In the know

A Case for Polishing Your Case: Maintenance Matters

The argument against polishing your watch case is biased and relies on a categorical misunderstanding of most watch owners; quality polishing should be considered basic maintenance along with regular servicing.
By Joshua Munchow
Nov 19, 2022

One common piece of wisdom in watch collecting is to never polish your watch lest you ruin its value, but the argument falls flat for a majority of collectors that just want to enjoy their watch. The argument, however, is indeed built on two very real truths that are eagerly tossed out whenever someone is making their case against maintaining your watch.

The first fact is that poor polishing can destroy the shape of your case by rounding over bevels, polishing away carefully machined surfaces, and altering factory finishes in favor of “Ooh, bright and shiny!” Obviously, this is true in the same way that if you want to keep the paint on your brand-new Mercedes looking clean it is unlikely you would want to take it through an automatic carwash and then dry it with paper towels. It is easy to ruin a nice finish and scratches are pretty much guaranteed to appear.

Christies Rolex Triple Calendar Ref. 6062
Christie's Rolex Triple Calendar Ref. 6062

The second very tangible truth is that, at auction, original, unpolished vintage watches sometimes sell for orders of magnitude more than their more maintained and polished siblings. One of the most famous examples of this is the 1952 Rolex Ref. 6062 Triple Calendar with a case that was so incredibly oxidized that you couldn’t tell it was actually 18k gold. Clearly untouched and likely never worn much, it sold at auction for over $540,000. Only two weeks prior, the exact same model from the same year which had been polished to a bright gold finish had been auctioned for a paltry $62,500.

Christies Rolex Triple Calendar Ref. 6062
Christie's Rolex Triple Calendar Ref. 6062

The argument points to this as definitive proof that if you just never polish your watch, you won’t be throwing away a half million dollars of resale value. Granted, the auction market is still going crazy, and people are paying high prices for models that are as original as possible, going so far as to call any watch that has had repairs made with non-original parts a “Frankenwatch.” But this self-justification is a symptom of people struggling to find value among mass-produced products that are not insanely rare.

Does not apply

In reality, most watches are worth a few thousand dollars or less and should instead be treated the same way we treat other relatively high value items in our lives like houses and cars with care and consistent maintenance. This will already have people screaming at me about how, at least with cars, originality is everything. And that may be somewhat true as a generality, yet the most expensive car currently in existence, the Bugatti Type 57SC Atlantic owned by Ralph Lauren (valued at over $40 million), had been modified early in its life before being restored to near as original as possible (but not completely), and was painted black even though the original paint job was dark sapphire blue, just because Ralph Lauren wants all his cars black.

Bulgari After Sales Service Polish

It helps that the car is one of only two to remain of the original three that were produced, but that extreme rarity and the multi-million-dollar restoration (necessarily using modern materials when required) is what created that value. The same rarity goes for the Ref. 6062 Rolex which was one of less than 500 ever created and was the most unchanged version ever seen. So yes, the decision not to polish that watch kept it original and inflated its auction result, but that decision is not the same for an average watch from the last two decades which has had thousands of pieces produced each year.

Let’s remember, the standard example is a Rolex, and Rolex currently produces more than a million watches every year, meaning one individual watch is very unlikely to become that half-million-dollar auction darling. It’s more likely to simply be a great watch you eventually pass down to your child and any change in resale value won’t matter. So, stop worrying about future auction prices unless you only deal in hyper-rare models or few-of-a-kind vintage pieces and start thinking about your watch as a machine that you need to maintain.

Part of proper maintenance

So now that it’s clear that most of the watches people will ever own are not destined to be auction benchmarks, what about the first argument that polishing destroys case geometry? This one still rings very true, and it is where we must remember how owning machines really works. If you wait until a watch is so banged up, scratched, and marred that it looks like it’s been dropped in the garbage disposal, you are going to have a problem no matter what, and leaving it that way isn’t going to magically turn it into a six-figure watch because it’s original. Repair and restoration of something this damaged is going to go one of two routes.

Bulgari After Sales Service Polish
TAG-Heuer Finishing Polishing

The best solution is it will need careful professional attention that will require laser welding to replace metal scratched and marred away before delicate filing, grinding, precise lapping, and polishing to recreate the original case geometry. That is expensive but very high quality, and, akin to a professional restoration of a classic car like the Bugatti Type 57SC Atlantic, it seeks to remake the worn piece into its former shape.

But the much cheaper option is to bring the watch to any jeweler or local watchmaker and ask for a case polishing, which will see them take it to a buffing wheel, lean into it with all their might, and polish it to a rounded turd. #Facts.

That is what people advise against, and I advise against it as well. But the expensive restoration and the “turd transformation” can both be avoided, just like you can avoid a blown engine or shredded transmission – with proper maintenance and care. Very light scratches and small dings can easily be repaired with minor polishing and brushing and will have very little impact on the case shape because almost no material will be removed to repair it.

Repair as you go

As an example, I sold an Alpina Startimer Pilot which had a small ding in the side of the case and a few light scratches along the side and on the polished bezel. The buyer, skilled in basic maintenance and finishing, carefully filed the brushed side to minimize the ding, re-finished the brushing, and polished the bezel to look good as new, and only under a microscope could you even tell that it isn’t perfectly original. Since the watch was worth less than two grand and was a mass-produced watch, it absolutely made perfect sense to properly maintain that watch to be in as near original shape as possible.

Rolex Polishing

Now there are many out there that wouldn’t even care if their watch has some dings and scratches on it because to them it is just a tool to be used. But those people probably don’t frequent watch blogs; collectors want to wear their watches while keeping them in as good of shape as possible. And that is why I personally recommend and urge to consider minor refinishing as a standard part of proper watch care.

You wouldn’t resist putting new O-rings into your dive watch when it is serviced because the watch would no longer be original, would you? Unless your watches are solely an investment and instead you do enjoy wearing them and using them for their intended purposes, then you can be certain parts may need replacing and the case will definitely get nicks, scratches, and dings.

Those imperfections can be viewed either as character or simply as imperfections that you repair, like dents in a car or a cracked windshield. Small amounts of light polishing and case refinishing semi-regularly only seek to maintain a watch in its original form. If you avoid the need for heavy repairs that make you seek an inexpensive (and possibly heavy handed) option, it will actually make sure the watch stays closer to its original shape. Obviously, this still requires finding a quality professional to do that repair if you aren’t up to it yourself, but minor repairs are much less likely to result in terrible and egregiously over-polished cases.

Grand Seiko Zaratsu Polishing

Changing your vehicle’s oil regularly and putting in a new air filter, fuel filter, and spark plugs keeps an engine running in top shape, while avoiding that for years results in a full rebuild or an engine replacement. Ignoring a bit of rust in your wheel wells could spell doom for your body. So why treat a watch case any differently? If you properly service your watch movement, then you should properly service the case and refinish small scratches and dings. A watch that isn’t just purchased as an investment and is actually worn should be cared for like a working machine. Repair it as you go, keep it looking and working as best as possible.

If you want to ignore all this advice because you are buying limited edition pieces or rare vintage examples, by all means, go ahead. But for everyday watches that are well worn and well loved, feel free to take care of them and they will last you a lifetime, looking great all the way.