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Vintage Watches Buyer’s Guide

The world of vintage watches is a wonderful, expansive, and sometimes intimidating place. There are so many different models and variations on those models, all with interesting designs that have been made scarce over time. However, all these variations, along with the high cost of many of these watches, mean that a potential buyer needs to be educated. No one wants to spend thousands of dollars on a watch, only to later find out that they did not get what they thought they were buying. Lucky for you, that’s what we’re here for. This guide will teach you some tips to get you started on your vintage watch buying and collecting journey. 

What Makes a Watch a Vintage Watch

What separates a vintage watch from a used or second-hand watch is up for some debate, but the general consensus is any watch that is older than 20-25 years is a vintage watch. If it’s younger than that, it’s considered a part of the modern era of watches. Generally, watches older than 20 years will start to show their age; these signs of aging are called patina. These visual signs of aging enhance the design of a timepiece and give it a unique look. On a vintage watch, the lume that was once pure white can fade to a distinctly pumpkin orange or a Carmel brown or anything in between. A bezel that was once red and blue can fade to a purple and powder blue. This “distressed” look gives the watch a soul which it earned through its past experiences, and it’s part of what makes vintage watches so desirable. Where things get tricky, however, is when a modern watches have patina. Patina does not equal vintage per se. As an example, take a look at a 2004 Patek Philippe Aquanaut. To me, these watches look vintage, but technically they’re only 18 years old and still considered modern. 

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What To Look For in Vintage Watches

When shopping for vintage watches, there are a few things you’ll want to pay attention to that you may have taken for granted if you’ve only purchased modern pieces. One thing that can greatly increase the collectibility and long-term value retention is whether or not the watch comes with its original box and papers, or even better, its receipt and other accouterment. A watch with all the original documents and accessories is often referred to as a full set. The box and papers are not only nice to have from a collecting standpoint, but they can help validate the watch as authentic. Papers should have information like the year the watch was produced, the serial number, etc., all of which can help you verify that what you’re buying is the genuine article. Other things you’ll want to keep an eye out for are the hallmarks of the specific watch reference. You should do some research on a model you’re interested in and learn about the model’s traits based on the year it was made. Things like bezel material, verbiage on the dial, the type of lume used, or the logo’s style can all help determine a watch’s origin.

Additionally, the patina on a watch can be used to tell a story about the watch’s life and how it was cared for. If the lume on the hands is drastically different from the lume on the dial, then it may have been replaced at some point; likewise, if the case is obviously worn, but the bracelet appears tight and new, it could be a later addition. If the lugs are rounded and uneven, the watch could be over polished. Now, these don’t mean the watch is fake or even that it’s not worth buying, but they’re traits that affect the value and things the seller should be upfront about. If they’re not, that’s a red flag. 

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Vintage Watch Condition Check

Condition is among the most important factors to consider when buying a vintage watch. Some traits to pay attention to are things like the sharpness of the lugs, definition of beveling, the state of the lume, is it intact or falling apart, and the tightness or lack of on a bracelet. Look at the watch from different angles and inspect the condition of the dial. Is it cracked? How bout the crystal? Older watches have plastic crystals which are much less durable than sapphire. Small scratches can be buffed out, but cracks or “icing” can not. Patina is great, but it is by definition damage done to a watch by age, and too much of it can be bad. Look up good examples and compare your prospective watch to them. Seeing what a truly good condition example looks like will help you quickly see any glaring issues. One should use these tips and always strive to get the best condition watch possible. A mint-condition vintage Rolex Air-King is better than an over polished “Franken” GMT-Master.  

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Vintage Watches and Movements – What To Look For/What To Avoid 

Unlike a modern watch which one can purchase and not worry about servicing for up to a decade, a vintage watch might not even be in working condition right now. One needs to consider a few key things about the movement when looking to buy a vintage watch. First, is the movement working, and if so, when was it last serviced, and by whom? Is the watch made by an existing brand that can service it if need be? Is it a complicated or novel movement? For example, who would you go to to get a complicated Universal Geneve watch or a vintage Bulova Accutron serviced? These are all questions to consider before you purchase a vintage watch that will require some research and due diligence on your part. Part of this research and burden, however, can be taken off your shoulders if you work with a reputable seller.

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Buying The Seller 

Doing your own research and due diligence is important with buying any vintage timepiece, but the reality is that you’re only one person, and without years of diligent self-education, it will be hard to truly become an expert on all the areas needed to ensure you purchase an authentic and good working timepiece. This is where the seller of the watch becomes important. “Buy the seller, not the watch.” is something you’ll hear around the watch community over and over. I can’t stress this enough — the most important thing to consider when buying a watch, no matter how great it is, is who is selling it to you. You need to find a reputable dealer with a long track record of supplying good quality vintage timepieces. For example, European Watch Company has been in business for almost thirty years and has an impeccable reputation. He says as he turns to face the camera with a crest white smile.  All jokes aside, you don’t last in this business if you aren’t an honest and transparent seller.

Vetting purchases/sellers has become even harder now that the internet is becoming a popular place to buy watches. A good website does not an honest watch dealer make. Get involved in the watch community and ask around, look at reviews, and at least while you’re still learning, try to avoid buying from people you don’t know. Craigslist, Instagram, eBay, or Facebook marketplace are not places I would recommend you go to buy a vintage watch unless you really know your stuff and the price of the watch is worth the gamble. Stick to dealers who stand by their product and have authenticity guarantees. Ask the dealer any and all questions about the condition and history of the watch. Pose some of the questions listed in the earlier paragraphs regarding servicing and the originality of the parts. Any honest dealer will have no problem giving you all that information and more. 

Vintage Watch Brands – Who/What To Buy? 

Ultimately the vintage watches that you’ll want to purchase will be a personal preference, but I can give you a place to start. Right now, some of the hottest vintage brands are Rolex and Patek Philippe. Especially some of their more marque models like the Rolex Daytona and Patek Philippe Nautilus. However, because these are among the most popular vintage brands and models, they’re also some of the most expensive. Vintage collecting has come a long way over the last decade, and with this popularity has come higher prices. That said, if you’re not ready for that level of commitment, there are plenty of more accessible options. 

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Some brands in particular that present a great value on the vintage market are Omega, Heuer, and IWC. Omega and IWC vintage dress watches, in particular, can often be found for less than $3000. Additionally, some seriously cool vintage Heuer racing chronographs can be found for under $7000. I highly recommend these for new hobbyists. They also have the added benefit of being from large brands that are still in operation which means scholarship, parts, and servicing shouldn’t be too hard to find. I also think these value vintage references have a distinct “cool factor” advantage over the more popular models and give instant street cred. A vintage Heuer chronograph says, “talk to me about watches,” a vintage Nautilus, not as much. 

The Best Vintage Watches To Buy Now

The vintage watch market is about as hot as it’s ever been, and collecting vintage watches has gone completely mainstream with features about vintage watches showing up in places like GQ and the New York Times. There’s no telling for sure where the market is headed, but brands like Rolex and Patek are still as strong as ever, and others like Cartier are continuing a steady climb upwards in value. That said, in the vintage watch game, knowledge is king, and educating yourself will give you the skills needed to find value at any price point. Here are some great vintage watches in multiple price brackets to get you started. 

Best Vintage Watches Under $5000

 IWC Caliber 89 

This 1950’s era 18k yellow gold IWC watch presents an enormous bang for your buck. With a value of around $2,700, this simple but elegant dress watch measures roughly 36mm in diameter by just 9mm thick and is powered by the famous IWC workhorse manual-winding caliber 89. It’s a simple time-only movement that IWC put in everything from elegant dress watches to their famous Mk. Series pilots watches. My favorite detail on this watch is the vintage typeface spelling out “International Watch Co. SCHAFFHAUSEN” just under twelve. With proper servicing, this dress watch will serve you well for years to come and offers classic understated elegance. 

Omega Seamaster 

Omega Seamaster

Jumping ahead a couple of decades, this Omega Seamaster still sports dress watch proportions, but it has a bit of a beefier sporty look, and a quintessential late ’60s/early ’70s 39mm tonneau case. Its also powered by an automatic movement making it a slightly better option for a daily wearer. Still under the $5k mark, it’s an extremely wearable option with a bit of flash on account of its case material.

Best Vintage Watches Under $10,000

Breitling Navitimer 806

Once you cross over the $5000 price mark, you start to find some seriously iconic vintage timepieces. Take this Breitling Navitimer 806. For $6,350, you’re getting one of the most famous and collectible pilot watches of all time. This example has been aging gracefully, and has just enough nicks in the case and crystal to give the watch character. With its inner slide rule and chronograph, this timepiece is a true tool watch prepared to take to the skies, but the best detail, in my opinion, is its vintage sizing. You’ll find older timepieces are often significantly smaller than their modern timepieces. This Navitimer measures 40mm by 13mm making it distinctly more wearable than most modern references. 

Tudor Submariner

Another great option at under $10,000—just under at $9,900—is the Tudor Submariner. This version from 1989 is on the younger side of vintage, which means you can knock it around a bit more than say a watch from the ’50s and not worry too much about it. The Tudor Submariner is off course, the cousin of the Rolex Submariner, and one of the great things about these vintage Tudor models is their sort of co-branding. For example, this model has a Rolex logo on the crown, and a Rolex stamped caseback. This is a detail you would never find on a current production Tudor which is what makes it so special.

Best Vintage Watches Under $25,000

Patek Philippe Calatrava

Patek 3796R

There are some great dress watch options across all different price brackets of the vintage market—likely because sports watches are so popular right now—but this, my friends, is the dress watch. This is a 1989 18k rose gold Patek Philippe Calatrava reference 3796. It’s in beautiful condition with a nice crisp case and its original certificate of authenticity from Patek Philippe. A direct descendent of the original reference 96, this timepiece is to dress watches what the Submariner is to dive watches, its design is often copied but never matched, and it will never go out of style. Depending on the condition of the piece and what it comes with, these can range from 11-15k. 

Omega Speedmaster Professional

Omega Speedmaster

One of the most collectible vintage watches of all time is the Omega Speedmaster Profesional, also known as “The Moonwatch.” This specific reference 145.022-69 hits a particular sweet spot in the history of the watch. This is the first Speedmaster professional to have a painted logo instead of applied, it is also the first series to have the 861 caliber movement, and it’s the last series to have the original plain caseback. It’s this watch that marks the transition of the Speedmaster Professional from Pre to Post Moonwatch, and this particular example has a gorgeous dial that has faded to a lovely dark chocolate brown with a nice evenly faded off white lume. This is one of those watches that helps you “cut the line” as it were to watch nerd status. At $12,500 is presents a great value and will instantly garner respect from any watch nerd, no matter how seasoned they are. 

Best Vintage Watches Over $25,000

Cartier Privee Tank Basculante

Here we have another watch that’s on the younger side of vintage. This is a Cartier Privee Tank Basculante released in 1999. Valued at $26,900, it was released as a part of a limited run of just 365 pieces to celebrate the turn of the new Millenium. This is one of my favorite Cartier models, and I really wish they would reintroduce it as a standard production piece. Little details like the blue cabochon at twelve and the unique folding case mechanism make this one of the most charming dress watch models on the market. This one is made further special due to its limited run and the 1999, 2000, 2001 engraving on the exposable caseback. For my money, this is as good as Cartier gets, and as I said earlier, this is a brand that seems to be on the rise. 

Rolex GMT-Master 1675

Rolex GMT 1675

There’s the vintage watch market, and then—with its own orbit and gravitational pull—is the vintage Rolex sports watch market. This is a 1966 Pepsi bezel Rolex GMT Master reference 1675 “Mark 0.” The Mark 0 is a recently discovered vintage reference that represents the first of the matte dial era. These watches have a similar text style to the earlier gilt models but use the newer Rolex caliber 1575. The thing that separates these from the matte dial Mark 1 GMT’s is the use of said movement along with a smaller GMT hand. These watches are exceptionally rare and were only produced for about one year, from 1966-1967. Despite being a part of one of the longest-running references in the 1675, this is one—if not the—rarest variant of the reference, and it is in amazing condition with sharply defined beveled lugs and a nice even patina on the bezel and dial. At $48,900, its not cheap, but it is worth it.