Navigating the Vintage Watch Market

by Dana Li


The world of vintage watches is never-ending, which can be daunting for both new watch enthusiasts and seasoned collectors. Luckily, there is a wealth of resources online from blogs to videos from the watch community that has reliable information on all the brands and models out there that can help you get a great basic understanding of the watches you’re looking for. Basic research can also help you make sure you find a watch that’s authentic and in good condition that you can enjoy for years to come. If you’re thinking of getting a vintage watch and are new to the vintage market, here are a few things to keep in mind.


My vintage 1940s Bulova ladies' cocktail watch


Condition, Condition, Condition


When looking for vintage watches, understanding the reference of a particular watch you’re looking for can help you evaluate the condition and authenticity of your watch. Over-polished cases and service parts are just some of the many considerations that can affect the overall condition and value of a vintage piece. While certain aspects like a watch not keeping time properly or stretching in a bracelet are more obvious, other aspects of a watch’s condition that have changed are much more subjective and can even add value to a watch. For example, dials that have changed colors due to sun exposure can take on a gorgeous patina that can even command a premium on the vintage market. Bezels that have faded significantly over time and have taken on a “ghosted” look can also be valuable to some collectors, even if they aren’t as functional. Because of the many different variables and preferences when it comes to condition, I find it helpful to focus on looking for watches with the original parts and movement and being flexible on other aspects such as patina and bracelet/strap based on what I liked for the watch.


“Buy the Seller”


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. Although counterfeits are relatively easy to spot, the real issue with vintage watches is making sure that your watch does not have parts or movements swapped and assembled in a way that renders it a “franken-watch”. While franken-watches may contain all authentic parts, they’re often altered in a way where the watch itself is no longer the watch it claims to be. Examples of franken-ed watches can be a dial swapped into a case that doesn’t fit it or a later movement put into an earlier case. Working with a reputable dealer will help avoid these issues and ensure you get a proper, working vintage watch in good condition.


Budget


Since the prices of vintage watches tend to fluctuate constantly and recent auction results have been nothing short of record-breaking, it can be very easy to spend more than you anticipated on a single purchase. Unless you are adamant about acquiring a specific watch and have some flexibility, setting a budget for your vintage watch purchase (and sticking to it) can be helpful to make sure you don’t get caught up in spending too much on a particular watch and encourage you to evaluate multiple options. With that being said, if you have your heart set on a piece, you might need to build some wiggle room in your budget since prices can change very quickly.


Servicing costs in the future are also something to consider. Vintage watches will need servicing more often than modern watches and it’s key to work with a reputable watchmaker so that if you need any parts replaced, they will be able to find period correct parts that keep your watch as true to the original as possible. If you have an older watch with parts that are no longer manufactured, servicing your watch may be more expensive and should be something to factor into the future maintenance costs of owning your vintage watch.



Get to Know Fellow Watch Collectors


One of my favorite parts about looking for and learning about vintage watches is being able to meet and talk to fellow watch collectors. Since buying vintage watches requires more research both in finding a piece and learning about the particular aspects a certain reference so you can spot any potential red flags, you will naturally end up speaking to the seller of the watch and build some sort of rapport as you evaluate whether or not you want to make the purchase. Every vintage piece I’ve acquired so far has allowed me to connect with dealers and collectors from all over the world and learn the stories behind their watches. It can be an incredibly rewarding experience to acquire a vintage watch since you will be able to form relationships with people within the watch community that you otherwise may not have if you were to walk into a boutique or dealer to acquire a watch.