There's an ongoing debate in museum circles about the ethics of conservation and restoration of what is categorised as Technological Heritage. Watches fit into this category, and while we may scoff at armchair academic pronouncements on how we should go about maintaining our collections, it's worth more than a thought.
The used Hamilton watch market seems to operate not so much on the ethics of conservation, restoration and preservation of historical integrity, but on the economics of supply and demand as it applies to conserved, restored and indeed refurbished technology. In many cases it's 'opinion' that informs the choice of what to do with a used Hamilton watch and while there are as many opinions as there are people, some opinions carry more weight financially than others.
Perhaps not so strangely, the high end of the market, often represented by prices fetched at Antiquorum, Christies, Sothebys and others, reflects a decided bias towards conservation and restoration over refurbishment. On rarer high-end timepieces originality attracts premium prices, while refurbished high-end watches are much less in demand.
So first let's arrive at a working definition of conservation, restoration and refurbishment so as to at least have a set of benchmarks upon which we may base our restoration decisions.
A concept of conservation emerged about a decade and a half ago in respect to used Hamilton technology and is beginning to have an impact on the serious horological markets. It basically argues that emphasis should be placed on preservation of originality for the future and that making used Hamilton technology appear pristine and never used is analogous to vandalism.
The idea behind conservation is that all changes to the object should be reversible. Take dials for example: If one was to take the conservation line when working on a used Hamilton dial, refinishing the dial would be out of the question, but stabilising it with a protective layer of lacquer would, as long as the lacquer could be removed at a later time.
The same logic applies to movements. The conservationist would argue that parts should not be replaced because having the technology operating is far less important than preserving its originality.
Here's an example that places technological conservation into a broader context. The Australian War Memorial has a collection of WW2 German military aircraft, and when experts conducted their pre conservation condition survey they identified a grey blue oxide coating on the aircraft' aluminium. They conditionally identified the type and constituents of the coating and devised a conservation strategy that ensured the original coating was not destroyed.
On similar aircraft in the United States, however, preservation work resulted in the removal of the oxide coating, thus destroying the originality of the technology and giving cause for confusion in scholarly investigation of the future. Many in the field of technological conservation would argue that removing an original coating in order to make the aircraft look new is unethical - same thing for watches and clocks of historical value.
Restoration is not identical to conservation. Restoration is a process that attempts to return a piece of technology, in our case a timepiece, to a previous state that a given restorer, complete with prejudices, assumptions and opinions about what the object should represent, imagines to be original. Restoration is personal to the restorer and that should never be forgotten.
However, in respect to technology, restoration is controversial, since it often involves irreversible changes to the original technology in order to make it work and function as it was meant to function.
With watches and clocks, for example, worn parts are removed, rust is treated, damaged or faded dials are replaced with genuine factory dials, hands are either re-plated or replaced, cases are polished, crystals are changed, seals are replaced etc., etc. Prejudices, assumptions and 'shop practice' come into play here as the restorer applies both an aesthetic logic (visual appeal) and a functional logic (keeping the watch going to a factory standard) when deciding what parts to replace during the restoration.
But if the parts are factory specified, the surfaces of materials are not changed (eg removing some of the copper coating on a 500 series Omega movement through improper use of solvents) and the work carried out on the watch is done according to factory recommendations, then many people would say that is a reasonable standard on which to base restorations of mass-produced watches. Clearly, you would not have an 'original' as defined by conservationists, but you would have preserved the 'integrity' of the piece by keeping it to specifications.
Another aspect of restoration practiced by some restorers is to focus on functional rather than aesthetic restoration. An example of functional restoration is to replace worn parts and stabilise the condition of a watch while maintaining the patina of the piece. This may include a very light polishing of the watch and the use of treatment techniques to arrest further deterioration of the dial and other non-mechanical parts of the watch. This more fully complies with those who argue the ethical and monetary benefits of restoration over refurbishment.
Refurbishment is the practice of taking a complete piece, or part, of old technology and making it look brand spanking new again. Refurbishment involves removing an object's past in the belief the new looking is best or that new looking sells.
We see much evidence of refurbishment wherever we look. Old houses rebuilt to look faux grande with more ornamentation than displayed originally; furniture in the brassier antique shops that appears as smooth and new as the IKEA competitor's product down the street; cars of the 50s and 60s chromed to the hilt and modified to reflect modern concepts of a bygone era, and so on.
Like the examples above, a refurbished watch often goes beyond the original factory brief. We see countless examples of Omegas, for example, with all traces of their former lives obliterated by excessive polishing; refinished dials completed with varying degrees of competence and unoriginal dial patterns fresh from the overactive imaginations of dial refinishers; so-called new-old stock beads of rice bracelets (as opposed to originals that have been restored); sharp and shiny crowns replacing otherwise functional and nicely worn ones; the dressing up of some models to look deluxe rather than standard; wrong movements (but, hey, who cares no-one buying a new-old watch will probably look under the bonnet) and numerous other touches that compromise the integrity of the original model.
SO WHAT IS THE STANDARD FOR WATCHES
Let's return to the earlier point on opinion and acknowledge that opinions are simply an expression of personal preference. If we are to build up a reasoned argument that favours one opinion over another in respect to the conservation, restoration or refurbishment of mass-produced watches, then we can choose to look at where opinion converges into a body of knowledgeable practice.
First, there is a market for new-old in any stream of collectibles, and, judging by the mountain of literature written about the new-old segment of various markets, it's usually where intrigued amateurs or freshly minted neophytes land. Refurbished collectibles are generally a sellers market rather than a buyers market, because buyers do not make distinctions other than visual appeal and mythical investment value of used Hamilton collectibles, thus placing themselves at the mercy of sellers - same thing with used Hamilton watches.
In reviewing a large range of books and magazines on horological restoration and analysing academic pronouncements on the conservation of our technological heritage, I believe the following points are worthy of consideration:
Conservation is the preferred option for important watches and clocks, particularly those that embody technological innovation. Restoration amounts to wanton destruction of heritage.
The more rare the object, the greater the case for conservation over restoration.
In the case of mass-produced watches, restoration is favoured by both the 'expert' and the knowledgeable ends of the market. Values are higher for working models that meet fully a manufacturers specifications. In some cases, a watch that has retained all of its original factory assembled parts, even though regulated to compensate for wear, will fetch more than a restored watch that has had replacement parts.
As the used Hamilton watch market has grown both in size and breadth, there is a growing segment that values 'functional' restoration - replacement of worn movement parts and conservation that stabilises non-working parts of a watch.
Refurbishment of part, as opposed to the whole, of a watch is generally preferred by all ends of the market except the new-old segment. Refurbishment is generally seen as an option when there are no other options.
Refurbishment to create a new-old watch has a market for newbies. The prices paid can be high but re-selling values can be severely discounted.