Vintage anything is tricky, but few things are as complex as vintage watches. My conscience demands that I notify you immediately, dear reader, that there are pitfalls, and that any watch collector—no matter how diligent, knowledgable, or experienced—will stumble into a pit from time to time. There are ways to reduce risk, but no way to eliminate it. You have been warned. So, with my conscience clear and your eyes wide open, we can now wade into the wonderful world of vintage watches.
First, let’s play around with the semantics involved in determining whether something is “used” “pre-owned” or “vintage.” I’ve gone over these distinctions in detail in an earlier Body Buzz, but as far as the terms apply to watches, here’s a quick summary. The watch world uses the term “pre-owned” exclusively, avoiding “used” almost entirely. This is fairly common with high-ticket luxury items in general, as it avoids the negative connotations of something being “used up”, but such nomenclature has trickled down to all levels of watches. The categorical leap from pre-owned to vintage happens at 25 years for watches, so we’ll focus on watches that are at least that old.
Remember those pitfalls I warned you about? Well, any watch that’s 25 years old or more will have needed servicing at some point, and there is often no way of knowing whether a watch has been serviced regularly. No equivalent of CarFax exists, and service records are routinely faked. It’s not always apparent if a service record has been faked, but there are tell-tale signs: no photos of the disassembled watch mechanics (called the movement); a seller who lost the service ticket or fails to specify exactly who did the service; etc… Sellers fake service records because vintage watches that come with them typically sell for more—sometimes a lot more—than those without, and because watch maintenance can be very expensive (many hundreds for a full rebuild of a mechanical watch). If you’re lucky, you may find a compulsive record-keeper selling a relatively inexpensive watch, but it almost never happens. There are also different levels of maintenance, ranging from a complete cleaning and rebuild to a quick check-up during which very little is done. If the seller is claiming that there was a full rebuild, you’ll want to get whatever proof you can before making the purchase, as you’ll be paying for that overhaul whether it happened or not.
Just as services can be faked, so can entire watches. Many lay-folk are aware of counterfeit Rolexes, which can be quite convincing, especially to lay-folk. Unfortunately, counterfeiting has grown over the past few decades, capitalizing on the anonymity of international e-commerce as well as the relative speed and ease of modern manufacturing. As vintage watches continue to skyrocket in popularity and value, the counterfeiters have moved into fake vintage in order to dupe inexperienced collectors.
Here are some warning signs that you may be looking at a counterfeit vintage watch. The country where watch resides is often a give away; beware of India, China, and Eastern European countries, in particular). Overly clean condition is another clue, as most vintage watches (even unused ones) will have some corrosion or patina. Examine photos of the movement inside closely; typically movements are “signed” with the brand name or have other indicators of authenticity, including corrosion, or even historical plausibility of having been used in that watch. Any designs and logos that don’t look right, or that you can’t find anywhere else, are big red flags, as the counterfeiters are often counting on you not to know. Prices that are simply too low to be real are both exciting and warning signals; a great deal is tasty bait for many newbies. Lastly, large quantities of similar or even identical watches for sale, especially if the seller is claiming to have found a big batch of vintage watches that never got sold (called New Old Stock, or NOS); those finds are so rare as to be almost unbelievable.
99.9 percent of watches over 25 years old are going to look old. Any normal wear is called “patina” in the watch world, and vintage collectors have grown crazy for patina of late. This wasn’t always true, and for years refurbishing a watch often included repainting the dial (unimaginatively called a “redial”) and polishing the case. Today, redials and polished cases hurt the value of any vintage watch. Why would fixing up a watch make it less valuable? Largely because the watch has been altered from its original state. Anyone who’s watched The Antiques Roadshow knows that nearly all antiques lose value when altered, and watches are no different. When considering a vintage watch, alterations to look for include redials and polishing, of course, as well as any replaced parts, such as hands, winding crown, movement, etc… No matter how beat up it is, most vintage watch sellers will prominently display “all-original” or “unpolished” in their listings. It’s almost universally accepted that any attempt to erase patina devalues a vintage watch.
It’s not impossible to fake patina on a watch, but I don’t think I’ve come across forged patina. The art of convincingly “aging” something with as many materials as a watch (glass, plastic, paint, metals, jewels, lubricants) is actually quite sophisticated and time-consuming.
The other thing to look for is the character of the patina. All materials age, and every vintage watch will age differently, even identical watches. Many collectors covet dials that have cracked or faded in pleasing ways. Black paint can fade to a gorgeous maroon-brown; white dials can turn amber and gold (sometimes called “gilded”); silver dials can “pit” and take on Dalmatian spots or finer speckled-hen patters. Paint cracks can “spider-web” or “creep” or “check”, or take on any number of patterns that makes that specific watch one of a kind. The glow-in-the-dark paint known as “lume” typically turns a caramel color over time, sometimes even a deep brown; aged lume is so coveted lately that many watch manufacturers offer new models with cream colored lume; fans call it “aged lume” while detractors call it “fauxtina”; a hot topic. Evenly dispersed patina is definitely preferred over blotchy patina, as evenness preserves the original design balance of the watch.
Metals age, too, but typically from being beat up rather than through chemical reactions (untreated bronze is a notable exception, now used widely because it ages so rapidly). Preferably a watch’s exterior metal parts would not have been beat up at all, but if the watch was worn, it’ll be beat up. Crystals (the front window) come in various materials, and ideally the crystals will not show much wear if any. Sapphire crystals are so hard that any scratches mean quite a thump happened, while acrylic crystals absorb shock and scratch easily, but can be polished in a jiffy. Original bracelets often have “swirls” on them, one of the first markings to show up on watches with bracelets. Original bands in rubber, canvas, nylon, and leather are often gone or completely deteriorated, though many collectors will have set the original aside to increase the value of the watch. The buckle of a deteriorated strap can be moved on to a new strap, and preferably the replacement strap is identical to the original. You’ll want the original tang-n-buckle or other latching mechanism.
Importantly, if a vintage watch includes all of its original packaging and paperwork, including warranty cards and, of course, any service records, then it is called a “full set,” and full sets are worth more than partial sets and often a lot more than watches with none of the original accoutrements. I’ve seen box and papers alone sell for over $1000 for some watches. But be wary of fake packaging or packaging from other watches, too.
Certainly not enough info to make anyone an expert, the above should be considered only a cursory overview of the obstacle course that is vintage watch collecting. For many, these pitfalls scare them away from vintage watch collecting, and for others avoiding the pitfalls is vintage watch collecting, with the inherent risks being integral to the buzz of landing a great old watch. We haven’t even discussed a single watch, nor prices, and while I do want to encourage anyone interested to get into vintage watch collecting—because it’s fun, fascinating, rewarding, and a benign way to kill some time and money—I will close with this warning: there are tens of millions of vintage watches out there, and anyone serious about getting into any sub-genre (military watches, dive watches, doctor’s watches, etc..) or brand (pick any, it doesn’t matter) or era (it does help to consolidate your knowledge), you may consider seeking out specialized forums, collectors’ guides, or even local meet ups, but always remain cognizant of the many pitfalls that await all vintage watch collectors, old and new. In the end, many collectors feel it is the acquisition of knowledge and intuition—as much as the watches themselves—that brings the buzz.
From watches to whisky, Allen Farmelo’ s writing celebrates luxury as a pathway to health, sustainability, and joy. He lives in a one-room schoolhouse in the Hudson Valley with two big orange cats. Learn more at allenfarmelo.com and body-buzz.com.