Vintage Watch Collecting

Vintage Watch Collecting

Vintage Watch Collecting Feature Articles

Please enjoy the following article by Jason Cormier of Matt Baily who sells watches in Canada. He is a vintage watch lover (lots of love to Rolex it seems) and natural born historian.

In today’s watch market, buyers are spoiled for choice. You can have any variation, any function, any material, and in any price category. And within each category you will find dozens of brands offering competing products. It’s overwhelming, but it means you will never be at a loss when looking for that special watch (or five).

Some of us prefer to reject that choice altogether and go for the old junk.

Yes, I am a vintage watch lover. To a modern watch geek this obsession with the old can appear curious. To the average layperson it is absolute madness. I am the sort of lunatic who seeks out unpolished cases, perfectly faded tritium markers, and esoteric stuff like original crystals and stamped warranty papers. I am an unabashed and unapologetic vintage nut. And I would like to make a case for my obsession; not to justify it or convince anyone it is somehow superior, but merely to explain the passion that drives me to seek out vintage watches rather than purchasing new ones.

Vintage Watch Collecting Feature Articles

I’ve long followed Ariel Adams and John Biggs on the blogosphere. I am a fan of their candid and straightforward opinions, and their podcast together is a real treat for watch lovers who want something more than the typical industry press-release drivel. But I have taken exception to their attitudes towards vintage watches. Ariel and John are clear that they much prefer new watches to old ones, and have a hard time understanding why anyone would chose to buy vintage. That’s where I come in — I’m here to offer the counterpoint on behalf of vintage watch lovers and collectors.

Why would anyone want to collect old watches when the new stuff is far superior in terms of finishing and engineering? Everyone has his or her own reasons. Some older collectors purchase pieces that seduced them during their youth, but they couldn’t afford at the time. Others love to complete collections of a particular brand or model, obsessively seeking out different variations. Others still want to own rare pieces that are extremely exclusive and historically important. In my case, I have two main reasons — firstly I am a historian, secondly I always seek out things that are distinctive.

I have a degree in history and pieces with historical significance have always had a particular allure to me. Something about owning an object from another period that has witnessed decades of use, and perhaps been related to some important event, is a very romantic notion to me. I own a vintage Omega Speedmaster Professional because of its direct connection to the space program and the moon landings. I lust after an early Rolex GMT Master for its relation to aviation… and because my favourite author, the ever-gonzo Hunter S. Thompson, wore two GMT Masters at once. The other reason, distinctiveness, is the exclusivity of owning a vintage piece. Anyone can walk into a dealer and purchase a new watch. Vintage watches are much more exclusive and elusive, not for their prices, but for the small number of collectors who wear and trade them. Finding a good vintage piece requires hunting, research, and sifting through dozens of examples until you find “the one”. Some people seek out grail watches — for me every vintage watch is a grail piece that needs to be obsessively hunted down. The thrill is as much in the chase as it is in owning the damned thing.

Some vintage lovers will proclaim, loudly, that vintage was better than all this modern mass-produced junk. They pine for the good ol’ days where Swiss farmers finished wheels and cogs in their attics during the winter, using the finest tools wrapped in unicorn hair and only assembling components on the thighs of beautiful virgins, and say that modern mass production has nothing on good old-fashioned hand craftsmanship. I disagree. I work with watches on a daily basis and I have no delusions about vintage stuff. It is not better. Often times it is worse in terms of performance, reliability and finishing. For highly collectible pieces the price does not reflect the essential value of the piece, it only reflects the rarity. That isn’t to say that vintage is garbage, far from it. You can have a reliable, accurate daily watch that was made several decades ago. But in terms of finishing and an overall feel of quality, new stuff wins hands down. You need to realize this when collecting vintage — just because prices reach into the stratosphere doesn’t mean the item will be astonishingly well made. It usually isn’t the case.

Vintage Watch Collecting Feature Articles

Being a vintage collector means having a different set of criteria for what you expect from watches. Where many people would gravitate towards a perfectly restored and polished examples, a true collector will scoff at those pristine rebuilds in favour of one that is entirely original (and probably well worn). This means the case was never re-polished, the dial and hands are original and nicely patina’d, and the bracelet is original to the watch. Finding a watch that is more than 20 years old with the original box and papers is a damn near religious experience, if you find one that is unmolested and completely original to boot it is a miracle.

If you can’t understand why this is important, then vintage probably isn’t for you - If every hairline scratch on your watch enrages you, or you obsessively scan over the watch with a loupe looking for tiny flaws, you are better off sticking to new pieces. This is usually what alienates people the most from vintage, the fact that old and beaten up is valued over new and pristine. Think of a concours restoration on a car versus a good running example that has never been restored. Collectors will go ga-ga over the original car, while the everyday person will gravitate towards the flawless nut-n-bolt restoration. Perfect originality is rare, and is thus desirable.

Vintage Watch Collecting Feature Articles

Ariel and John made a point in one of their podcasts — when collecting vintage, there is a lot of crap out there. And I agree. The market has shifted considerably since the 1970s. After the Quartz Crisis decimated the Swiss watch industry in the early 70s, mechanical movements were considered obsolete. In the 1980s and 1990s, the mechanical watch industry rebounded by focusing on the craftsmanship of fine mechanical movements (and aiming mechanical watches at the high-end market). Before the Quartz Crisis, mechanical movements were the only watch movements out there and had no such mystique outside of haute-complications.

Many inexpensive watches of yore were disposable commodities, like a modern Timex. Most were poorly made and were not at all impressive in terms of function or finishing. But with the emergence of quartz and the subsequent elevation of mechanical movements people are now viewing any mechanical watch as a luxury piece, no matter how awful it really is. Blame eBay and Antiques Roadshow for making people think that any old piece of junk is a potential fortune. Most people who get burned by the vintage market fall into the trap of buying junk, or are seduced by franken-pieces / fakes due to lack of research. I’ll admit that collecting vintage is not for the faint of heart and requires a lot of background information — which I find is most of the fun.

Vintage Watch Collecting Feature Articles

Collecting vintage is not for the uninitiated. I don’t recommend it to people with a casual interest in watches. You need to inform yourself and be aware of junk, fakes, aftermarket parts, disreputable sellers, poorly serviced movements and basket-cases, franken-watches cobbled from parts, etc. Today’s buyers have the advantage of reams of information available online for just about any marque. If you have an interest in a particular brand or model, start researching. You’ll be amazed at how much information you can find on websites, blogs and forums. You’ll also be amazed by how many horror stories are out there, which is good fodder for learning from the mistakes of others. It helps to find a reputable brick and mortar store that deals in pre-owned and vintage watches; if you build a relationship with a knowledgeable retailer you will be much less likely to get burned. You will also want to find a good watchmaker with a lot of experience, as it is inevitable that you will need to get your pieces serviced. Having a good watchmaker at your disposal can make the process much less painful and far less expensive.

I’m not here to try and convince anyone that vintage is better. If you look at it logically it doesn’t make sense at all — you will have far fewer headaches if you stick to new stuff with the backup of a manufacturer’s warranty and the support of a modern sales and service network. What I hope to have done is given a small glimpse of the passion I have for watches in general and how this has turned into a love of vintage pieces. I find it irritating when people dismiss vintage watch collecting out of hand. It takes a particular personality to enjoy vintage collecting. If you have that spark, run with it - if you don’t, then find your own niche. It’s a lot more fun to hunt down rare vintage items than it is walking into an authorize dealer and walking out with a watch. Loving vintage watches is all about passion — it can’t be rationalized or made logical. If you think about it, owning any high-end watch isn’t rational anyway. You can tell the time with your cell phone with perfect accuracy - why spend thousands on a device that tells time with obsolete and archaic technology? Why indeed.

-Thanks to Jason for this good read.-

  • carolyn

    Amen, brother.

  • RAC

    I’m a long time collector of Patek Phillipe. I’ve owned vintage and modern. Without fail, every Patek I purchased post -1999 required complete servicing after 2-3 years of use. I found this be to true for both simple and complicated pieces. As for my vintage Pateks, I have watches from the 50’s and 60’s that haven’t been serviced in 15+ years and work flawlessly. A year ago I sold off everything made pre-1990 and will NEVER by a new Patek again. So while most modern watches might be better made than those from the past, my experiences with Patek seems to suggest that they lost their “touch” once they moved all of their various workshops to under one roof in Plan-les-Ouates.

  • vmarks

    I think I can effectively summarize this as, the motivation for both Mr. Adams, Mr. Biggs and Mr. Cormier is the same: having the watch that they want, and accepting no substitutes for it.

    Mr. Cormier prefers examples connected to history, and looks for them in unmolested condition. Mr. Adams and Mr. Biggs have an appreciation for new pieces made with tasteful choices or interesting complications.

    I fall on both sides of the old/new continuum. I prefer some newer pieces, but I do desire some older examples, and I am currently assembling a franken out of parts bought off ebay. I know that my franken will offend folks like Mr. Cormier who are looking for the proper watch with every part an authentic part from the correct time period. But it’s not for him – it’s for me, and it’s going to satisfy a few things: my first Rolex (yes, I can call it that, because the movement and case are authentic – although Mr. Cormier may disagree, given that I have an aftermarket handset, aftermarket crystal and a refinished dial that may or may not be authentic) – and it’s satisfying a look that I want, that of the classic 6541 Rolex dial. I will never afford the astronomical prices a vintage 6541 fetch, and would never wear that piece out and about, but with the watch I’m building, I expect to do so comfortably.

    Sure, I’d love to have an MB&F, and that vintage 6541 Rolex. Oh, and that Harry Winston with the numbers that explode, or an Urwerk. There’s room in this hobby for all of us. If we all were dedicated only to vintage pieces, there’d be no watch industry making new parts. If we only pay attention to the new, we lose appreciation for that which has come before. It’s a big field, and there’s a lot of good to be seen in the old and the new.

    Ariel, thank you for publishing this. I really enjoyed it.

    —- Anyone got a 1520/1530/1550/1560/1570 movement? I need one to complete my project watch.

    • Glad you found it enjoyable.

  • Paul Anders

    Thank you Jason for an excellent article about vintage watch collecting.
    After 10 years of studying watches of all kinds on the internet, I find
    you comments very accurate.

    I would like to add that there is a category of watch users that I would
    call “conservative watch users”. A good example would be a 30 year old
    man working his way up the administration of a bank. This man needs
    a reliable watch for work but needs a watch that looks conservative.
    A higher end Swiss mechanical watch would work quite well for him,
    keeps relatively good time, well constructed, looks quite dressy, and requires
    relatively little upkeep, except maybe a 4 year cleaning service.
    If this person is not aware that he is a “conservative watch user” he may be
    disappointed by the less than perfect accuracy, and the need to service the
    watch once in a while.

    I think the previous commentator “RAC” could possibly fit in this category.
    For the conservative watch user, there are watches out there that are
    extremely accurate, require almost no maintenace, and very little care because
    they are solar, have a conservative design, and are built to last. These watches out perform the mechanical Rolexes and Omegas for such a user.

    The only field the Rolexes and Omegas would outperform this latter type of watch
    is in the field of “fancy name”. But then, Rolex and Omega could also produce
    a quartz watch that is solar powered using their original older designs.

    Thank you for an excellent article about “vintage” watch collecting and what
    drives the vintage watch collector.


    • Thanks for the thoughts Paul.

  • Eric

    Living in Tokyo means I have ready access to a really famous watch reseller and while I see vintage Rolexes and the like, it always bothers me that the “history” of the watch was someone else’s. If it were my dad’s or grandfather’s, that would be one thing, but not knowing anything about the past of a GMT Master (like Magnum PI’s) makes it much less meaningful for me. Guess growing up with that storyline from Magnum (about the watch being his dad’s) kind of spoiled me?

    My two yen,

  • Larry D.

    Very good article…I enjoyed it a lot. My passion for watches started when I was 8 years old when my grandfather gave me his vintage 1940’s Gruen automatic, which I still have to this day. I have a beautiful 1920’s Bulova that just screams Art Deco that is in near mint condition that I got at an estate sale 15 or so years ago. My father recently passed away and left me his watch collection…which included a late 1940’s Bulova, which is being repaired, and a 1947 Elgin Self-Winding Shockmaster that still works like the day he got it in Biloxi MS when he was in the Air Force during the Korean War. I have put a nice alligator strap on it and wear it proudly in my fathers memory. Thanks again!!!!

  • Pat I.

    Nice article, Ariel. Thanks!

    I too fall in both categories. I’m a newbie. I love new watches but the vintage pieces tend to evoke a time when – maybe it’s the design vocabulary of the time I dunno)..but they are captivating. For example – I have a mint ’62 Omega Seamaster with a linen patterned dial. It looks like something you’d see on “Mad Men”. For me it gives me a taste of a period when folks dressed better, acted with a modicum of civility, held doors open for women,etc.

    I know this sounds corny, but that’s my reason for buying vintage.

    And yes my ’62 Omega and my ’52 Girard Prrageaux (a first purchase -with a mediocre restoration job) were both serviced prior to purchase and run flawlessly.

    I love new watches because of the designs as well, although good design is sometimes
    compromised for the sake of shock value and the whims of egotistical designer.

    But the great thing about new watches is the stunning and interesting selections available at many price levels. But some of the lower price ranges offer nothing but quartz watches.

    The only issue I have with vintage is the amount of know-how one has to accumulate to avoid getting ripped off – either because the watches are not 100% original, they’re fakes or composite watches.

    If I had – say – 800-1000 bucks to spend – I’d probably go vintage. I’ll get a nice name brand wtach with a decent mechanical movement made in switzerland or the USA. Anything above that – well it’s a toss up based on my mood and what catches my eye

  • kris c

    There is a lot to love in good vintage watches, but I can’t get enough of my modern conveniences. In almost everything, really.

  • Nice Article and excellent information on vintage watch collection. you will find an eclectic mix of classic watch brands, shapes, and histories.

  • EarnestWilliams

    Very classy, and classic. I’m sure I’ll enjoy the white gold version better, but thanks you for not making it rose gold. I love the layout.

  • watchcollecto

    what a fantastic review i love the double sea dweller, vintage i never liked till a few a years ago when i purchased a 5513 sub and was hooked on the patina, the bracelet a little rattly the plexi glass … i would sooner have a vintage Rolex than a new version.  A very nice collection to proud of.

  • MilaNguyen

    I dont know much about watches or if this is only about rolex but I have a 1922 or 1923 illinois springfeild 21 jewels rail road model pocket watch and was wondering if some of you guys know about them

  • sasnak1

    MilaNguyen I suggest you get the book The Complete Price Guide to Watches (eBay,amazon) it will give you some information about your watch.