Everything You Need To Know About Buying A Vintage Watch


We’re not knocking the appeal of a flashy new Rolex but from the history to the price tag, there is something special about buying a vintage watch. And it’s a purchasing decision you want to get right. That’s why SLMan asked Patrick Graf of Bucherer, Daniel Somlo of Somlo London and Ray Nichol from Steven Hale for everything you need to know about buying vintage and how to find ‘the one’.

Can you start off by telling us what makes a watch vintage?
Patrick: Generally a watch is categorised as vintage if it is older than 15 to 20 years, and if no original spare parts are produced anymore. But there is no official definition for this.
Daniel: A watch is vintage if it was made in the 70s or earlier but is under 100 years old. Anything over 100 years is considered antique.

Which are the best brands to look out for?
Daniel: Bigger brands such as Patek Philippe, Omega and Rolex are some of the most popular with collectors.

Ray: Agreed and that’s simply because they’ve been going the longest and they hold their value well. The military watch brands like Vacheron and Audemars Piguet are also incredibly popular and worth investing in if you like that style.

What should you be looking out for when buying a vintage piece?
Daniel: Tastes have changed in the last ten years or so in regards to condition. It used to be that, you would want the watch to be polished up and sparkling, with no marks and a crisp, clean, restored dial. Today it is often considered sacrilegious to do any of the above to a vintage watch. People like their watches to be as untouched as possible, having never felt the kiss of the polishing mop, with dials yellowed and flaking – giving them what is known as ‘patina’. This is why many of the most valuable watches are covered in scratches and dents but the case lines remain crisp.

Ray: One of the first questions you should ask is: how often has the dial been polished? The lesser, the better. Also: is the dial scratched? What is the state of the case? What condition is the bracelet in? Are the hands working? Is the bezel working? Make sure to have a check list of the parts and ensure those parts are all present, correct and – most importantly – original. When looking at a watch from the 50s, 60s, 70s or 80s, it’s crucial to check whether it still has its original dial.
Patrick: I’d recommend getting the support and expert opinion of a specialist or watch maker. There are a lot of pitfalls that can be avoided by having it checked by an expert.

"Patek Philippe, Omega and Rolex are some of the most popular with collectors."

How does age affect value and function?
Daniel: As a general rule, the older the watch, the more valuable – but this is a very broad statement and by no means absolute. There are innumerable exceptions and a watch that is 30 years old can be worth millions when a 100-year-old watch is worth scrap.

In terms of function, older watches are often a little more delicate. People often forget that a watch is a machine which, when used regularly, is constantly moving, 24 hours a day, with parts that are constantly wearing. It would be like driving a car continuously day and night without stopping and only servicing it once every few years. We do find, however, that older watches often used higher-quality materials than modern watches and often they lasted a lot longer than their contemporary equivalents.

What are the red flags to look out for when buying?
Daniel: First, look at where you are buying from: Joe Bloggs from eBay is unlikely to know as much about the watch they are selling as a specialist vintage watch dealer. Knowledge is key here and there are many pitfalls to catch out the unwary. Beware of buying vintage watches without seeing them in person. Not just to avoid fraudulent transactions, but also because it is a very different experience looking at an image online compared to holding the piece in your hand and trying it on. A vintage watch needs to promote some sort of emotional response in you, and they are so different to things you can buy from a boutique. They each have a story which makes them unique.

"Beware of buying vintage watches without seeing them in person."

How do you verify the history of a watch before buying?
Daniel: Make sure you know how the seller came about the piece and what has happened to it since they took possession. Service history is also really important to be aware of. Some brands have archives of all of the watches they have produced and offer an extract service, which gives information about the watch at the time of production. While this is by no means a guarantee that the watch is original in its current state, it certainly gives valuable insight.

How do you know you can trust the seller?
Patrick: Do some research on the seller or get a personal recommendation. But there is no 100% guarantee. The only way to be 100% sure is to buy from a retailer that has been certified by the watch brands and who has a longstanding history of trust and competence in the industry.

Daniel: Many experienced and trusted antiques dealers will be recognised by the British Antique Dealers Association (BADA) or LAPADA, which is a good indicator they are trusted experts.

How do you spot a fake?
Daniel: It honestly depends on how good the fake is! Some obvious giveaways are the quality of bracelets if it’s a sports watch, or if the complications function as they should. When a chronograph pusher ends up changing the date on the watch, chances are it’s not real. That being said there are some ‘super fakes’ out there which still cost several hundred pounds and contain real mechanical Swiss movements. As technology progresses, it is becoming easier to make better fakes, which really highlights the importance of going somewhere you can trust.

Should you be looking for original packaging?
Patrick: The more original items you can get, the better – these include the original box and the watch’s papers. When buying a pre-owned watch from a certified retailer, these things are not essential for the authentication of the watch. But they are certainly nice to have.

Daniel: Yes, it’s always nice to have if you can find it, but in my opinion it shouldn’t be a deal breaker. It is more important with some watches than others: Rolex, for example, doesn’t really provide much of an authentication service, so often the easiest way to check a Rolex is original is to have the paperwork with all the corresponding numbers on it from its original sale. However, most boxes for vintage watches were nothing like giant precious wood and leather presentation boxes you get for modern pieces. They tended to be simple, small leather affairs and they were often not kept by the original owners.

What sort of money should you be spending on a good vintage piece?
Daniel: There is no magic formula which says, ‘You must spend X on a watch for it to be good.’ There are watches in every price bracket that are good watches, and a £15,000 watch may be worse than a £5,000 watch. The main objective here is to find a price that suits you and a watch that fits that number.

Ray: In my opinion, you will struggle to buy a great vintage watch for £1,000 or even £2,000. For a starter watch, I would say £10,000 and then work your way up from there. Years ago you might have been able to buy some really decent watches for much less, but supply and demand and the growing popularity of vintage watch buying has meant the market is much more competitive and prices have increased.

How long should you hold onto a vintage watch before reselling to make a profit?
Daniel: It often depends on the brand and model. The vintage Omega Speedmasters, for example, have seen a big rise in value in the last decade, thanks to the 50th anniversary of the moon landing that made the watch famous. However, buying vintage watches as investments can be very dangerous. The market for the most expensive watches is notoriously volatile and one instance in recent history showcases this perfectly: in the early 2000s the prices of Rolex Daytona chronographs were skyrocketing upwards until 2008 and the financial crisis, when the bubble burst and they tumbled off a cliff.

Ray: If you are buying from a dealer, you could sell between a year and two years later and, as long as you paid the right money, you should be able to see a return. You could be looking at anything from 10% up to even 40% if you bought the right model at the right price. As Daniel has mentioned, the vintage watch market crashed in 2008 when we went into the recession. If you bought the right watches at that time – for example, sports models like GMTs, Submariners, Sea-Dwellers, Daytonas – you would probably have ten-folded your money by now, maybe even 20-folded.

"Collecting vintage watches is one of the most rewarding things you can do."

Where in the UK are there great vintage watch shops?
Daniel: Great vintage watch shops are becoming a rare breed in the UK. All of them can be found in London. Bond Street is historically the go-to for luxury watches and there are a few bastions of vintage left in the area. Our own shop is located in the Burlington Arcade.

Tell us about aftercare – how should you look after your vintage watch? 
Daniel: Be especially careful of magnetism. Modern watches are usually shielded but electronics such as smartphones and clock radios have powerful magnets in them which can affect a vintage watch more severely. Also, water and moisture: even if you have a vintage diving watch, I would never recommend getting it anywhere near water. Seals can degrade and metals can get pitted, which can allow water ingression. We have seen movements and dials get completely destroyed within hours of water coming into contact. And they can’t exactly be exchanged for a new one.

Cleaning every now and then with a cloth and a dry, soft toothbrush to clear the dead skin that accumulates in the crevices would not go amiss. And keeping the watch serviced and in good working order would always benefit. One thing to be careful of is making sure that whoever is servicing the watch keeps all of the important parts original, like the hands and dial. It is staggering how many beautiful original watches are completely ruined by service replacement parts. When it comes to serious aftercare and repairs, try taking it to its original brand if they still exist. Otherwise, accredited workshops would usually be safest.

Finally, is there anything else to know about the vintage watch world?
Daniel: It may sound a bit daunting, but don’t let it scare you. Collecting vintage watches is one of the most rewarding things you can do. There is so much history to these little machines which were once the pinnacle of mechanical technology. Every single one has had a different life and has gained its own character, making it unique from anything else. The real joy is learning about the stories and legends of each watch and how that journey has lasted through the years and ended up on your wrist.

For more information, visit SHWR.co.uk, Bucherer.com and Somlo.com

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