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Accessing spare parts is the worst part of the watch industry

The big brands want us watchmakers to repair their watches, but they make getting the necessary spare parts maddeningly difficult, prohibitively expensive, or completely impossible.

I’ve been repairing watches since I was 15, and in those days you could repair virtually any watch that came in the shop, because there were multiple spare parts retailers with a full range, and everyone was happy to sell you parts.

Today, the likes of Omega and Rolex won’t sell parts to anyone who’s not a stockist. Even Swatch has this policy. For example, if my customer wants a replacement watchband, Swatch won’t even sell me a plastic one because I’m not a stockist!

There’s a reason policies like this were introduced. Rolex was one of the first to insist that in order to get spare parts, you had to exchange the old ones. That was there to show them you weren’t repairing fake Rolexes.

Omega kept on changing the ground rules; first you couldn’t go in and buy spare parts over the counter, then you had to fax your order in, then they said parts couldn’t be picked up and had to be posted out to you.

Then they brought in a minimum charge of $25 for every spare parts order – it didn’t matter if it was a dollar, $10 or $10,000. Now, they won’t sell anything.

Again, I can see why they’ve made these changes – they can see that there are only a handful of watchmakers left, and they’re worried that amateurs will get access to their parts.

Other brands make the prices so high that it’s not worth it for independent watchmakers to do the repair. Even when the parts are available, they are only for the newer models.

In reality, big brands want the watches sent back to them for repair. But that too is a problem; Omega has the option to send your watch overseas – sometimes to Switzerland, sometimes to Hong Kong – for repair. Often, the customer doesn’t know that.

"I have to find sources in Switzerland or America, when in reality it shouldn’t be this difficult for an experienced, qualified watchmaker to access these spare parts"

When a watch is sent in, the big manufacturers have a policy that if the luminosity on the hands is a bit off-colour, the hands need to be changed; every time you open the watch, the back seal needs to be changed; every time you service the watch you need to change the crown or the seal.

They’d argue that the work is needed to bring the watch back to new standard, but the customers that come into my store with their vintage watches don’t want these changes!

On the more common models, the big brands will rip the inside out and put a whole new movement inside, so in reality the customer doesn’t really get their own watch back.

The consumer loses out on price, too. I’ve seen people come in with a repairs quote from Omega for $2,000. Even a basic service can be $1,000, whereas an independent watchmaker might charge $300 or $400 and the customer can decide exactly what needs to be fixed or changed. The customer deserves the option of paying a less ridiculous price, especially if the work isn’t needed.

There are other unintended consequences too – one of which is the grey market online.

Admiring luxury watches is a huge hobby these days, and there are collectors who will buy spare parts on eBay and try to do the repairs themselves.

Recently, a customer came in to have his Seiko repaired; I contacted Seiko and they were unable to supply the parts, as the model had been discontinued. I gave my customer the calibre number and he came in a week later with the part. He’d bought it online from a London seller for £20.

I’m often forced to order parts from overseas myself; I have to find sources in Switzerland or America, when in reality it shouldn’t be this difficult for an experienced, qualified watchmaker to access these spare parts.

Meanwhile, there are local authorised stockists who on-sell parts to suppliers through the back door, at a premium – then the suppliers on-sell to watchmakers for double that price.

For the non-luxury and micro watch brands, they don’t keep any spare parts at all and there’s no support from the distributor. That was a big problem with Lion Brands, who have now closed. And don’t get me started on watches that aren’t available in Australia!

Getting parts is a constant battle. Many jewellers now don’t even take watch repairs, and this is one of the big reasons: they just don’t want the headache. Sadly, it stops people wanting to become watchmakers.

Name: Dennis Coleman
Business: Balwyn Jewellers
Position: Owner and watchmaker
Location: Balwyn, VIC
Years in the industry: 51 years


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