Hanoi spa where expensive watches go for rejuvenation

By Hai Hien, Quynh Nguyen   February 15, 2023 | 02:59 am PT
At his shop in Hai Ba Trung District, Pham Huu Luong and his two employees meticulously dismantle Patek Philippe watches that are worth a fortune to clean them.

According to Luong, a month before Tet, the Lunar New Year holidays, which fell from January 20-26, the number of people bringing their watches to him for cleaning and servicing doubled from normal days.

But to ensure the quality of service was not affected and the watches could be returned to customers in time for Tet, the shop only accepted three to five a day. Some watches were badly damaged and needed complex repairs.

Born and brought up on Hang Bong Street in the old quarter, where there are many watch shops, the 40-year-old has had a passion for these time machines since he was a kid.

A watch is assembled in Luongs shop. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Nguyen

A watch is assembled in Luong's shop. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Nguyen

"But at that time all I could do was look since I couldn’t afford to buy one," he says.

When he started going to work and saved some money, he began to collect watches made by famous brands. To him, a watch is not merely to see the time but a statement of the class and personality of the owner.

"Men love watches just like women love jewelry and designer handbags," he says.

Luong always took proper care of his expensive watches, keeping them from getting wet or damaged because circa 2008 there were few places in Hanoi that could clean or repair them. To make sure his watches remained in perfect condition, he began to learn how to clean, assemble and maintain them by watching instruction videos online and reading manufacturers’ brochures.

He ordered tool kits from abroad for a few hundred thousand to tens of millions of dong (VND1 million = $42) and began to take care of his watch collection by himself. He says it was difficult at first since each watch has hundreds or even thousands of components, requiring him to remember their exact position.

But gradually he learned how to clean and maintain watches like an expert.

When he saw that the number of watch collectors was increasing but there were no professional places to clean and repair them, he decided to open one in Hai Ba Trung District in 2017.

In the beginning, he only had a few regular customers. But as his reputation grew, so did the number of customers. They brought Swiss and Japanese watches, including Rolex, Hublot, Audemars Piguet, and Patek Philippe, that cost from dozens of millions to billions of dong.

A variety of watch dial designs for customers. Photo by VnExpressQuynh Nguyen

A variety of watch dial designs for customers. Photo by VnExpressQuynh Nguyen

Luong says the maintenance process involves almost a dozen steps. He disassembles the external parts such as the case and lists the components inside before starting the cleaning. Products with deep scratches on the outside must be smoothened and polished before being cleaned.

The next step is drying, assembling and oiling. After reassembling, the watch is demagnetized to eliminate magnetic fields. But the most difficult and time-consuming part is fixing the deep scratches, which require filling with the same material as the surface.

"We have to make sure that after treatment the watch looks brand new and no flaw can be spotted," he says.

After over a year since opening the shop business is steady and many customers come regularly.

In 2022 Luong and his staff opened a shop to provide bespoke services to personalize watches.

"The idea came from the fact that many customers complained they did not like the appearance of their watches but did not want to throw them away since they still worked perfectly. That was when I came up with the idea of changing the appearance of watches."

He researched into it and started offering services like surface drawing, replacement of cases, gold embedding, diamond encrusting, and name engraving. The staff will send the new design plan to the customer for approval before starting work.

The basic steps in customizing are similar to maintenance work, but take anything from a few weeks to months since a lot of the stuff needs to be imported from abroad.

Tran Van Long, 30, one of the staff, says: "But the most difficult step is the reassembly to ensure the parts of the watch still fit after adding gold or diamonds or replacing the hands. Everything must work well."

The store receives more than 100 watches every month for cleaning, repairing and making over. Depending on the requirements of the customer and the type of service, the price of cleaning and repairing ranges from a few hundred thousand to hundred of millions of dong.

During Tet, revenues topped VND100 million, which is two or three times less than in previous years. Luong said the reason was the economic downturn.

Some of the customized watches after going through the bespoke service in Luongs shop. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Nguyen

Some of the customized watches after going through the bespoke service in Luong's shop. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Nguyen

A regular customer, Thanh Trung, 41, of Dong Da District brings his Swiss watch here for regular maintenance. He says cleaning costs a few hundred thousand VND but repairs can go up to several million.

"I think it's worth the money because every time the watch comes back from the store, it looks brand new, its durability is enhanced by the technicians checking the details and the water resistance is top-notch."

Luong plans to continue working hard at creating beautiful and highly personalized bespoke products. He says when an old watch is damaged or scratched, people should not rush to buy a new one, but instead turn it into something new based on their own preferences.

"I’m hoping to create my own watch brand together with friends who share a similar interest [in watches]."

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