For nearly 20 years, Troy Surratt, a makeup artist and the founder of the cosmetics brand Surratt Beauty, has worn a designer watch virtually every day. Every couple of weeks, he takes off the one he has had on his wrist – chosen from a rotation that includes 10 Hermès watches in styles like the Harnais and Arceau – and cleans it using a method he developed that was inspired, at least in part, by the way he shines picture frames in his home in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood.
“I will use alcohol on either a Q-tip or a piece of cotton,” he said. “Sometimes, I’ll use a microfiber cloth and a little bit of alcohol, careful not to touch the strap because it can take the gloss or finish off of the strap. I really just sort of wipe down the face or the crystal.”
“I don’t know what a watchmaker would say about doing that,” he added, “but it’s always worked for me.”
The technique makes Mr. Surratt’s watches sparkle – and hasn’t damaged them – but it does indeed go against what watch care experts suggest. “Depending on what type of material the watch is made of, the recommendation is that you wouldn’t clean any watches, bracelets or cases with anything that has any chemical base in it at all,” said Ian Haycock, head of technical services for the retailer Watches of Switzerland.
Although cleaning and maintenance isn’t the most glamorous part of wearing a watch, it does keep timepieces looking their best as well as running efficiently. Mr. Haycock suggested cleaning watches with a soft cloth once a week.
On some parts, like metal bracelets, a damp cloth may be used; care instructions for such parts issued by several brands, including TAG Heuer, suggest using a bit of soapy water and a soft brush periodically to take off grime. Leather straps require a dry cloth, Mr. Haycock said.
It’s wise, experts say, to be cautious about cleaning watch cases. A slightly damp cloth is fine to use on many watches, particularly waterproof ones with intact seals, but exposure to excessive moisture can cause damage. The steam from a sauna, or even a home bathroom after a shower, also can be an issue.
Modern watches typically have a degree of water resistance but it’s frequently only about 30 meters (98 feet); so, taking water pressure into account, that rules out wearing most timepieces in the bathtub or shower. “The best way to describe a 30-meter water-resistant watch would be ‘splash resistant’, so I certainly wouldn’t recommend wearing it in the shower,” Mr. Haycock said. He suggested that, to wear a timepiece in the shower, it should have a minimum of 50-meter water resistance, and, to wear one while swimming, 100 meters.
For watches that can go underwater, salt water and chlorine can be corrosive, so a rinse in clean water after a swim is also advised by many brands.
Other sports could also create problems: Cartier’s watch care instructions advise against sports like golf or tennis – presumably in part because of sweating, although it doesn’t specify, as well as exposure to extreme temperatures.
At-home ultrasonic cleaners – the machines that clean dirt from items like jewelry with water or a liquid solvent and ultrasonic waves – typically aren’t suitable for most timepieces. (Some cleaners can work for truly waterproof watches, or for metal bracelets that have been detached from a timepiece; it’s key to follow each machine manufacturer’s directions.) Ultrasonic cleaners cannot be used to clean smartwatches; care directions for the Apple Watch, for example, recommend avoiding such machines, as well as soap, cleaning products or anything abrasive, but say the model can be cleaned with a damp cloth or even a small splash of water.
Specialists say that keeping a watch away from anything that could leech through its case is advisable as well, especially if it’s vintage. “You don’t want to expose it to perfumes, or hand creams, or any greasy substance that may intrude onto the dial and soil it – by that, I mean leave a stain,” said Edward Faber, the co-founder and chief executive of the Aaron Faber Gallery, a boutique in midtown Manhattan that cleans and repairs watches, and sells mostly vintage ones. “Many of these watches, especially the earlier ones before 1980, are not completely hermetic, so that oil or cream could seep into it.”
When they are not being worn, watches should be stored much like fine jewelry: away from anything that could scratch them and, ideally, in a case with a soft interior surface.
Mr. Surratt keeps his collection in a Hermès woven-leather-covered watch box, which has interior compartments lined in supple suede (it was a gift). Wolf, a company that has specialized in jewelry and watch boxes since 1834, offers a wide selection of cases with internal divisions, starting at around $50. The small pouches that high-end brands use to return watches after they have been repaired – Patek Philippe’s, for instance, are soft brown leather with a suede interior – are also an option, as are the boxes that watches come in at purchase.
Boxes with automatic winders are also popular; their action is designed to simulate wrist movement, to keep self-winding watches running when they are not being worn. However, the mechanisms inside these boxes sometimes wind in just one direction, Mr. Faber said, while most modern watches require movement in both directions – so it’s important to check before purchase.
While they might seem like a logical choice for storing valuables, bank safe deposit boxes aren’t recommended for watches. “It’s always cooler and drier in vaults, so what we see in a vault situation, 10 years, 20 years in, is, first of all, the gold starts to develop a black patina,” Mr. Faber said. “Also, it dries out the mechanism, so it’s not the best environment.”
Periodically watches need care beyond what an owner can do at home. Many Swiss brands suggest that watches – quartz or mechanical – should be serviced at least every five years, to check details like the tightness of the case seals or the lubrication of internal gears.
Tourneau, one of the largest luxury watch retailers in the United States, offers a complimentary annual checkup for any watch it sells; Watches of Switzerland does, too. For quartz watches, batteries need to be changed periodically, and many owners opt to have that done professionally.
Selecting a local watch-repair business can be difficult: Unless a business is an authorized service dealer for a particular brand, it is hard to assess expertise or to ensure that the operation uses authentic replacement parts – so, say, the parts going into a Rolex have been made by Rolex, rather than less-expensive generic pieces. Many brands, like Omega, will cancel warranties if watches have been serviced by unauthorized dealers.
Some luxury Swiss brands, like Audemars Piguet and Vacheron Constantin, offer servicing in-house. The procedure can be expensive: at Patek Philippe, for example, the price of a routine quartz watch service cleaning starts at more than $600. They often send watches that need extensive work to their European headquarters, so the process can take several months and be even more costly.
“I carefully plan and carefully consider whether or not I want to put a watch in for service, knowing full well that the more complicated pieces do have to go back to Switzerland,” said Barry Beck, co-founder and chief operating officer of the beauty retailer Bluemercury, whose collection of about a dozen watches includes several Patek Philippe watches. What if he’s without a watch for several months? “I have to be O.K. with that,” he said.
Some collectors of vintage watches opt for independent servicing because, when brands replace something like the scratched crystal on a decades-old model, the resale value of such a collectible piece can be affected.
Although servicing might seem like a nuisance, some watch owners actually seem to revel in the experience. Once every other month, during business trips from his home in Bethesda, Md., Mr. Beck stops by Patek Philippe’s American headquarters in Rockefeller Center with a couple of his watches.
“Looking after them is part of the whole hobby,” he said. “It’s like art – half the fun is learning about it, looking after it, learning how to look after it better. I really the love all that, the same way that a guy who buys a car shows his car on the weekends. It’s part of the whole experience.”