Girard-Perregaux: repairs, loose ends and reflections on the practicalities of a vintage watch

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I am one of those weirdos who buy old watches to use as they were originally intended.  I buy watches that I like or that I find interesting.  I am not interested in collecting really but seem to have acquired a collection.  I have no interest in acquiring watches as a speculative endeavour, as part of an investment portfolio, but I have certainly benefited from inflation in the value of the watches that I own.  I don’t particularly see the attraction of buying mint or old stock examples although I own examples of both.  I like to wear my watches.  I like to add to their life story.  I get pleasure from the battle scars that mark the passage of time, not least because it means that I can enjoy my watches without having to baby them or worry about the odd brush with a door jam.  However, there does come a point where you may want to balance the desire to honour the history and purpose of an old watch by continuing to expose it to the everyday trials that its designers would have imagined for it against the potential to actively degrade its appearance as a result of misfortune or accident or unanticipated circumstance.

Some of you may remember the 1959 Girard-Perregaux Giromatic I featured here about a year ago. 

This watch was owned from new by the father of a close friend and had been retired from active service a long time ago.  The outcome of its time with me was a watch whose external appearance was significantly improved, due in no small part to a new crystal, and with a fit-as-a-fiddle movement showing every sign that it was prepared to do its thing for another 62 years.  In such a condition, there was no reason why this watch should not, once more, be used and enjoyed, albeit, perhaps with a little more circumspection than would have been the case when it was new.  The reason for this exercising of caution was that the case was no longer waterproof, its crown tube having detached itself from the case and become embedded in the crown. 

The watch returned to the other side of the Atlantic with the intention that it be passed on to the grandson of its original owner on the occasion of his 21st birthday.  And it is at this point in its life experience that our 62-year-old protagonist met with a short sequence of unfortunate events.  The first was one or more hefty impacts to its acrylic crystal, cracking and partially splintering at least three of its four corners. 

This was followed by a second incident, the details of which are unclear, but which resulted in the crown and remnant tube becoming detached and subsequently lost.  In the photo above, you can see the female part of the two-part stem still present, its male counterpart missing in action.  At this point, the watch was no longer in a state to be used, not least because there was no way to set the time.  There followed some local investigations into the feasibility of an economic replacement of the crown and crystal but a quotation of $450 soon put paid to that.  And so, for a second time, the watch made its way back to North Yorkshire on a 4 week journey that saw it travel from Iowa City to York via Cedar Rapids, Chicago, Warsaw (Poland) and London.

In the photo above, taken shortly after the visit from the postman, we get a clearer view of the damage to the crystal as well as a suggestion, based on the brown staining around the periphery, that water has gained access through the breaches in the crystal.  With the upper mid-case removed (you may recall that this watch uses a two-part compression fit construction), we can see further signs of some minor corrosion to the underside of the case.

While I was waiting for the watch to return, I had located and ordered a correct replacement crown from an eBay seller in the UK and already had one spare crystal, so two out of the three missing parts were secure. 

However, in order to impart a reasonable degree of water resistance to the case, I would need to confront the question of the missing crown tube.  With the watch in hand, I was able to measure the hole in the case and the diameter of the hole in the crown and determined that none of the commonly available generic pendant tubes would fit the case.  However, if I reamed out the hole in the case, I would be able to fit a pendant tube with a diameter of 2.5 mm at the crown and 2.0 mm at the case.  In selecting the correct tube, I needed also to account for the clearance of the male/female interface of the split stem.

The reaming of the case carried with it a degree of hazard but I managed to accomplish the task satisfactorily and fit the new pendant tube, secured using some Loctite 638 retaining compound.

It’s all very well having a restored crown tube but that won’t do much good without a correctly sized and supple crown gasket.  The crown that I had bought was used and its gasket long past serviceable and so I set about the task of its replacement.  In a procedure now familiar to readers, I spent some considerable time extracting the hardened original gasket though the aperture in the crown opening.  With that done, I identified a suitably-sized replacement and set about coaxing it into position, aided by some silicone grease.

I test-fitted the crown to the case tube, making sure that the gasket was exerting a grip on the tube akin to a baby grasping the finger of a playful parent.

A closer inspection of the crystal revealed that in fact all four corners had been compromised.

And somewhat to my dismay, it soon became clear that all four corners of the dial had suffered as a result.

The marks to the dial were a combination of water staining, salt deposits but also some abrasion, the result of which was a compromise to the lacquer in places.  I was able to clean off most of the salts and staining but clearly the dial has not escaped this experience without permanent impact on its appearance.

On the upside, the damage will, in practice, be obscured from view by the distortions provided by the corners of the square acrylic crystal and so I was optimistic that on the wrist, the flaws would not be especially apparent.

The freshly rebuilt crown is now ready to be fitted to the case, a task achieved by aligning the male part of the split stem with its female counterpart slot, and pressing home with a satisfying clunk/click.  The fresh crystal is united with the lower part of the monocoque case, pressing its lower mating surface against the square white gasket at which point the upper mid-case can be lowered into position.

The water-tight seal is achieved and preserved by tightening down the four screws located within the lower part of each of the lugs.

The watch is now ready for action once more, but this time hopefully a little better equipped to deal with the challenge of everyday wear.   The series of events that befell this watch raised a question in my mind about what level of resilience it is reasonable to expect of a restored old watch.  To a large extent, I think this will depend on the construction, materials and integrity of the case used to house its delicate inner workings: in this case, I wonder if the crystal I used the first time around was just a little more brittle than it might have been when new; the detached crown tube though was a more obvious chink in its armour and the greater degree of freedom of movement that it offered the crown may have exposed it to additional vulnerability from knocks.

There is something about the look of this watch now, with its secured crown and fresh crystal, that conjures up a certain chin-jutting pugnacious attitude, confident in its ability to deal with whatever comes it way in the future. Hopefully, that air of confidence is not misplaced.