Interested in Vintage Watches, Eh? Here's What You Should Know.

Ah, vintage watches.  So much history, so much character.  Many watch collectors (myself included) ultimately make the leap from owning exclusively new or contemporary watches, to buying vintage.  But, the transition is not always simple, and some may find the process too daunting, or too risky, to try it.  Turns out, it can be relatively simple if you do a little homework in advance.  So, given that we offer primarily vintage watches on the site, we wanted to provide a handy reference for those thinking about going vintage.  

If you're just getting started with this hobby, or even if you've been around the block a few times, it'll be helpful to keep in mind the following before purchasing a vintage watch--even if you don't purchase it with us.  

Buy the Seller

  • Reputation matters a lot to stand-up watch dealers, and anyone worth their salt should have plenty of references from happy customers.  Ask for those references!  
  • Communication is very important.  Does the seller respond to your inquiries?  Is the seller willing to provide additional photographs or information about the watch upon request?  If not, you may want to steer clear.  If you feel uneasy about the purchase, there's probably a good reason.  Also, if you're being asked to spend several thousand dollars on a purchase, you should get good service.  
  • Even if a seller has some good feedback online, be on the lookout for overly rosy descriptions of vintage watches.  Beware of listings claiming that a vintage watch is in "perfect" condition, or that the watch "runs flawlessly" or is "keeping perfect time."  Most modern watches don't meet that description, and vintage watches, by definition, are not "perfect" (unless, of course, a watch is new old stock).  Also, even if a vintage watch was serviced recently, it won't be running "flawlessly" -- older watches don't typically have the accuracy of modern watches (+- 30 seconds/day is pretty solid).  Look for an honest portrayal of the watch's condition.  Notable flaws should be listed in the description.  If you don't see the caveats, you may be bound for disappointment.  
  • Check out the terms and conditions.  Does the seller offer an inspection period?  Is there a warranty?  Be wary of "as-is" listings because they may be more trouble than they're worth.  And, if a seller (particularly an online seller) isn't willing to let a buyer inspect the watch before committing to the purchase, there may be something wrong with the description.  Similarly, if a dealer does not itself inspect the watch's performance and service when needed, you should factor in the cost of servicing the watch before you purchase (typically around $400 for a "simple" service by an independent watchmaker).  
  • If a deal seems too good to be true, it probably is.  Don't get burned by someone offering a watch for way below market value.  Good deals are out there for sure, but if the deal is unbelievable, you probably shouldn't believe it.  Last thing you want is to get stuck with a stolen or fake watch.  

Condition, Condition, Condition

It's all about the condition with vintage watches (and, well, most everything else, too).  Top dollar vintage watches are generally priced as such because great condition is relatively rare (and in some cases, extremely rare).  Look out for the following condition-related factors when buying a vintage watch:

  • Original Parts: Is the dial original?  Are the hands?  On watches with radium or tritium luminous material, a rule of thumb is that the lume on the hands should closely match the lume on the dial.  Vintage watches with original parts--particularly the dial--are more valuable and desirable.  A listing should disclose whether parts have been replaced, or do not appear original (see above regarding "buying the seller").  However, it takes relatively little time to search for and compare the dial, hands, and case of the watch you're looking at with other watches bearing the same reference number known to be original.  

(A good example of matching luminous material.)

  • Restored watches: similarly, you'll want to know whether the watch you are looking at has been restored in the past.  It's fairly common to see vintage watches that have been restored, for example, by re-painting or cleaning the dial.  Those that have their original printing and signature are typically more valuable.  That's not to say that restorations are per-se bad.  Sometimes a restoration is necessary (for example, on watches with badly damaged dials or in the case of severe water damage).  But, restored watches should be priced accordingly, and the restoration should be disclosed. 
  • Stamped parts: in connection with the above points, it's important to know that the watch case and case back belong to the watch.  Is the case back stamped with the brand logo?  Does it bear a serial number that matches the case or movement?  Not all vintage watches have such serial numbers, but it's easy enough to find out if the watch you're looking at should have them.  Be wary of "franken" watches that are cobbled together from disparate parts.  A seller should disclose any issues with parts not matching up when they should.  

(An extract from the archives (from brands that offer the service) is a good way to confirm that parts are original).  

  • Is the movement correct/ok?  Sellers should be willing to take a picture of the watch without its case back, so you can confirm that the movement contained within the watch is correct (a quick search should be able to tell you which movement is right for the watch).  A watch with an incorrect movement is more likely to be a "franken" watch to be avoided.  While you're at it, check whether the movement looks clean, if it's missing important parts, or if components are cracked or damaged.  A gunked up movement is likely to need a service right away, and rusty parts indicate water damage.  

(A good looking movement, and a case back with marks identifying the date of the most recent service.)

Original Swag: check to see if the vintage watch in question has its original box and papers.  Watches that do tend to be more desirable.  However, people rarely kept these items back in the day, and I wouldn't be discouraged from buying an otherwise great vintage watch solely because it lacked the original box and papers.  But, if you're wondering why a particular example is more expensive than others bearing the same reference, it might be because it comes with a "full set."

Particular Brands: some brands are harder to break into when it comes to vintage.  Rolex, in particular, has such an avid vintage following--with collectors obsessing over seemingly small details--that you may end up feeling overwhelmed.  Don't be shy in seeking help--there are knowledgeable and very helpful individuals on a number of well-known watch forums (the Rolex forum in particular comes to mind for vintage Rolex).  While answers may not necessarily be definitive, you'll learn something.  Take advantage of the many available resources on the forums.  

As to all of the above points, if in doubt, ask for help.  We're here to help answer any questions you may have about our watches, and to talk watches in general.  Shoot us an email or give us a call if you have any questions about our listings.  

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