Watches in Depth - Collecting Vintage ¶
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Watches in Depth – Vintage Watches
In recent years we in the watch industry have seen an explosion of popularity in one sector of the market – vintage watches. In the last 20 years vintage watches have been steadily rising in value, and demand is getting stronger each year. You can see the influence of this demand in the new watch market, with almost every major company making re-editions of classic designs or retro-themed timepieces that attempt to capture the stylistic essence of vintage models. Vintage, it seems, is the in thing – not just in watches, but also in cars, clothing, music, furniture… Every part of the market seems to be under the influence of old-world design.
The Hamilton Thinomatic - part of the recent trend of retro-vintage styled watches based on classic models.
When it comes to vintage watches, things are far from straightforward. The criteria for collecting vintage are very distinct from the rest of the watch market. Vintage collectors seem to live in a world of their own, and evaluate watches in a way that can seem strange – or downright insane – to an outsider. In the spirit of education and to continue the Watches in Depth series, I will give a brief overview of the vintage market, and try to give some advice to neophytes who may be interested in joining the ranks of vintage watch nuts.
The gospel of vintage is originality. The market favours completely original, untouched, and unmodified watches. And this is the first criterion for evaluating a vintage watch, equal in consideration to the overall condition of the piece. If the watch has replacement parts, has been refinished, is overly polished, or worst of all has a mish-mash of components from different sources, it loses a considerable amount of value. Perfectly preserved and unmolested watches command a huge premium over “daily wearer” -type pieces that may have had parts changed over the decades. The holy grail of vintage collecting is to find an as-new watch that has been forgotten in a drawer or safety deposit box for decades without having been worn or messed around with. The so-called “New Old Stock (NOS)” watch, a phenomenon that is often claimed but rarely seen in earnest.
One of the few true new old stock watches. A Rolex ref. 6062 in 18k gold that was recently auction by Christie's for over 500 000$. It was stored in a sock since it was sold in 1952. It was completely original and untouched, including an as-new original leather strap and buckle. The dark colour of the metal is due to oxidation during storage, which can happen to alloyed gold if it is left alone long enough.
Original doesn’t mean pristine. Original simply means that all the components on the watch were there when it left the factory and haven’t been replaced over the years. An original watch can be in very bad condition indeed, and these are to be avoided as much as a dodgy one that may have replacement bits. There is a certain amount of leeway in considering the originality – leather straps and crystals can be replaced and not affect the value much, considering these are wear-and-tear items that don’t normally survive long in the wild. The most important things to consider when evaluating a vintage watch are the condition/preservation of the dial, hands, case, crown and movement (and if applicable, the metal bracelet). Crowns are often replaced over the years, as they are the most fragile part of a watch, particularly if they are the screw down type – years of use will wear out the screwed threads necessitating replacement. To find a watch with the original crown is a good sign, it means it has led a relatively sheltered life. The dial and hands must be original and in no way refinished – portions of value are knocked off for hands and dials that have been replaced, re-lumed, or - worst of all - refinished (repainted). The case should be in good overall condition without having been polished to an inch of its life, with no major corrosion and with legible serial/model numbers – the absolute best is to have an unpolished watch that retains the original factory dimensions, even if it shows some minor wear and tear from daily use. The movement should be clean, free of rust, correct for the model, and in good running order (preferably with proof of a recent service with a guarantee of some sort).
Those are the broad categories to look at, but keeping in mind the nit-picking for specific brands and models is limitless and completely overwhelming to those new to the game. Remember the three Rs – research, research, and… More research. Handle pieces in person. Ask experts and collectors for advice when you are unsure. Pour over detailed photos, books, magazines, guides, auctions, etc. And most importantly – learn the bad as well as the good, so you can identify poor examples as easily as pristine ones.
There are plenty of bad and overly worn examples on the market, making the search for a fine example all the more difficult. There are sellers who make a living reselling junky old watches they find at flea markets and garage sales. Just because it is a known brand/model doesn’t mean it is worth buying. There are so many basket cases out there that you, the buyer, need to be cautious and well versed in what to look for and what to avoid. In general you want to steer clear of examples that have refinished dials, pieces that have been over-restored with service parts, cheap entry-level models that are essentially worthless on the market, watches that have been neglected and have corroded movements and cases (if the watch doesn’t run, you should), or the nightmare of all collectors – the franken-fake.
A frankenwatch being assembled.
Franken refers to Dr. Frankenstein, cobbling his creature together from various parts. So too is the franken-watch pieced together with no regard for originality – it’s what we call Bitsa Bikes in the motorcycle industry: Bitsa this and Bitsa that thrown together. It may have factory parts, but assembled in a way that isn’t correct (say, a simple movement from a base-model in a chronometer watch, or a valuable dial variation stuck into the case of the wrong year). Sometimes it will be fake or aftermarket parts combined with genuine items in an attempt to fool uneducated buyers. There are many eBayers selling semi-fake vintage pieces - with legitimate movements tossed into fake cases. They are hard to police because many aftermarket parts are hard to distinguish from genuine without a trained eye, and only seasoned collectors know how to spot them – that means that they will change hands easily without the buyer knowing until someone points it out. To be fair some sellers probably don’t know themselves, I’ve seen some very good franken-fakes that would fool all but the most experienced collectors. Knowledge and experience is key – take it slow and cautious when you are first starting out.
An infamous frankenwatch - the "Heuer" Index Mobile. A nice watch, except Heuer never made an index mobile chronograph. It was offered at auction in 2008 and was quickly called out. Eventually the description was changed to include the note "custom made".
There are varying levels of “quality” when evaluating a vintage watch. The traditional scale of “poor, fair, good, very good, excellent, mint” isn’t really accurate enough to determine value. A watch can be in near-mint condition, but only because it has been restored and re-polished which will reduce the value versus a fair-good example that is all original. Service parts are a sticky subject for many collectors – these are newly manufactured replacement parts (dials, hands, cases, bracelets) made by the brand to restore old models at the service centres. Some don’t mind OEM service parts as a way of getting a shiny new look in an old watch. Most traditional collectors avoid service bits like the plague as they take away the originality of the piece. The compromise for restoring a worn out watch is to get period correct new-old stock vintage parts, but these are scarce and expensive – it’s not cost-effective to source new-old parts, it’s better to find a good example rather than try to build one. In any case you should knock down the value of any piece that has service parts.
Polishing is common on older watches. After decades of service they will be well worn and scuffed, and most owners have no qualms about getting them re-polished. Collectors hate this, unfortunately. They demand original above all else- the grail is the unpolished watch, meaning a watch that has never been refinished since new. It can have scuffs, dings and scratches, but as long as the original shape and detail of the case is intact and not structurally damaged it will get a premium. Certain fine details like bevelled edges and sharp corners are lost during the repolishing process. Of course this has given rise to the faux-unpolished watch – a watch that is refinished as close to original as possible and showing some wear-and-tear, but refinished nonetheless. It used to be that a true unpolished watch was as rare as hen’s teeth. Now you will find hundreds of examples at any one time, some clearly redone with a pristine finish! Hardly what you would expect from a watch that is 40 or 50 years old – the lesson is that certain sellers will do anything to fluff up their pieces and follow the latest market demands.
The increasing demand for vintage watches has driven up the values of certain types of patina. Patina is the normal fading and wear present on old items, the evidence of decades of wear and tear that distinguishes it from a brand new piece. The patina can vary significantly – a watch can be pristine and as new, it can have gentle fading and colour change, or it can have significant colour change. Each type of patina has a distinct following. The latest trend is towards so-called Tropical patina.
Tropical refers to the effect of high-humidity environments on a certain series of dials, which faded them to a brown-black colour with beige-brown lume plots. Only certain run of dials are affected – a few years of production had black paint that was susceptible to fading to brown, mainly with Rolex and Omega models in the 1960s and early 70s, ending by the mid 70s. Most Tropical dials were replaced under warranty, or during service, by owners who didn’t like the colour change - making them particularly rare today. A true Tropical dial will have a perfectly even fading to a medium-dark brown, like a dark milk chocolate. Alternately there are some white dials that are called colour change dials where the white darkens to a beige-ivory tone (these were produced into the 1980s). You’d swear it was the original colour based on how evenly it had changed. Lesser examples will have patchy or blotchy fading that resembles water damage. Some sellers try to pass off waterlogged dials as Tropical – you can spot these by the presence of uneven fading, blotchy patches, and unreadable text, or by virtue of being far outside the usual Tropical dial years (for example, you won’t see a Tropical dial from the 1980s, those dials usually fade to a dark matte grey colour). A good Tropical dial will look clean and be perfectly legible, except it will be brown instead of black. As with everything else, proceed with caution and be wary of hype from sellers.
A good example of a Tropical dial, in a Tudor 7928 Submariner. The lume plots on the hour markers may have been redone at some point, however - notice the roughness of their application.
The worst form of hype is one that touts unremarkable or extreme wear as something worth paying a premium for. I won’t list all of them here, but the aforementioned water damaged dials are one. Some may seek out odd types of patina, but when beginning it would be wise to avoid the hype surrounding these fad-patinas - especially if sellers are demanding a premium for ugly, damaged dials. This is, of course, a matter of opinion. Your mileage may vary.
A clean Tropical Rolex 1016 Explorer with all the accessories and the original rivet bracelet (circa 1960s). Note the even colour change of the dial, this is an example of the ideal Tropical patina.
“Accessories” are always good to have, and can have an effect on the value. Original papers – the guarantee and bill, marked with the model and serial number - are the most valuable as they are impossible to source after the fact (though you must be cautious of fake and/or unmarked papers which can be added later to bump up the value). Original boxes add some value but can be had separately if you know where to look. Ditto hangtags, instruction booklets, point of sale materials… They can all be sourced to create a complete set that is not necessarily original to the watch. The best examples will have all the original papers and accessories as well as documentation to show ownership and history. Factory letters are offered by certain brands to certify the watch and show the date of production and where it was sold, but these can be purchased by anyone for a nominal fee so don’t pay a premium for them – it simply adds peace of mind to show provenance, and is not considered a substitute for original papers.
1970s vintage Patek Philippe ref. 2499 perpetual calendar with an extract of the Patek archives. Archive papers prove the provenance but don't add much in the way of value - anyone can ask for an extract for a fee.
Bracelets and straps are of secondary concern, but can add a significant portion to the value. Ideally it should have the original metal bracelet with minimal wear and tear. Models that came on a leather strap can be forgiven for not having an original 40-year-old leather strap still attached (odds are it probably wouldn’t survive that long even if it wasn’t being worn). Replacement bracelets add little to the value compared to original ones, but are not as taboo as replacement parts on the head of the watch considering it is a “wear and tear” item. Some bracelets were fragile and rarely survive into the present, finding one of these in good condition can add quite a bit to the value of the piece – for example, Rolex and Omega made stainless steel stretch-link bracelets in the 50s and 60s that were quite delicate and are rarely seen in anything except “mangled” condition.
When starting out you should focus on clean, running examples. Avoid basket cases, parts projects, or watches that have movements in poor condition. These are for the die-hards and the collectors who have access to spare parts and/or knowledgeable watchmakers. If you buy a watch that doesn’t run, or hasn’t been serviced in decades, expect to pay a pretty penny to get it back into running order – for older models, it can easily exceed 500$, even over 1000$, depending on what parts are needed. That is if it can be done at all – sometimes parts are no longer available, a significant problem for any watches made before the 1980s.
Servicing vintage watches can be a challenge. Some manufacturers maintain a stock of parts to restore older models, but you will pay through the nose for the work (often more than the watch is worth). The best option is an independent watchmaker who specializes in vintage pieces, and has a stock of old parts. They are less expensive and will respect the originality of the watch – something that manufacturers rarely do, preferring instead to force the client to accept new dials, bezels, or even complete cases! For example, Rolex will not allow a watch to leave a service centre without it meeting or exceeding the water-resistance specs of that model. So, if the case is worn and corroded and can’t be made water resistant, they will replace the case with a newly-manufactured item with a new serial number. The collector’s value of the watch is thus destroyed. And any original parts replaced during service will be summarily destroyed – they will not under any circumstances return the parts to the client, unlike most independent fellows who will return old parts upon request.
Of course you need not rely entirely on your own wits as you begin. The best thing to do is focus on well-recognized sellers who have a high standing among collectors and a good reputation for selling quality vintage pieces. They can be brick-n-mortar shops, like us here at Matt Baily, or perhaps a semi-private seller who buys and sells by appointment or online. The top-level (read: most expensive) source is at auction from respected houses like Antiquorum, Christies, Bonhams, and Sothebys (caution must be exercised though - Auction houses are not free from fake or modified pieces, and the watches are rarely serviced or accompanied by any sort of guarantee). The worst place to shop, in my opinion, is eBay. I’ve never seen more terrible examples, fakes, or misrepresented pieces – all at highly inflated prices - anywhere else. The bad outnumbers the good - it’s not a good place to start. Always go to trusted sources first, the do-it-yourself shopping can come later once you are better prepared to hunt down a good ‘un on your own. Shops like our own offer to take care of the hassle by only offering the best examples for sale and doing the homework for you. Additionally we offer a 1-year warranty on all preowned pieces (vintage or otherwise) and we will ensure that the watch is serviced and ready to wear when you buy it from us. We back up our experience with our service, and that is what sets a brick and mortar store apart from a typical high-volume online seller.
Now you have an idea of what to look for, but what is collectible in the first place? Generally a combination of rarity and cachet is the key determinate of value and desirability. The top brands will command the top prices – Patek Philippe, Rolex, Audemars Piguet, Jaeger LeCoultre, Breguet, Vacheron Constantin – all have strong followings and maintain solid value in the collector’s market (Rolex and Patek being the best of all). Secondary brands would be Heuer, Breitling, Omega, Zenith, IWC – these brands have a strong following but generally command lower prices, making them more “affordable” choices. After that you have the inexpensive models that make up the bulk of the market, often from defunct brands that disappeared during the 1970s. Odds are if the brand is still around and weathered the Quartz Crisis, it will have a better following in the vintage market.
Late 1950s Omega Railmaster CK2914, a watch that is collectible because it was a sales flop when it was new. Note that this example retains the original expandable bracelet, a fragile item which doesn't often survive.
Rarity is relative. For the top Rolexes you may be talking about a few hundred examples, maybe less than a hundred for a rare dial variation (for example, a Daytona Paul Newman dial with RCO script, or a single-red Sea Dweller, of which there are only a couple of known examples). For Pateks you may have one-off watches, or watches made in a very small series (five or ten pieces). For Omega rare can mean “only” several thousand produced, out of millions. One thing to note - do not confuse “hard to find” with “rare”. A watch produced in the millions can be hard to find, but it isn’t rare. And the rarest watches usually fall into two categories - unpopular when new, or made to order. Made to order means highly complex pieces that were prohibitively expensive and sold in small numbers, or custom ordered / commissioned by clients - they were expensive then, they are expensive now. Unpopular means that when the watch was current, it was a hard sell and few were made because demand was low. The Rolex Daytona is rare because it was not popular, and was made in limited quantities, until it became a collectible in the 1990s and demand went through the roof. Ditto for the Rolex Tru-Beat and Milgauss, and the Omega Railmaster - all bombed when new and are high-value collectibles today.
One of the rarest of all Rolex Daytonas - the Paul Newman RCO dial (Rolex Cosmograph Oyster) ref. 6240.
There are some keywords to keep in mind (and also be wary of) when looking at vintage watches. One that will often be encountered is NOS or New Old Stock. The definition is something that is preserved in as-new, unworn condition since it was produced. But many people use the term liberally, applying it to any replacement parts (whether they are new, old or used) or to any half-decent example of a watch. Unless it is absolutely as new it isn’t NOS, and recently-made replacement parts are not NOS. It’s extremely rare to find a NOS watch, it’s a one in a million thing. Tread with caution, just like “unpolished” the term NOS is overused.
When a seller describes parts as “refinished”, “redone”, “restored”, or something similar it means one thing – not original. Often these words are used to describe a refinished dial, which isn’t desirable to collectors. You should be wary of refinished dials made to look like rare variations. Black dials were not common before the 70s (most dress watches had silver or champagne dials) and genuine items fetch a premium, which means that many sellers will refinish the dial to black to try and bump up the value. I’ve also seen many inexpensive models redialled to look like more collectible watches, at which point it is a franken piece. For example, an Omega dress model with a Railmaster or military style dial – such a combination never existed.
“Aftermarket” is another tricky one. It should mean not OEM, made by an outside company without markings. But if it has brand markings, it is fake, not aftermarket – for example an “aftermarket” Rolex bracelet that has a Rolex logo on the clasp. Fake is, not surprisingly, taboo and should be avoided – aftermarket isn’t desirable but can be forgiven for certain things like straps, bezel inserts, and crystals.
The most valuable vintage Rolex in existence - the ref. 4113 rattrapante chronograph. It sold for 1.16 million USD (before fees) at Christie's. Aside from being exceptionally rare, it is also huge - 44mm.
Nowadays wristwatches are most desirable, especially if they are “wearable”. This means they have a modern size and classic proportions that still looks good - anything over 35mm is considered large for vintage, over 40mm is huge. However, most older (pre 1960s) vintage watches will be in the 30-33mm range and these have less value. Ditto pocketwatches. After a brief spike in the 90s, pocketwatch values have remained quite low relative to equivalent wristwatches, even for the top brands. Only the crème de la crème of pocketwatches will command high values (think multiple complications, minute repeaters, perpetual calendars, or historically significant pieces). Perhaps it has something to do with fashion – vintage wristwatches are hot because they are wearable and the in-thing. Pocketwatches, not so much. When was the last time you saw someone using a pocketwatch? On the plus side, that means that if you want to collect fine pieces, pocketwatches are a relative bargain for the workmanship you will get.
The market seems to favour two main categories of vintage watches – sport models, and complicated watches. Sport models in general (new and old) have had a run of popularity in the last 10 years, so it is no surprise that these are some of the most sought after (it may also have something to do with their larger, more modern sizes). For dressier models complications are always sought after; chronographs, calendars, minute repeaters. Simpler dress watches haven’t spiked in value like other models but they have been relatively consistent, and are certainly more affordable. Simple, elegant, ultra-thin dress watches are coming back into style - that would be a category to keep an eye on in coming years. In any category, bigger is better. 35mm plus is good, 40mm plus is great. Anything below 35mm isn’t as desirable in this time of big-bigger-biggest watches, unless it is a rare Patek.
If I were to suggest what to avoid, I would immediately say “the 1970s”. By which I mean the ugly, overwrought, gimmicky and goofy styling trends that were in vogue for a brief period in the late 70s and quickly (thankfully) disappeared. But who really knows – lately we have seen a rise in 70s-esque retro designs, with bullhead cases, rounded cushion shapes, digital displays, and funky colour schemes… Maybe the originals will go up in value. But that hasn’t happened yet so don’t bank on it. The 1980s and early 90s weren’t the high point of watch design either, but those decades are not within the scope of this article – I consider “vintage” to be anything made before the mid-70s. Consider the Quartz Crisis a cut-off point.
I’d also advise against plain, generic, entry-level models made by middle-of-the-road brands that are no longer around. For a few dollars more you can usually get a high-quality piece from a respected brand that will have some parts and service support. You just need to do some hunting to find a decent deal.
A watch with history - a military-issue Breguet Type 20 chronograph made in 1957 which will be auctioned by Antiquorum in March 2012.
And that’s where the real fun of vintage collecting is – the hunt. Sometimes the thrill of the chase for that perfect example is more interesting than actually owning the thing. Those who truly enjoy vintage watches are the ones who obsessively pour over listings, books, forums, and auctions looking for their “grail” watch. It isn’t just a matter of finding “a” model XYZ – it has to be “the” model XYZ. It’s not for everyone, but those who enjoy the hunt and the learning process attached to it are sure to have fun, regardless of what they collect. There is also history and personal stories attached to these devices that go beyond their function as timekeepers – they are objects that become cherished and witness history firsthand, and can be evocative of events and personalities. If Omega hadn’t provided chronographs to NASA, do you think we would be fawning over the Speedmaster Professional today? What if Paul Newman never laid his hands on a Rolex Daytona with an exotic dial?
Buzz Aldrin wearing his NASA issued Omega Speedmaster chronograph - now known as the Moonwatch.
The late Paul Newman with his namesake watch - an exotic dial Rolex Daytona chronograph.
Vintage watches aren’t for everyone, but those who do enjoy the hobby are typically obsessive and passionate about their timepieces. It is a daunting field for newcomers, but with time you can learn to appreciate the nitpicking and minor variations, and the history and stories behind the watches. If you want to start collecting vintage but are daunted by the details, you can always rely on a store such as ours to give you guidance and sell you your first vintage watch.