Last week we published a photo of before and after of a Rolex case polishing job undertaken by Bobby, second year apprentice.
The polishing was done by hand using just various grades of emery paper
and a wooden stick, with mirror finish achieved on a rotating buff wheel
(cotton disc and polishing medium).
end result speaks for itself. We posted the photos on Instagram
inviting our followers to rate the job anywhere between 6 and 9 out of
10. As we expected, almost all marked the job with top grade. What we
didn't expect: this photo was one of the three most liked posts with
over 600 likes.
Yet a couple of watch enthusiasts couldn't help but to offer rather strange opinions on the matter. There were two complaints:
1. Case polishing is bad because it removes patina
2. Hand polishing and especially buffing on the wheel is a 'bad' method. Watch cases should be lapped, not polished.
Yes, for some, case polishing is a controversial issue. Allow me to defuse it for you and help you understand the fundamentals.
Once you understand those fundamentals then you will be able to make an educated decision.
What is patina?
Patina is a green or brown film on the surface of bronze or similar
metals, produced by oxidation over a long period. Patina is also a gloss
or sheen on a surface of antique furniture resulting from age or
Please note: we use same term to describe completely different effects
created in different manner on two different surfaces: bronze and wood.
Yet in both cases, it is the patina - whether it is the sign of natural
ageing, polishing with shellac and oxidation- which gives an object the
distinctive 'naturally aged' shine and colour.
It takes no expert to appreciate that a fine bronze sculpture should not
be polished (only dusted!), neither should a fine French polished
antique table be stripped down to bare wood or attacked with aggressive
polishing agents. We leave bronze and wood alone- to age naturally.
Stainless steel which is used in modern watches is a different story
altogether. Ideally, stainless steel does not oxidize - so it cannot
develop any patina whatsoever. The oxidation process of steel is simply
called rust. Pitting is actually worse than surface rust - it is a nasty
corrosion which kills the water resistance of watch cases. Since almost
all modern watch cases are nowadays made of stainless steel, titanium
or precious metal, we don't associate the term 'patina' with watch
cases. To use the term 'patina' on any watch case except bronze, is
Stainless steel cases leave the watch factory with a variety of
surfaces: polished, gloss, mirror finish, brushed, sand blasted. General
expectations with modern watch servicing are to at least improve the
condition of scratched cases, if not to return them to as close to
original finish where possible. Again, not to preserve any patina -
because there is no patina to be preserved.
"Please don't polish - I like my scratched case!"
Fair enough! If your wish is to have all the bruise marks, dents and
scratches 'preserved' than who am I to argue with your choice? Indeed,
some watch owners are very particular in this respect. However, it is
important to point out the obvious: a vast majority of MODERN watch
owners would prefer polished cases and bracelets, restored it to 'like
new condition'. Scratches are bad and undesirable. Disagree? Would you
intentionally scratch your new car? Or a brand-new laptop, mobile phone -
or a brand-new watch? Removing scratches is DESIRABLE. It's good. It's
fine. Removing scratches is difficult, and we don't do it just for fun
or to impress you, so relax and enjoy your new polished surface!
However - there is an exception to this rule: unlike modern watches,
rare, high value vintage watches SHOULD NOT BE POLISHED. Not because
they are worth more when scratched, but because polishing - and in some
cases even cleaning- could significantly reduce chances of assessing the
originality of both external and internal parts. All the scratches,
dings and dents help us to determinate if the watch is original or a
Frankenstein put together from new and old parts, or a watch which has
been restored correctly - or not.
Polishing is an inferior alternative to lapping
Yes, it is true that almost all modern stainless-steel watch cases and
bracelets are polished with the help of modern multi-million-dollar CNC
machinery, fully automated, in a process which no longer involves human
touch. The final step of that polishing process is lapping. Lapping is a
technique where a liquid polishing medium is applied between the
work-piece (watch case) surface and a lapping plate. Due to the nature
and geometry of those lapping plates, as well as highly controllable
lapping action, this automated process produces very uniform surfaces
which retain geometry. In other words, polished ‘edges’ are crisp,
defined and 'sharp'. They look like they have been defined and polished
by robots - which they are.
In other words, when it comes to case finishing, nothing beats machine
lapping. Unfortunately, lapping is highly specialized process and your
independent watchmaker is either not set for lapping, or when he is able
to offer such service, it is only to a limited number of watch cases /
shapes / brands. It is a trade in itself - and quite frankly, has
nothing to do with watchmaking. To expect your independent small
watchmaker to offer case refurbishment service equal to those of
mega-brand is simply unrealistic: the same as expecting everyone to fly
first class or drive a Ferrari.
"Oh NO! You've polished my watch and rounded the lug! I am devastated!!"
Unfortunately, we live in an imperfect world, and we have to put up with
compromise. Watch polishing is ALWAYS a compromise. At the end of the
day, you have to answer this question for yourself: which one would I
prefer - "before" or "after"? Because this is all we can offer. Polished
cases could mean some very minor 'rounding'. This is just a nature of
the polishing process, especially when done by hand. However, an
experienced polisher is well aware of the process and will do everything
possible to keep the wheel buffing action just for the final mirror
finish. When we remove scratches, we use a range of abrasive papers and
films, in various grades, which takes a majority of polishing time and
this is why our results are as per photo.
Not good enough for you? Well, the best polished case is - case
replaced. For that, you need to talk to your watch brand service
department. We can consistently offer; 6, 7 or 8 out of 10. On a good
day - even a solid nine. For perfection see our competition.
There is no such thing as patina on steel cases. Scratches are bad, so
take a good care of your watch and you won't need frequent polishing.
Polishing is time consuming, requires skills- therefore expensive. Learn
to live with small imperfections -life is not perfect. Be happy with
the end result - returning the watch case to 'brand new condition' is