What makes one vintage watch worth a lot of money while another is worth very little? I believe that a vintage timepiece’s connection to the modern world is responsible for this phenomenon. Taste makers and influencers can drive the market, but only if the watches meet the criteria below.
The general trend in watches today compared to the past is that the most desirable models are large stainless steel sports watches. The workplace today is more casual and collectors want larger size watches so they can be easily visible to others as a status symbol. The large sports models of the past such as the Rolex Daytona or Submariner suit this contemporary style well.
The most prominent brands today are Rolex and Patek Philippe. Their vintage models have followed suit, having quickly become the most desirable status symbols for the wealthy. Brands that either no longer exist or do not exist in the same way have not kept pace. The vintage watch space is littered with brands like Marvin, Eska, Waltham, and Vulcain that can be had for a bargain. Other defunct brands like Enicar may have a small, passionate following but retain a limited market. Sometimes a modern brand joins in the bidding for excellent examples of their heritage for their museum or archive, which helps to bring up prices.
Other vintage watches bask in the reflected glow of Rolex and Patek. A Tudor Advisor has a modified AS1475 alarm ebauche movement but sells for three to four times the price of other AS1475 caliber alarm watches because of the Rolex connection. Watches with a Valjoux 72 movement sell at a premium to watches with Venus movements because the same movement was used in the Daytona. The boom in vintage Heuer a few years ago benefited as much from the use of Valjoux 72 movements as the relationship to the modern brand.
Similar Watch Still Sold
It helps if the brand has a similar model which is offered today. Rolex and Patek’s conservatism has helped their vintage pieces since the modern offerings use recognizably the same design language as their predecessors. Patek’s Calatrava remains synonymous with a luxury dress watch and their vintage models retain tremendously strong prices relative to vintage time only pieces from other brands.
Omega’s Speedmaster is a good example of this phenomenon. The recent updated Moonwatch is scarcely different in design from past models. The continuity between the vintage and modern versions bridges the gap from past to present. The Seamaster and Constellation lines underwent more dramatic design changes over time and the vintage versions are not as recognizable or iconic as the Speedmaster.
If the watch retains all of the above characteristics the next step is that a body of knowledge needs to build up and be easily accessible. This process has been democratized by the internet. Whereas the knowledge previously existed in the heads of a few collectors and dealers and in a few expensive rare books, extensive knowledge has now been widely disseminated via the internet. Watch forums allowed collectors to interact early on and pioneering websites like Chronomaddox brought the information to a wider audience. Currently the internet has numerous specialty reference websites such as Jeff Stein’s On the Dash, Speedmaster 101, the Polerouter Reference Website, and so on.
Reference level watch books continue to provide more organized looks at watch brands and lines. Some of the major authors include noted collector John Goldberger and Nick Foulkes. Brands continue to commission watch books as well such as Audemars Piguet Complicated Wristwatches. Moonwatch Only is now on the third edition, showing the continuing interest in certain vintage watches.
Scholarship is critical because it helps people to differentiate between various models. This segments the market so that certain case shapes, bezels, or dials become more desirable. The originality of the watch can be verified by experts such as dealers or auction houses. Without scholarship a vintage timepiece is just an old watch.
World Wide Web of Dealers
Another internet influence on collecting is that dealers are more easily connected with customers. eBay and later other online marketplaces like Chrono24 contain huge numbers of watches from sources all over the world for browsing. Dealer websites have sprouted left and right with attendant Instagram accounts for early bird offers. Watchrecon allows for trading amongst collectors with Paypal customer protection as perhaps the last middleman.
Social media, particularly the image-focused Instagram has also greatly boosted the vintage watch market. Top collectors are rewarded for showing off their pieces with more followers. The platform allows anyone with an account to communicate with experts directly, thereby giving new collectors confidence in the quality of pieces being offered to them. Instagram is also a great resource for finding other examples of rare watches for comparison through hashtags.
Ben Clymer has done more to increase interest in vintage watches than any other single person in history. Hodinkee’s curated, easily digestible, and slickly produced content reaches a wide audience and dominates watch media. Hodinkee has also produced guides to some of the vintage market’s hottest watches such as Rolex sports models. Their guides help to break down the knowledge found in books and collector websites and repackage it in a more appealing and slick way thus reaching a wider audience.
Despite its influence, Hodinkee’s ability to drive up prices in the vintage market remains limited by the factors listed above. The price of the Universal Geneve Tri-Compax is an early and lasting example of how a vintage watch with a modern size can become desirable due to being “rediscovered” by taste makers. Additionally, the scholarship on the piece was enhanced and disseminated by Hodinkee articles such as “Why I bought Pete Fullerton’s Universal Geneve Yesterday at Soethby’s Graves Auction-This one is just too good not to share” written by Ben Clymer in 2012.
That the brand is defunct was ameliorated by connecting Universal Geneve to Patek Philippe by pointing out that they had the same US distributor. In fact, the style of the Tri-Compax was explicitly linked to the very desirable and considerably more complex and well-finished Patek Philippe perpetual calendar chronographs which of course are still produced today as iconic pieces for the brand. Hodinkee essentially positioned Universal Geneve as Patek’s vintage little brother, like Tudor is for Rolex and thereby bypassed the rules regarding brand and similar watch still sold. This shows the marketing genius of Hodinkee which was able to amplify interest in a vintage piece by connecting the past and the present.
I would contrast this success to the path of the Omega Chronostop Driver. It was included in a Hodinkee article entitled “Ten Vintage Watches That Should Be More Expensive, And Why” in 2013 which mentioned a price range of 400 to 800 dollars. The distinctive sideways dial makes it a “Driver’s Watch” and explicitly links it to motorsport. Omega as a brand remains iconic today and scholarship about variants is available. However, the price of Omega Chronostop Driver watches has not risen dramatically. The Chronostop Driver suffers from not having a similar watch still sold and while sporty, remains on the small side. By fulfilling some but not all of the criteria, it has not managed to achieve the level of interest of other watches that do so and remains a watch that hovers around $1,000.
A vintage watch has to connect to the present to be appreciated by a wide range of watch enthusiasts today. Ideally it should be in a popular modern style such as a large sized stainless steel sports model. It helps if it is from or is connected to a brand which remains relevant today and if a modern version of the watch continues to exist. Scholarship helps to differentiate more desirable from less desirable models. A world wide network of dealers locates the pieces and sells them to customers who are aware of them through taste markers in the watch media and social media influencers. It is not surprising that the vintage watch market has grown so rapidly in this ecosystem and that the most desirable models remain largely stainless steel sports Rolexes. Looking at niches that don’t meet one or more of these criteria can uncover affordable vintage watch models for the more budget-oriented collector.