What Collectors Should Know Before Buying Vintage Watches

A vintage Patek Philippe watch with worn black leather strap Patek Philippe Calatrava 3445 via Antiquorum.

By: Tom Mulraney

In the last ten years, interest in vintage watches has been growing at a rapid pace. At one time considered a niche collecting category, transactions traditionally took place in the back rooms of respected dealers. Back then, the locations of these exclusive establishments were a fiercely guarded secret. And if you didn’t have a personal recommendation from an existing client, you could pretty much forget about them showing you the ‘good stuff’ (assuming they even let you in the door in the first place). All that’s changed now, of course.

There are many reasons behind this cultural shift. Chief among them is the advent of social media, which has given buyers and sellers alike public forums to share and discuss their passion. Likewise, online platforms such as Invaluable have introduced more transparency to the vintage watch market, providing a central source to discover and buy a wide selection of brands and models. Plus, we cannot forget the plethora of knowledge available on the various watch blogs and podcasts that have sprung up over the last ten years or so. Now, more than ever, it’s possible to learn about and safely buy vintage watches.

Before you dive in, there are a few key things to keep in mind to ensure you’re collecting journey is as rewarding and as enjoyable as possible.

What is a Vintage Watch?

As a starting point, it’s helpful to introduce some parameters to guide you in determining what is or isn’t considered a vintage watch. Strictly speaking, there is no one definition. And in fact, collectors regularly disagree on what constitutes ‘vintage’. Some say anything made after the 1960s doesn’t qualify, while others argue that a watch should be at least 25 to 30 years old to classify as vintage. For our purposes, let’s assume the cut-off is the end of the 1970s, which was quite an interesting decade for mechanical watchmaking.

Being old though, isn’t enough to automatically qualify for the title of vintage. Wrist-worn watches have been around since the beginning of the 20th century, with millions of pieces manufactured since then. The large majority are neither significant nor desirable from a collector’s point of view. What sets a vintage watch apart is the quality of its construction, its inherent functionality, the purpose for which it was made and its timeless appeal. Of course, these are largely subjective qualities to some degree, giving you your first insight into just how nuanced the world of vintage watches can be.

That said, there are certain common characteristics that help inform value and desirability.

What Collectors Should Look For

1. Brand and Model

There have been many, many watches produced over the last century. The majority are largely irrelevant for our purposes. But how do you identify the relevant ones? The first thing to consider is the brand. Who was responsible for making the watch? With a little bit of research, you’ll find that some key names come up on a regular basis; Audemars Piguet, Blancpain, Breguet, Omega, Patek Philippe, Rolex, Vacheron Constantin and so on. These are all well-established Swiss watch manufacturers who have played (and continue to play) key roles in developing the industry.

Next, you need to understand which specific models from these brands are the most desirable and why. And this is where things really start to get fun. With vintage watches, the key drivers of value are often found in the minutiae: the specific reference number, the inclusion or absence of certain text on the dial, length of production, intended use, and so on. That’s why two apparently identical models from the same brand can vary wildly in value. Look closely and you’ll be sure to find a subtle detail or two that distinguish one example from the other.

A vintage stainless steel watch with black details

Rolex, ‘Big Red’ Daytona, Ref 6263 Stainless Steel Chronograph Wristwatch with Bracelet, circa 1983. Sold for CHF 150,000 via Sotheby’s (November 2018).

A good example is the Rolex Cosmograph Daytona. Just about everyone has heard of the “Paul Newman” variation. Until recently, the actor’s personal model – from which the nickname was derived – held the record for the most expensive wristwatch ever sold at auction ($17.8 million, including buyer’s premium). But did you know there are multiple variations of the Daytona dial? Some infinitely more collectible than others. There’s the “Big Red,” the “John Player Special,” the “Oyster Sotto,” and the list goes on. In many instances, the difference between a standard dial and a highly collectible one is barely perceptible, unless you know exactly what you’re looking for.  

2. Provenance

As with most collectibles, the provenance of a vintage watch can play an outsized role in determining its value. Does it come with supporting documentation? Did it have a former owner that was famous or in some other way important in the eyes of history? Legendary British musician Eric Clapton, for example, is known to have a particular affinity for complicated Patek Philippe timepieces. A handful have come to market over the last decade, including his Ref 2499 in platinum, which sold for CHF3.4 million. Already a rare and sought-after model, the Clapton connection was the cherry on top.

A vintage Patek Philippe wristwatch with brown leather straps

Patek Philippe. An exceptionally rare, very attractive and highly important platinum perpetual calendar chronograph wristwatch with moon phases. From the Collection of Eric Clapton.  Sold for CHF 3,443,000 via Christie’s (November 2012).

Similarly, the Rolex GMT-Master reference 1675 worn by Academy Award® winner Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now is due to be auctioned in New York in December 2019. Whilst the model itself is not particularly rare – the Ref. 1675 typically sells for between $15,000–$25,000 depending on condition – this specific watch has exceptional provenance. As such, it is nearly impossible to predict how much it will hammer for, particularly given the red-hot market for these types of vintage watches. It doesn’t seem like too much of a stretch, though, to suggest that a new record at auction will be set for this reference. 

3. Condition

The condition of a vintage watch can heavily influence its value. Although somewhat confusingly, so can any restoration work that’s been done. Some collectors prefer their watches in original condition, scratches and all. While others will only buy ‘safe-queens’, the nickname given to watches that have spent the majority of their lives in a safe, seeing very little actual wear. For the most part, this is a personal decision. Generally speaking, though, the condition of a watch informs the way it performs at auction. Meaning the better the condition, the better the watch is likely to perform.

“Generally speaking, though, the condition of a watch informs the way it performs at auction. Meaning the better the condition, the better the watch is likely to perform.”

As with every rule of thumb, there are exceptions. Some models, particularly from the 1950s and earlier, feature dials which were finished with inferior quality paint. As a result, they fade and discolor over time. Yet, if this process happens uniformly, it can actually increase the value of the watch, even though it’s not in original condition. Confused? Just another of the many delightful nuances of the world of vintage watch collecting.

Setting Your Budget

Now that you know what you’re looking for, the next step is to set a budget. Don’t worry if you’re not yet in a position where you can afford to play in the arena of high-end, super collectible vintage watches. Very few can, and with the current hype surrounding certain brands and models on the market, more and more collectors are being squeezed out by astronomical prices. At the highest level of the market, the starting point is six figures and up.

Omega Speedmaster, Ref 105012-66, 1966. Sold for €8,840 via
Artcurial (April 2016).

At the next tier down, we have the usual suspects: think Rolex tool watches, such as the Submariner, the GMT-Master II, and so on. Steel sports watches from brands like Patek Philippe and Audemars Piguet (the Nautilus and Royal Oak respectively). And other historically significant watches, such as the Omega Speedmaster, aka the ‘Moon Watch’, and the Blancpain Fifty-Fathoms. Prices for these models can vary depending on a number of factors, but you can expect to pay in the low- to mid-five figures.

If you’re willing to do some digging though, there are still lots of great vintage watches available — many for less than you may think — which are ideal for emerging watch enthusiasts looking to break into this exciting category.

For emerging collectors of vintage watches, here are a few good entry-point suggestions:

1. Breitling Navitimer

Introduced in 1952, and in continuous production ever since, the Breitling Navitimer marks a significant milestone in the development of aviation watches. Examples in steel from the 1960s and 1970s are relatively easy to come across but condition varies greatly.

Price range: $2,000$4,000

2. Bulova Accutron

This interesting series of watches uses a 360 Hz tuning fork instead of a balance wheel as the timekeeping element. Making its debut towards the end of 1960, the tuning fork was powered by a one-transistor electronic oscillator circuit, making the Bulova Accutron the second electronic watch in history. It was also guaranteed to be accurate to within 2 seconds a day, considerably better than the mechanical watches of the time.

Price range: $400$800

3. Tudor Submariner

An ideal alternative to the near identical models from elder sibling Rolex, vintage Tudor Submariners are experiencing something of a renaissance thanks to the popularity of the brand’s modern collections. “Snowflake” models are very much in favour, particularly those with a connection to Marine Nationale Francé (the French Navy).

Price range: $5,000$8,000

Protecting Yourself

Before you barrel head-long into the intoxicating world of vintage watches, it’s important to acknowledge that there are some inherent pitfalls. Chief among them are models that are not what they appear to be. Either intentionally (as in the case of counterfeit or “modified” models), or due to incorrect or unauthorised repair or servicing at some point. This can significantly impact the value of a vintage watch, yet things are not often black and white. We are, after all, talking about an item that could be upwards of forty years old; accurate records are not always available.

The best way to protect yourself against a bad deal is to follow these simple rules: 

  1. Always do your homework.

    Research, ask as many questions as possible, and, depending on the value, consider requesting independent verification or inspection. (This may not always be possible, but it’s good to ask.) 

  2. “Buy the seller.”

    As you get more and more into the world of vintage watches this is a common refrain you will come across. Essentially, it means that you should buy from reputable sources only, whether that is at auction or through private sale.

  3. Try and get additional supporting documentation, whenever possible.

    In some instances, these will have been lost or destroyed years ago, but if available they can provide additional peace of mind and add significant value.

  4. If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.

    Unfortunately, as is the case with luxury goods in general, counterfeiting remains a serious issue. This is often made easier with items such as vintage watches due to the limited records available to verify individual authenticity. That’s why rule #2 is so important.

At the end of the day, the key thing to remember is that collecting vintage watches should first and foremost be about personal enjoyment. Buy what you love, what speaks to you and you will never go wrong.

Looking for more? Explore vintage watches for men and women available now on Invaluable.