A very interesting and important topic when discussing and collecting vintage watches is the discussion on whether or not a watch has it’s original parts, and has been polished or not.
Very often you will hear collectors say they would prefer a deteriorated dial for example, than a refurbished or replaced one, even if it doesn’t look as good.
And in general terms that is absolutely correct, the more original the better and that should be the target. But that isn’t always possible for very good reasons, and there gray areas that need to be understood (otherwise you run the risk of passing up on a very good watch).
But, to be clear, lets establish some guidelines that I think can be helpful:
1. The “ideal” vintage watch - is one that while old, looks exactly as it did the day it left the factory with all its original parts and components. This is of course nearly impossible. Occasionally you here of NOS (New Old Stock) “discoveries”, which happens, but it is very very rare and I wouldn’t pin my hopes on such a find. Otherwise, you’ll probably wait a long time before you find something that makes you happy.
2. A watch with all its original parts - is what your next target should be If the watch you are looking to buy is not a true NOS. Of course, one wants those parts to be in as good a condition as possible, but these watches will have some patina on their dials, some fading on their hands, some nicks here and there, etc. But, as stated above, thats preferred than having those components replaced or refurbished. Helps maintain their “character”.
3. A watch without original parts, but ‘correct’ parts - is the next step down, but can make for the best balance. In other words, thing break, bezels crack, hands bend, whatever. When that happens, to a point that those parts are no longer useable or regardless of their “character” are no long appealing (for example, I personal dislike any kind of ‘spider dial’ some Rolex collectors love), they should always be replaced with parts that are “correct” or “period correct” for that watch reference.
4. A watch without original parts needs to have a valid justification - a good example of this is with the bezel on a Speedmaster. Omega decided to change the position of the dot on top of the 90 in its bezel to just next to the 90. They also removed an accent on the ‘E’ in ‘tachymeter’. Technically this is not “correct” if the Speedmaster was made before 1968. But this is such a small detail, one most people have a hard time seeing unless you’re right up close, it really doesn’t matter. And most Omega collectors will not put a big value on that bezel difference. The best estimate I could come up with is max $150. But change the hands to incorrect hands, or refinish the dial, thats another story.
5. If a watch does not at least have period correct parts - or acceptable updates, then just pass. There will be others and unless you are a watchmaker who knows how to source the correct parts and then put it all together, the cost will not be worth it.
So, thats a guideline. But as I hinted above, its also important to realize the hierarchy of the parts.
Assuming the watch has its original case and movement, without a doubt, the most important part that has to be original is the dial. Even if the dial is original, but was repainted, that’s not acceptable! The dial must be original and untouched. If you don't like spider dials as I don't, just buy a different watch. But leave the dial alone.
The hands at a minimum, must be the correct hands for the watch reference. If they are original, even better. But correct hands is more than acceptable, especially since once they are installed on a watch, unless the color is really off, no one will ever know anyway.
Sticking with the dial, relumed hands is also a no-no. So exceptions can be made for vintage pilot watches that were actually used by pilots and relumed to help them do their job. But outside of that, again, leave the dial alone.
Moving along, a 50/50 type of situation is the crown and pushers (for chronos obviously). A lot of people freak out over these parts, but as one watchmaker told me, a crown or a pusher is a lot like a set of tires on a car. You’re never gonna drive a vintage Ferrari with the original set of tires. Those get replaced as often as they need to, because they need to work as intended. Otherwise the watch is not really usable.
In fact, in the Rolex world, especially since Rolex designs in general have barely evolved, crowns are changed far more frequently among collectors than crowns from other brands. I would also suggest that another reason this happens with Rolex is because they mainly make tool watches not dress watches. But still, don’t freak out if the crown is not the original one. Make sure it is a period correct crown and that it works.
Crystals are irrelevant. Even crystals like the ones Omega used with their logo etched ever so slightly in the center do not hurt the value. In fact, quite the opposite: a lot of people love vintage watches with non-sapphire dials because they're inexpensive to replace. And that can really change the look of a watch.
Finally, we have the polishing of a watch case. The big problem with polishing is that if you polish your watch too much, the hard edges will wear off.
For example, a Royal Oak that has been polished too much stops looking like an octagon and more like a circle, and that is plain sacrilege!
There is also a difference between polishing a watch case by hand, versus machine sanding, etc. There are some amazing YouTube videos that show some watches, especially Rolex DateJusts that have gone through this. When done well, on a case like the oyster case that doesn’t have too many hard edges, it can look fantastic and almost worth it. But invariably, its never done well and you will find lugs are different lengths or other deformities.
So, I’d pass on that as well.
But a watch that was lightly polished, just to remove light surface scratches, especially on a stainless steel bracelet, that is perfectly acceptable.
Some watchmakers have the skill to brush back in the brushed steel effect that came from factory. The watchmaker’s skill is the key there, but not impossible to find a talented watchmaker.
Straps, especially those that are not integrated straps are irrelevant too.
Boxes and papers may give you some reassurance a watch is what the seller says it is, but that can easily be faked too, plus you don’t wear the box or papers. Personally, the only reason why I shop for box and papers is because I can sell them afterwards! You’d be surprised what some people, especially people with brick and mortar watch shops will pay to have box and papers for a watch they're trying to sell for top dollar.
So, there you have it, originality does matter, but it’s important to understand the big picture, otherwise you could be your own worst enemy and pass up on a great watch.