A beautiful watch is arguably the only accessory that flawlessly incorporates both form and function. You can spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a watch (just ask Seal or Usher). There are watches that track your activities, open your beer bottles, take video recordings, and tell you which way is north. You can get wooden watches, polyurethane watches, and watches with words instead of numbers. A watch you love can last you decades if you take good care of it, and that means proper cleaning!
There are two parts of a watch you need to keep clean: the face, and the band.
The Watch Face
To clean the watch face, fill a dish with warm water and a bit of mild detergent, like Dial dish soap. Dip a chamois cloth or soft-bristled toothbrush into the soapy water, and gently brush over the top of the watch face. You shouldn’t press down or scrub vigorously – you merely want to loosen and remove the daily dirt and dust that can collect on the face of your watch.
If your watch face has markings or crystals, work around them with a Q-tip. Moisten the Q-tip and roll it around across the watch face. Don’t rub unless this method doesn’t seem to be doing anything. Be careful – you don’t want to take the paint off along with the dirt!
If you have a vintage watch, take it in to a specialty jewelry store. Many watches created in the early 20th century contain radium, which can be deadly. Do not remove the watch face and attempt to clean the dial, as this can require specialized tools. Also, it’s doubtful that the inside of your watch face will get dirty, since it is not exposed to air.
The Watch Band
The method of cleaning your watch band depends on its material. Leather, stainless steel, nylon, and rubber are all common types of watch bands. If possible, remove the watch bands before cleaning them so you can wipe them down thoroughly without damaging the watch face.
Leather watch bands (including animal skins like cowhide, ostrich, and crocodile) should be wiped down with a damp cloth. You can add a dab of hand soap to the cloth if your watch band is particularly dirty or has an unpleasant odor to it. Gently dry and buff the leather watch band with a clean cloth before reattaching the watch face. Leather watch bands are more susceptible to damage from perspiration and moisture than metal bands are, so take off your watch if you’re going to exercise, and wipe the straps daily with a dry cloth to remove any collected debris.
Metal watch bands, like stainless steel, silver, gold, and others, can actually rust (despite the ‘stainless’ moniker!). Stainless steel is stainless because it has a layer of oxide covering it. This layer can rust if there’s a lack of oxygen, so make sure your watch is exposed to the air when you’re not wearing it. Salt and perspiration can also make your bands rust, so clean them with a soft brush and soapy warm water. Your watch band should air dry completely before you wear it again.
Nylon watch bands are fairly easy to clean – you can just throw them into your next load of laundry, as long as you keep it in a separate mesh bag. Rubber watch bands need just as much care as metal watch bands. The rubber actually absorbs sweat and oils, and if not properly cleaned, it can crack and break. Dip a soft toothbrush into warm soapy water and clean both the inside and outside of the band. Rinse it with clean water and let it air dry. If you wear your watch in salt water, rinse it off as soon as possible. You can also use a rubber protectant to keep the strap soft and pliable, and to help prevent cracks.
All the cleaning in the world won’t make a difference if you don’t store your watch properly. Many vintage beauties have been destroyed by mold, mildew, and corrosion because they were tucked away in a damp, dark box or storage cabinet for years before their value was realized. Use a watch box for long-term storage, and avoid extremes of heat, cold, and humidity. Watches are delicate instruments! Take good care of your watch now (and that includes getting watch insurance!), and it will be a treasure forever.