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Can You Be A ‘Serious’ Watch Collector On A Budget?

Can You Be A ‘Serious’ Watch Collector On A Budget? Watch Buying

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To read the reports from SIHH (Salon International de la Haute Horologerie) or the latest auction headlines, you would think that watch collecting is the preserve of the super-rich. Prices with four, five or even six zeros seem to be the norm and those non-millionaires amongst us can feel reduced to observer status only.

So what can you buy if your pockets are not so deep? The good news is that there is a lot of fun to be had in the shallow end. There are “serious” watches of significance that can be bought for less than the price of a quartz fashion piece.

Can You Be A ‘Serious’ Watch Collector On A Budget? Watch Buying

The restless drive for innovation pursued by watch companies has left a trail of “firsts” and these are a good place to start for the cost-conscious collector. An example of the first ever automatic wristwatch, the Harwood from the late 1920s can be bought for less than £300.

The technological turbulence of the 1950s and 60s provides fertile ground for “firsts.” If you can bear to wear anything powered by a battery, try a Hamilton Electric, although these can be unreliable for everyday wear. A better choice would be the first watch built without a balance wheel and hairspring, the Bulova Accutron. Easy to find, cheap to buy and robust enough to wear even after 60 years. The Omega Megasonic is the next step in electronic watches, but takes some nerve. Their complex mechanism is almost impossible to fix, so buy a working one and hold your breath. The first quartz watch, The Seiko Astron is now getting quite pricey but the first quartz digital, Hamilton’s Pulsar is still a cheap buy.

Can You Be A ‘Serious’ Watch Collector On A Budget? Watch Buying

Back to mechanical watches, the first automatic alarm, the classic Jaeger LeCoultre Memovox is still available for very little money and if you can stand the watch minus the Jaeger on the dial, the US LeCoultre models can be bought for even less. The first of the high-beat movements, (the last hurrah before quartz), offer great watchmaking at a reasonable price. Girard Perregaux was the first but the Longines Ultra Chron is a good alternative. A quirky but valid choice would be the first mechanical watch with a plastic movement, the Tissot Idea 2001 or Astrolon. A commercial disaster at the time, these were seen as disposable and so are now rare but not expensive to buy.

Can You Be A ‘Serious’ Watch Collector On A Budget? Watch Buying

A way to get close to some iconic watches, but still to save money is to look for partner brands or companies that shared movements. Want the Rolex Prince but can’t quite afford one? Try the Gruen Techi-Quadron. It’s the same movement and a similar look for much less cash. Heuer, Breitling and Hamilton all used the Chronomatic movement after its launch in 1969 but it is the first two that attract the attention. Despite being the rarest of the three, the Hamilton can be bought for much less. Similar can be said for the El Primero. Zenith and Movado were owned by the same holding company and so the El Primero appears in the Movado Datron, again a more affordable purchase. The other possible contender for the position of ‘first automatic chronograph’ is the Seiko 6139 Speedtimer. While having no partners, this watch has always been a good value buy and compared to its Swiss competitors, is a bargain.

With MB&F and Romain Jerome bringing the driving watch back into vogue, try tracking down the original inspiration that is the Amida Digitrend. Designed as a cheap but innovative take on digital watches like the Girard Perregaux Casquette, their cheapness has meant few have survived until now. If you can find one, it still won’t break the bank, unlike the modern versions.

Can You Be A ‘Serious’ Watch Collector On A Budget? Watch Buying

Can You Be A ‘Serious’ Watch Collector On A Budget? Watch Buying

Whether buying for big money or on a budget, the same rules apply. Go for the best condition you can afford and remember that originality is key. The lower cost does mean a lower risk so the purchase should be much less angst-ridden. Don’t follow the herd, chasing the same few “grail” watches. Learn your history and have some fun with watches that can be both cheap and interesting. Which low-cost rarity would you like to own?

View Fellow’s Upcoming Watch Auctions – for these and similar affordable vintage timepieces.



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  • Zeitblom

    Well, looking at these hideous things, I conclude that the answer to the question, “Can You Be A ‘Serious’ Watch Collector On A Budget?” is a firm “No!” As a certain Ariel Adams once said [when reviewing the ploprof], vintage watches basically suck. Short and to the point.

    • P Oktori

      Zeitblom Well, now, easy does it… I think there are true gems among vintage watches, including old Panerais, Breitlings, Tudors and Rolexes, some of which still trump contemporary models. For me the issue is with the size of these watches, and, obviously, the design. But give me a vintage Breitling over a new one, any time. The new ones are just ghastly, from a design point of view. And so it goes on… I just don’t see myself ever wearing anything smaller than 40mm, and I have tiny wrists. I just don’t think it looks as good. The other problem, but a smaller one, lies in the movements: too many old wristwatches are based on the same old handwound model with just about 48 to 56 hr reserve.

  • Ulysses31

    There are some great vintage watches to be found that are every bit as beautiful if not more so than current designs.  The ones listed here just happen to be bad choices.  If you can get over the smaller size, you can get some nice pieces.

    • Zeitblom

      Ulysses31 Yes, there are lots of beautiful vintage watches… the ones that, unlike these, have been restored, usually at vast expense. And the result is still invariably technically inferior. And way too small.  
      I guess I was just reacting to what usually happens when, for example, you want to discuss the latest crop of Zeniths on some discussion group. Nine times out of ten some bore will declare loudly that all modern Zeniths are inferior to those of the 1960’s, and then try to “prove” this by posting up a retina-scarring picture of some hideous old piece of Zenith junk with a stained face and badly corroded hands.

  • lightningslim

    I have a large number of watches in my collection, enough to wear a different one every few days for a year or two, and the vast majority of them are not Panerais, Breitlings, Tudors, Rolexes or Omegas, as one  of these would possibly pay for all the rest of them! I enjoy a blog to watch for all the watches I’ll never be able to afford – even if I could I’d have to have spent an awful lot of money on much more important things!  :o)
    However, I am a serious collector, just not a rich collector!  :o)

  • DangerussArt

    Not sure I like a sponsored poster defining what makes a serious collector.  like lightningslim, I don’t buy vintage, or “significant” watches. My most expensive watch is well under $10K. I own perhaps a hundred watches I really like. Most are under a grand. I am not a wealthy individual, yet I collect, and I’m discerning, enthusiastic and “serious” about the hobby.  I steadfastly refuse to acquire something I don’t care for because it meets someone else’s criteria for “collectible”. Especially someone trying to sell vintage watches.

    • DangerussArt I actually really like point of view of Adrian who wrote this piece. Like all collecting, what is “serious” and isn’t “serious” is really a subjective point of view. It offers an interesting perspective and like all opinions should be taken with whatever grain of salt the reader deems useful.

  • Oelholm

    That was a really well-written article – if all the sponsored posts were written thus, it be great!

  • MEdwardDavisIII

    From the title I expected the article to focus on the Japanese brands.  I know both Seiko collectors and G-Shock collectors.  Of course, I know people who collect Invicta too, but the title mentioned ‘serious’.

  • Laazer Jemeis

    Nice product ,,,, more creativity in the watches.

  • Chronocase

    There are some excellent watches that are less than $500. I have a collection of around 30 watches, all mechanical, some Swiss, some Japanese, some Russian and a couple of excellent Chinese.
    Trouble is there is an awful lot of snobbery in the watch business and many collectors wouldn’t look at anything if it’s not Swiss.
    The Russian chronographs are based on the excellent Valjoux 7734 and have proved to be rugged and very reliable. Their designs are also very creative often based on a retro look.
    In fact a couple of my Russian watches have become my favourites in my collection which includes 5 Chronoswiss, 2 Longines chronos, 1 DuBois chrono, 1 Cuervo y Sobrinos, 2 Bulova.
    I have avoided big brands because they offer poor value for money.