The Watch Collector Series: What are the Costs of Ownership?

When you buy a car, you generally do so in the knowledge that it isn’t just a one-time expense. Eventually, worn tyres will need replacing, the oil will have to be changed and, sooner or later, a thorough service is going to be a necessity rather than an option. Giving it a wash occasionally probably won’t do any harm either.

All these things cost money, and the bills don’t go away just because we wish they would. If you want the car to carry on performing well, that is just the price you have to pay.

Similarly, with a mechanical watch, if you want it to give you a lifetime and beyond of faithful service, it is going to need a little investment from you.

Just as you would expect a Ferrari to cost more to service than a Ford, the greater skill and precision it takes to keep a Rolex ticking perfectly over that of a lesser brand bumps the price of maintenance up and is something to take into account before pulling the trigger on your next purchase.

Industry Leading

Industry Leading
Credit: Rolex

The good news is, Rolex recognize this and, since 2015, have issued an unprecedented 5-year warranty on all their watches, as well as recommending a completely unheard of 10 years between services. For other manufacturers, professional watch repairers tend to advocate anywhere from three to six years before sending off for an overhaul, so Rolex’s decade-long interval is a real demonstration of confidence in their product.

But what about those Rolex watches made before 2015?

Vintage Servicing

As you would expect, the older the watch, the more looking after it needs.

Vintage Servicing
Credit: Rolex

However, when you get into the true vintage territory, it is not quite as simple as that.

Part of a standard service is for the technician to polish out any scratches or marks on the case. While that can bring the watch back to, as near a possible, its original finish, overly polishing a watch can greatly reduce its resale value. With each polish, more of the case’s metal is removed, eventually altering the shape and possibly leaving you with an uneven profile.

Likewise, it is common practice for a damaged dial to be swapped out, which also vastly diminishes the watch’s worth among collectors who prize originality far beyond anything else. And should you decide to send your early model with radium painted hour indexes off to Switzerland to be serviced at Rolex HQ, it may not be legal for the company to send it back to the States without stripping the radioactive material off first. A European vacation to retrieve it may then be your only choice.

What Happens During a Service?

The reason a Rolex service can seem so expensive is due to the amount of work that goes into it.

What Happens During a Service?
Credit: Rolex

An overhaul involves disassembling the entire movement, sometimes numbering hundreds of parts, and cleaning them, either with a special chemical solution that dissolves any dirt or dust or in a series of ultrasonic machines. Components found to be damaged or worn will be replaced. It is then put back together, the lubricating oils reapplied, and installed into the case.

Any gaskets will be changed to ensure the watch’s waterproofness, and it will be pressure tested to confirm its specs.

Unless you specifically ask the service center not to, the case and bracelet will be buffed and polished to restore the original shine, and then the timing is tested in multiple positions and adjusted where needed.

Where Should I Have my Rolex Serviced?

This is undoubtedly highly specialized work, and so finding the right people for the job becomes very important.

Where Should I Have my Rolex Serviced?
Credit: Rolex

Rolex has a number of official Service Centers around the country, owned and operated by Rolex USA. Much like buying your watch from an Authorized Dealer, these are both the safest but also the most expensive places to get your watch serviced. You are obviously going to be receiving the attention of dedicated, extremely well trained technicians, using 100% genuine parts and the work comes with a long guarantee. The downside, other than the higher costs involved, tends to be turnaround time. It can take anywhere up to 10 weeks to get your watch back after sending it in.

Alternatively, you can research third-party watchmakers. The many Rolex forums are usually a great source of information and recommendation on their favorites.

These are not affiliated with the brand in any way, but will have experts on staff to handle servicing. While far cheaper than the Service Centers, the repairers will generally be working on many different watch brands and as such will not necessarily be specialists on Rolex in particular. You also have no assurance they will be using genuine parts.

Possibly the best of both worlds is to scope out the independent companies that employ a Rolex Certified Master Watchmaker. These professionals have passed training programs put together by the brand itself and therefore have access to authentic Rolex components and instruction manuals, as well as the specific equipment needed to be able to service their watches.

Looking After my Rolex

Anything mechanical that you use regularly will eventually need to be serviced, but of course it is up to you as the owner to decide how often you want that to happen. The three to six years we mentioned above is a guideline, and a fairly vague one at that.

Looking After my Rolex
Credit: Rolex

Some collectors do it far more regularly, some not at all with no problems. Others wait until there’s a problem, such as water entering the case, a broken crystal or a discrepancy with the timekeeping accuracy.

On the whole though, prevention tends to be better than cure, and cheaper in the long run.

Rolex don’t make much in the way of complicated models; they try to keep their mechanics as simple as possible, and the level of their engineering is so high that they can be quite forgiving should you push your luck between service intervals. But don’t forget these watches are ticking more than a quarter of a billion times a year. That will put a strain on anything, regardless to how well put together they are.

Deciding on a schedule and sticking to it is the best way to ensure your watch remains the reliable companion it always was, and a few hundred dollars every few years becomes a small price to pay in the great scheme of things.