Vintage Watches: Everything You Need To Know Before You Buy
Vintage styles sell. It’s the reason every watch brand has spent the last few years rummaging around in its archives looking for past models to reissue. This hunger for heritage has also led to a rising interest in those seeking original vintage watches, galvanised by the thrill of finding an obscure reference or simply the desire to sport a timepiece that no one else has. But how do you start?
There are deals to be had out there. No doubt. But there’s also the strong chance of being sold a dreaded Frankenwatch – a timepiece stitched together, like the legendary monster, from disparate parts gutted from unrelated watches. In an effort to prevent you winding up in your very own horological horror story, here are some tips for buying a vintage watch that ensure your tale has a happy ending.
Things To Consider Before Buying
Education, Education, Education
Is patina a good thing? Should a case be scratched? What does it mean that the lume on the hands doesn’t match the numerals? You are only going to know the answers to these questions (which incidentally are, yes; minimally; you have a Frankenwatch, run!) by doing research.
The best place to do this is on forums. You are tapping into the hive mind of the watch community, who will help with any questions you have. Watchuseek is by far the largest. It has 432,353 members and numerous forums, from general “look at what I bought” chats to threads with advice on where to start when buying vintage watches.
If you’re after more brand specific advice, there’s the likes of Rolex Forums and Omega Forums, where discussion is more focussed – very useful if you’re trying to decipher the history of obscure references numbers, in which these brands specialise.
Buy The Seller, Not The Watch
Again, forums are a great place to receive advice about a seller. There’s an entire section of Watchuseek dedicated to scammers and people to avoid. However, if you’re buying from an individual then don’t be afraid to be a bit of a nuisance.
Look at what else they have sold, check for feedback. Ask lots of questions and request lots of pictures. Any reliable seller will expect this and won’t mind giving as much information as they can. If you’re close to hitting the buy button then ask for a proof photo – a picture of the watch on today’s newspaper with a hand-written note next to it of the seller’s name.
Check The Details
If you can’t check it in real life, then ensure all the details are correct. Ask if the dial has been replaced. If the case looks super shiny despite its age, you may have a watch that has been over polished. Find other examples of the watch you’re looking at to check it has the correct style of hands, the right bracelet, and that the lume is the correct colour.
If the seller is evasive, check the serial number on The Watch Register to see if it has been stolen. You can also use that number to check the age of the watch. Sites such as Wrist Chronology have lists of serial numbers you can check it against. Box and papers are great, but not a deal breaker, especially with a vintage find that has had a few owners.
The Best Vintage Watches To Buy
According to Kes Crockett, watch specialist at Fellows Auctioneers, that all depends on budget. “If you have under £1,000 to spend, I’d be playing it safe with half an eye on the working condition of the watch and the cost of maintaining it over the coming years,” he says. “It’s all too easy to fall into the trap of buying a stylish vintage watch in need of a service only to find that the parts needed to service it are unobtainable.”
His top tip is to look to Omega. It’s exceptionally good quality, the parts will be easy to find, and it can be serviced by your local independent watchmaker. You can also find some interesting models.
As Chris Mann, host of popular watch podcast Time 4 A Pint says, with a bit of digging, you can still buy the head (no bracelet included) of the iconic Speedmaster ref. 145.022 – the pre-Moon watch and first to be fitted with the calibre 861 – from 1968 for £2,000-£3,000, while bargains can be found among Speedies from the 1980s and 1990s.
Vintage Grand Seiko
Crokett also suggests having a look for Grand Seikos, the highly acclaimed Japanese watchmaker, which are “high quality with potential to increase in value as the world becomes more aware of them as a brand.” Marques such as Tissot and Longines, which have recently become more commercial, are also worth exploring.
If you have more than £1,000 then Crocket’s brand of choice is Jaeger-LeCoultre. “I still believe it is hugely underrated by the general public, especially in the UK, and it has made some truly iconic watch models, including the Memovox and Reverso, which are still being made today. It isn’t known as the watchmaker’s watchmaker for nothing.”
Of course, if you’re buying with an eye on the ROI, you can’t go wrong with Rolex. They hold value like few other brands. Just do the research suggested above because the Fauxlex market is also booming.
Patek Philippe, Breitling or Cartier are also wise investments. Tool watches – divers, chronographs, mil spec, or pilot’s – are good too, but make sure you buy from brands who make the iconic examples of these families. So, the likes of IWC for pilot’s watches, pre-1960s Tudor Submariners, or an original Heuer Carrera in the chronograph category.
Where to Buy a Vintage Watch
It’s much easier than it used to be. Many watch retailers now have a vintage section in their store, and there is a slew of sites to browse, where the stock is always changing.
This British company offers a 360 approach to buying a vintage watch. Get financing and servicing or visit a number of bricks-and-mortar boutiques to browse in-person. Its in-house experts are an excellent first port of call.
Featuring an extensive catalogue that’s well designed and easy to navigate, analog/shift brings a modern feel to vintage watches. Founder James Landin wanted to break the stuffiness of the market without losing sight of the authenticity that is so important to watch collectors. It was acquired by the Watches of Switzerland Group in 2020.
What started as a timepiece enthusiast’s blog has grown to become one of the greatest watch resources on the internet. The Hodinkee Shop (featured image, top) launched in 2012 and as well as pre-owned and vintage models, it sells exclusive new releases in partnership with manufacturers. Browse by kind or brand, or get recommendations from Hodinkee’s expert team.
Matthew Bain is one of the watch world’s most trusted names. Someone who has been buying and selling timepieces since the 1980s, his online store is a good place to find genuine oddities and hard-to-find gems. For the beginner, it’s also an interesting resource for refining what you want.
An international marketplace where you can buy and sell watches, Chrono24’s huge offering includes watches from professional sellers and private collectors. There are helpful guides for beginners, which clearly work. The company claims that in 2020, watches worth a total two-billion euros were sold via its platform.
If you’re looking for a vintage Rolex specifically, talk to Bob. Although the site sells other brands, its focus has been Rolex since 2010 with extensive buying guides and history for newcomers and seasoned hacks alike. Plus a small but impressive collection, with everything from vintage Submariners to rare President styles.
Vintage Watch Auction Houses
eBay can yield results but the sheer volume of listings and its variation in quality can make it a daunting place to search. That’s where auction houses come in. It’s not all $17.8m Paul Newman Daytonas, you can find some bargains and without the risk of being scammed. Here are three auction houses to try.
Yes, it is a storied international house, but you can still pick up a bargain. Its last auction had a legendary Seiko Bullhead – a 1970s chronograph so named because of the positioning of the pushers at 11 and 1 o’clock – with its original Fishbone bracelet for just $484. It offers both online and IRL options – in case you want to trade your pyjamas for a paddle.
Based in the UK, Fellows are watch and jewellery specialists, so you are most definitely in safe hands. Alongside live auctions, Fellows also has timed auctions, which take place over two weeks, without an auctioneer. It allows you time for research, as well as the opportunity to rebid if you are beaten.
This site connects you with thousands of live auctions from smaller auction houses. Either join immediately or leave an absentee bid. It is also an amazing research resource because of the sheer volume of lots and its 29m-strong Auction Results Database, which has hammer prices dating back to 1999.