While automatic watches is a work of art and durable, they are essentially machines. Machines can be damaged when not handled properly. While damaging an automatic watch is not that easy, it’s possible.
However, I am here to help. To prevent you from ruining your automatic watch I have put in the effort to make this post that describes how you can accidentally ruin your watch, while also explaining what to do to avoid damaging the watch.
There are 13 ways to damage an automatic watch:
- Open crown when the watch is used in water
- Using pushers underwater
- Improper watch storage
- Adjusting time in the “danger zone”
- Big shocks
- Lack of service
- Temperature changes
- Using the functions incorrectly
- Winding or setting the time when on the wrist
- Exposing the watch to magnetism
- Cross-threading crown and pushers
- DIY watch repairs
The typical damage made to an automatic watch is repairable. However, when the damage is neglected, such as moisture in the movement, it can also cause the watch to be damaged beyond repair. Therefore, it’s essential to know what not to do to destroy an automatic.
Repairs are often expensive, and the more severe the damage, the pricier it gets. Fortunately, a lot of the ways to ruin an automatic watch is within common sense and will happen because of accidents.
However, some things are not within the spectrum of common sense, and those will be covered as well. You can also do some maintenance work yourself if you want the watch to stay fresh.
Open Crown When Used in Water
A common reason for water damage and corrosion is not pushing or screwing in the crown after setting the time or date. When using a watch near water, it’s of the utmost importance to close the crown to its correct position. Whether the model is a dive watch or a dress watch, the crown has to be in the right position to avoid damages.
While the water-resistance dictates what water activities can be had with your automatic watch, the gaskets have to be tightly sealed for the water-resistance to work.
When water or moisture enters the watch, it’s a matter of a couple of days before it starts rusting, and within a short time, the watch will be damaged beyond repair. While many watch cases is made of stainless steel, the springs, gears, etc. of the movement is
Classic crown: The classic crown from a dress watch will typically use a push/pull movement. When adjusting the time, you will need to pull the crown out, and when you are done changing the time, you will push the crown back in.
A classic crown is not necessarily making the watch less water-resistant. However, in theory, the crown can only be two positions: open and closed. When the crown is “closed,” the advertised water resistance is achieved. However, the classic crown is easier to pull out accidentally. Accidentally opening the crown can occur, which is also why you see diving watches with “crown guards.”
Screw-down crown: A much more safe feature is the screw-down crown. The first reason it is more reliable is simply due to the screwing down, which makes it impossible to pull out accidentally. Secondly, a screw-down crown can be slightly wound, to make sure there is a slight seal between the stem and the gasket(s).
However, when using a screw-down crown, you must not force it as hard as possible. Just tighten it reasonably. Otherwise, you will end up damaging the threading or the gaskets, which will ruin the water-resistance anyway.
Using Pushers Under Water
Chronographs have pushers, which is the knobs beside the crown. The image above shows a rusted automatic chronograph watch. The knob in the middle is the crown, while the 2 of centered knobs is the pushers. Using pushers underwater is strictly prohibited for the safety of your wallet.
Using the pushers underwater is similar not to have the crown in the correct position when used near water. Furthermore, pushers can be both classical pushers or screw-down. If the pushers have been used, make sure they are in the right position before having the watch near water.
Regardless of whether your automatic watch features the classic pushers or screw-down pushers, water will easily penetrate the watch if the pushers are used while being submerged.
The gasket of the pushers will only be tightly sealing the case from the water when they are pushed all the way in. The gasket will leave its water-resistance position when pushed or screwed in either direction. Hence, even dive watches with a chronograph function can’t be used submerged.
Some chronographs can be used underwater. However, the vast majority of watches, even modern watches, will not hold their water-resistance if used underwater. A good example is the Breitling Avenger Seawolf Chronograph, which uses magnetic pushers, which means there is no physical contact between the pusher and the inside of the movement. However, it is a magnetic field that activities the chronograph function.
Improper Watch Storage
Storing an automatic watch can be quite tricky. The longer the period, the more attention it feels like it will need. The reality is that you can’t store a watch without given it some love from time to time. First of all, you need to have the lubrication flowing in the watch, and it has to be serviced from time to time.
Unscrewing the Crown
A typical misconception when storing a watch is to unscrew the crown. It is believed that unscrewing the crown will relieve the pressure from the crown spring and the movement. However, the watch will come to a complete stop, meaning the mainspring will still be pushing to release its energy.
One thing is that the general consensus of why springs lose their effect is due to the compression and expansion, not one or the other. Secondly, the mainspring will not unwind if the crown is unscrewed. In fact, the movement will come to a complete stop, as the time adjustment gears block the engagement of the mainspring. Hence the mainspring will keep its energy, which it will try to release, however being unable to.
Another major problem with leaving a watch with an unscrewed crown during storage is the dirt, dust, and other debris that can enter through the hole to the crown. If you have ever seen a watchmaker repair or assembly a watch, they have a dust cover tray and a dust blower. They keep the watches in the dust covers when not working on them. Furthermore, they occasionally use the dust blower to remove any settled dust.
The reason dust and debris is a problem for an automatic movement is due to the mixture of lubricants and the dust. If you have ever played with oil and gotten dust in the oil, you know how grimy it gets. If this happens inside the movement, your watch will wear down faster, and it will eventually slow down due to the buildup of dirty oils.
Another issue is the duration the automatic watch is stored. If you intend to store the watch for about 1-2 years after a service, there should be no problems. However, if the watch is stored for an extended amount of time (3+ years), the lubricant will eventually harden.
To prevent the lubricants from hardening, the watch should occasionally be taken out of storage and wound fully. Winding the watch will allow the lubricants to start flowing in the watch. Regardless of the time since the last service, modern service centers use synthetic oils, which is, of course, made not to harden. Nonetheless, even synthetic oils will harden over time.
Moisture is another common problem when storing watches. Whether the crown is unscrewed or not, moisture can be a huge problem. While having the crown unscrewed will rapidly fasten the inevitable problems of moisture.
When an automatic watch is exposed to moisture, it will start to corrode. Sadly, corrosion can damage a watch beyond repair. The moisture can also make the oils thicken, making the watch unable to lubricate the moving parts properly.
Another issue when storing the watch is the box and papers. You need the box and papers for authenticity and additional sales value if you are ever to sell the watch. If the watch is stored in conditions with humidity the box and paper will eventually deteriorate.
To avoid damaging the watch from moisture, condensation, or humidity, you should store the watches under controlled temperatures. Even adding some silica gel or uncooked rice can help keep the unwanted liquids away from the watch.
Adjusting the Time in the “Danger Zone”
The watch community is in a big debate, whether it’s responsible to adjust the time on their watch in what’s called the “danger zone.”
The danger zone is the period between 9 PM (21:00) and 3 AM (03:00), where most automatic watches (with a date function) has the date mechanism engaged.
Adjusting the time in the “danger zone” can damage the internals of your watch. The date mechanism is engaged between 9 PM (21:00) and 3 AM (03:00). While the date mechanism is engaged, the watch can be damaged by pulling the crown to adjust the time. Don’t change the time between 9 PM and 3 AM.
The date mechanism is a mechanism that is slowly “charging” up to make a rapid change. This is also why you can hear the watch make a loud “tick” when the date is changing.
If you were to adjust the time while the date mechanism is engaged, you risk damaging or breaking the date wheel, which could end up being a costly repair.
Another major killer for automatic watches is big shocks. While automatic watches are by no means fragile, big shocks can displace different elements of the movement. Common sense will tell you that quartz watches are most durable. Thinking about it logically makes sense since quartz watches are made of fewer components, and some of the components are electronics. However, in reality, both are more or less equal when it comes to durability.
Exposing automatic watches for big shocks and impacts can misalign or damage components in the movement. While modern automatic watches is very durable, it’s recommended removing automatic watches during manual labor for extended periods of time.
Regardless of the watch is an automatic or quartz, there are 2 different “shocks” to avoid. The one where you bang your crystal into an object and the crystal shatters. The second way is where you drop the watch, or in any other way, inflicts a big shock to the watch.
Cracking a crystal on the watch is one of the biggest enemies of watch owners. There are too many stories of people just wandering around, and accidentally bangs their watch into a doorknob only to find out the crystal has been shattered.
A shattered crystal is an easy fix at the watchmaker, and if nothing else is damaged from the impact, you are in the clear. However, you should never walk around with a shattered crystal. One thing that it will look ugly and be disrespectful to your watch. Another thing is that water now has a free passage inside the watch.
If the watch is impacted with big shocks, something in the automatic movement can be misaligned or outright damaged. It’s before seen that a big shock has altered the balance wheel rotation making it run fast or slow. However, back in the 1930s, a system was developed. The systems developed were a shock protection system that protects the watch from shocks. The shock protection system was important in the era of manual labor.
Today is another reality with big brands such as Seiko having their Diashock or Certina with their DS concept. You will be able to use the high striker when going to the carnival, or hammer in some nails. However, if your day job is to perform manual labor, you will most likely benefit from a so-called “beater watch.”
Another thing to be attentive is when purchasing unoriginal straps or pins. Poorly designed straps and bracelets can break, making you drop the watch. I have some close family who keeps breaking the pins which hold his bracelet in place. I suspect poor pin quality as a quality pin (which I have in my Omega Seamaster) would never break unless there are some inhuman forces in play.
Lack of Service
One of the biggest mistakes made by new automatic watch owners is not properly servicing their watches. There can be several reasons for not maintaining them adequately. One is that the regular service can cost anywhere from $100 to $500, whereas the full services can cost anywhere from $500 to over $1,000s. Imagine buying a Rolex and getting told you should get an annual checkup service, and you need a full service every 7 to 10 years. That’s a lot of money on top of the purchase itself.
Any automatic watch should be serviced regularly. The typical recommendation is every 3 to 5 years. However, some brands recommend smaller or larger intervals. The service is to ensure proper lubrication, water resistance, and minimal wear.
A lack of servicing will mean a number of things:
- Lubrication will get grimy as time goes on.
- Water-resistance will degrade with time, and eventually, the watch will not have water resistance.
- The longer between services, the larger the wear on the internal components.
- Prevents any damaged components to eventually inflict damage on other components.
Many watchmakers will tell you to take the watch in for a service every year or maybe every 2 years. However, my personal opinion is that the watchmakers is trying to collect some additional coins. Realistically, divers should get their water resistance checked every year.
For regular people who use their automatic watches for special occasions and office jobs, should get their watches serviced as per the recommendation of the manufacturer (e.g., every 7 years for Omega Co-Axial watches and every 7 to 10 years for Rolex watches).
Temperature changes are something that can cause condensation and moisture inside the watch. You might have heard the hot tub discussion before. There are some varying arguments. However, just to be clear, hot tubs will not compromise a watch with an ISO rating of 6425 or 2281. Both ISO standards call for testing at 40C (or 104F).
In contrast, the maximum household temperature from the tap is about 50C (or 122F), which is also where your skins start to get first degree burns. What makes the temperature change dangerous is when they happen rapidly. E.g., going from the after-ski at minus -20C (or -4F) straight into the hot tub.
The rapid changes in temperature will make the rubber seals compress and expand very quickly. The high-temperature changes is not a guarantee to ruin the watch. However, you are increasing your chances.
The gaskets in a watch is lubricated with oils. The oils have a higher density than water, essentially not allowing the water to touch the gaskets itself.
Another place where the temperature changes become dangerous is when stored away for extended periods of time. A traditional storage place is an attic. Depending on where you live, the attic can either be a sauna or a freezer. The lubrications used in automatic watches will withhold their lubricating properties until they hit -20C (or -4F) or +60C (or 140F).
Attics can reach up to 70C (or 160F) while the outside temperature is only 35C (or 95F). Therefore, the effectiveness of the lubrication can be damaged when stored in attics or other places that get reach inhuman temperatures.
The lubrication quality (and temperature range) will depend on the quality of your watchmaker and the quality of your watch. A Seiko might not use just as exclusive lubrications as a Rolex.
Using the Function Incorrectly
Automatic watches with a date function has something called the “danger zone.” It’s called the danger zone due to one simple fact that it can be damaging to set the date function when the watch is in the danger zone. Essentially, the danger zone is between 9 p.m. to 3 a.m.
Specifically, the danger zone is dangerous because the date mechanism engages from 9 p.m. to 3 a.m. When the gears are engaged in the movement, you will be forcing the gears into another position when trying to set the time. This could damage both the gears and the date window.
Therefore, one way to be 100% sure to avoid any damage in the danger zone is to have the hour hand in the lower half of the dial, e.g., between 6 and 9.
If the date window is already misaligned and your date is permanently changed halfway through the day, you might have already damaged the watch.
Other functions which can damage the watch is the inwards pushers on perpetual or annual calendars. To set the annual and perpetual calendars, small indented pushers are required to be pushed inwards to jump in the month, date, year, etc.
It’s often recommended that the pushers are pushed with a wooden toothpick or with the provided tool. The pushers have to be pushed in fully. Otherwise, the mechanism will only be partially engaged. When you push the pushers next time, the gears is no longer be appropriately aligned, and it will potentially dent or break the calendar, date, year, etc. gears.
Winding or Setting the Time When on the Wrist
A little thing that people often don’t think about is winding or setting the time when the watch is worn on the wrist. While an automatic watch will wind when worn, it will occasionally need winding from the crown to stay fully wound.
When using the crown when you wear the watch, you will unintentionally force the stem upwards. The stem is a relatively slim piece of metal that connects the crown to the movement. So you can imagine that this is something you don’t want to damage.
Bending the stem can lead to several of damages inside the watch. Firstly, is the bent stem, that in itself can be harmful as you will no longer be able to use the stem to wind the watch or set the time. Secondly, when you force the stem upwards, you will also put an unwanted force on the gears that you were meant to turn. Thirdly, if the crown is a screw-down, you can potentially damage the treading.
Bending the stem can be unharmful, and is a relatively easy fix for a watchmaker. However, it’s more the problem of setting the watch and keeping the water resistance.
From time to time, the watch will stop, as the power reserve depletes, and winding the watch for a good 20 turns is good practice. However, with a bent stem, you can push the gears out of its original position and essentially ruining the winding and time-setting mechanism.
Another big danger with a bent stem is the ruining of the water-resistance. If the stem is no longer straight, the seals will not tighten properly against the case wall.
Exposing the Watch to Magnetism
Another thing that you wouldn’t usually think about is magnetism. Magnetism is many everyday objects, and sadly they can damage your automatic watch. The majority of an automatic watch is made of metal, which can be magnetized.
If you are a doctor, nurse, or work as a radiographer, the MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) machine used is highly magnetic. If you work in construction, large metal structures have high levels of magnetism. If you are an electrician or electrical engineer, there are many things in your daily job, that can make your watch magnetic. You get the point now with the jobs, right? This is why beater watches are recommended.
However, what doesn’t make as much sense is all the little magnets in your everyday life. The magnet that holds your iPad cover closed, the magnetic car holder case, refrigerators, the metal detectors in the airports, and many other small magnetizing things we don’t think about.
The best way to test if you watch is magnetized if simply to put the watch on top of a compass. If the needle in the compass starts to move, your watch is magnetized and needs demagnetizing. Fortunately, demagnetizing can be done very quickly and at a very low price. A demagnetizer about $20 on amazon and works just fine.
Another way to see if you watch is magnetized, is if the watch has suddenly started to run faster. This is a typical sign of a magnetized hairspring, more specifically the mainspring.
To put things in contrast, a high-quality brand like Omega states that their watches should be kept away from loudspeakers, refrigerators, handbag claps, iPad cases, and products alike. If you are fortunate enough to own an Omega Master Co-Axial movement, you can expose the watch up to 15,000 gauss (in contrast, a strong refrigerator magnet is 100 gauss).
Antique watches, however, will not withstand magnetism.
Cross-threading Crown and Pushers
Cross-threading the treading used for the crown and pushers is more common than one might anticipate. While cross-threading is not the main reason watches are sent to service, there is some long term wear on the threading that, from time to time, needs an overhaul.
Cross-threading happens when you wear the timepiece on your wrist and starts to set the time or to wind the watch. However, when it comes to the time where you will have to screw the crown back, the wearing on the wrist will force an upward pinching of the stem. The upward pinch will misalign the threadings from the stem and the watch case.
To avoid any cross-threading, take off the watch whenever you have to wind it or set the time.
Let me just get this myth out the way right away. Automatic watches can’t be overwound. However, they can be damaged from excessive wear, such as overwinding. You can read a lot more about overwinding both automatic and mechanical watches in one of my other articles.
While automatic watches can’t is overwound, they can be damaged by excessive wear. Things that can cause excessive wear to automatic watches is watch winders and winding daily worn automatic watches.
A daily worn watch will wound from your natural movement, and therefore doesn’t need winding. You might benefit from winding the watch once per week or month to make sure it’s fully topped off. However, not a necessity if the watch is worn daily.
Another major sinner for putting excessive wear to the winding mechanism is watch winders. While I am personally either for or against watch winders, you must get a hold of a high-quality watch winder with an adjustable Turns Per Day (TPD) feature.
If the watch winder is just rotating all day long, the slip-clutch will be worn out, and it will start to slip way before it’s meant to. This will lead to a small power reserve.
A good quality watch winder is needed because the watch winders are often made as a cool gimmick you can have in the living room to show off all your watches while they rotate. However, in reality, if they rotate in excess of what they need, it will be more bad than good to the watch.
You can read more about the pros and cons of watch winders and whether you need one or not in my other article.
DIY Watch Repairs
DIY watch repairs are getting increasingly more popular. There are a couple of reasons for this growing trend. One is that Youtube makes it look very easy. Another is that people have started to mod their watches (just try to google or Youtube Seiko mods).
Although you can successfully repair or mod your watch from home, there is a reason watchmakers exist. They have high precision tools and years of training with years of experience on top. The maximum DIY modifications you should do to your watch at home is strap changes. The main reason being that you don’t have to go into the actual watch.
Youtube videos make it look so easy just to replace the balance wheel, or get a new mainspring barrel inserted. However, it can cause severe damage if you are not experienced in watchmaking. Because let’s be honest, you don’t know where all the screws and gears go.
To avoid more than a scratch from the strap change, you should let your watchmaker take care of the watch for any service or modifications. However, if you are okay with damaging the watch, I won’t hold you back. It an excellent way to learn!
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