Julio Ojeda-Zapata of the St Paul Pioneer press covered my Kickstarter project for the Padron Vuelta in today’s edition as part of a larger piece on Kickstarter. In fact, my story leads not only the article but the Life section. Very very very stoked about this. You can read the full article here: http://goo.gl/j7Yqt
There are guides out there, and many are wrong, which compelled me to write this. Without naming names, I’d like to adress one major blooper right off the bat made by a very famous Men’s magazine about Luminous hands and fakes:
If the vintage watch you are holding has freshly glowing hands, this does not mean its fake. In all likelyhood, it means that some poor watchmaker took the actual trouble to painstakingly re-lume the hands, as old lume tends to crumble and fall off. A savvy watchmaker will avail the latest colored luminous compounds to try and match the fatigued, discolored look of the old. But a watchmaker who uses plain white lume is not necessarily guilty of a bad restoration — in the old days, much of the lume out there was white or a pale yellow.
Also, if a crown does not have the marking, this also does not mean that the watch is fake. Crowns are frequently the first things to be damaged and are frequently replaced with a generic. Again, a good restorer will attempt to source the original, but sometimes that’s not always possible.
I’m already feeling better. But it’s important to address the topic of fakes because it’s probably the foremost worry of a buyer.
This is how you know if something is fake
Never buy a watch if you cannot see the movement.
In some cases, a harried webmaster or eBay lister may not post all the photos of the watch, especially of the inside. I’m guilty of this myself. But you should always ask. And they should always show you. The movement IS the watch. Movements should match the model of the watch. The top plate or the automatic rotor should have the name of the watch brand and the jewel count should match the count listed on the dial. There are exceptions to this, and you should be prepared to ask: In some cases, the top plate may be swapped out with another from a similar model to make a repair. That doesn’t make the watch any less true to it’s purpose, but it does damage the authenticity and should be reflected in the price.
Familiarize yourself with what the movements for the brand and period should look like
You can do this with a Google Images search just to be acquainted. Then if you know the calibre number of the movement, you can look it up.
My personal bible for checking movements is the rannft.de database of watches and movements (German and English) and you can find it here. I use this resource frequently to do a reality check on some of the movements I might find in listings. If a vendor is claiming to have an Omega Seamaster from the early 1960s, and you see this movement then you know it’s an Omega, but that the movement is a Cal 1020 from the 1970s and therefore a frankenwatch. If the parts are from the same period/brand, there’s nothing really wrong with frankenwatches per se and its a great way to get an excellent vintage watch for less that are functionally perfect. But again, not purist, and anybody who is selling you a frankenwatch as something else isn’t dealing ethically.
Look at the inside of the Caseback.
The caseback should have the appropriate markings, including the brand. If it’s a different brand, then somebody mashed up two watches. If the serial numbers do not indicate the right period for the watch, but it’s the same brand, then you have a frankenwatch. This is common with luxury models that are sold on eBay. Usually they are combinations of different watches that had one varying problem or another and dealers put them together to make a sale. Also make sure that the markings LOOK like they should. Vintages used chemical etching for the markings, they did not use engraving or laser marking. I periodically see on Fleabay case markings that say Omega, but look like they were drawn with an engraving pen by somebody with a shaky hand. Markings should be nice and neat. In the particular case of Omega watches, look at the shape of the A on dial markings and engravings. With exception to the Omega Logo itself, The A’s should have a flat tops. If they are instead pointed, then it’s likely a fake. (Again, this rule does not apply to the actual Omega logo)
Look carefully at the dial
In most cases, funny looking dials are just bad redial jobs and they should rightfully hurt the value of the watch. Examples of bad redials are thick, blurry looking letters and markings, and really white white white paint. (most vintages should have a reasonable patina). These are not fakes, or dishonesty, but just artless examples of restoration. If the logo is supposed to be raised, and you see a printed logo, then chances are it was a bad redial. Logos DO change over the years, and you should be Google Image’ing the brand to death to see examples of what’s period appropriate. Bulova’s logo has gone through several incarnations as one example. But if the logo looks completely off, then that’s a warning sign. One thing to note: Any watch that says “Electra” on the dial was a dollar watch knockoff made in the 70’s and was the kind of stuff peddled to NYC tourists by guys wearing trenchcoats back in the day. These have humorous mispellings like “Bolovia Electra, or “Longenes” to trick people into buying a Bulova or Longines. The Electra watches were awfully crappy things with pin lever escapements and no jewels. Some people actually collect these now, which goes to show you there’s a collector for everything.
Things that should absolutely stop you from buying:
- No watch should ever say “jewels” on the dial and then have a Quartz movement inside it. (This one is obvious).
- An unmarked movement. Movements should always be marked. I would only pass on this rule if the movement in question bears obvious telltale signs of being really old. In one case, I had a Golay Fils and Stahl with an unmarked ETA movement inside of it, but it was an obvious model from the 50s and not a candidate for far east fakery. More recent watches from the 60’s and the 70’s should always have marked movements and those that are not marked are likely Chinese copies. Again, make sure the markings are clean and do not look roughly hand-made.
THE BALANCE WHEEL JEWEL. This is a huge tell. Generally speaking, there’s two kinds of designs: Novadiac and the traditional Incabloc. There are others (like Kif, etc.) but these are the two major ones. One looks like a trefoil and the other looks like two inverted bows. Generally speaking, new watch movements will use both. Swiss Movements exclusively used Incabloc. Older Swiss movements will use Incabloc, but may also have other shockproof systems. What’s important is that they not be (a) swiss (b) old and (c) Novadiac at the same time. If you are buying a watch from the 60s or 70s, and the movement is supposedly ETA, but you see a Novadiac design on the balance jewel? FAKE! Seagull and Hangzhou both manufacture some excellent movements based off of the ETA 2824-2 and the Unitas 6497-8. Seagull in particular is quite good, and I am proudly using the Seagull TY2130 in the Padron Vuelta. The problem is, unscrupulous vendors will try and pass them off as their Swiss counterparts complete with ‘Swiss Made’ markings. Swiss movements that were not made in the past decade or so generally should not have Novadiac at all.
- Advertised as “14k Gold” or “Gold” but you see RGP on the markings. This means gold plate. There’s nothing wrong with Gold plate, but again, nobody should ever try to pass off anything but a solid gold watch as a solid gold watch.
I intend to periodically update to make it more thorough and I welcome the experience and insights of others. But for now, these are the big things I look for.
Youtube Video I took of me measuring a vintage Lord Elgin watch using a Civil Defense Geiger Counter
In the old days, people did not appreciate the risks of radioactive material as we do today, as this crazy old TV commercial will clearly show you. This is not to say that all radioactive materials are imminently dangerous and that radiation is not present everywhere. Radiation comes from surprising sources: Your granite countertops, your smoke detector. Certain fruits and vegetables. Radiation is everywhere, and there are different forms of it, but radium is indubitably a risky substance that requires some caution. Whether you are a collector or a restorer of vintage watches, it’s good to have a baseline understanding of the facts and risks of dealing with vintage watches that used radium. But not panic about it either.
How Radium in Vintage Watches Came to Be:
The very first glow-in-the-dark substances really did glow. Like torches. The luminous stuff we have today in glowsticks and watch dials is fairly wimpy compared to what was. And unlike modern compounds, the old stuff did not “go out”. It continued to glow for long amounts of time. Verily, soldiers during WWII were instructed to tape over their glow-in-the-dark watches at night as not to give away their position. That’s how bright and long-lasting they were.
Why was this? Think of your old CRT television set. (Not your flat screen TV, but your clunker fishbowl TV you relocated in front of the treadmill in the basement). The inside of that TV is coated with phosphor, and phosphor glows when it is hit with electrons. That is the magic of early Television in a nutshell: An electron beam shoots out from a magnetically controlled yoke and hits the phosphor screen in the front, causing it to glow bright.
This technology was inspired in no small part by radium dial watches. The principle is identical: Phosphor is illuminated by electrons. Where do these electrons come from? Not your wall outlet as in the case of your television, but from the element Radium. The breakdown of Radioactive substances releases energetic particles into the air.
My Vintage Watch doesn’t Glow. Does this mean it’s radium free?
Absolutely not and this is the crazy part: Phosphorous burns out over the years. Manufacturers ceased using Radium in the 1960s. That was 50 years ago. The life on Phoshorous for all these watches was never intended for more than 20 years. Today all of these watches no longer glow (you can see some faint sparks under a jewelers loupe for some still). But the radium is still there. And the half-life on radium is 1600 years. The Phosphorous is disintegrated but the radium is still factory fresh!Though to look at the dial you may not even guess it ever was meant to glow.
Telltale signs of Radium
The trick is to look for blotchy marks on the dial that look like rust. Or burn marks on the plastic crystal. If you see a halo around the numbers, that means radium did its job bombarding the vicinity of the paint for decades until it left a shadow. In many cases, an old watch forgotten in a drawer will still show the hour and minute it last ran, because the hands burned marks into the plastic from being in the same position for years.
Lovely. Is my Vintage Bulova gonna kill me then?
In a word, Not likely  but there are some concerns to be aware of. [my revised opinion as of 2/12/17) The radiation from a radioactive dial is of the heavy alpha emission variety (slow moving helium atoms that are stopped by your skin) and at very low amounts. It’s not at all like gamma emissions which are the stuff of post-apocalyptic fear (and your dentist’s visit). It is only problematic if you inhale or ingest radium, which as long as its behind glass, is really hard to impossible to do.  Several readers pointed out the decomposition of radium to radon gas, which is cause for concern as it fills up the entire room regardless of being cased. Concentrations depend on a variety of factors, obviously probably best not to surround yourself with too many radium dials if this is concerning.
And even then your death from direct exposure is still not a statistical certainty. This was the tragic case of the Radium Girls. In a time with absolutely no industrial regulation 4,000 of these women were taught to sharpen their radium paint brushes by licking them (a technique known as lippointing). Essentially through repeated direct ingestation of radium over the years sickened many and some developed necrosis in the jaw, bone cancer, and death. That is the most extreme case ever. (and some good came out of this dark chapter, as workplace safety laws came into existence as a result.)
Because inhalation or ingestation is a concern, you should only worry if your watch dial is exposed from having the case broken. And the way you deal with that situation is to immediately bag it up in a ziploc bag, wipe down immediate surfaces with a wet paper towel, toss it, and wash your hands. You want to avoid touching the dial. But even if you do touch the dial, just wash it off. All you want to do is minimize the chance of radioactive dust spreading that you might inhale.
How prevalent is this problem in vintage watches?
As a restorer and collector, this is my unscientific assessment: Any watch made before 1960 has a 1 in 5 chance of having radium, with the greatest propensity being in sportier military-inspired watches (small size, round faces, wide numbers) from the late 40s to early 50s. This has been my observation measuring every project I have gotten using a geiger counter. (a Civil Defense beauty. Victoreen CDV-700 made in the 1960s. It was meant for measuring radioactivity in food storage!). As a rule, I measure every watch I work on because appearances are deceptive. Even the white faced tank watch with the gold indices might have radium dots embedded at the end of the chapter marks)
What precautions do you take as a restorer?
I often avoid radium projects as much as I can because of the extra risk they pose when the dial is uncased an exposed. In some cases, I will work on them if I think the project merits it. In this case, I use gloves (you should always use gloves anyway) and an N95 mask. Tools and surfaces are wiped down using rodico and tape, surfaces might be wiped down further with soapy water, and all of this is disposed in plastic bags which are sealed up with more tape.
Do you sell vintage watches with Radium in them?
I trend towards mid-century pieces where the problem is less prevalent…so not many, but yes. And when I do, I identify the presence of radium in the listing because it’s the right thing to do. Also because I own and enjoy such watches myself and treat them with the respect they are accorded and I encourage enthusiasts to buy them with healthy caution and just enjoy them. As I stated, the prevalence of these watches are high. Your grampies and grannies wore them for many years. Epidemiological studies would have turned up a problem if there was one, and certainly among watch repair people. In no way would I ever attempt to minimize any dangers, but just encourage a healthy understanding of them. We all varyingly risky habits, and certainly smoking will kill you faster than an old Elgin.
Generally speaking, the more one can subdivide the passage of time into smaller increments, the more accurate a time measurement can be. This the underlying principle behind beat count, (and why a higher beat count in a watch is generally desireable), and why quartz wins over the mechanical watch in terms of sheer beat count: It’s impossible for a mechanical watch with 6 oscillations per second to compete with a device that can do 33,000 oscillations in the same period.
Does this mean that the quartz watch is more accurate? Broadly speaking, yes. An ordinary quartz movement may stand to lose or gain around 2 seconds a day, whereas a top chronometer grade mechanical watch may lose 6. Naturally accuracy is not the same as precision, and environmental factors and build quality affect results. But the general rule remains.
It would seem in light of sheer technical brute force that mechanicals should be as relevant to modernity as gaslamps, and perhaps deserve to be nowhere else but in a museum. Yet people happily pay thousands of dollars or more for mechanical-wind wristwatches. Why is this? Is it the charm of the device? Sure, there’s always that. It’s charming to gaze through an exhibition back to see the balance wheel of a perlage-finished movement humming along unperterbed by the outside world for sure. But a greatper point is being missed.
In a word: Mechanical Watches Outlast Anything
Mechanical movements are geared devices usually made of brass, turning upon pivots of hardened aluminum oxides. These are durable materials and when properly serviced, Mechanical-wind watches last for generations. Pocket watches routinely top out over 100 years, as well as vintage watches that have survived both world wars and continue to soldier on to this day. Very few household devices enjoy this kind of longevity and heritage, and when they do, they are lovingly passed down through generations.
Quartz devices, being microelectronic devices, are made from more chemically reactive materials that will degrade faster over time.
I recently had to return a very expensive quartz minute repeater to a friend. It was beyond recovery. Why? Because it’s such an exceedingly rare quartz minute repeater with a shot movement that was incredibly difficult to source. Worse, any donor movement would likely be shot as well. The microelectronics degraded in just a 20 year period, rendering this particular watch into a pretty brick. And it was a gorgeous watch too. It’s only flaw was the limitations of electronics when it comes to withstanding father time.
Mechanical winds are naturally not electronic devices. Like any other machine, they all suffer their own infirmities of age, but unlike semiconductors, those infirmities can in the vast majority of cases be corrected by a skilled watchmaker. And when serviced periodically, a mechanical will continue to outlast nearly everything. CD’s, videocassette tape, your old home movies, and the impulse buy you bought on a cruise decades ago, and perhaps even Yourself!
That kind of longevity (as well as never needing a battery) bestows an almost mystical quality to an otherwise humdrum consumable. And who wouldn’t wish to own something that could potentially outlast them?