Whenever I start thinking about the relative cleanliness of a given watch, I often think back to May of 2019 when the news cycle briefly focused on whether or not most of us even bother to wash our legs in the shower. If you happen to have missed this low-stakes bit of dirty drama, it’s worth a scan back to simpler times when we saw fit to argue about leg cleanliness, and I could cite “Hoda & Jenna” as a news source.
While most of my posts often hinge upon my attempt at forcing you – my long-suffering audience – into the position of asking “James, what is the point of all of this?!” I need not belabor this specific point. Your watch is dirty. It lives on an interactive and generally uncovered part of your body that also happens to be the fleshy bridge between your elbow and the part of your body that most actively touches the world around you. And, if a non-zero number of you can’t be bothered to wash your own legs, then when was the last time you took a moment to consider the state of your watch? That summer rainstorm your Speedy managed to survive doesn’t count, and neither does jumping off a dock with your trusty Seiko diver on wrist (bless you nonetheless). Like with cars, clothes, and indeed your own very filthy legs, watches need to be actively cleaned.
Assuming that will be the bulk of my browbeating about dirty legs, I didn’t want to do a how-to that relied solely on my dilettante methods for keeping my watches clean, so I phoned a friend who knows a thing or two about grimy no-good stinky watches (and worse). Jason Gallop is the owner and resident watchmaker with Roldorf & Co, a family-operated watch retail and service outlet based in the downtown area of Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. I used to live in Vancouver and hold Jason and his business in very high regard. Additionally, Jason is a BHI and WOSTEP-trained watchmaker who graduated in the same class as Peter Speake-Marin, Stephen Forsey, and some guy named Kari. Lastly, for those that want more intense examples of dirty watches (and have the stomach for the visual) don’t miss the Toxic Tuesday stories that Jason runs on the Roldorf Instagram account – where watches come into their service desk looking like they just finished a Tough Mudder event (see below, sorry).
The good news is that it’s not all that hard to keep your watches clean, and I asked Jason for some simple and actionable tips that you can do from home. Before we get into the nitty and the gritty, please consider the following. First, before you take any steps beyond wiping the tail of your t-shirt over your crystal to get rid of a fingerprint, please know your watch. I know that sounds dumb, but if you want to follow the steps below, you need to understand the condition of your watch in a specific way. While the following is designed to introduce the absolute minimum amount of moisture and abrasion to your watch, it will still be prudent to have some assurances of water resistance and the general condition of the watch and the ways in which it keeps the outside world, well, outside. This is of considerable importance if you would like to clean vintage watches, for which moisture is generally a very bad thing.
With that in mind, there will be no wet rags, no dunking, and certainly no suggestion that you run your watch under the tap to rinse it off. While some watches can indeed be treated in this manner, we’re taking a lighter approach. Let’s take a look at what you will need.
- A watch-specific brush or a soft-bristled toothbrush, preferably one that has been used (thus extra soft) and then carefully cleaned and dried before going anywhere near your watch
- A clean microfiber cloth
- A pack of simple anti-bacterial and eco-friendly sanitary wipes
If you want to use what the pros use, Jason uses a Cape Cod Detail Brush, peg wood, a Cape Cod microfiber cloth, microfiber detail sticks, and wipes from Medtrica (shown above). With your tools sorted, here are the simple steps.
Step 1: Inspect The Watch
Cleaning your watch is a great time to get nice and close (preferably with a simple magnifying glass) and take a look at the condition of your watch. Look for damage that may allow for the ingress of moisture. Pay specific attention to the condition of the crown, or other moving parts. Likewise, look at the edge of the crystal (where it is mounted to the case). If your crystal has a chip or even any visible area where it is not firmly connected to the case, your watch needs to be professionally inspected and serviced (and then cleaned).
Step 2: Remove Your Bracelet Or Strap
Assuming you are comfortable doing so, remove the bracelet or strap from your watch with an appropriate spring bar tool. This will allow you access to one of the dirtiest parts of your watch, the inner side of the lugs and the endlink of the bracelet. While we will talk about cleaning and caring for non-bracelet options in a future post, removing your bracelet will make both the watch and the bracelet much easier to clean. Whatever mount you prefer, take it off and set it to the side for a moment.
Step 3: Wipe The Watch
Take one of the wipes and carefully wipe every facet, nook, engraving, and edge. A once-over should not take more than a minute or two, and with the watch mostly clean, you will be able to better see the more stubborn collections of dirt.
Step 4: Toothpick (Or Brush) Time
If you have any sticky grime that didn’t come off with the wipe, take a toothpick and cut off the brittle tip. Then, wrap the toothpick in the edge of the wipe and gently work the harder edge into the problem areas (while ensuring the toothpick does not tear through the wipe). If the cleaning has disrupted some horological detritus, gently brush it away with the detailing brush (or your soft-bristle toothbrush). Please keep in mind (again, know your watch) that softer metals may be scratched by something like a toothpick, so it’s best to be as thorough as possible with the wipe, especially on precious metal cases. If you aren’t sure, please don’t suffer a scratch. Just call your AD and have your special watch cleaned professionally.
Step 5: A Microfiber Finish
Finish the cleaning with a soft and clean microfiber that can quickly absorb any excess moisture (and help with oils from your skin as you’re holding the watch). Wrap the cloth around your finger and use your fingernail to ensure the cloth gets into all of those tough-to-reach spots like the bezel edge, the crustal edge, and the inner lugs and caseback seam.
You now have one hopefully very clean watch. For those who removed their bracelet, the above steps are largely similar for cleaning a bracelet but you can start by bathing the bracelet in warm soapy water, brushing it clean with the toothbrush, and then laying it in the fold of a paper towel and tapping the water (and dirt) free from the bracelet as it sits flat.
Don’t forget to remove your spring bars and pay close attention to the endlinks (especially if they are of the dirt-trap folded variety) and the clasp – with special care for extra bits like wetsuit extensions. If your bracelet is very complicated (especially when it comes to the clasp), be sure that you follow any direction from the manufacturer and/or speak to your AD concerning specific cleaning procedure. Once the bracelet is clean, it can be quickly dried with a microfiber cloth.
And there you have it – fresh, clean, and ready for a non-gross existence on your wrist. Now that you’ve completed this deep clean, Jason recommends keeping the watch clean by giving it a quick once over with a cleaning wipe every few days. This is especially important given the recent renewed focus on hand-washing and how the act commonly sees water and soap collecting under a watch and causing additional grime to build up over time. Whenever possible, it is best to take your watch off when washing your hands and put it back on a clean (and dry) wrist.
Okay, you’re clean. Re-mount your bracelet or strap of choice and wear that sparkling watch wherever your (probably) dirty legs take you.