Collecting watches is a fantastic hobby. However, it can be very overwhelming, especially in the beginning.
In this article, I’ll explain how to start a vintage watch collection the right way.
Find your niche
If you search for “vintage watch” on eBay, you’ll get more than 146K hits. Sure, you can buy everything within budget but that’s not a good idea.
The best thing to do is to make a plan and stick to it. This allows you to start saving money with a purpose so that the end goal is clear at all times.
What do you want to do with your watches? Do you plan to keep them in a safe and rotate one or two to wear? Do you want to buy a lot of cheaper watches or do you want a single high-end piece to enjoy? Do you prefer sports watches or dress watches? Do they need to be water-resistant?
Some collectors focus on a certain brand. Others focus on vintage military watches or perhaps watches made during the 1950s.
If you know what your niche will be, you can start to learn everything about it so you can become an expert. It’s easier to detect fakes and identify bargains if you’re an expert in your own niche.
Do your research
This is the most important aspect of collecting vintage watches.
There are so many mistakes you can make and traps to fall into that you need to do your homework. Sometimes, very small nuances can be the difference between a fantastic new addition to the collection and a disappointing Frankenwatch. It’s said that knowledge is power.
If you know what brand or model you’re after, try to learn everything you can about it. Read books, participate in watch forums, talk to other collectors, etc.
You’ll develop your area of expertise and collectors will come to you for advice. As a result, you may be able to make new friends and grow your network.
Every brand has an ideal customer profile or avatar, and watchmakers are no different. The design, the logo, the advertisement, and the brand story are all focused on a very specific target demographic. It’s subtle, but it’s there.
Branding can be the difference between liking a watch and loving a watch. It’s often hard to explain why because it mostly happens on a subconscious level.
Find a brand (or more than one) that resonates with you and stick with it because it fits your personality.
Find a good watchmaker
Unless you plan to repair and service your watches, you’ll need to find a competent watchmaker. If you’re serious about collecting, this is very important. Don’t make it an afterthought.
Every watchmaker has his or her expertise. Some like to work on modern high-end watches, and some like to restore vintage pieces. If you want to collect vintage watches, it’s crucial that your watchmaker has a large stock of parts for vintage movements or has an extensive network to be able to source them.
A watchmaker needs to be licensed to be allowed to order new parts from the manufacturer. Not every watchmaker is licensed. So, if you plan to collect Omega watches, your watchmaker needs to be licensed by Omega. The same goes for Rolex watches, etc.
For some movements, parts are very hard or even impossible to find. Some of the brands of which parts are nearly impossible to find are Universal Geneve and Pierce.
Once, I tracked a Universal Geneve Tri-Compax that had just been sold. I saw it being sold again four times in a relatively short period. Most likely because the new owner had high hopes that his or her watchmaker would be able to fix it, only to be disappointed.
So, if you want to buy a specific vintage piece, make sure that parts are available, should you need them.
Anthony L. from No BS Watchmaker describes three conditions of a watch repair in his book; good, fast, and cheap. You can only pick two of them. Three is impossible.
If you want your watch to be repaired quickly and cheaply, it won’t be done well. If you want your watch to be repaired quickly and competently, it’ll cost you.
Make sure you know how much a repair or service will cost you and how long it’ll take. It’ll make your life and that of your watchmaker much easier.
Focus on condition
Do you know the expression that three things matter in property: location, location, location? Well, for vintage watches, the phrase would be condition, condition, condition.
The condition of a watch is an essential factor to determine the value of a watch.
The condition of the case and the dial is crucial. That’s because it’s hard and expensive to restore a case and you can’t restore a dial without compromising the originality. It’ll be a redial and redials are worth less than original watches. The condition of the movement is also important, but in theory, this can be fixed by a competent watchmaker.
Always check the condition of the case. Does the watch have significant scratches or dings?
Some collectors advise against buying a watch with a plated case. So, don’t buy any gold-plated or chrome-plated watches. In my opinion, that’s a bit short-sighted. There are some great watches with a plated case out there. Just be sure that there’s no loss of plating because that’ll ruin a watch.
Also, check the lines and edges of the case. If the lines and edges aren’t sharp and clear, that could be a sign that the watch is overpolished. An overpolished watch is less desirable and therefore less valuable.
The dial needs to be in good condition because there’s not much you can do about it if it’s not.
Patina or discoloration can look great. Moisture stains and spots aren’t patina though. That means that the dial is damaged. Also, moisture stains can point to water damage in the movement, so be careful.
Dials on square or rectangular watches like a Cartier Tank or a Tag Heuer Monaco are often damaged around the edges and in the corners. This can’t be fixed so make sure you buy one in good condition.
The lume should ideally still be the original lume from the factory.
Check the color. If it’s too bright and clean, it’s possible that the watch has been relumed.
If you can, check the watch with a UV light. Newly applied lume will glow brightly after being exposed to UV light.
A relumed watch is less desirable and is therefore not worth as much.
Don’t buy into the hype
In the last couple of years, we’ve seen several watches that have been hyped relentlessly. Be careful not to buy into the hype.
Prices for watches like the Omega Speedmaster and stainless steel chronographs like Universal Geneve and Gallet, for example, kept climbing and got out of reach for the majority. Then, two things happened.
- Collectors were desperate to find worthy substitutes for the watches that got out of reach.
- Sellers and dealers promoted less desirable watches. These were harder to sell because all the collectors were after the hot ones.
This creates an environment of an artificially created supply and demand. If you combine that with websites/blogs, forums, and social media, the prices of some brands or models can double or even triple in a short period, but it’s not natural growth.
Some of the brands we’ve seen hyped recently are Panerai, Enicar, and Heuer.
Panerai because they’ve made dive watches for the Italian navy. Other vintage dive watches and military watches gained so much in value that it was only fair that Panerai would do too, right?
The hype of Heuer started as a counterpart to the explosion in the value of vintage Rolex and Tudor watches. Enicar was hyped because they’re stainless steel chronos with high-quality movements. Surely, they should be worth as much as the Universal Geneves and Gallets of this world.
At the moment, it looks like the hype is over for Panerai, Enicar, and Heuer. Don’t get me wrong; they’re fantastic watches. Just not worth the artificially inflated prices that were the result of the hype.
For example, there’s no reason why a Heuer with a Valjoux 7733 movement should cost $5000 while you can buy boatloads of chronos with a VJ 7733 for $500 each. Sure, you pay extra for the Heuer brand, but huge differences like that are absurd. It looks like many collectors have realized this as well because prices have stopped climbing and are even coming down.
You can easily find these watches on the market right now because it’s hard to sell them without taking a loss.
If you’re after a specific watch that looks like it’s hyped at the moment, wait until the hype is over. Otherwise, it would be like buying a house just before the crash of the housing market, and you’ll lose money.
Find a good dealer
If you’re starting with your collection, eBay is not the right place to buy watches. Yup, the choice of watches is enormous, but it’s a minefield out there. Vintage watches have been commercially hot for a while, and unfortunately, this also attracts the wrong crowd.
eBay is crawling with fakes and Frankenwatches, so if you’re not sure what to look for, the chance is high that you’ll get burned.
If someone asks me where to buy his or her first vintage watch, I always point them toward a trustworthy dealer. You might pay more, but the watch is guaranteed to be genuine. You’ll also get a warranty. So, if there’s something wrong with the watch within a specified period, you can return the watch for a repair or a refund.
Another good starting point is a watch forum. Find some honest, experienced collectors and ask if they’re willing to help you. Most of them have some watches for sale, or they know some reliable sellers who can help you find something.
Practise makes perfect
Don’t beat yourself up if you make a mistake. It happens. Even the most experienced collectors and dealers buy a lemon every once in a while. It’ll happen less and less when you gain more experience.
Your style will develop over time, and so will your taste for watches. It’s possible that you don’t like your first purchases in a couple of years, but that’s alright. You can sell them and look for something else.
If you don’t pay way more than market value, you’ll never lose a lot of money. Even if you do lose some money, think of it as a subscription fee that allowed you to enjoy the watch for a while.
Take your time
I know it’s hard but take your time. There will be other opportunities to buy a watch. If you rush it, there’s a chance that you make some mistakes or you miss something.
This is also why doing research is so important. If you know what you’re looking for and what you should pay attention to, you won’t need that much time to investigate when you have the chance to buy something.
Always ask for advice BEFORE you buy something because afterward, it’s often too late.
Do you have some more tips about starting a vintage watch collection? Let me know in the comments below.