracelet is good practice for getting comfortable with using the protective tape. As with the Tag Heuer Link example above, the same techniques apply to a two-tone bracelet e.g. a bracelet that uses both gold and steel.
First you will want to even out the bracelet with an abrasive wheel and then finish off the parts that you will want polished
We will now start to mask over parts of the bracelet, covering the areas that we have polished. There are many different approaches to this; here I have cover the entire middle of the bracelet leaving the side of the links ready to be grained
Moving the bracelet in a circular motion, let it feed through over your finger. Keep the bracelet straight and try and bend it slightly to present the best surface of the part of the link you want to grain. Be careful to not have the wheel touch the protective tape; as it will easily wear it away. When finished, turn the bracelet 180 degrees and repeat coming in the other direction to ensure the results are as even as possible
Remove the tape and check your progress. It is very difficult to refinish any scuffed polished parts once the bracelet has been refurbished, and so it is best to remedy any mistakes you make as soon as you see them
Next we will want to grain the central part, and so carefully cover rest of the bracelet
There are now two final parts to work on. These are not as raised as the centre or sides and so can be a bit trickier, however if you take your time and are careful it is fairly straightforward to do. Once you have done one side, remove the tape and repeat for the other side
The finished bracelet. Once all the tape has been removed, you should thoroughly clean the bracelet and check it for any areas you have missed or accidentally scuffed
HOW TO FINISH A WATCH CASE-BACK; CIRCULAR AND STRAIGHT GRAIN
This Omega Seamaster case-back has a number of different finishes on it. It has a highly polished edge, and circular grained inner edge, and a straight grained centre. To make the circular grain on the inner edge we use protective tape to cover the centre. The polished edge can be easily re-touched if you accidently scuff it
Placing the case-back in a self-centring 3 jaw chuck, you spin the case-back and touch the part you want to grain with an abrasive block; in this case Blue Garryflex
You can stop the lathe at any point and check your work. You will want to draw the abrasive block slowly and evenly across the case-back to ensure that the grain is evenly spread
To then put the straight grain on the piece, you will want to remove the tape and reapply it covering the entire case-back. Running a knife around the edge on the raised central part you can then remove the tape from the middle part only. Run the case-back under the wheel, moving it side to side to ensure an even grain, and then turn the piece around and grain it from the other direction to make it as even as possible
This Ladies Omega Constellation has a number of challenges. The grain on the bracelet is horizontal and so each link must be grained individually. The links are also seperated by highly polished sleeves. The quickest way I have found to refurbish this bracelet is to polish the sleeves first, and then using a small purpose made Blue Garryflex wheel individually grain each of the links by folding the bracelet so that just that link is presented. This helps avoid you having to spend too long taping over the polished sleeves
This Ladies Constellation has a similiar challenge as above, but it is compounded by the fact that the bracelet central sleeves are all gold, and the end pieces are steel. Rather than spend a long time dismantling the watch, I instead use the steel polishing compound (Blue) on both the steel and gold. It is noted that it is suitable for gold in the description. Then I finish the whole area with the Red compound on a cotton mop. When I have a bezel such as this diamond and gold one, the gold is too soft to risk removing it. Due to the risk of accidentally scuffing the diamond bezel while trying to refurbish the case – a very expensive mistake – I would not attempt to refinish the case at all. Instead, I will manage the customer’s expectations by telling them before any work has started that the bracelet is the only part that I will valet. Most customers understand and would not want you to take any unnecessary risks with their watch
Watch bracelets such as this with unusually shaped links, gold, brushed and polished finishes, and the inability to dismantle the links can be very time consuming to complete. Start with the softest metal – the gold – then work on the polished steel, and finally the horizontal grained steel
The refurbished bracelet
This Tag Heuer has a star-burst effect on the case. Which is where the grain is always in the direction away from the centre of the case. To achieve this you first need to remove the bezel, glass and bracelet. Then rotate the case under the graining wheel, making sure to move the case up and down the cover the side as well as the top. When you have gone around the case once then you need to quickly retouch the case at the points of the compass i.e. N, NE, E, SE, S, SW, W, NW. That will give definite lines in those prominent directions, with the graining made on the original rotation filling in the rest of the area. It is not a perfect result, but it is almost indistinguishable from a factory produced effect and has the benefit of being very quick to complete