How to look after your mechanical watch and make it last a lifetime

There is much to romanticise about the beauty of a mechanical watch. For many aficionados it's the intricate engineering of its movement that takes the cake. However, for your average watch lover, the knowledge that a simple shake of the wrist, or wind of the crown, keeps all those tiny parts moving in perfect unison is magic enough.

But like all things mechanical, nothing is guaranteed. Just like in a car engine, parts can wear, loosen, or downright fail. And while most of us struggle to understand how a mechanical watch actually works, the common causes for their failure are far easier to comprehend.

So if you've got a mechanical watch, we've listed some of the most common issues you could face, and importantly, what you can do to avoid them.

Magnetisation

The effect of a magnet on a mechanical watch is not good.

"It causes the steel components in the watch to be charged with magnetic energy and can cause the watch to speed by many minutes per day," says Mason Bailey, Melbourne Watch Company's Technical Manager.

"In rare cases, it can also cause the watch to slow down by a similar factor or cause the movement to seize up altogether."

Common culprit

The most common cause of magnetisation is smartphones and tablets, especially if they have a magnetic cover. However, Bailey says that he has had to, on one occasion, demagnetise a pilot's watch after his flight experienced an electrical phenomenon known as St Elmo's Fire.

"There was that much magnetic electricity that the mainspring contracted and didn't release," says Bailey.

However, if you're not flying through severe electric fields, Bailey's best advice is to keep your watch and phone apart.

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"If you're putting them next to each other, that's fine for a short period of time but you should never put your watch on top of your phone."

In the event that your watch has been magnetised, there is no need to stress. Call in at a watch repairer and they'll use a degausser or demagnetiser, which will cancel out the magnetic charge in seconds by delivering an electromagnetic pulse to the watch. 

A gear change

The movement inside a watch is made of small, delicate components that can be damaged if forced – like changing gears in a car without using the clutch.

Karl Braunsteiner, a Sydney-based master watchmaker, says gearing damage is most commonly caused on watches with a date display by using the quick-set function to change the date when the watch's automatic function is already in motion.

"In order to change the date, the mechanical parts of a watch start to engage at about 10 o'clock. It engages in order to turn certain wheels. Those wheels stay engaged until about 2 or 2.30am. So, if those wheels are engaged and then you try and manually use the quickset function to change the date, this is when damage can occur," he says.

His advice is to set the time first and establish what is 12pm and 12am. Once you turn the hands and see the date changing you know that's midnight, then you keep winding forward past 3am and you can then set the date.

Water damage

Water pressure is another common cause of damage to watches. Both Bailey and Braunsteiner advise that any watch that isn't water resistant to 100 metres should never be worn when swimming.

"There are a lot of factors which contribute to a watch's water resistance. Relative pressure has the biggest effect, so it's important to remember that when doing things like poolside diving or watersports, the pressure around your watch can be much higher than its stated water resistance rating," says Bailey.

"Even if it goes above this rating for a split second, that can be enough to cause damage."

He adds that if you have a watch with a screw-down or locking crown, always make sure the screw or lock is fully engaged before heading into water, as leaving the crown open means the seal isn't engaged and water will easily get in.

To wind or not to wind

A watch winder is a device that rotates watches, keeping the spring loaded and watch working. While it may seem like the perfect accessory for anyone with a number of mechanicals, as they don't have to set the time on the watch after a period of disuse, Braunsteiner offers a cautionary note about their use.

"If you've got a watch that is very difficult to set the date, such as a perpetual calendar watch, the use of a watch winder is fair enough. However, for any normal watch, I recommend not using them," he says.

"You're actually wearing those watches out. You put five watches in a watch winder and they'll all need servicing at the same time after four or five years, because they've worked all the time even if you've hardly worn them. It's a real waste to be honest."

But his most important advice: get your watch serviced.

"Any mechanical watch if worn regularly ought to be serviced at least every 4-5 years, irrelevant of value or make."