I’m not here to tell you what to do. I’m not going to tell you to only buy vintage Rolex right now for value retention in an economic downturn. I’m not going to tell you that vintage Patek is a great investment watch because you never actually own a Patek Philippe, you only keep it double sealed so you can sell it for double the price later. I’m not going to tell you that such and such a brand is “undervalued” and can only go up. I’m just going to tell you what I look for in a vintage watch. My collecting reflects my personality and my decision-making process and may not suit you. Nonetheless, it may be helpful to have a look at how someone else collects, so here you go.
Keeping Track of The Hobby
I start by checking a spreadsheet. Seems boring but it’s true. If you have an unlimited budget it doesn’t matter but those of us without trust funds need to keep track of what we spend. When I first started buying vintage watches I would pick one up here and there and all of a sudden I would wonder what happened to my bank account! My biggest problem is that I love watches and I want to buy them all. The key to my collecting is to take all that pent up desire for watches and feed it through a bunch of exclusion criteria so that I enjoy my purchase and stay in control.
I have a google spreadsheet that I update with the watch, the date of purchase, the price, the service cost, the seller, the last service date, and the date and sold price if I sold it. This also allows me to reflect on which watches I sold and for what reason. As the Delphic maxim goes, “know thyself.”
Buying Online Versus In Person
Now that the world has gone crazy and COVID-19 is on everyone’s mind, a lot of shopping has moved online. I always prefer to look at watches in person if possible because I find that there is no substitute for holding it in your hand or putting it on your wrist. A watch may take pretty Instagram pics and get rave reviews from the watch blogosphere but if it sits awkwardly on my wrist or feels “cheap” I won’t be happy with it. I try to touch watches as much as possible so that I have reference points in my mind. I use those reference points to get an idea based on specs and pictures of what the watch is like in person. Sometimes the watch you want is not available right away especially in vintage, so having some reference points allows you to purchase a watch online with confidence.
I also have a rule that I don’t buy right away. If I am in a shop, I at least go outside and take a half hour walk to think about it or take some pictures to mull over later in the calm of my own home. If it is online, I put away the phone or computer for a while and do something else. Often I will go back and reexamine the piece and find some issues that I didn’t pick up on in my initial enthusiasm. A cool off period is important for me to remain objective and avoid picking up pieces with flaws that will bother me later.
I’ll give you my observations about redials. The background is that redials in the past were done to make a damaged dial more legible. At that time original dials were not as prized and therefore the repainted dial was often done in a fairly crude way. I avoid redials because they are generally not as attractive as the original. There are some redials that are done very carefully and very difficult to distinguish from the original. My rule is that if I can’t tell, it’s good enough for me.
If a dial has a lot of damage, I am ok with swap for a new old stock dial as long as it is disclosed and the original dial is included. I also avoid watches with the wrong hands because finding the correct original hands is challenging and usually not worth the effort. Again, if the hands match the dial or close enough that I can’t tell, it’s good enough for me.
I dislike the term “patina” because its usage is overly broad. People apply the term to any type of age-related dial changes. I prefer to make a distinction between “aging” and “damage.” If you traveled back in time and left a nice watch in a low humidity room for 60 years, the tritium will yellow, the whites will turn off white, the orange or blue will fade. This is what I think of as “aging.” If you left the same watch in a humid room with the crown open the lume will turn green and moldy and blotches will show up on the dial as water condenses and interacts with the paint. This is what I call “damage.” I like patina, I don’t like damage.
A watch case is cut and milled by machines. When it is completed, the metal has sharp edges where it transitions from one side of the case to another, or on the edges of a bevel. As the watch is worn, it occasionally knocks into a doorknob or scrapes against the side of a boat. All those dents and dings and scratches can be polished by removing a bit of material but each time the sharp edges lose some definition. If the watch has been polished unskillfully or too many times the case will lose its shape and original finish. 1970’s style watches with their sunburst finish and tonneau and cushion shapes are particularly susceptible to this problem.
I prefer the case to be as original as possible. I dislike cases that were formerly distinctive but have been reduced to a blob on a polishing wheel. Lapping is a process where the case is recut and polished to the original factory specs. Unlike redials, I like a case that has been lapped well. If the watch came on a bracelet, I very much prefer to buy it with the original or at least correct bracelet and end-links, since these can be hard to track down.
I’ll admit that I’m not knowledgeable enough to know the correct movement for every reference. I generally don’t deal in the very high end where this is a big issue. I do look at some basic features such as whether there are screws missing, if there is rust or dirt, whether the movement is marked as adjusted to five positions if it ought to be a chronometer and so on. My main focus when examining a movement is to get an idea if the watch works. I check to see if when I turn the crown for a manual or shake the watch for an automatic whether the seconds hands starts right away. I check if the watch winds smoothly and whether the hands are easy to set. If there is a chronograph or an alarm or a complete calendar or moonphase I check their functions as well. If the seller snatches the watch out of my hand and tries to berate me when I try to press a pusher (true story on 47th street) then I definitely walk away.
I have great respect for my watchmaker. He can fix anything if he can get the parts, and if he can’t get the parts he can make them. Getting vintage watch parts is usually the biggest barrier. Sometimes the company will still make some vintage parts but oftentimes they are obtained from a specialist vintage watch parts supplier that buys up old watchmaker stockpiles or estates. Tracking down or making parts can be expensive and time-consuming. I have a bit of a sense of what is involved in getting a vintage watch repaired and I temper my enthusiasm for the outside of the watch with what it will take to get the inside running again. Check him out here.
Radium watches were produced in the US until 1968. Watches from the early 1900’s had concentrated thickly applied radium lume and remain as radioactive today as the day they were made. These are particularly dangerous because the cases were not made with water resistant seals and bits of lume flake off as it deteriorates over time. The particles can cause cancer if inhaled or ingested. If many are kept in a closed room then radon gas can form.
In general the amount of radium went down in watches as time went on. I did until recently have a handful of watches with radium lume. I’m not an occupational health expert but I think the danger of occasionally wearing a well sealed radium watch with intact lume from the 1950’s or 1960’s is probably small. However, I have small children and I can’t enjoy myself around them while wearing radium. Therefore, as a personal decision I do not collect radium watches for the time being. This has certainly skewed my collecting towards 1970’s style watches which I have learned to appreciate and enjoy. I keep a small handheld Geiger counter handy to check a dial. In viewing photos online I look at the dial to see if there are signs of radium based on the age, lack of a “T” mark, burn marks on the dial, or pock marks in the lume.
There’s a lot of different kinds of collectors out there. Some people collect watches because they think they will gain in value. Others like to collect watches that they will wear regularly. There are collectors who are interested in historical research and end up writing books or compiling information on a website. I think the hardest part of collecting is figuring who you are and what you love. To paraphrase Sunzi from the Art of War, if you know yourself and know the watch you need not fear to buy it!