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Watch Education Avoid Fall Fails: Water Resistance

Water intrusion is the greatest single hazard faced by luxury watch owners, induces the most expensive variety of damage to correct. It pays – literally – to review the measures owners can take to keep good times rolling in summer’s afterglow. As fall leaves approach their peak color intensity, the time to have your watch water-tested is now.

Servicing Your Watch

Transitional seasons – fall and spring – are the optimal times to take luxury watches for water resistance checks. Spring precedes summer days at the local shore and evening pool parties; fall’s arrival spurs the first thoughts of tropical getaways and flyaway vacations to southern climes. Between pools, beaches, hot tubs, Jacuzzi’s, and the occasional Miami deluge, water tends to figure prominently in winter vacation plans.

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Water Resistant Standards

Baselines and standards are important when discussing go/no-go ratings for swimming and bathing. Collectors should consider 50m to be a no-go boundary – inclusive – beneath which a watch simply should not be submerged. Above that level, 100m is sufficient for amateur diving, and 300m is sufficient for professionals who chose a mechanical watch as a backup dive timer.

Preparation and prevention go hand-in-hand. Even when restored to factory-rated water resistance levels, watches with 30-50-meter ratings are best withheld from submergence and swimming. By industry convention, these ratings are considered sufficient to resist splashes, rainfall, and humidity. While even 30-meters may sound like an extraordinary depth beyond the scope of all but hardcore divers, the truth of the matter is that such a rating represents a very limited endorsement of a watch’s hermeticity.

Industry Lab Tests

The “30-meter” depth rating is produced by a lab test that slowly applies pressure to a case and slowly reduces it. These conditions completely omit the hydraulic shock that occurs when a watch is thrust through the water while swimming, thrashing, or diving from a platform. Such conditions can overwhelm the resistance of a “30-meter” watch instantly upon forceful contact with water. 50m resistance is better, but the reality of constantly aging seals and lubricants means that even this level of protection cannot be considered sufficient for aquatic activity.

And aging is a significant factor with respect to water resistance. Water resistance ratings as set by the factory only apply when the watch leaves the factory new or emerges from an overhaul with a qualified service center. The rubber seals and their lubricants begin to dry and cure immediately. Given a period of years or even months, the “50-meter” water resistance rating (to say nothing of 30m) can degrade to far less. Often, this is a function of natural dry climates, heat cycling, and dry modern climate controlled conditions.

Rolex Water Pressure Testing

Yearly Resistance Testing

For these reasons, most luxury watch manufacturers advise an annual water test with a qualified wristwatch service center (generally factory-authorized for warranty purposes). Literally no manufacturers recommend letting a watch go untested for more than 24 months.

Note that these periods are far shorter than the mechanical service intervals of most luxury watches; water resistance wanes more rapidly than mechanical integrity. Moreover, this abbreviated period is less than many new watch warranties, and water intrusion that damages a watch under warranty may not be considered a legitimate claim if the manufacturer does not receive proof of timely water tests from the claimant owner. Don’t despair; unlike mechanical overhauls, water resistance can be checked in moments and corrected in days at local authorized centers.

Factors Effecting Water Resistance

Additionally, it is important to remember that certain cosmetics, chlorine, shower/bathing products, and heat cycling can rapidly degrade water seals on a watch. Collectors who routinely expose their timepieces to these agents should consider the one-year water test interval to be a minimum, not a maximum.

Ensuring Water Resistance

Once the factory-rated water resistance has been determined by the owner and verified by a quick trip to the dealer, it’s time to review usage precautions. All crowns – push-in, screw-down, or equipped with a proprietary lock – should be secured fully prior to water exposure. The crowns should remain secure and their functions unused until the crown structures are completely dry. This applies equally to all secondary function actuators from calendar correctors to chronograph pushers.

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Consequences of Not Double Checking

What are the consequences of swimming with an open crown or using a chronograph pusher while submerged? The answers are expensive and time-consuming. Throughout my experience in the luxury watch sector, two extraordinary repair bills stand salient in my memory, and both involved water damage. The first was a vintage Audemars Piguet minute repeating pocket watch that was dropped in sea water: $20,000+ US; the second was an Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Chronograph that was taken swimming with the crown open: $9,500 and over one year with the factory.

These are catastrophic, worst-case scenario service nightmares, and both could have been avoided by taking common sense precautions. The Royal Oak, in particular, was set up for failure by its owner. 50m water resistance? Check! No recent history of water resistance verification? Check! Crown left open while swimming? Checkmate!

The sad irony of the Royal Oak Chronograph disaster is that the owner likely thought he was wearing an invulnerable “sports watch” designed for all aspects of an active lifestyle. His misfortune was a simple coincidence of incomplete information and failure to prepare. Hopefully, a wing of the new Audemars Piguet factory museum will be named for this unwitting financier of its construction… Don’t be that guy.

FAQs on Water Resistance

Many questions arise with respect to water resistance. For example, many have inquired regarding whether bezels can be turned while wet. The answer is “yes” in the case of all true unidirectional external “diving” bezels. Naturally, there are several exceptions including crown-actuated internal rotating bezels and bezels that are directly linked to the function of the movement (e.g., Rolex Yacht-Master II and Sky-Dweller “Ring Command” bezels). Moreover, it’s important to note that chronographs may run while submerged, and the usage restriction is on actuation of their external controls and not the internal mechanism.

Regarding actual actuation of a chronograph while wet, the only system with a 100-percent success rate is Breitling’s magnetic pusher mechanism, and it is fitted exclusively to specialist quartz chronometer-chronograph calibers. Attempting the same with any seal-protected chronograph is like playing Russian roulette with one’s wallet. Fact is, don’t start your chronograph while underwater.

Ultimately, knowing the limits of one’s timepiece and ensuring peak functional condition are the keys to enjoying a watch during holiday at the beach, pool, or wet spa. Knowledge is power – and money in the bank – when watches and water mix this winter.

About Tim Mosso
Tim Mosso is a lifelong watch enthusiast and historian. He is an active member of the online watch community and his passion for watches is second to none. As a self-proclaimed watch nut, he loves to bring his knowledge of horology across all different platforms.