More than a common decorative accessory, the men’s watch is a practical daily companion. Novice and experienced collectors are drawn to the category due to the diversity of shapes and forms in which watches can come.
“Men’s watch collecting has exploded over the past 10 years, and continues to grow in both the contemporary and secondhand markets,” say Melinda, G.G., and Shannon Adducci of Joseph DuMouchelle Estate Jewelry and Auctions. “In high-end watch collecting in general, vintage styles from the 1940s through the ’60s continue to command record-breaking prices at auction.”
Now more than ever, watches are being bought and sold online. Collectors now have access to the finest, rarest, and most sought-after pieces from around the world with the click of a mouse.
Whether you’re in the market for a gold dress watch, a steel sports watch, or an antique pocket watch, it’s important to educate yourself about what makes a piece authentic and valuable.
A Brief History of Men’s Watches
The history of wristwatches is closely related to other major technological developments in the 20th and 21st centuries, but men preferred pocket watches to wrist-worn timepieces until World War I. During the war, many soldiers began to favor wristwatches because they could quickly check and keep time during military movements. After the war, wristwatches dominated the market.
Most early wristwatches were made in Switzerland and the United States, and to a lesser extent in the United Kingdom and Germany. After World War II, Switzerland and the United States dominated the watch-making market until the 1970s, when the Japanese introduced the first quartz watch.
Because quartz watches use a crystal instead of a balance wheel, they are far more precise than mechanical watches. Furthermore, the use of a battery eliminates the need to manually wind the device. These advancements quickly gained favor with the public, leading to the “Quartz Crisis.” Not only did Japan successfully introduce the quartz watch to the market before the Swiss, but Japanese manufacturing capabilities enabled the country’s watch industry to produce large amounts of high quality quartz movements at much lower prices. Japan quickly overtook the worldwide markets, effectively shutting down US watch manufacturing and threatening the Swiss market. A renewed appreciation for mechanical wristwatches arrived in time to save the Swiss watch industry and resurrect certain American and German brands.
Today, mechanical and quartz watches share the wrist with a new competitor: smartwatches. These technological marvels are programmed to access messages, health information, and the internet. Despite the futuristic appearance and convenience of smartwatches, rarity and quality continue to be driving forces in the market for mechanical and quartz wristwatches.
Types of Men’s Watches
Watches with cases crafted from precious metals are often more valuable and rare. The following rare metals are commonly used for wristwatches:
- Silver: especially popular in early wristwatches, silver was later abandoned because it was deemed too soft for hard wear. SIlver grades used in watches most commonly are .900 and .925.
- Gold: early wristwatches from the United Kingdom were often crafted from 9 karat gold. Today, 18 karat gold is the most commonly used type in watches,but 14 karat saw a rise in popularity in the 1950s and 1960s. At that time, 14 karat gold became a popular alternative to 18 karat gold in the United States because it is slightly stronger and less expensive.
- Platinum: aside from its special gray-white color, platinum became attractive as a precious metal for wristwatches because it is highly nonreactive and keeps its shine. Due to its rarity and the fact that it is quite difficult to work with, only the highest quality examples from brands are crafted using platinum.
- Palladium: in the first half of the 20th century, palladium was often offered as a less expensive alternative to platinum. Recently, palladium has been rediscovered by some watch brands.
When a watch is made from a precious metal, it needs to be hallmarked. It is therefore important to verify the purity mark, which indicates the percentage of precious metal used in a watch. In the United States, purity is indicated by stamps, such as “18k,” but many other countries use distinct pictorial marks.
The last two decades in particular showed a significant increase of new materials now used to craft watch cases and other parts. These include:
- Vermeil: a technique through which a silver case is covered with a thin layer of gold. Thus, vermeil enables the owner to have a watch that looks gold for the price of silver. These watches should be stamped with the corresponding purity marks for silver.
- Rolled gold: an especially popular technique in the 1950s and 1960s. Rolled gold watch cases are created when a thin layer of gold, which must be at least 5 percent of the item’s total weight, is mechanically bonded to a base metal.
- Stainless steel: still by far the most popular material used in watchmaking, the most commonly used type of stainless steel is 316L.
- Titanium: lighter than stainless steel, titanium was welcomed in the 1980s as the material of the future. Its dark gray color has limited its use mainly to larger sports watches, lending them a much lighter weight.
- Bronze: this material’s resistance to salt water makes it a favorite for dive watches, although it was only popularized in recent years. If exposed to the elements, bronze will form a unique patina when not treated.
- Ceramic: strong, light, and highly corrosion-resistant, ceramic is considered by some to be the new wonder material in watchmaking. One attribute that holds it back from dominating the watch market is that it’s still complicated to make, especially in high volumes.
- Carbon: crafting a watch from carbon fibers results in a very light, very strong watch case. This technology has been developed in the last couple of years, but is used by only a few brands.
At the heart of any watch is its movement. In the first wristwatches, movement was created through a mechanical hand-wind. This technology originated from the pocket watch, but evolved quickly as the movements for wristwatches needed to be smaller and more shock resistant. In the 1930s the first automatic movement was developed, followed by the first battery-powered watch in the late 1950s and the first quartz movement in the 1970s.
“Mid-century models command the most bidding action and highest prices. This has to do with both the design aesthetic of the era as well as the fact that once the quartz movement was invented, the watch industry truly changed forever,” say the Adduccis. “Mechanical watches manufactured before this time are truly relics of a business that will never be the same.”
In general, there are two types of movements: manufacture movements that are made almost completely by the watch brand in its own facilities, or ébauche movements that are bought from a company that specializes in making only movements.
When watch brands use an ébauche, they often give the movement a name and number of their own. It pays to familiarize yourself with ébauches so that you can recognize them when looking at the movement. Some of the most popular include:
- ETA 2824
- ETA 2892
- Unitas 6497/6498
- Valjoux 7750
- Frederic Piguet 1185
Complications, or additional functions apart from telling time, are so named because they make the watch more complicated. Some complications are quite common, while others make a particular watch incredibly exotic or valuable.
Some common complications are as follows:
- Chronograph: a way of keeping track of the elapsed time of a certain event. In general, this feature includes a central seconds timer with subdials indicating the elapsed minutes and hours.
- Calendar: a date function is among the most common complications, but these days a calendar watch shows even more information. Dials or tickers may reveal a day, date, full calendar, annual calendar, or perpetual calendar.
- Timezones: watches that can display several different time zones at once have always been popular, especially among travelers.
- Tourbillon: originally devised to eliminate the influence of the earth’s gravity on the accuracy of a pocket watch movement, tourbillon is now a popular and expensive complication in wristwatches. By placing the watch’s regulating organs in a cage that turns around its own axis, the effect of gravity is eliminated.
- Audible complications: sometimes watches can make sounds outside the ticking of their movement, like a humming of their tuning fork.
- Automaton: some watches feature figures, often animals or people, on the dial or backside that move when a lever is pulled or a button pushed.
- Grand complications: this term indicates that a watch includes several of the complications mentioned above. In general, a watch must possess more than three complications before most collectors would give it this distinction.
Other watch characteristics that make watchmaking more difficult include:
- Chronometer: a certification indicating that the movement of a watch is capable of running with a certain precision.
- Geneva Seal: more based on finishing, the Geneva Seal can only be awarded to watches assembled and adjustment in the canton of Geneva.
- Ultra-slim: in general, watches referred to as ultra-thin are two millimeters thick or fewer. The thinner a movement is, the more difficult it is to make. Few brands specialize in them, so they are quite sought after.
Building Your Collection
When investing in luxury goods, it’s important to spend some time reflecting on your personal preferences.
- What kinds of watches fit my personal style?
- How often do I plan on wearing this?
- Are the materials compatible with my lifestyle?
- Do I know how to take care of these materials?
- Is this a one-time purchase or am I starting a collection?
If you’re looking to begin a collection, the best place to start is with the basics. Common watches for beginners include:
- Gold ultra-slim dress watches
- Steel dive watches
- Full calendar watches
- World time watches
“Start by educating yourself on the different types of movements,” the Adduccis advise. “You should also find details that move you – literally and figuratively. They can be vintage dress watches, explorer, or sport watches, or watches with specific movements.”
Most collections are built around certain complications, brands, or eras. Breitling, Rolex, Patek Philippe, are popular brands around which to form a collection. Others specify their collecting by material or aesthetic, for example collecting white gold watches with blue dials or skeletonized timepieces.
Establishing & Maintaining Value
Care & Maintenance
When you have obtained a precious watch, performing care and maintenance practices regularly is important so the watch maintains its value. Some important tips include:
- If your watch is waterproof, check its seals annually. Rinse waterproof watches with fresh water after swimming in salt or chlorinated water and never expose a non-waterproof watch to liquids.
- When the battery is dead, replace it immediately.
- Replace straps as soon as they show signs of wear.
- Send in your watch for regular maintenance every three years.
- Never shower or bathe with your watch. Soap residues accumulate on the watch and trap dirt.
- To lightly clean a watch at home, rub it with a jeweler’s cloth (available at most jewelry and department stores)
- Provided a watch is water resistant to at least 50 minutes, you can clean visible dirt by soaking it in lukewarm water and using a soft toothbrush to clean the dirt off. Afterward, rinse the watch, dry it with a soft (paper) towel and rub it with a jewelry cloth for the best result.
- Ultrasonic cleaning devices are quite popular but can only be used for watch bands.
- If you are not sure of how to properly clean your watches, bring them to a local jeweler. Most jewelry stores offer cleaning services, and will in most cases also check the condition of the setting, ensuring that the stones are still sturdily kept in place.
A watch that is not in an excellent shape can perhaps be bought at a lower cosy, but remember that this may come at a price. Restoring a watch back to good and fully functional condition can be very costly. It often depends on age, brand and movement, so when going after a bargain it is better to do your homework and check on options and costs for maintenance before you buy. When a brand does not exist anymore, or you want an independent opinion, find a reputable watchmaker near you. Institutes like the American Watchmakers-Clockmakers Institute (AWCI) can help you find one.
Tips for Buying at Online Auctions
“Auction is a great place to start because the buyer has a chance to explore and land on a really fabulous watch that others may overlook. Buying from a reputable auction house allows a collector to purchase an item directly from its original owner, the auction consignee,” say the Adduccis.
The following tips will to help you safely and confidently navigate a watch auction.
1. Consider questions about condition & authenticity
According to the Adduccis, a good rule of thumb is to treat a watch like a car, and ask questions you might ask when considering a used automobile. These include:
- What is the condition of the case? Are there any scratches?
- What is the condition of the movement? Is it keeping time?
- Does the watch have its original movement? If not, why and when was it –
replaced? Did the original brand replace it?
- If it’s possible to know, who was the previous owner and how did they treat the watch while it was in their possession? Does the auction house know if it is coming from a collector, a private or a dealer?
- Does the watch come with a warranty, instruction papers, certificate of authenticity/purchase and/or receipts?
- Is the watch in its original inner and outer box?
- Will the auction house stand behind the watch as to its authenticity, for both the case and the movement?
When buying watches, make sure you buy the real thing. Knowing the hallmarks and details of your favorite watches can help you establish an indication of the authenticity of the watch. Check to see if the watch comes with the original paperwork. For vintage watches, many brands provide the option to have watches authenticated, and such documents can offer peace of mind that you are buying the real deal.
“Most auction houses will be able to guarantee the authenticity of a watch (including movement), so the buyer knows it is not fake. Buyers can and should contact the auction house ahead of time to ask specific questions about the timepiece,” say the Adduccis.
2. Register to bid several days in advance.
Each auction house has its own registration requirements. For example, on Invaluable, you must register to bid with and be approved by the specific auction house you are interested in. The entire process is straightforward, but is better done a day or two in advance of the sale.
3. Familiarize yourself with the terms and conditions of online auctions or galleries.
- How does the auction house handle taxes?
- Will a buyer’s premium be added to the hammer or retail price?
- How will the item be shipped?
- How long do you have to pay for the item?
- How do you contact the auction house, dealer or gallery with questions?
- What is the reputation of the auction house or gallery?
4. Ask Follow-Up Questions
If you have a question, ask it, and if the answer is not satisfactory to you, do not bid or buy.
5. Research Past Prices
Compare retail prices of similar pieces to make sure your bid is competitive, but not so high that you’d be significantly overpaying. Set a budget beforehand to avoid getting caught up in the auction’s energy.
6. Don’t Bid Unless You’re Sure
All sales are final. Once you have successfully bid and won or bought your object, the auction house or gallery can provide you with a list of good art handling or shipping companies to ship your item.