Pocket watches needing service (cleaning and oiling) or repair may fall into several categories. Perhaps the most important category is that of treasured heirlooms, gifts, or historically significant watches. Another important category is that of high grade watches, those that are of railroad or presentation quality. The watches in these two categories are worth expending some effort to find a qualified repair person.
Deserving Pocket WatchesIt is a worthy goal that all antique pocket watches should be preserved; and be serviced and repaired by qualified watch repairers and watchmakers. However, there were over one hundred million jeweled pocket watches made in this country (and an uncountable, but perhaps greater, number of single-jeweled, or non-jeweled, expendable watches of the type referred to as a "dollar watch" which are not the subject of this article). Given a relative shortage of competent, qualified watchmakers and a general lack of factory replacement parts (most American watch factories went out of business by the Great Depression and the three remaining companies stopped making parts by 1960 or 1970), the watches upon which this lavish care can be expended are a limited number. Essentially, the watches most deserving of the care fall into two categories; treasured heirlooms, gifts, or historically significant watches; and high grade watches, those that are of railroad or presentation quality.
Expense And Turnaround TimeA quality service and/or restoration or repair job takes time to perform properly and, as the old business saying goes, "Time is money." For a less-expensive gift, or a lesser railroad grade watch, the cost of just the basic service of cleaning and oiling may come to more than the timepiece itself is worth as a collectable watch. Once this is realized, it becomes obvious why such work is generally restricted to the two categories of watches mentioned above. In addition to the cost, the wait may also be a significant factor. Competent watchmakers are few enough that they constantly have a backlog of work awaiting its turn. Also, if a part is needed, it may take some time to obtain it.
How To Find WatchmakersDecades ago, every jewelry shop had a watchmaker on the premises, frequently the shop owner. Unfortunately, those watchmakers have gone the way of the doctors who made house calls. There may still be some, but they're few and far between. In other words, most watchmakers are not going to be found in the yellow pages. The best way of finding a watchmaker is by word of mouth. This is networking at its best, tell all of your friends, neighbors and acquaintances that you need to have an antique pocket watch serviced and ask if they know of anybody. Remember, its much more important how well the job gets done than where the work is performed. You may well be better off mailing the watch to a highly qualified watchmaker than having it done locally by somebody who may not be that good at it.
If you can't get a good recommendation from somebody you know and trust, there is another route. That is to contact your local chapter of the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors and ask them for a list of watchmakers in your area that you can contact. The person you first talk to may not know of any, but he/she ought to be able to steer you to somebody that does know.
Questions To AskHaving obtained the names of one or more of watchmakers, you're now ready for the hard part, choosing the one to let work on your watch. To try to assess the quality of workmanship, there are a number of questions you should ask. If you are not completely satisfied with any of the conversation resulting from the questions, than that might not be the right person to work on your watch.
1) If at a local jewelry shop, ask whether the work will be done on the premises, or be sent out. If sent out, to where? Tell the person to whom you're speaking that you'd like to be able to speak to the person who will actually work on your watch (see below). If they won't tell you, that's not necessarily a bad thing (especially if this place was recommended by somebody you trust), but it keeps you more isolated from the work that will be done (or not done).
2) Ask for at least three references, and their e-mail address and/or telephone numbers - then contact those people and ask about their satisfaction. Remember, the watch for which you're seeking service is very important to you, you'll want to reduce the likelihood that the experience will be unsatisfactory.
3) Check to see that there is some sort of guarantee. If you get told that this is an antique and that there are no guarantees, that ought to send up a red flag. Quality watch service people (competent watchmakers) know what they are looking at and will inform you during the service if they come across something that is questionable and needs attention. They should be able to guarantee at least the work that they do. Of course, you can't expect to drop the watch and return it under the guarantee if it stops running, but you have the right to expect it to continue running and keeping good time for a realistic period with reasonable care.
4) Ask for an estimate and if there is a charge for getting an estimate on the repair? A charge for this is not unreasonable, a good estimate may require some initial examination and, as mentioned above, "Time is money." Nor is it unreasonable for the watchmaker to say that if additional problems show up, there will be additional costs. The important thing is to know what work is being proposed (and perhaps some detail of what work will be done) and how much is going to be charged for that work. For example, it used to be common practice to change the mainspring when a watch is being cleaned and oiled. That was when mainsprings used to be relatively cheap. However, at this time (2010) there is a shortage of mainsprings and they can be $20 or more. You'll want to know if the mainspring will be replaced as a matter of course, or only if, after having the spring out and checked, the watchmaker feels that it needs to be replaced.
5) Upon getting the estimate (or deciding to proceed without one if your recommended watchmaker doesn't provide estimates), when the watchmaker tells you what he/she thinks is wrong, ask if its a common problem and ask exactly what the person will do to correct it. Ask whether parts are on hand or will have to be obtained (and what will have to be done to obtain them - it may require the purchase of another watch movement from which to cannibalize the parts). If the watch is being repaired for a specific problem, discuss whether the repairer thinks that it needs to be cleaned and lubricated as well. This is a good time to set the rule of additional work not being done until you are contacted, can discuss the issue, and authorize the additional expense. You'll probably want the work done anyway, but this way there will be no surprises when you go to get the watch back.
6) Part of the estimate, or conversation about the work to be done should be to ask how long it will take. Is it a long time because of backlog (a possible sign that the person does good work)? Or perhaps, because it may take a while to locate a specific part.
7) Beware of a very low estimate for repair or cleaning. Good watch repairers are very skilled people. Expect to pay a high rate per hour for their time. They also have an investment in parts, tools and in generally running a business. Although you might pay a lot and not get quality work, you certainly won't get quality work if the cost is dirt cheap.
FinallyIt may be helpful for you to read the Encyclopedia article on Watch Service and its related links, especially the one to the message board thread on the subject.