The Superficial Value In Refinishing/Refurbishing Rolexes: A Watchmaker’s Rant

Sitting in my living room one evening sipping on a neat Grey Goose, I got to thinking about the current state of watch collecting.

I had recently read Derek Weinberg’s story, The Current State Of The Pocket Watch: It’s Better Than You Might Think, which got me thinking about modern horology in general.

But first, here’s a brief anecdote that explains the background to this rant.

It was the British Horological Institute’s 150th anniversary, and I was a young watchmaking student attending a WOSTEP partnership school at the time, the British School of Watchmaking. The WOSTEP students, including myself, were honored to be seated at the table with Dr. George Daniels and his good friend Andrew Crisford.

I remember this dinner well: it was the first time I had seen an F.P. Journe watch in person, which graced Crisford’s wrist. Seeing the F.P. Journe, however, was not the highlight of the evening, dining with Daniels as an 18-year-old watchmaking student is clearly the winner there.

There were so many great horological names in attendance that weekend: Peter Speake-Marin, Stephen Forsey, the chaps from Frodsham, and, of course, the British Horological regulars such Justin Koullapis, Allan Middleton, Timothy Treffry, and Jim Arnfield, as well as Quill & Pad’s own Ian Skellern.

My good friend Scott (who went on to work for Roger Smith) and I sat in the pub on the Sunday evening chatting with Peter Speake-Marin about his watchmaking journey, imbibing multiple pints of beer. Speake-Marin wisely convinced us to blow off school the following day and continue taking in the BHI 150th anniversary celebrations.

When were we going to get another chance like this? The answer was never. And I have never to this day been in a room with so many horological greats, and I doubt that I ever will.

I had separately met many of these individuals before. Arnfield once journeyed to our school as he was friendly with Allan Burtoft, the man I owe my horological education to (patiently teaching my cocky 18-year-old self horology as I was nursing the odd hangover or two).

Arnfield brought along an incredible selection of watches for us to view. One I remember in particular was a Breguet pocket watch with a ruby cylinder escapement: this watch was truly a delight to see and I could understand how manufacturing such a movement was truly an outstanding accomplishment.

So, why exactly am I taking you through this educational watchmaking experience?

I am a contributor to multiple watch-related forums. I constantly see questions asked such as “who is the best watchmaker around to service this” and similar.

The same answers usually come up, but the thing I find so interesting is that the answers usually involve those who do the “prettiest” superficial work. In a word: case refinishing. And in other words: huge chamfers on Rolex cases, perfectly flat surfaces, and well executed sunburst patterns.

These watch restorers are often considered the best of the best, but I maintain that little regard is given to the movement.

A. Lange & Söhne Double Split before refurbishment

An A. Lange & Söhne Double Split that has been through some living before refurbishment

Please do not misunderstand me. Case refinishing is an important aspect of horology and is difficult to do well without the right equipment.

But, if I am being honest, once the expensive equipment has been purchased it is fairly standard work, and most people can be taught to do it well.

Wristwatch collecting’s current state

Vintage and pre-owned watches that have been untouched are all the rage and command huge premiums. Consumers pay double retail for stainless steel models of certain brands.

And for what? A brand name?

Is a Rolex Daytona worth double what the retailer is asking? No. It’s barely worth the retail price, as generally speaking retail prices are negotiable.

Rolex Submariner Reference 1680 from 1978

The author’s Rolex Submariner Reference 1680 from 1978

Now, I love a Rolex as much as the next guy. I own a Submariner 1680, which is my daily wearer, and I love it.

So what am I getting at here?

Watches perceived as “hot property” are worth all the money.

Watches that have been “refinished with exceptional skill” fetch huge premiums, and the work commands top dollar. And so it should.

We live in a supply-and-demand world, so watches that are hard to come by should fetch high prices. The same goes for expert case refinishing; it too should command top dollar.

However, I feel as if so much has been lost in the noise. Exceptional horology has been forgotten in the mass. Roger Smith, George Daniels, Derek Pratt, Peter Speake-Marin, Frodsham, Jim Arnfield, and my brilliant instructor Allan Burtoft have all been left in the dust for a chamfer that is far too large in my opinion anyway.

In 2012 at Sotheby’s sale of the George Daniels Horological Collection held after the great watchmaker’s passing, a Rolex Datejust fitted with a co-axial escapement (and done so by Daniels’s own hands) was estimated to sell for £5,000 – £7,000. It eventually sold for £21,250 – which is less than the current market price of a Zenith-powered Rolex Daytona.

The Daniels-modified Rolex is a one-of-a-kind watch, which was personally fitted with a co-axial escapement by the greatest watchmaker our time has ever seen. And it is worth less than a mass-produced watch with a movement that hasn’t changed since the late 1960s.

That’s a sad state of affairs.

The current horological landscape only cares about the superficial: the chamfer, the lugs, the unpolished specimen.

What about the true horological genius right under our noses that we pass over on a daily basis?

Those who can chamfer a lug, create a sunburst case pattern, and polish the side of a case flat are considered the watch masters of today. I have news for everyone: if you have $15,000, you can purchase a lapping machine and produce the same results.

Yes, there is of course a level of skill involved, but nowhere near the level of skill it takes to perform movement-related horological restoration. Black polishing of components, re-bushing plates, re-pivoting wheels, and turning balance staffs are all much more difficult tasks, but no love is ever given to these as they are the unseen, forgotten aspects of modern horology.

But, hey, I guess I’m just an Audrey Hepburn fan in a Kim Kardashian world.

You may also enjoy:

The Current State Of The Pocket Watch: It’s Better Than You Might Think

Fauxtina: A Faux Vintage Faux Pas

Why Great Britain Is Actually GREAT Britain: The R.W. Smith GREAT Britain Watch

A Horological Guide To London

Essential Facts About The Rolex 5-Year Guarantee

24 replies
  1. Dewie
    Dewie says:

    As much as I agree with the basic tenants of the article, the author’s credibility in criticizing the superficialities of watch collectors today and the value placed on brand over horological significance was lost in his opening sentence when he found it necessary to point out the brand of vodka he was drinking….

    • TempusFugit
      TempusFugit says:

      Absolutely, I almost stopped reading the article at that stage. As it turns out I’m glad I didn’t, but that pretence nearly ended it.

    • Aaron McCarthy
      Aaron McCarthy says:

      I loath to nitpick, but I your credibility was equally quashed in the first sentence when your long-winded verbiage contained a typo vis-a-vis “tenants” (residents), rather than “tenets” (fundamental concepts)… You should always be particular in your grammar when criticizing someone else’s.

    • Jack
      Jack says:

      What difference does it make what vodka he drinks. It is irrelevant to the point of his message. Maybe better editing might have guided him to omit that detail, but that doesn’t make the message any less powerful.

      I would rather read something like this that posits a well-founded opinion based on experience than some of the interminable rubbish that passes for horological journalism these days, like the blow-by-boring-blow “analysis” elsewhere herein of Patek’s latest regulator dial watch. At least Ashton’s work is punchy and to the point, and doesn’t pander in the slightest to the watch manufacturers’ opinions of him. Keep it up.

  2. Milhouse329
    Milhouse329 says:

    Very well said sir!

    “An Audrey Hepburn in a Kim Kardashian world”

    This is the new, social media type world we live in, lots of people with cash and no taste whatsoever!

  3. St Dymphna
    St Dymphna says:

    Interesting thoughts. I’d find the piece more enjoyable, and quite frankly more persuasive, if it were to extol the positives of the restoration of watches internals, rather than to complain about the attention given to those who polish the cases. Thanks.

  4. Coop
    Coop says:

    I definitely agree with some aspects of this article. As a long time watch enthusiast, I have gone through a lot of “stages” in what I loved and thought was important. Roughly I would say the things I have cared “most” about were movement, complications, history, reliability, beautiful finishing, esoteric watch nerd stuff, and then I come to where I am now, which I will get to.

    The part of this article I agree with: people don’t necessarily pay for the right things with watchmaking. People pay for the hot thing, the popular thing, the thing others will notice. It’s really hard work if you aren’t a big watch nerd to understand the significance of a Rolex modified by George Daniels. I have met plenty of watch dealers who have no idea how a coaxial escapement differs from a Swiss lever. I actually bought an omega specifically because I wanted a coaxial escapement – not because it’s necessarily better, but because it pays homage to Daniels, and it’s mechanically fascinating. But I didn’t end up liking to actually wear it very much.
    I also was obsessed for a long time with Lange due to their mix of high level finishing and top notch movement design. But trying on a tourbograph was somewhat disappointing – it didn’t look good on me and cost more than my house.
    On the other side of the coin there are brands like Rolex who are offering a very simple product that has mass appeal and comes with status. People with money like it because it’s easy – you don’t need to know anything to know how it works or why it’s good. It just is. It’s not really a watch, it’s a luxury good, a commoditized status symbol.

    The funny thing is the longer I stay interested in watch collecting / trading, the more I gravitate to Rolex and away from the other brands. Because Rolex is simple, reliable, fun, and easily salable. After collecting odd specimens and mechanical oddities for years, I’ve recently parted with some of the esoteric ones to buy a popular SS Rolex. I want one watch that I like to wear, looks great, always works, and doesn’t require a dissertation to explain to someone why it’s cool. Trying to explain a dead second complication to someone who casually asks about your watch is quite painful…

    Anyway long random rant here, but basically I agree it’s a sad stare of affairs when history is eschewed in favor of the hot new thing with less substance. But sometimes it’s fun to just wear the hot new thing too…

    • Elizabeth Doerr
      Elizabeth Doerr says:

      Those are very good, interesting, and well thought-out viewpoints, Coop. Thank you for taking part in this discussion.

  5. Jay Chez
    Jay Chez says:

    I quiet like the fact that a George Daniels modified Rolex goes unnoticed and is cheaper then the hype. It means us watch geeks can dream of owning such things 🙂

    • Elizabeth Doerr
      Elizabeth Doerr says:

      That is very true! I remember inspecting that Rolex at the auction preview, but will admit it did not capture my attention the same way other items in it did.

  6. Richard
    Richard says:

    Thanks for the write up!
    You do realize the Rolex enthusiasts that pay huge premiums for ‘new’ chamfers and thick cases, are the guys that (mostly) don’t give a fuck about haute horlogerie and or technological advancements. Nope a 3 hand automatic will do just fine for the most of them.
    I dont quite get your rant here. You’re mad because people (Rolex fanatics) don’t care about ‘horlogogical masterpieces’ (if you will), but rather spend their money on getting a decent case, refinished properly.
    This literally comes down to personal preferences.

  7. Gil
    Gil says:

    “Those who can chamfer a lug, create a sunburst steel pattern and polish the side of a case flat are considered the watch masters of today.”

    I doubt that very much my friend.

  8. Ian Skellern
    Ian Skellern says:

    I didn’t just have the pleasure of attending the 150th BHI event, Ashton, I was at the pub on Sunday night having a few drinks with with Peter Speake-Marin and a couple of watchmaking students, one of whom I assume was you. I was the Australian (and to many, I still am).

    Regards, Ian

  9. Jason
    Jason says:

    What an intolerable arse I am.

    [I edited your comment slightly, Jason, because while we have no issue with constructive criticism, your comment just came across as a trollish cheap shot – regards, Ian].


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