Why and How to Collect Vintage Watches

Three 1970 Seikos.

It seems to come to all of us eventually: we are drawn to objects older than ourselves. Classic cars, mid-century furniture, old 35mm film cameras to name but a few examples. Perhaps we become aware of our mortality, and so subconsciously look for solace in something older than ourselves. Or maybe it is an aesthetic and intellectual escape from a younger generation’s culture that we neither care for nor fully understand. Perhaps our aesthetic tastes shifted and the modern lines simply don’t cut it for us anymore. Perhaps, we just want to be reminded of simpler times when objects were made to last with craft and love. 

Vintage watch collecting allows us to experience and connect with watches that often differ greatly from new watches. In vintage watches we find different designs, technologies, and histories that new watches simply can’t deliver. So, let us suppose you are a watch-enthusiast who has decided to dip a toe into the vintage watch waters. What do you really need to know? 

Water Is The Enemy

If you only remember one nugget of wisdom from reading this article, make it the following nugget: Vintage watches really, really, really, don’t like getting wet.

I can hear you all shouting at your tablets and phones at this very instant: “Allen got some vintage Rolexes very wet indeed and they turned out just fine!” Well, yes, he did take them diving – against the ‘advice’ of 99.999999999% of the interwebz. However, those vintage Rolexes were properly serviced with new seals and had been pressure-tested by the dealer. And they were insured. They were insured for a lot. And they were not Allen’s watches. These points are important.

1968 Rolex 1680 at ~95′ down. Watch loan courtesy of Bob’s Watches, who tested the seals before Allen dove with it.

If you only remember one nugget of wisdom from reading this article, make it the following nugget: Vintage watches really, really, really, don’t like getting wet.

Behind Allen’s apparent flippancy lies the real truth: those Rolexes had been pressure-tested. When you buy your vintage watch, it will probably be untested. Vintage watch dealers tend not to pressure-test, and well-meaning private sellers simply do not have the equipment to do so. Furthermore, many vintage watches were simply never made to provide any sort of realistic water-resistance. I am looking at you Omega Speedmaster! 

Other vintage watches will not offer the same water resistance as they originally did, even after correct servicing with the right seals. Metallurgically, the watch case may have microscopically deteriorated in the 40, 50 or even 70 years since it was made. Tiny holes and cracks may now riddle the case, invisible to the human eye, waiting there to admit water as soon as positive pressure allows. The seals of any watch that have kept out moisture in the past will have also caused corrosion around and under those seals, thus compromising newly installed seals before they have had a chance to resist water. 

Parts & Service

Service seems to be the primary concern of new vintage collectors when purchasing a watch. It is true that vintage watches, like vintage cars, usually cost more to service. Parts for vintage watches may well be harder to obtain and take longer to find. If parts are really scarce, they may be expensive to procure, or someone might need to make them from scratch. Since the watch is older, more things will have worn out compared to a newer watch meaning more parts will have to be changed at service, again driving up costs. Old watches also tend not to get serviced. It is not uncommon for the cost of a service to exceed the price paid for a watch. This, however, should not be seen as a problem since a verifiably serviced vintage watch will always be worth more when it comes time to sell. You should usually be able to get the money spent on service back, and to do that you will want to get photos of the service in progress so that when it comes time to sell you’ve got the proof.

It is not uncommon for the cost of a service to exceed the price paid for a watch. This, however, should not be seen as a problem since a verifiably serviced vintage watch will always be worth more when it comes time to sell.

Servicing marks are generally indecipherable. 

As with vintage cars, finding a specialist that competently deals with the brand is important. Finding that individual can be a problem and is something to endeavor to solve before falling too far down the vintage watch rabbit hole. In this regard, collecting vintage Swiss watches can make more sense than vintage Japanese or American watches. Many vintage Swiss watches included off-the-shelf calibers from ETA, Lemania, Valjoux, Selita, Schild, etc., for which replacement parts are readily available today. Vintage Seikos are becoming more popular and the number of watchmakers that will service and restore old Seikos is increasing. However, Citizen and Timex are two brands that are relatively difficult to service and so might not be the best choice for the vintage novice.

…collecting vintage Swiss watches can make more sense than vintage Japanese or American watches. Many vintage Swiss watches included off-the-shelf calibers from ETA, Lemania, Valjoux, Selita, Schild, etc., for which replacement parts are readily available today. 

Can I Wear My Vintage Watch Every Day?

The next question I often get asked is: “Can a vintage watch can be worn everyday?” From my direct experience, the answer is an emphatic Yes! Once serviced, your vintage watch should work reliably regardless if you wear it one day a month or every day for five years. The precision will really depend on the quality of the initial movement. A quality movement that offered good accuracy back in the day should still be able to perform equally well after servicing. It is interesting to note that Seiko’s most accurate mechanical movement (excluding its Spring Drive hybrid) is still a vintage hi-beat Grand Seiko 61GS V.F.A. from 1972. To this day, it is more accurate than current hi-beat Grand Seikos. The VFA models were precise to +/-2 seconds per day.

The exquisite Lord Marvel movement from 1967 is reliable and highly accurate thanks to its 36000 beat rate.

I am generally against the use of winders for non-perpetual calendar watches simply because I feel they contribute unnecessary wear and tear to a movement that may already have years of wear. However, for a vintage watch that has no quickset for the date, using a winder might make the difference between you wearing it regularly rather than not at all. No one wants to fuss with hundreds of crown rotations just to set the date, so a winder keeps it current.

Once serviced, your vintage watch should work reliably regardless if you wear it one day a month or every day for five years

What Condition Should The Watch Be In?

In terms of condition, the advice is simple: buy the best example you can find. Unless you are hunting for something truly rare, don’t compromise too soon and buy a poor quality example. There will be another watch of the same type in better condition for sale soon. Do not let the FOMO — the fear of missing out — drive your collecting; it can easily cloud your judgement and leave you with watches you no longer love. Do not wait forever for the ultimate example though. Every day you wait is a day that you have not enjoyed ownership. Also, don’t buy someone else’s unfinished project. The cost of fixing one up, even if it can be fixed up, will usually exceed the cost of buying a good working example instead. I think all collectors have fallen into this trap once or twice. I know I certainly have. 

Don’t buy someone else’s abandoned project watch.

Patina vs. Wear vs. Damage

Patina is often a personal and cultural choice. Some vintage collectors strive for examples that look as new now as they did 50 years ago in the jeweler’s display. Most vintage collectors, however, accept that there will be some signs of use on something so old. Every collector needs to decide for his or herself where they draw the line between acceptable patina and a previous owner’s neglect — but also be aware of flat-out damage, especially from water, or a hard smack as indicated by a massive case ding. Common sense will be your guide.

Allen’s Zenith was bought in inebriated haste. Is that patina or damage?

Acceptable patina can also have a cultural element. American collectors seem to value patina more than other groups and will want to search out examples that are unpolished and unmolested, even if that means the watch has a plethora of scratches and dings. Alternatively, a Japanese collector will expect his vintage watch to be refinished to as close to factory specs as possible. Crystals should always be replaced when required in my opinion. To my mind, crystals are as much a wear item as the lubricants in the movements. It makes little sense to keep a scratched, chipped or cracked crystal on a vintage watch. Original crystals are still available for most vintage watches so why not fit them so you can appreciate that vintage dial in all its glory… with or without patina.

American collectors seem to value patina more than other groups and will want to search out examples that are unpolished and unmolested, even if that means the watch has a plethora of scratches and dings. Alternatively, a Japanese collector will expect his vintage watch to be refinished to as close to factory specs as possible.

Fitting a new crystal can open up a new level of appreciation of a vintage watch.

Authenticity Is Subjective

Authenticity and originality are both complex topics bordering on the philosophical. What is an authentic watch? A watch that is what it purports to be would be a good definition to start with. When a watch has the brand name on the dial, surely that watch should have been made in that firm’s workshop or its subcontractor’s. What happens when parts are replaced during service? Do those new parts affect the watch’s authenticity? To my mind they do a little, while for others third-party parts are a deal breaker or perhaps don’t mater at all. Authenticity is, in the end, a subjective status for you to decide.

Authenticity and originality are both complex topics bordering on the philosophical

Maybe originality is an easier concept to deal with. An original watch will be in the same configuration as it was when it left the factory. At one time Rolex and Omega would both remove original dials and replace them with cleaner, less patinated service dials. The market certainly devalues those specimens as less original even though the watches still contained 100% Rolex or Omega parts. Does refinishing the brushing on a watch case mean that the watch is no longer original? Most of the atoms and molecules in the watch after its case has been re-brushed were there when it was originally made, so surely it’s still technically original. Many collectors would say no, that the watch was more original with the scratches and dings prior to the re-brushing. And so even originality is subjective to some degree. 

Scratches and dings or a refinished case – what is your preference?

Manufacturers’ own service guides sometimes deliberately destroy originality. The chronograph hands on Seiko 6139s and 6138s, including the famous ‘Pogue’, were meant to be changed during servicing. They are a one-shot deal and not designed to be fitted more than once. Does that mean all serviced Pogues are unoriginal? Well, no, not to a normal vintage collector. Our brains, in their inimitable way, are able to form a reasonable and consistent opinion in spite of the obvious contradictions.

Do Your Homework

My advice is to search out examples that at least have all the correct parts, even if they have been replaced. What are the correct parts? Well, that requires some investigation on your part, the buyer, or on trusting a well-reputed expert dealer who is prepared to offer some sort of guarantee to back up his or her originality claims. The advice is: do your homework and ask plenty of questions. Always be suspicious of a vintage watch that looks too clean – it may well have a non-original dial and hands. 

Nothing is original nor correct on this ‘restored’ Seiko Pogue

Who’s Your Supplier?

Where can such unadulterated vintage watches be found? For the high-end luxury watches, I think one has to rely on reputable dealers. The whole Horology House fiasco (feel free to Google it) has shown just how risky buying pre-owned luxury watches can be when large amounts of money are on the line. Common sense needs to be applied here. Do you really think it is OK to send $25,000 to a dude on the Internet to buy a watch sight-unseen? Most would agree this sounds like folly. For more affordable brands at lower price points, more risks can be taken. Do you think it is OK to send $200 to a dude on the Internet to buy a watch sight-unseen? Most watch collectors would answer in the affirmative. I have always found the forums and Reddit to be a good source of authentic watches from honest sellers. Nowadays, Instagram is also a pretty good tool for both research and making purchases.

Do you really think it is OK to send $25,000 to a dude on the Internet to buy a watch sight-unseen?

eBay deserves a special mention. I suspect there are very few vintage collectors who have not clicked that little ‘Buy it Now’ button late in the evening after one whisky too many. While there are still a lot of fakes and poor quality watches for sale, eBay has quietly become a pretty safe place to buy. Today’s eBay is an e-commerce platform so stacked in favor of the buyer, it is almost impossible to get burned by a nefarious seller. If you buy a fake, you can generally get your money back through PayPal’s buyer protection scheme. 

Too good to be true? If a watch is described as original but turns out to not be, eBay/Paypal will return your money.

Don’t Get Tripped Up

Finally, a few small miscellaneous gotchas that can trip up a vintage watch novice. If the watch has a date or day quickset, do not use the quickset when the watch hands are between 9pm and 3am. During that time, the driving wheels for the date and day can still be meshed with the motion works (the gears that turn the hands). Trying to use the quick advance while the wheels are still engaged can break wheels and setting-levers, requiring a swift trip to the watchmaker. Vintage watches, especially if pre-1960, may also have poor shock resistance. The mechanism may not be fitted with incabloc, diashock or other anti-shock bearings. Without these tiny flexible bearings, sudden shocks can break a movement’s pivots or hairspring relatively easily so be careful with your very early vintage watches. Definitely try not to drop them.

Many old pocket watches have broken balances due to a lack of shock absorbing bearings.

Despite the precautions and warnings in this article, the aim is to inform, rather than discourage the nascent vintage watch collector. Chasing and collecting vintage watches can be a thrilling and enjoyable pursuit. There is a vast variety of styles out there from gold-filled art deco watches that would not look out of place at a Gatsby-esque summer party on Long Island’s North Shore, to stainless steel sports watches that look positively modern. There are vintage watch models that have been to outer space, to the bottom of the ocean, starred in movies and been owned by famous celebrities. All can be researched, chased, found and enjoyed. With the shift in recent years from large watch sizes to smaller sizes, vintage watches are more wearable than ever. 

Go find something old. Go find something cool.