Watch restoration and watch modification are two different things, but they often overlap. Both involve doing something to a watch. This can be very minimal, like cleaning the case, or it can drastically change a watch, like swapping out the dial. Whatever the alteration, it’s important to include in a watch’s story. Did it address a mechanical issue? Was it purely for aesthetics? Was it done by the manufacturer? In your bedroom? None of these circumstances are good or bad, but they’re certainly noteworthy. Your watch should carry a story – and if you plan on selling it – it should carry a detailed, comprehensive story. So what is watch restoration? What is modification? And where do they overlap?
Watches aren’t indestructible: materials corrode, oils dry out, and mechanics fail. Restoration, a word that usually pertains to vintage watches (and goes beyond routine servicing), aims to bring a watch back to stock functionality and/or appearance. This commonly includes cleaning/lubricating the movement, polishing the case, replacing a damaged crystal, or refinishing the dial. Restoration often requires replacement parts: inside and out. The source of these parts impact the value of a watch, as does the party installing them. Maybe you care about this, maybe you don’t – but don’t say I didn’t warn you. People pay a premium for professionally restored watches with authentic parts.
Beyond just watches, restoration is a part of vintage collecting. Cars, paintings, architecture – old things need fixing. The more valuable or rare a watch becomes, the more classical significance it holds. Vintage watches are pieces of history; their restoration is understandably held to a high standard.
Simply put, watch modifications are inessential. They aren’t imperative to stock functionality or appearance, and in fact, go against it. Common examples are swapping out the crystal, dial, handsets, bezel, or even key components like the case or movement. With modification, you’re able to make a unique watch: exactly what you want it to be. This is most common with (but not exclusive to) inexpensive watches. They’re a good place to start, and for many, a good place to stop.
By shaping a watch into exactly what you want, further removing it from stock functionality or appearance, you often lose resale value along the way. Again, you may or may not care about this, but it’s true. If you plan on selling a watch down the line, you should keep the original parts and detailed records.
Why Does This Matter?
In May of 2018, Phillips received nearly 6 million Swiss Francs for a Rolex Daytona: the highest price tag for a Rolex since Paul Newman’s 'Paul Newman' Daytona. This manually-wound, fully white gold Rolex Daytona (Ref. 6265) was advertised as one of a kind: labeled the “Unicorn” for its rarity. All proceeds reportedly went to charity.
One day before the auction, old photos of the entirely-white-gold Unicorn surfaced: revealing a steel bezel, steel screw-down pushers, and a completely different dial. Simply put, the Unicorn at auction was an assemblage of replacement parts: what's sometimes referred to as a "Franken-watch". Photos of the Unicorn were then compared to other Ref. 6265/6263 Daytonas, clearly revealing non-Rolex screw-down pushers (pictured below). For many, these replacements blur the line between restoration and modification. To be clear, none of this is inherently an issue. The issue lies in a lack of disclosure – ostensibly by Phillips and/or Goldberger – until the leaked photos were released (hours before the auction).
I mention this story to highlight the importance of. . . a story. Goldberger restored this watch in his own vision, which he had every right to do -- it made for a beautiful example. However, his restoration included non-original replacement parts. While some purists (and/or investors) might condemn this type of restoration, the vast majority of enthusiasts find it interesting. The Unicorn could have been a great example of tasteful restoration/modification. Instead, the entire situation is shrouded in controversy.
In short, have fun with your watches – modification and restoration are meant to be enjoyed. That said, you should keep your parts, keep your records, and be transparent about your watch’s history. If you're looking for an easier way to spice up your watch, consider putting it on a rubber strap!