Collecting vintage watches
For their individuality, sense of intimacy and subtle nuances in design, watches are enduringly popular to the vintage collector
The time is everywhere – on our smartphones, computer screens, car dashboards, TVs, even microwaves. But despite becoming technologically outdated, wristwatches haven’t fallen out of fashion.
Patek Philippe laid claim to designing the first ever wristwatch in 1868, but it wasn’t until the First World War that most watches transitioned from the pocket to the wrist – the physical demands of trench warfare made the cumbersome pocket watch obsolete.
‘Until the 1990s, wristwatches sold less well than pocket watches at auction,’ says Penny Andrews, a senior watch specialist at Bonhams. ‘But pocket watches are much less versatile, and those who collect them often have multiple examples of similar watches, so it takes something really spectacular to get their attention. Vintage wristwatches appeal to a bigger and more diverse audience, with prices from £5 to £5m plus.’
In the watch world, some say ‘vintage’ is anything more than 20 years old, while others only include watches made before 1980. But whether classified as vintage or pre-owned, prices for older watches by premium brands have been booming, especially during the pandemic. In May 2021, a rare and important 1953 Patek Philippe Ref. 2523 world time wristwatch sold for a record-busting $7.8m at Phillips.
Find out what the difference between vintage and antique is here.
Many people own just one watch, which they wear every day, possibly for their entire adult lives – they end up owning a vintage watch as they themselves turn ‘vintage’. At the other end of the scale are prolific collectors, who amass multiple watches and become deeply knowledgeable about the subtleties of their design and manufacture.
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‘Collectors often feel passionately about vintage wristwatches,’ says Penny. ‘They are personal – you wear them on your body. Maybe a watch has been passed down to you, or it marks a special occasion. Maybe you bought it yourself as a reward for a job promotion. There’s lots of emotion in a watch.’ Like furniture, well-made watches develop a patina as they age. ‘Vintage Rolex, for example, were sometimes made with black faces,’ Penny adds. ‘If the owner lived in the tropics, the dial aged differently, fading to chocolate brown or even pitting. Collectors love that kind of detail, which you just don’t get with new watches.
Watches with interesting provenance fetch higher prices. We are soon to sell a Rolex Daytona, bought by the vendor in the 1970s. It’s likely to make £25,000 to £30,000 – which is more than a comparable watch without the history.’ At auction, Penny says most buyers are male, and the resale value of men’s watches tends to be higher, perhaps because women typically have more options for self-adornment, whereas men pour their passion into watches.
Vintage men’s watches are divided into dress watches, originally worn for formal occasions, and sports watches, which have additional functionalities designed for a specific purpose, like timing motor races, flying, or deep-sea diving. Nowadays, a good-quality vintage sports watch is likely to cost more than the modern equivalent, whereas dress watches tend to be cheaper than a new model.
Really dedicated collectors are often interested in the technical modifications made to sports watches, and embark on a quest for examples that show the development of their favourite model over time. Rolex, for example, changed the material used to make luminous dots on its dials due to the radioactivity of radium – a keen collector might seek out watches with different versions of the dots.
Small differences between watches can provoke great excitement. In July 2020, Bonhams sold a Rolex Comex (a diving watch made in collaboration with French diving company Comex) dating from 1976. Including the premium, it made £18,812. Five months later, Bonhams sold a very similar Rolex Comex, this time from 1979, which made vastly more at £150,250. Why? The first watch didn’t have the word ‘Comex’ on the dial.
Condition impacts value, but enthusiasts are wary of what they call ‘Frankenwatches’ – watches that have replacement parts, even if the newer parts were issued by the genuine manufacturer. ‘Fifteen to 20 years ago, the trend was to repolish the case and restore the dial,’ says Daniel Somlo, director of boutique Somlo London, which specialises in vintage wristwatches. ‘Nowadays, work like that would tank the value, because buyers are looking for authenticity.’
It’s all in the name, too. ‘At auction, brands like Rolex, Patek Philippe and Cartier are particularly sought after,’ says Penny, ‘followed by Jaeger-LeCoultre, Piaget, and Vacheron Constantin. But high-quality vintage sports watches like the Universal Genève Tri Compax and Enicar are underappreciated.’
While some collectors pick and mix brands, or love just one brand’s aesthetic or history, others choose a brand for more personal reasons. Daniel, whose shop is the only specialist Omega vintage watch retailer in the world, says that buyers often want an Omega because their father or grandfather wore one. It’s sentimental, but they also trust the brand – they know their father’s watch kept perfect time.
Worlds away from utilitarian sports watches, ladies’ cocktail watches are first and foremost dazzling pieces of jewellery that also incorporate tiny timepieces. Sometimes the lavishly bejewelled bracelet hides the watch dial completely. Their small faces, high gem value and fragility mean the more flamboyant ladies’ cocktail watches are unlikely to be worn every day. But Daniel stresses that the more restrained bracelet watches are very wearable, and that ladies’ vintage watches by top makers are just as groundbreaking as men’s watches.
‘In the 1960s, Piaget opened a high jewellery division. They invented an ultra-thin watch mechanism that would allow them to incorporate dials made from stones like lapis lazuli, jade and onyx. They were working at the forefront of innovation. This wasn’t just about profit. For Piaget, these watches were a labour of love.’
Given the surging values of vintage wristwatches, they’re sometimes bought purely as heirlooms. But Penny and Daniel both think it’s a shame for a good watch to be kept in a safe – they were made to be worn. In five years’ time, today’s must-have smartphone is likely to be broken or superseded by a flashier version. In contrast, whether you collect to wear, collect for investment, or collect for the sheer joy of it, premium vintage wristwatches should remain timeless.
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