BETTY’S BAY – “When I first opened my grandfather’s old mechanical wristwatch, I was awestruck. It was like a heart beating in a myriad of minute springs and cogwheels. Being a mechanical engineer myself, I wondered how precise the machines must have been to manufacture all these tiny parts.”
Grant Immelman sits at his microscope, gently fixing the inside of a watch to a clamp and putting it underneath the lens for me to see. He was right. It’s unbelievable.
With a tweezer he takes a screw from a box. With the naked eye it looks like the head of a pin. Under the microscope one can see it’s a screw.
Grant says he did not give much attention to the old mechanical watches before that day he opened his grandfather’s old vintage Swiss watch. After all the years it was still running.
“I thought I should have it serviced but was so shocked by the price that I decided to service it myself. Taking it apart made me realise why it was so expensive. It is a delicate task. Sometimes parts have to be replaced – a daunting task to find the right one. You need five to six kinds of specific oils and three types of grease. Only 2ml of one kind of oil has cost me about R1000,” he explains.
Going into the history of old mechanical wristwatches is also fascinating and an eye opener.
Swiss vintage watches like Omega and Rolex are still regarded among the best. They went to extremes in their testing and marketing campaigns. Omega’s focus was on reliability and time keeping perfection: their watches were selected for the American space program and were used on the moon. They also featured in all forms of sports time keeping.
One of Rolex’s strengths was how water resistant their watches where. They sponsored long distance swimmers and even sent a Rolex down on the outside of a submarine. Certina had models known for their durability: a team of mountaineers were outfitted with their watches for a Himalayan expedition.
The most accurate watch movements were sent off for days of rigorous testing in all conditions and were certified as chronometers. These are highly sought after today.
Did mechanical watches disappear from the market when quartz and digital watches appeared?
No, says Grant. The Swiss moved upmarket and still cater to the top end of the market, all the way to one off pieces that take months to craft and can sell for millions. “It’s mind boggling!” says Grant.
So, if you have a good Swiss watch with sentimental value of your grandfather or grandmother somewhere in a drawer, Grant is your man to have it fixed or valuated.
“Please don’t wind an old watch before it has been serviced. The oils harden over time and parts can be damaged when trying it out,” he says.
He strips the watch and cleans the parts in an ultrasonic bath to get all the dirt out. Then he puts it together again, oiling, greasing and polishing where needed. He can tell the value of a watch by certain markings on the back cover.
“I am semi-retired, but I love to bring these old faithful watches back to life to be enjoyed by future generations. They have been running for more than 60 years and they can do it again,” he says.