Obsessive Compulsive Watch Repair

I could never afford a Swiss made so when my maternal uncle asked me to help him repair and sell his late brother’s 1980s’ Rado Voyager, I jumped. I told him I’ll ask around in Mumbai and see if we can get a good deal on it. But after much thought, I decided to keep it for myself. I could get it repaired and pay him an amount that’s near its current market value minus the repair fee.

It was possible the watch was beyond repair, looking at it. But one day I decided to take the Rado to a local store.

Visit One

You’ll rarely find a lone watch store in an Indian metropolis. They exist in multiples; a lane full of watch stores separated by stores that sell either luggage, sweets, or jewellery.

I started with the “watch store lane” closest to my house and walked into the first store and presented my antique. The clockmaker at the service desk looked at me like I had handed him a fossil. He dismissed the watch saying it was beyond repair. And even if he did manage to repair it, he said, it would be cheaper to buy a new Swiss made watch. He had trendy designs for middle-aged men like me, he – the person that I now dislike – said. He didn’t quote a price.

The next store in the lane was named, as you can probably take a guess, Just In Time. I walked in and met a clockmaker who looked like a fossil. He took the watch and studied it for a minute. He gave me price. Let’s call it A.

Next in line was a store where I take my 5-bar Alba Chronograph for battery change every few years. I decided to get the watch checked here last because I knew the guy there would quote the lowest.

I knew the watchmaker so I told him what needed to be done in detail, without preamble. He asked me to return a week later so that he could study the extent of the damage and feasibility of a repair. Time passed and he gave me a quote. Let’s call it B.

I decided it was not worth spending that kind of money on something that I didn’t need. I told the B guy I would decide on it later when I have the funds. Nearly a year passed.

Visit Two

Better to do what I want to do now than regret it later was one of my newfound life policies, so I took the plunge and decided to get my late uncle’s watch repaired. I chose quote B because it was 4x cheaper.

The story about the watch’s origins is tainted. My uncle was not wealthy and he was not the kind of man who would splurge on a Rado, let alone any watch. He worked as a fuel station (petrol pump as they call it in Kerala even though it also sold diesel) manager for the most of his adult years, and led a rather simple life, taking care of his mother and four siblings. Like his only nephew, he could never own a Swiss made.

My mother, the only to marry and have kids in the family, suspects the watch either was gifted to him by his younger streetsmart brother (who I’ve only ever seen with a Rado) or became his property through an episode of borderline unlawful barter at his workplace.

The second possibility is interesting because, you see, petrol pumps deal with all kinds of customers. One of the popular kinds is those that pull down the window glass and order, not ask, the fuel station attendant to “fill her up”. And when the wagon’s filled, with the engine still running, they rush off, without paying.

Now, my uncle worked at a petrol pump in a city that saw hundreds of hundreds of vehicles coming in to refill every day. Therefore, it’s possible, my mother believes, that her brother perhaps was attending one of the fuel stations that day when a guy wearing a Rado Voyager and driving an equally fitting vehicle entered the pump. It’s also possible that he tried to pull a fast one and attempted to rush off without paying. And my uncle, being the one with strong arms, quick reflexes, and sharp mind, would have tried to unkey the ignition and instead gotten hold of the watch that was probably loose-fitting for the guy. (Thinking more on this possibility, I believe it could be true because the watch uses a knockoff jubilee bracelet with a foldable clip that could come off more easily than, say, a regular leather strap if there’s extra strength involved.)

It’s a bit weird to imagine that the Rado watch that I now took out of my backpack and handed over to my usual watch guy was probably involved in a melee. I kind of believe my mother’s story because she also says that her brother had snatched up – not by want but unofficial fuel station policy – several articles from unscrupulous, non-paying customers over the years, one of which happened to be a gold ring that indirectly made up her trousseau. (Though, I wonder why my uncle chose to keep the watch for himself instead of handing it over to the fuel station owner who could then sell it off.) Or this could all be one good story and the watch could just have been a gift.

Back at the store, the repairer confirmed the repair cost. I seem to get regular lessons on inflation because the quote had now shot up by 25%. I cursed my situation and agreed to the amount after haggling a little. That was the first time I noticed the guy’s curt, borderline condescending replies.

The watch would be ready in two weeks. I paid 20% as an advance.

Visit Three

I walked into the store a week after I was informed that the watch was ready. I was told the chief repairer was on PTO, but I could still pick it up. I have to say the repairer had pulled it off, at least when it came to the watch’s exterior. Its unique character – which dawned on me only now – was its 12-sided polygonal dial. It’s a remarkable quality because I don’t think I had ever seen (or rather noticed) a dodecagonal (I see there is a word for it) watch before. Now I was all the more justifying having spent a tiny fortune on the repair.

The repairer’s workmanship peaked at me through the clearer glass (which also had to be of the same shape as the dial). The dial’s edges had gone mouldy but the repairer had managed to salvage it; the dark indigo-coloured dial looked better now, adorned by horizontal twin dots in place of numbers, a crystal each at 6 and 9 positions, and two crystals to mark 12. The day and date are in an inset taking much space in front of 3. The dial’s edges still remind of its mouldy and dusty past but nothing that will stop me from wearing it to an executive meeting. As a matter of fact, I have been wearing it daily while working from home, and that’s also how my troubles with the watch began.

Visit Four

I was so ecstatic at the watch coming alive, I had failed to inspect it much in the store. I remember I paid the balance amount and rode back home to admire it. The problem was that I had no clue how to manage or care for it. The Rado Voyager is a mechanical or automatic watch with a removable crown. This means it works on spring action and does not use a battery. Once worn, the tiny, intricate components of the watch come together to create and store energy with every hand movement. I won’t go into the technicalities because even I’m an infant in automatic watches.

The little I knew about mechanical watches incidentally came from this brilliant interactive explainer by Bartosz Ciechanowski. It’s a fun read but I have to admit I lost track somewhere before the middle as it got too technical.

Anyway, when I tried to set the time the following day – because obviously the watch had stopped working because of not being worn for over 10 hours when I was sleeping – the crown came out. I could insert it back in, but now it would not move the needles nor change the day or date. I put it in my drawer, almost convinced that it was all in vain.

Another tiny pet peeve I had with the repair was that the Rado anchor was not moving. It’s a notable quality of all Rado original watches, where an anchor-shaped object freely moves according to the position of the dial. So, when I’m typing this right now, with the watch on my left arm, the anchor should ideally point between 9 and 12. I am certain the anchor used to move before it went under, so it particularly flustered me. It serves no purpose in the workings of the watch, but it still mattered to me.

Visit Five

I took the watch to the store the very day after I had collected it. I reported the issues to the service desk but was asked to come back a few weeks later when the chief repairer would return. I also informed the manager about the issues, and he reassured me that it would be fixed. I only had to wait.

Visit Six

I was getting impatient, especially because I had paid the full amount and the watch was now sitting in my drawer dead. I remember I made at least two calls to the store in the following days after my last visit, only to be informed that the chief repairer was still on PTO.

Three weeks later, I finally learned that the guy was in. I think I flew to the store that day.

First I spoke about the death. That the crown had come out and the watch refused to keep time. The chief repairer seemed receptive of the issue and immediately started inspecting it. Next, I told him about the Rado anchor.

This is when he switched to his condescending mode. He blatantly refused to acknowledge my theory that the anchor used to move before, claiming instead that the innards of the watch were so rusted that it had reminded him of a sunken ship. How then do you claim that it used to move? he asked without asking. I tried to argue a little but not with as much fervour as I do with the people I love, and eventually ended my passive retort by hinting that I was unsatisfied with the repair work.

That seemed to hit where it needed to as he returned to his seat and continued inspecting the crown. He asked me to wait till he fixed it.

10 minutes later, the watch was ready again. He told me that it could keep time for up to 24 hours if I wore it for 12 hours or more. That’s less than what most mechanical watches of today boast of, but I was fine with this new information. In essence, it meant that I had to wear the watch every day, even at home, where I don’t have the practice of wearing one all these years. Today I don’t wear a watch only when I’m showering and sleeping.

He also told me that the anchor was a lost cause. There was no point in trying to fix it because it served no purpose and I should learn to live with it. Not the advise I was looking for but I wore the watch and left the store.

Visit Seven

The watch stopped again after a few days and I again saw myself sitting in front of the store’s service desk. This visit was basically a repeat of the previous one. The repairer inspected the watch and took 10 minutes to fix it. He said I should not handle the crown carelessly lest it pops out of its container. He said he’ll look for a permanent solution should the crown come out again. Of course that would mean an additional expense. And I better not spend more on this antique Swiss made that can only keep time.

Rado Voyager automatic
The watch

Later this month, I plan to pay my uncle a figure that I feel would have fetched him had he sold it.

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