Modern vs. Vintage Watches: What's Your Pick?

by Dana Li


For those of you who know me or have been following me for a while, it’s no secret that I love my vintage watches. For me, learning about the stories behind the watches and finding the perfect one in good condition is just as rewarding as getting to wear the watch for years to come. Vintage watches also tend to fit my very small wrist much better than most modern pieces do. Whether you have an extensive collection already or you’re looking to start your watch collection, here’s a few considerations when deciding whether a modern or vintage piece is right for you.


Two Rolexes: one vintage, one modern.

Wearability


I generally think about wearability of watches in two ways: how it can be worn under various conditions and how it fits on the wrist. While I do believe watches should be worn and loved, vintage watches will require more care than modern watches since they are much older, possibly preventing you from using it as a true tool watch. Any moisture is the number 1 enemy of vintage watches so I would not recommend going swimming with a vintage dive watch since the watch may no longer be water resistant. That being said, I do think a vintage watch can easily be a daily wear that you don’t have to worry too much about. I’ve put my 52-year-old GMT through hiking trips, flights (of course), and much more and it’s held up incredibly well through it all. If you don’t want the hassle of maintaining a vintage watch and want to be able to wear your watches to the beach, when you’re swimming, or on your next outdoor adventure worry-free, a modern watch may be a better bet for you.

In terms of fit, modern watches usually come in larger case sizes compared to vintage ones, especially any sport or tool watch. In addition, the cases on modern watches tend to have a “heavier” look to them (think the new Rolex Submariner maxi cases vs. a vintage Submariner case). If you’re looking for a watch that has a less hefty look, a vintage piece may be a great choice since they typically come in smaller case sizes and a less hefty-looking design. The smaller cases found in many vintage watches are also incredibly versatile and work for everyone. One of the reasons why I prefer vintages is because they wear better on my wrist, but I will reach for a modern watch when I want a bolder look.

Servicing


When to service a watch can be a controversial topic in the watch community. Some believe you shouldn’t service your watch until it completely doesn’t work, while others believe you should have some sort of schedule for regular maintenance. Regardless of your preference is, vintage watches are likely going to need servicing more often than a modern watch.


Servicing vintage watches also comes with a few considerations. Since these watches are older, it is not uncommon for movement and other watch parts (i.e. the bezel, crown, etc.) to no longer be produced, making it difficult to source parts if repairs or replacements are needed. Working with a watchmaker who has access to these parts or an ability to source them will be key for vintage pieces. The last thing you want is a watch where the repaired parts are not period correct or even correct to the movement or watch.

Availability and Budget


Probably the two most important factors in deciding between modern or vintage watches are availability and budget. Depending on the watch you’re looking for, there may be advantages to considering a vintage or modern reference. For example, a Rolex GMT starts at $9,700 at retail, but is notoriously difficult to get through any AD or boutique. If you’re willing to pay a premium, you’d likely be able to get the same modern Rolex GMT for $18-$20K; however, you could also get a vintage reference for roughly the same price point. Some vintage GMT references may also come with features a modern one won’t, like a patinated bezel, glossy gilt dial, and more, making each watch unique.


Vintage watches can also be a great affordable alternative to newer watches. If you’re looking for a precious metal dress watch, you can commonly find one with a solid 14K gold case for $5,000-$6,000 in great condition (as of January 2022). For reference, most brands price their current gold watches at upwards of $15K.


On the flip side, buying vintage watches will require much more research to make sure you end up with a piece that’s in good condition and authentic. In addition, the prices in the vintage market tend to fluctuate frequently so a watch that may have been in your budget may suddenly not be a month later.

Final Thoughts


There are many factors to consider when deciding whether a modern or vintage watch fits best with your lifestyle and in your collection. Regardless of whether you go modern or vintage, it pays off to do your research and understand the all the aspects of the particular piece that you’re looking for.