THE LAZARUS WATCH—RESTORING A “FRANKEN-SEIKO” 6139 CHRONOGRAPH
Some watches lead pampered lives. They are kept carefully in their boxes, worn only for special occasions when there is little threat of alcohol-induced, watch-threatening silliness before being lovingly polished and put away again.
Then there is this Seiko 6139.
If it were a puppy, you’d have called the ASPCA by now. If it were a classic car and you were feeling kind, you’d have described it as a “barn find”—assuming the barn had a nasty rodent problem, exposure to a harsh North Sea salt wind and had burned down a couple of times.
I actually can’t remember how I came by it. It could have come as part of a trade or dropped in from eBay or maybe a forum cheapie. But things started well enough . . .
It was the classic “new-to-me” watch story. The initial falling in love via Internet photos, the first date as it arrives in the post, the unboxing and the starting to share life together. Then, the slow but sure fault-finding. The lateness and losing time. Noticing the wear and damage the years—and others—have wreaked. Hands that no longer quite hold properly. Then, the inevitable discarding and moving on to another.
Once the chronograph second hand finally gave up and wouldn’t reset properly, I dumped it in the Watch Graveyard (that’s what I call my office desk drawer). There it sat next to a G-Shock that needs a new battery, a Tissot Seastar that’s in want of a mainspring and a couple of Citizens that have fallen on hard times. I just assumed the movement was suffering the dreaded 6139 clutch problem. Spare parts? You’re having a giraffe, mate. So there it stayed, until just before Christmas.Every time I opened the drawer, the 6139 looked at me beseechingly. “Just take care of me and I’ll keep faithful time again,” it seemed to say.
I realized it was time to mend the relationship. Along with the dodgy dial, the slippy hands, the minute counter which had now come adrift and the non-functioning chronograph. So I emailed Duncan Hewitt, aka The Watch Bloke, a pal from TZ-UK. As the authority on vintage Seiko and with a pretty impressive collection of them himself, he was clearly the best person to either get things fixed up or gently suggest the last rites.
Duncan replied that he was as busy as usual with a bench full of Seikos, but if I was in no rush he would take a look and let me know what needed doing. No rush? The poor 6139 had been in the corner of a drawer for a couple of years. A couple of months more wasn’t going to make much difference. I carefully shrouded it in bubble-wrap and consigned it to The Royal Mail.
A few days later, Duncan dropped me an email saying, “Just to let you know the 6139 arrived safely today. I’ve wound it fully and given it a quick spin on the Witschi chronoscope, but the beat is so irregular it can’t complete the test so it definitely needs servicing.” The patient was admitted to the hospital. Sick—clearly so—but no diagnosis as yet. Things didn’t look too promising.
A few more weeks went past. I’d cycled through the usual round of watches and pretty much forgotten I’d even sent the little 61 to Duncan. Then, just as I was leaving Oxford for London one morning, my inbox pinged.
News of my watch! In fact, not just news, Duncan had worked a full-blown resurrection job on what was clearly a pretty hopeless case.
Things had started well, as Duncan explained, “Your 6139 has been on the bench at last and is now completed and on test you’ll be pleased to hear! The service went well with the usual dirt and degraded lubrication.”
He then went onto explain about “a few issues” he’d had to contend with. And he wasn’t joking.
Apparently, the hairspring had ended up misshapen. Lord alone knows how that had happened, but it needed very careful manipulation to get it back into shape. That was the only way the watch would have a regular beat.
While he had the bonnet up, Duncan had also noticed my watch wasn’t quite all it should have been. For a start, the train bridge was from a 21-jewel 6139. Odd enough, given my watch was a 17-jewel model. Worse, not only was it the wrong part, the jewel cap and spring above the escape wheel jewel were missing. This is where someone with Duncan’s years of experience is awfully handy. I’d looked at the movement when the watch arrived with me and spotted nothing much wrong. Shows you how dangerous a bit of knowledge can be.
The other handy thing is a comprehensive spares library. Duncan had looked out the correct part, but then realized my watch also had the 17-jewel escape wheel fitted. These have a longer top pivot so you can’t actually fit a cap. Not a great problem since all it does is stop a bit of dust from getting in—and the 17-jewel 6139s don’t have them fitted anyway!
I was reminded of my old classic ‘66 Volvo Amazon 121 and its disastrous, ever-escalating restoration when Duncan also pointed out that there were two screws missing; one from the date top plate and another from the pallet bridge. And, as well as that, the set lever spring screw was broken and needed replacing.
Then came the news about the case. I’d wondered why the pushers were temperamental. That would be because they had no return springs fitted. No seals either, so it was fortunate I’d never worn the watch near water as it would have been leakier than a Whitehall think tank. The crown was without seals too, and the movement ring’s spring had long gone. All got replaced with shiny, new parts.
In once piece of good news, Duncan had discovered that the second hand’s failure to reset had nothing to do with a dodgy clutch. It was simply loose on its pipe, so he managed to restake it so it fit—and reset—smartly again.
Cosmetically, the watch was as dire as it was was mechanically. The minute register hand had shed flaky paint all over the dial and movement. And it was the wrong hand in any case. So, rather than putting his head in his hands and weeping, he repainted it the correct color. Oh yes, because the color it had been was—you guessed it—wrong.
By now, if this had been a car, anyone in their right mind would have been pouring themselves a large whisky and calling the scrapyard. Not Duncan. He slogged on, only to discover the dial was loose with two broken feet. So he found a way to fix those too.
Finally, the watch was re-cased and—bravely—pressure tested to 5 bar. And, as a testament to Duncan’s workmanship, it passed.
After all the bad news was, finally, some good. Duncan explained, “It’s not the prettiest movement as there are a few bridge scratches, but it’s got a very healthy amplitude and a nice steady trace on the timing machine.” So, despite starting out as a half-dead Franken-Seiko, he’d not just resurrected it, he’d taken the bolts out of its neck and performed major cosmetic surgery.
Now, having got the watch back on my wrist, it’s transformed. Not only does it actually tell the time (remarkably accurately, too), but it also no longer looks like the puck in a vultures’ table-hockey league. It’s getting worn—and loved—again. A decent fate for any previously neglected watch.
I’ll leave the last word to Duncan. “Once I started stripping the watch and finding issue after issue I didn’t hold out too much hope of getting it back to proper running order at a sensible price, but it’s actually turned out very nicely!”
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