Whether you’re buying out of sentimentality — say, you want to own a watch from the year of your birth — or simply for investment purposes, education is the most important factor when it comes to buying, or collecting, vintage timepieces. During my last decade-plus with Fratellowatches, I have received numerous e-mails from people who’ve struggled with their purchase of a vintage watch; in nearly every reply to these e-mails, I have offered five bullet-point guidelines, which I will now share with you.
1. Don’t buy without investigation
It is tempting to make an impulse purchase on a nice-looking vintage timepiece that you see in the window of an antiques dealer or watch shop. However, there are many traps you can fall into — traps of which even the seller may be unaware. So make sure to do your homework and learn about the watch you want to buy. You should only pull the trigger on a vintage timepiece when you have become something of an expert on a brand or specific watch model. For some, risking $300 or so on a vintage watch isn’t a worry, but when you’re in the market for certain vintage Rolexes, for example, which can easily have a price tag of $10,000 or more, you will want to be sure you’ve done your research. When you notice very similar-looking watches offered at lower prices, you’ll want to know what the differences are. Perhaps needless to say, as with every major purchase, you are advised to go online and look up the watch you want before purchasing.
After you’ve determined which brand or watch model you are after, have a look at some of the watch websites that are regarded an authority on the subject. (It is, of course, easier if the watch is from a major brand rather than one that has long ago ceased to exist.) You can also find resources offline. Many books have been written on collecting certain brands, diving watches, chronographs, iconic watches, and so on. Often, these books can be found on Amazon or websites like WatchPrint. If you can’t find what you’re looking for there, you can check out eBay, where many sellers offer books that have been long out of print. Also, compare. Try to find similar watches at watch shops (both online and offline) and note their condition and prices. After a while, you will get a fairly good understanding of the market prices and the conditions these watches are generally in. Pay attention to the details: do all these watches have similar hands, printing on the dial, bracelets, bezels, date disks, et cetera? In the case of a Rolex or Patek Philippe, this can be the difference between spending $5,000 or $10,000 or more. Train yourself to have an eagle eye!
2. Share the passion
Many fellow collectors of vintage watches are online as well, and often share knowledge about the watches or brands they are passionate about. You can go to the major watch forums on the internet and read many of the experiences that others have posted. Make use of the search functions of a forum before asking any questions; some of the questions have been asked a thousand times before, and have already been answered. If you are looking for an exotic brand that has no specific forum of its own, you can go to the bigger watch platforms, where you will either find generic (or ‘public’) forums or a vintage section that covers a range of brands. Make sure that the questions you ask are very specific. If you already have seen a watch you like, include a few pictures and clearly state the model name and — if possible — the reference number and specific caliber that is inside. This will help the experts to give you the correct answers. In the end, make sure that you don’t remain simply a “lurker” — share your own experience of buying a vintage watch.
3. Contact the manufacturer
A number of watch brands have a rich archive of what they have produced in the past. At some of the brands, you can even request an extract of the archives (this might cost a bit of money) with information about its production year, country of destination, number of pieces produced, caliber number, and case and/or reference number. Also, some brands have a point of contact for you with questions about their vintage watches or movements. Be patient. Don’t bother them every other day, asking if they’ve had the chance to read your e-mail. These brands get many similar e-mails from collectors. If you’ve had no response after two weeks, you might want to send a friendly mail to ask again.
4. Find a watchmaker
Based on my personal experience of collecting watches since the late 1990, this is probably the best tip I can give you, next to educating yourself. Find either an independent watchmaker or one who works for a large retailer. He will be your new best friend for years to come. Ask around for a watchmaker with plenty of references, and more importantly, ask if he is able to source replacement (or new) parts. Some watchmakers specialize in a certain brand or have strong knowledge about specific movements. Also, don’t be afraid to ask about prices, and about how long it generally takes to service or repair watches. Some of the repairs can take a long time, mainly because some parts of vintage watches are very difficult to source. Sometimes, parts are no longer available at all and need to be re-created from scratch. Ask about all these things when you contact a watchmaker. If he can’t do the job, don’t hesitate to ask if he has any colleagues who can. Again, some watchmakers have very specific skill sets and specialties. You won’t offend them by asking.
5. Find the Right Price
Ah, price… for some people, the most interesting part. As stated above, prices might vary widely on watches that look very similar. The most important things is that you compare the watch you want to others like it by checking online watch-market platforms or offers at watch shops. Is overpaying for a watch the end of the world? No, as long as it is doesn’t exceed too far the average market price, and as long as you’re happy with your purchase. Sometimes, people fall in love with a watch due to a specific patina on the dial or the faded color on a bezel. If that’s worth a bit extra to you, go for it. However, you don’t want to pay too much for a watch that is clearly not worth it. So again, compare! Ask about the guarantees a seller can give you in case you find out – after purchasing the watch – that it is not as “original” as it appeared to be or that it doesn’t function properly. In the latter case, of course, keep in mind that it is sometimes difficult to give a two-year warranty on a 50-year-old watch. Be realistic, but make sure you have at least a gentlemen’s agreement on returning the watch if you are not satisfied. Having said that, it is important that you buy from someone with a good reputation for selling vintage watches. Word of mouth is very important, and any negative comments on his way of selling watches can destroy his business. However, if there are any points of discussion after the purchase, it’s best to remain calm and keep the communication open and friendly.
A bit of negotiation is expected when it comes to buying a vintage watch, but also keep in mind that excessive bargaining might have effect on the seller’s willingness to help you out afterward if something is wrong with the watch. More importantly, ask your watchmaker (see #4) or the watch manufacturer (see #3) what the price would be of a service overhaul. From my personal experience, I always calculate a service into the price when buying a watch. So, if the watch doesn’t function properly but you don’t want to return it (maybe it’s still the nicest watch you’ve ever seen), you’ve at least kept a bit of budget available to have it overhauled. Those are my top five. Collectors, any additional tips that I’ve missed? Please leave them for others — and me —to read in the comments. For those who are new to the vintage collecting game, let me know if these were helpful!
This article was originally published in 2014 and has been updated.