10 or 15 years ago, you could go online and get a notable vintage watch relatively affordably. Most general collectors hadn’t yet fully come to appreciate the value and beauty of vintage watches. Years later, we find ourselves in an entirely different reality. Today, for better or worse, collectors now obsess over vintage references with equal (and often more) enthusiasm than contemporary pieces. The wealth of offerings is endless, and the infinite distinctions between generations know no end. With this has come a remarkable amount of scholarship for brands like Rolex and Patek Philippe, documenting the details that distinguish models and variants. Today, we will analyze ten of our favorite vintage watches to date, in hopes of shedding further light on the beauty of watches of the past.
Rolex Submariner Small Crown Reference 5508
The Rolex Submariner is one of the most influential watches in the industry, period. As a result, early Submariners continue to grow in collectibility and demand, particularly when preserved in good condition. The early Rolex Submariner reference 5508 provides a great example of the allure of vintage. This particular variant, maintained in its original beauty thanks to very light use, has a distinctive “exclamation dial” indicating a shift within Rolex to use lower levels of radium in the lume to assuage health concerns. The exclamation dial represents just one example of the types of details that become notable on vintage watches like the 5508. We will see many more examples later on.
Patek Philippe 1579R Gobbi Milano Chronograph
While from a contemporary lens it is clear that the 1579 is a vintage watch, when it was released in 1943, it was actually quite progressive. Measuring a then-monstrous 36mm, the 1579 also had distinctive lugs and a flashy dial. In every sense this piece was a rebellion against convention and an embrace of modernity. Additionally, this piece was produced during an era where Patek didn’t make many watches; it is estimated that only about 500 examples were made of the 1579. Plus, this piece also features a “Gobbi Milano” signature, labeling this watch a sale from the famed Italian retailer. This makes this particular example incredibly valuable within those in the know in Patek Philippe.
A. Lange & Söhne Saxonia 105.027
The Lange Saxonia was originally debuted in 1994 with solid casebacks. Few know that the original Saxonia used the same movement as the Arkade, a rectangular ladies watch. Thus, the round case had a rectangular undersized movement in its first generation. In 1997, Lange updated the collection, now with an exhibition caseback and full round movement. The Saxonia 105.027 remains a staple in early Lange history, and one of the most underappreciated in modern collecting circles. It is likely that in the coming years we will see references such as the 105.027 explode in popularity as more of the market comes to recognize their significance.
Patek Philippe 3483 Tiffany and Co
A member of Albert Ganjei’s personal collection, the Patek Philippe 3483 was introduced in the 1960s exclusively in stainless steel. Steel is one of the most elusive metals for Patek Philippe, with fewer vintage references in the material than the conventional golds. It is estimated that fewer than 500 examples of the 3483 were produced over its short period of manufacturing. This particular variant is even rarer, as it bears the famed Tiffany and Co signature that has made many watches double or triple their conventional trading values. This piece epitomizes the aesthetics of 60s Patek Philippe within a collectable yet simple configuration.
Blancpain Fifty Fathoms “No Radiations”
The Fifty Fathoms was the first wrist watch to incorporate a unidirectional diving bezel on a sports watch, laying the foundation for the modern dive watch. While the very first Fifty Fathoms watches used radium lume, by the 1960s, Blancpain was increasingly aware of the health concerns associated with radium (similar to the 1508 featured earlier). Thus, when they made the model line commercially available, they transitioned to tritium, and created an insignia on the dial that proudly read “NO RADIATIONS”. These models remain among the most collectable vintage dive watches in existence.
Vacheron Constantin Triple Calendar 4240
Vacheron Constantin is the longest running watch manufacturer in the game — they’ve been producing watches since 1755. The Vacheron Constantin Triple Calendar 4240 was the very first serially produced complicated timepiece produced by the brand. First launched in 1942, the Triple Calendar features many of the attributes of beautiful vintage timepieces. A champagne dial, red lettering, a pointer date, teardrop lugs, and oxidized indexes provide serious vintage charm from dial to case. The grooved case flanks and 35mm case diameter make the watch both aesthetically attractive and classically proportioned.
Rolex GMT Master 1675 “Blueberry”
One of the great pleasures of vintage watch collecting is the stories that accompany some of the rarest timepieces. One example is the Rolex GMT Master reference 1675, dubbed “Blueberry” for its all blue bezel. Few watches have inspired as much lore, as connoisseurs debate the origins of the extremely rare variant. Rumors include the bezels being saved from a burning manufacturing facility, and other heroic and enigmatic stories that result in the creation of several obscure examples of the GMT Master reference 1675. Regardless, the ownership of one of these watches carries with it the debates and legends that surround the model in a way that contemporary offerings cannot hope to rival.
Rolex Turn-O-Graph Ref. 6202
The metaphorical progenitor to the Rolex Submariner and other Rolex tool watches, the Rolex Turn-O-Graph reference 6202 was introduced in the 1950s as Rolex’s first serially produced model with a rotating bezel. Considering that the 6202 laid the foundation for the modern Rolex tool watch (as well as other brands’ dive pieces), it receives surprisingly little time in the spotlight. The lack of crown guards, smaller crown, thinner case, and early bezel design help us understand the evolution of Rolex’s approach to designing watches of this kind. We see the DNA of the Turn-O-Graph in many contemporary Rolex models, as well as the Tudor Black Bay 58, which shares many of these same characteristics.
Rolex Explorer II Reference 16550
Yet another underrated vintage Rolex, the Explorer II reference 16550 demonstrates that with vintage Rolex, it’s the fine distinguishing details that help make a watch interesting to collectors. The 16550 was the first Explorer II model to begin to introduce some of the modern refinements of newer movement technology. The caliber 3085 now gave the model hacking seconds, independent control of the GMT hand, an increased power reserve, and quickset date. While these refinements are interesting, the true intrigue lies in the fact that the 16550 had a defect on the white dialed models that results in a creamy patinaing of the once pure white dial. Similarly this model has tritium luminescent material, which has also naturally aged to a caky burnt yellow. References such as the 16550 get more and more beautiful with age, attracting collectors who value the intricate aspects of watches of this era.
Omega Speedmaster Moonphase 345.0809 Speedymoon
The Omega Speedmaster is one of the most collected vintage watches in the game. While conventional three register chronos are common, Omega did make some more obscure Speedys with a moonphase. Featured here is the Speedmaster Moonphase “Speedymoon” reference 345.0809. Released in 1985, the model was already discontinued by 1989; as a result, only 2000 examples exist across multiple generations. Of the 2000, only about 1100 were made in steel with a steel bracelet. As far as Omega goes, this is an extreme rarity. This watch is a beauty — combining the moonwatch with a moonphase — a match made in heaven.