A Primer on Buying Vintage Watches

Vintage anything is tricky, but vintage watches are especially tricky. Dear reader, there are pitfalls, and any watch collector—no matter how diligent, knowledgeable, or experienced—will fall into a pit from time to time. There are ways to reduce risk, but no way to eliminate it. You have been warned.

Used, Pre-Owned, or Vintage?

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.

Service Records (almost never exist)

Any watch that’s 25 years old or more needed servicing at some point, and there is often no way of knowing whether a watch has been serviced. No equivalent of CarFax exists, and service records are routinely overstated and sometimes faked entirely. It’s not always apparent if a service record has been faked, but there are tell-tale signs: no photos of the disassembled 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. 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 photographic proof before making the purchase, as you’ll be paying for that overhaul one way or the other.

Counterfeits

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. The anonymity of international e-commerce as well as the relative speed and ease of modern manufacturing have made counterfeiters swifter and more accurate. As vintage watches continue to skyrocket in popularity and value, the counterfeiters have moved into fake vintage in order to dupe inexperienced collectors.

This Oris is a fake, and eBay is littered with similar offerings. It’s best to get to know a brand’s back catalog before springing for what looks like a great deal. Also, notice the lack of any patina on the dial and hands.

Some warning signs that you may be looking at a counterfeit vintage watch include the country where watch resides (beware of India, China, and Eastern Europe in particular), overly clean condition (vintage watches will have some corrosion or patina), “unsigned” movements for major brand watches (typically movements are “signed” with the brand name), any designs and logos that don’t look right or that you can’t find anywhere else, prices that are simply too low, and, 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).

Normal Wear & Patina

NOS not withstanding, I’ll proffer that 99.99% of watches over 25 years old are going to look old. Any normal material degradation is often 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. Also keep an eye our for any replaced parts, such as hands, winding crown and even applied markers. 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.

My 1972 Rolex 1603 Datejust. Notice the lume plots at the outer edge of the dial have aged to a lovely cream color, and the dial itself is in excellent condition. The case is “unpolished” meaning that it holds its original shape rather than becoming blob-like from polishing. The dings and scratches are minimal for a watch that’s around 50-years-old, and are entirely acceptable. The acrylic crystal is cracked and will be replaced before too long.

It’s not impossible to fake patina on a watch, but I don’t think I’ve come across fake 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. More commonly, the scam comes in the form of a so-called Frankenwatch, which is assembled from various watches to make one uber-watch. But, again, the deviation from an all-original watch devalues the Frankenwatch, and it’s just another pitfall a bad seller might set up for you to fall into. Be wary of the Frankenwatch, or embrace it, but try to know what you’re getting.

This late 1940s Vacheron Constantin 4240 in steel has a refinished dial, but whether it was done at the factory or by a third party remains unclear. This diminishes the value of the watch. Under a loupe, some inconsistencies in the subdial markings can be seen.

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 or soft gray (called “tropical dials”); 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.” Evenly dispersed patina is definitely preferred over blotchy patina, as evenness preserves the original design balance of the watch.

My Zenith’s dial is not valuable or cool, simply because it’s been damaged in ways that are both unattractive and which suggest water damage.

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 oxidizes 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. You can also polish a sapphire crystal quite easily using diamond paste. 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 when it comes time for them to flip it. 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, but you won’t always get it.

Full Sets

Importantly, if a vintage watch includes all of its original packaging and paperwork, including warranty cards, owners manual, sale receipts, and any service records, then it is called a “full set.” Full sets are worth more than partial sets and often a lot more than watches with none of the original accouterments. 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.

This vintage Rolex Datejust has a Full Set consisting of papers, box, and original receipt, which drives the price of the watch way up. However, the “President” bracelet here is uncommon for a Datejust, more often associated with the Day-Date, and whether it is original or not remains unclear.

Hunt Lust & Kill Buzz

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.