From Fratello Watches

Expert Advice: 5 Tips for Buying Vintage Watches


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.

Vintage Jaeger-LeCoultre watches
Vintage watches from Jaeger-LeCoultre

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!

Omega Speedmaster 1960s vintage
Vintage Omega Speedmaster

This article was originally published in 2014 and has been updated.

27 Responses to “Expert Advice: 5 Tips for Buying Vintage Watches”

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  1. winston

    Hi am a vintage watch collector in Guyana and I have few watches that I can’t find any information for. Please help I don’t know how to get information about them.

    Reply
  2. That’s a brilliant post robert.. I absolutely agree with your advice. The most important part for every purchase should be research. Like when I searched for buying watch guides, I landed to this post. And this is what research can help you out. For every watches, I love to check Ebay.com, amazon for prices. And buffer around for more ideas on trendy watches and vintage stuffs.

    Reply
  3. Adam Dubilo

    Solid list of tips for the collector. I think for the buyers that are not collectors and want a vintage watch to love and wear, a different set of tips may apply. Most important is to buy the watch you love and not the one you can afford. In other words if you can’t afford it yet, wait and save up instead of impulsively buying something to satisfy the itch.
    Adam Dubilo/Founder
    Adamvintage.com

    Reply
  4. An excellent article! I should have read this article a long time ago. I collect vintage Zodiac watches of the Vietnam War and everything the author has said is surely true. I bought my original Zodiac Sea Wolf “in-country” and did not know it was a true icon of the war until I sought service on my watch before giving it to my son. I learned the hard way how to collect vintage Zodiac watches and now have a very nice collection of over 40 watches but I learned as I went along. High praise for the author putting into words the very necessary tools to collect vintage watches. Respectfully, Hank

    Reply
  5. Thanks for the article. It was very informative. I’ll surely follow the steps next time when I buy any watch.

    Reply
  6. James Hobusch

    I have been looking at watches lately, and I like a few tips this article brings up. I like what is said about finding the right price. I will definitely try asking if anything needs to be repaired. Also, I will look for other price quotes. Thanks for sharing!

    Reply
  7. Jessy Shaw

    I bought my husband this really nice Rolex a few years back here in Newport Beach, CA and it stopped working a few days ago. He really has a passion for watches but he works all over the country. I have taken it upon myself to get it fixed for him so I am looking for a repair shop to do the job. I know that I want to get him another watch for his birthday this year and I will definitely follow these tips in my search, thanks for sharing!
    http://www.hayesjewelers.net

    Reply
  8. Felix Rodrigues

    I have watch model Bretling 1884 looking for a buyer can you advice me were to sell n what price shall i get

    Reply
  9. H.S.Cohen

    Here’s a quote from a long time collector: A good watch repair person is more precious than your watch.

    Reply
  10. David nex

    Rolex’s steel sports watches are a guaranteed investment,Only very rare Rolexes garner instant premiums in the pre-owned market.But five years into Submariner ownership, you’ll start to see a gradual increase in value.i recently bought mine from Nextonly.uk.As i invest in watches i think its always an good investment.I believe vintage watches will never date and will retain if not gain in value, making them sensible investments that you can enjoy in your own sweet time

    Reply
  11. Great tips!
    Any for looking for repair work or repairers?
    Grandfather wants his repaired, but bad experiences of local repairers in our area :(
    Found a bunch of site on google like http://www.youcamfix.co.uk,
    but what should i be looking for? Any tag words to look for or avoid?!
    Thanks in advance

    Reply
  12. Omegamad

    When buying via web eg Omega I ask for clear pics of dial (especially lettering script, hour markersl , hand style, crown, inner case back, movement, serial no. and calibre no. I cross reference this with stored relevant info to determine the year, what the hands, dial and crown should be. With Omegas knowing how the bridges are marked also helps. I once spotted a Seamaster pertaining to be a Constellation of the same calibre through the writing on the bridge. Dealing with reputable dealers makes life easier also asking questions on watch forums when unsure.

    Reply
  13. All good sound advice. I would only add, if your budget is very limited look at watches within your price range and get to know then inside out. Also, the advice on finding a good watch repairer is really not an option, its a must. They are becoming fewer in the UK but they’re still out there if you look hard.

    Reply
  14. georges

    My tips are:
    Never trust an ebay powerseller he is just a middleman who resells watching but is rarely a watchmaker
    Never trust when a watch is said to be keeping good time because it is vague and you don’t know how well and by who was the watch overhauled
    Don’t buy pieces with too much patina, it is a sign that the watch was not carefully treated nor well maintained
    Avoid to buy brands which are not existing anymore because you will have a hard time to find spare parts
    Avoid to buy eta powered watches because they don’t keep their value well over the long run
    Buy books related to Rolex, Omega and Breitling
    Always look for adresses or shops who have the highest reputation for selling and repairing vintage watches
    For some specific timepieces be ready to spend big bucks

    Reply
  15. #1. Make sure it’s not a fake. I have bought new and used genuine Rolexes since 1986. I “know” how to spot a fake – at least I thought I did. Last year I got burned on a Deep Sea that is a fake. It looked good, but the bezel wasn’t smooth like a Rolex. I got extra links put in at a jeweler and he couldn’t tell it was fake. I finally took the back off and verivied that it is a fake.

    Reply
    • Thanks Eric. That’s right, you have to investigate but you can get burned! Even when you are an expert. Normally I ask the seller to show me the movement when it concerns a vintage watch, I’ve never asked this for new watches (like the Deep Sea). Thanks for your input.

      Reply
  16. Thats a great article. I have been trying to set up articles with cleaning and maintenance on bezels.org. My question to you Robert is, what is your favorite watch?

    Reply
    • Hello Robert,

      Your website looks interesting, I will have a closer look this weekend. My favorite watch depends on my mood, but in general, the Omega Speedmaster (pre-)Professional is definitely one of my favorite watches. Another favorite watch of mine is the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak ‘Jumbo’ (reference 15202).

      RJ

      Reply
  17. ioancio alex

    My tips are similar
    1-go home after seeing it and chill down
    2-make your homework and find out as much as you can
    3-look after in those annoying things called books for the model
    4-ask a very short-handed second hand watch retailer how much would he give or spend on a similar watch and make a general view or picture about price range
    5-put a couple of hundreds over what he said but below the market price if you are already in love with it
    6-always calculate the price of a general overhaul to it
    7-go and buy it
    8-do not expect from an old guy to run as sharp as a new chronometer
    9-think this you must spoil yourself you are living just once and after all it is just money you’ve wasted
    10-and finally if you consider that you override it in price next time be more careful because there always be a next time and this bug is growing all the time once it is inside you

    Cheers

    Reply
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