Nothing tells a story like a vintage watch. Time capsules from another age, they’re exquisite examples of the watchmaker’s art - with a character and style all their own.
Inside, they may showcase much of the same timeworn mechanical wizardry, but outside, they offer an elegance many modern models simply can’t match.
But, like any pre-owned item, it pays to do your homework, or trust in an expert who already has. So how can you know that you’re investing in a model from the ‘golden age’ of watchmaking, and not spending time with a model that’s seriously past its sell-by date?
1. What is a vintage watch?
Let’s start with the most difficult question first, then. Vintage watches, unlike cars or wine, don’t have a watertight definition. But most collectors and connoisseurs consider watches from the 1980’s to hit the ‘vintage’ sweet spot: desirable styles, in good working order, with robust technology that makes them still serviceable and wearable.
Lots of good things happened in the 80s - at least in the world of luxury watches - advances in build quality saw sapphire crystal adopted as the casing of choice, meaning that models from this period are more than just museum pieces (as much older models can be), but fully functional timepieces.
The further back you go, the more you have to consider things like reliability, parts and general lifespan. These are precision-made mechanical instruments: even the best won’t last forever. But they should last an awfully long time.
2. How do you find the right model?
In a way, when you’re thinking about buying a vintage watch, the first thing you should do is forget about its age. Choosing a pre-owned model that’s right for you requires exactly the same consideration process as you’d employ to choose a workshop-fresh one.
Does the watch fit your lifestyle - is it rugged enough? Dressy enough? Reliable enough in different terrains (or 30 metres under water?) You wouldn’t buy a car, or a bottle of fine single malt whisky, just because it was made in a certain year: so the same goes with a watch.
You buy it because it says something to you, and elegantly fulfills a need like no other watch can. That’s when the ‘art’ of buying overtakes the ‘science’. But both are important - because with pre-owned models, you always need to exercise due diligence: and buy from a dealer you trust.
3. What makes a vintage watch valuable?
It’s not what you think. Yes, age can be a factor - but, you’ll be relieved to know, age isn’t everything. It’s about desirability. And that’s harder to pin down.
Take rarity, for example. Some rare models are merely models that were discontinued because they weren’t very popular the first time around, and age doesn’t really make these unfortunate specimens any more desirable! So it really depends on the watch, and its own particular story.
Things to look for:
- Original paperwork
- Original box
- Full service history
- Originality of all parts, eg. dial, bezels, hands, crown, etc.
Elsewhere, look for ‘special edition’ models - limited run models that may have commemorated a particular event, models with movements perhaps made ‘out of house’ - before the brand brought that technology in-house.
And, if you can find them, models with quirks: perhaps a casing that’s changed colour over time, models never issued to the general public, or landmark watches denoting important developments in watch technology.
4. How do you know if it’s in good condition?
Paying attention to the condition of a vintage watch will repay your diligence every time. That’s why reputable dealers are the first place to start your hunt.
A well-loved vintage watch has worked hard over the years. It’s probably been someone’s constant companion. So you’re going to need to choose one that’s been looked after. And the best way to ensure that? Simple: service history.
The odd scar is fine - this isn’t a factory fresh product. But ultimately, the watch should look like it’s been well cared for, and if it’s been refurbished (again, not an instant red flag) it’s been done sympathetically, and professionally.
So look for models in their original box, with their original papers, and a full service history - with regular services every three years or so.
Ask yourself these questions:
- Is there any oxidation or damage?
- Are there scratches? How many and how bad?
- Are there missing parts?
- Has the case been polished?
- What’s the condition of the dial? Is it original or has it been replaced? Does the dial match the hands? Is it damaged, discoloured, scratched or unserviceable? Can it be repaired?
- What’s the condition of the movement? Is it black, brown and rusty? Is it missing any basic piece like the hairspring?
5. Will a vintage watch need more maintenance?
It’s hard to give a definitive answer. Some models will do. You need to consider the quality of the watch and how complicated the movement is. Any watch, to ensure as long a lifespan as possible, should be regularly serviced. Therefore a vintage watch is no exception.
Back in 1958, Rolex memorably revealed that the balance wheel in a Rolex Oyster travelled a distance of 7000 miles in 18 months. As they put it themselves: “that’s time for an oil change”.
Also consider how often the watch is being used - and how much rough and tumble it endures. That all makes a difference in the regularity you should have it checked out.
6. Does a vintage watch work the same as a modern one?
Because we’re talking about time-honoured traditions passed down through generations, by and large, you’re investing in technology that transcends ‘modern’ manufacturing techniques. And so, in many ways, a watch from the 1970s uses exactly the same movements - and works in exactly the same way - as a modern day one.
But, of course, even in the rarified world of the luxury watch, innovations come along that push the industry ever forward. But it’s always more ‘evolution’ than ‘revolution’. So, the things like self-winding chronographs, new and ever-more complex complications and escapements all show how time never really stands still - even in Switzerland!
7. Should I personalise a vintage watch?
It’s your watch. That’s entirely up to you. Will it affect its value? Absolutely - and not in a good way. Vintage watches are marvels of mechanical engineering - each and every part fine tuned and perfectly positioned to the job they have to do.
Now add the vibrations of an engraving tool - and you’ll begin to see why personalisation and luxury watches just don’t go together all that well. Of course, you could take the case back off to get the job done - but if personalisation really is for you, why not think about adding a plaque to the box instead, and keep the watch the way the manufacturer intended it to be?
Ask yourself this: when you’re buying a vintage watch, do you want a case that’s only got the manufacturer’s marks on it, or one that says ‘To Mark, Love you, Charlotte'? Point made.
8. Should I get my vintage watch insured?
Yes, absolutely. But first, make sure you get a purchase receipt and present this to your insurer. We’d recommend using a company which specialises in watches and jewellery - as they’re best placed to work out a true replacement value that accurately reflects what it would realise at auction, or if sold through a specialist company.
You can, of course, get your watch insured through your contents insurer too. However you do it, make sure you do. It is also worth investing in safe storage for your watch, to protect it when it’s not on your wrist.