Starting out collecting watches can be a minefield – if you’re not careful, you can end up feeling like you jumped into a shark tank wearing a meat bathing suit. Any watch purchase comes with a set of stresses, from sourcing the piece to paying the bill to navigating insurance – and that’s all on top of making sure you love the watch itself. And the older the watch, the murkier the process. In many ways, buying a new watch is about what you know, and buying a vintage watch is about mitigating the risks of buying into the unknown.
To shop smart, you’ll need to ask questions. These questions.
If the watch and seller are legit, the answers to the following seven questions should make you comfortable paying a fair price. On the flip side, if the watch or seller can’t satisfy most or all of them, you should feel comfortable either negotiating a lower price or simply moving on and applying what you’ve learned to the next opportunity. Whether you’re buying from us or from someone else, online or IRL, keep these questions in mind.
Is The Watch Keeping Good Time?
Even a stopped vintage watch tells the right time twice a day, but wouldn’t it be nice if yours kept good time 24/7? When you’re buying a vintage watch, it may not be possible to have a watchmaker examine the watch for you on a professional timing machine, so whip out your smartphone and download Timegrapher.
This amazing app listens to the tick-tock sound that mechanical watches make when they’re running. Like the pulse of a human heart, the tick-tock can reveal a lot about the condition of the overall watch, including how well it’s keeping time. If yours is off, the app will know.
– Nicholas Manousos, Technical Editor
What’s Its Provenance?
You’re basically trying to find out where your watch comes from. Provenance leads to questions within questions.
First: Who’s the seller? Is it a respected dealer or shop? Is it an auction house? Is it a friend? The answers should guide you toward a sound decision. If you nurture a relationship with an honest seller, you’ll walk off with an honest watch.
Second: How many people have owned it? Fewer owners generally make a more desirable watch. Say there’s only been one owner – that means he or she bought the watch new. If the watch has been altered in any way over the years, they’ll know. With multiple owners, you have a slightly less clear vision of what this watch has been through. Not a dealbreaker, just something to know.
Finally: Who’s owned it before? Were any of the owners famous? This will greatly affect the value of the watch if you are, for instance, trying to buy one owned by a certain actor and/or salad-dressing kingpin. But if it’s just some random guy from Iowa (nothing against Iowa!), it might not matter so much. Again, not a dealbreaker, but some collectors prefer to have a cool story to go with their vintage Sub.
– Cara Barrett, Manager of Social Media and Special Projects Editor
Has The Case Been Polished?
Before paying hard-earned money for a vintage watch, you’ll want to check whether – and to what degree – its case has seen the polishing wheel. The bright, shiny watch you have in the crosshairs may actually be the denuded husk of its former self, worn down over repeated polishings to resemble a smooth, featureless pebble plucked from a riverbed.
Look for crisp lines and angles and a minimum of case scratches. If your watch checks out, it may be perfectly fine even if it has been polished. Just remember that a watch can bear only so many polishes in its lifetime, and you don’t want to buy one that’s been polished to death.
– Jon Bues, Senior Editor
Should I Have It Serviced?
Answering this one can be so difficult that it’s probably the single biggest challenge in collecting vintage watches. A watch may seem to be running with no issues, but this can simply be sheer luck, and by the time the watch actually starts to show noticeable signs of trouble, you may have a major problem on your hands. The problem is compounded by the fact that, for many watches, replacement parts are either scarce or no longer available, which means that returning your vintage watch to usable condition may be either impossible or involve paying a skilled watchmaker to fabricate a replacement part from scratch.
Watches are precision machines, and like any machine, they are not designed to run indefinitely without maintenance. As a general rule, if you plan on wearing a vintage watch as a daily driver, you should factor in the cost of having the watch serviced. If you don’t plan on using the watch even occasionally, this is obviously not a consideration. Vintage watches with movements and other components made on an industrial scale are often a safer bet, as you’ll likely find a larger pool of spare and replacement parts.
Sometimes, you hear vintage watch collectors actually boasting about not having a watch serviced, which to me has always seemed kind of insane. You don’t hear vintage car owners saying, “Haha, damned if I’m going to put oil in ‘er, she’s running just fine!” Using a machine – especially a precision instrument, like a watch – until it fails mechanically is not only a terrible idea, it betrays (to me, anyway) a fundamental misunderstanding of, and disrespect for, the watchmaker’s art.
– Jack Forster, Editor-In-Chief
Are All Of The Parts Original?
“It’s alive! It’s alive!” shrieked Dr. Frankenstein as his macabre creation sprang to life in the 1931 horror classic. Still today, the dreaded epithet “Frankenwatch” describes a watch made from disparate parts, and often reproduced – if not downright fake – dials. You do not want a Frankenwatch.
If your goal is to buy a vintage timepiece with all (or close to all) original parts, prepare to scrutinize. For example, look at whether patina is really patina – or if the markers and hands have been painted to match one another to effectuate a uniform look. As with polishing, the occasional non-original part is not necessarily fatal. There was a time when servicing a watch meant replacing parts to return it to “like-new” condition. This resulted in service hands, dials, bezels, new bracelets, re-luming, you name it. But you definitely want to know.
– Danny Milton, Editor
Is The Bracelet Stretchy?
A little stretch is inevitable. A bracelet stretches when the pins wear down, which is just a thing that they do. Drilled holes in the links expand and create more room for the pin to jiggle around and cause “play” in the bracelet. Some folks like a little stretch in their bracelet; some folks like it tight, with minimal play. It’s a matter of personal preference.
However, you should make sure your endlinks aren’t bent or compromised in any way, as this can put your watch at risk of falling off your wrist at a particularly inopportune time. Fortunately, this is entirely preventable by a thorough inspection. Hollow links are particularly prone to becoming compromised for extended wear, so make sure each pin is securely in its drilled hole, and make sure that the bracelet cannot twist. If it can, consider replacing it.
Solid end links and solid bracelet links are less susceptible to stretch, but should still be examined and even stress-tested by pulling on the bracelet as well as affixing it to your wrist. The watch should sit centered on your wrist so the caseback makes complete contact with your skin. If an endlink is bent, the watch may sit incorrectly.
As for me, I like a touch of stretch in my vintage watch bracelet. It’s part of the charm.
– Cole Pennington, Editor
Can You Trust The Seller?
While I’m far from a dealer, or even a true pro when it comes to vintage watches, I have bought and sold a couple of hundred watches. And as cliche as the adage may be, “Buy the seller, not the watch” is true, helpful, and entirely worth remembering. Unless you’re the expert in the deal, you have to trust the seller to provide you a quality product at a reasonable price (with a minimal gap between what you’re paying and what the watch is honestly worth).
The risk of being upside-down in a sale, due to any (or several) of the factors above, ultimately comes down to the seller’s integrity. Ask all of your questions, verify the answers, and whenever possible ask for references (preferably those posted publicly).
Yes, the process can take time. You might even miss out on a good deal or two along the way. But you’ll truly educate yourself about the specifics of your target watch. Soon, this checklist will become second nature, and you’ll drastically lower your chances of getting ripped off.
One final point. Every collector has different priorities. Some will want a clean response to all seven of these questions as they hunt for a museum example to keep in a safe while hopefully awaiting appreciation. Others may not care about the provenance, or whether it was polished, or even the cost – they just want something to wear, with no concern for future sales or eventual owners. As long as you’re not buying for a major auction house, it’s A-okay to cherry-pick the criteria that’s important to you.
– James Stacey, Senior Writer