The Polishing Paradox

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The question of whether or not to polish a watch is a difficult and personal one – not unlike the decision as to whether or not a person should get a facelift or use age-defying skin cream. Car collectors must also make the decision as to whether or not to keep their vehicles in tip-top shape both cosmetically and mechanically; however, there seems to be much more of a uniform consensus when it comes to cars compared to watches.

Let’s take a closer look at the car question for a minute. If you’ve ever been to a vintage car show, you know that everybody is gathered around the ’65 Ford or well-aged that’s either all-original or has been restored to perfection. Either way, the paint is gleaming and the engine bay is spotless. Anything else is a work in progress and is stated as such by the owner because no one wants to own up to a run-down, scratched up, paint-faded, rusted-out car.

And yet, dollars to donuts, you’ll find one of those very same guys – one of those owners with a pristine 40-year-old car – wearing an old Submariner or GMT-Master with a scratched case, a stretched bracelet, and a faded bezel insert. So what gives? Why is a 65 Ford different from a Submariner from the same year? Why would a connoisseur treat the maintenance and upkeep of one any different than the other? So, should you get that case polished when you send your Rolex in for service? As any Rolex watch owner will likely tell you, the surface of the watch comes alive thanks in part to a sublime mix of brushed and high polish finishes on the case and bracelet. Furthermore, the edges, such as those found on lugs or crown guards, are often intricately beveled and chamfered to an exacting standard.

When a watch undergoes polishing or buffing, a thin layer of metal is removed in the process. Therefore, with polishing comes the risk of both altering the finishing and forever changing the actual shape of the watch and its components. You may have heard the term “crisp lugs” when describing Rolex watches, which refers to unpolished or lightly-polished examples that still have much of their original form. Conversely, over-polished watches typically have thinner and rounder lugs with little to no edge definition between the top of the lug and the side of the case. Unlike a mistake on a painting that can always be covered up, a bad polishing job is irreversible.

As a result, an over-polished vintage Rolex is valued much less than an untouched one in the eyes of many buyers. Most serious collectors will always value originality over flawless condition and the fewer modifications and restorations, the better. Consequently, a scratched up vintage Submariner that’s never been polished will always command higher prices than a newer-looking vintage Sub that’s had all its scratches and dings buffed out. So, not only does polishing a watch remove a thin layer of metal but it can also remove a few zeros from the value of the timepiece when it comes to the ultra-collectible vintage Rolex models.

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