I’m a self-professed watch dork but let me be the first to admit that an automatic mechanical watch is the spitting image of a gratuitous use of money. We all know nobody needs one — there are plenty of more convenient, affordable tools to tell time. But most watch dorks, myself included, have more or less accepted that style, history and charm offer enough meaningful value to keep mechanical watchmaking alive. But, even as somebody who loves watches, there’s something in the watch collecting sphere that surpasses the watch itself as an excessive use of cash: the watch winder.
A watch winder is a tabletop box (or, if you can afford it, a big-ass vault) that ever-so-gently rotates an automatic winding watch when it isn’t being worn to keep the mainspring wound and, in effect, the watch running. It’s also an overpriced, gaudy and (almost) wholly unnecessary device that masquerades as an essential tool in watch collecting. At its best, the watch winder offers minor convenience. At its worst, it actually harms your watch.
Some watch winder proponents often cite it as a maintenance precaution for time when your automatic watch is not on your wrist. The theory goes something like this: The lubricants inside your mechanical watch that reduce friction between its many moving parts will, if left dormant, become dried up or coagulate. This, in turn, could cause damage to the movement and, thus, the watch should be kept moving to avoid this degradation of your watch’s lubricating oils.
When I asked Henry Ly — the Managing Director at Watchmaking Project, an NYC-based independent watch repair shop — if this was true, his response was quick and stern: “No, absolutely not.” According to him, factors like age and temperature can cause a watch’s lubricants to dry up, but a lack of use shouldn’t be a cause for concern. Further, modern synthetic watch oils don’t coagulate like their animal-based counterparts of yesteryear. So while they will eventually dissipate with time (again, regardless as to whether or not the watch is running), there’s no need to worry about them gunking up and damaging the watch. As long as you keep with regular service intervals, your watch will be alright whether or not your watch is sitting still on your nightstand or spinning in a winder.
According to Ly, however, if you haven’t kept up with service that’s where you could potentially run into trouble. “Imagine you have your watch for about four or five years, and is at the point where it needs service soon, but instead of servicing it you put it on the winder and forget about it,” he says. “The gears and pivots are constantly winding, causing wear and tear. But say you don’t put it on a winder, but put it in a drawer or closet. It stops running and it stays in a place where the gears and wheels aren’t being excessively worn.”
Some users also boast convenience as the best part about watch winder ownership. Sure enough, an automatic will need to be reset after a couple of days spent unworn. But is resetting and winding a watch in the morning — a task that can be completed in about a minute — such a chore it requires spending of hundreds of dollars to avoid? After all, watch enthusiasts are supposed to love interacting with their watches. The best argument in the watch winder’s favor here is that if you own a perpetual calendar — which admittedly takes a notoriously long time to reset the date once it stops running — a winder alleviates one of the biggest pains of owning one. If you have purchased this esteemed complication of horology (one that starts at around nine G’s), then sure, a winder is not such a bad idea after all.
Otherwise, convenience and maintenance seem to me like excuses used to paint the watch winder as anything other than the glorified, gyrating plinth. And at even at that, it manages to fail. Few watch winders are an attractive watch storage solution. Most are bulky, uninspiring cubes that take up dresser or desk space. Affordable ones, ranging from $50 to a few hundred dollars, are poorly-designed and finished with plastic, faux leather and over-polished wood. Want something more luxe than that? You’ll be paying at least several hundred dollars. Of course, you could simply skip all of that trouble and buy a nice leather valet tray for under $100, take a minute to wind your watch in the morning and call it a day.
If you do own a watch winder or want to buy on, simply because you just cannot stand the hassle of resetting one of your unworn automatic watches, well, all the power to you — there are plenty of winders to choose from. But don’t purchase one out of some perceived sense of necessity. A watch winder is nothing more than a frivolous luxury good for luxury goods. Its utility will always be in the eye of the beholder.
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