If you’re a fan of watches — either as bold statement pieces to go along with your favorite suit, as a piece of your everyday carry loadout, something in-between, or another reason entirely — there’s probably at least one watch you’ve come across that you dream of owning. So long as that watch is real (meaning not a prop made only for a movie, like Dick Tracy’s wrist communicator), you could theoretically track it down and purchase it for yourself. Of course, getting into the vintage watch trade is not quite as simple as walking into a shop and slapping a wad of cash down on the table.
In order to ensure that the timepiece you’re interested in is available, genuine, functional, etc, you’re going to need to take things a bit slower and perhaps more cautiously. While we can’t walk you through the exact process (and your experience may vary wildly from others’), we can impart you with a bit of direction and some things to watch out for — pun intended. That’s why we’ve put together the following article outlining six tips and tricks for getting the best deal on a vintage watch.
Set A Budget
And Know Your Prices
Before you ever open your browser or step foot into a watch shop, you should determine how much you are willing and able to spend. Watches, even vintage ones, run the gamut of prices — with significant models ranging from as little as a few hundred dollars up to literal millions. As such, it’s important to ensure you know what you’re getting yourself into before you get your hopes up over an offering you simply cannot afford. In this way, buying a vintage watch isn’t all that dissimilar to buying a classic car — you need to be realistic regarding the juxtaposition of what you’re capable of buying against what’s available.
If you’re entirely new to the vast world of watches and you’re interested in starting your own collection, you might not be privy to what you can expect. In this case, we’d suggest having a quick look around the web to become more acquainted with the industry, noteworthy brands, technologies, and more. Buying a watch, especially a vintage one, is no small task much of the time. And you’re going to be much better off if you increase your knowledge base before ever heading down the road to buying one — partially because we believe there’s a measure of respect for the industry necessary to get into watch collecting, but also because there are a lot of fakes out there and, therefore, many ways to get ripped-off or taken advantage of — both being outcomes no genuine buyer wants to be faced with.
Learn The Industry
Know What You're Looking For
As mentioned above, the watchmaking world is an incredibly vast and deep one. After all, we’re talking about a craft that has existed for literal centuries in some form or another (clocks were invented in the 14th century and the first wristwatch can be traced as far back as the mid-1800s by some accounts). Furthermore, the technology has advanced a tremendous amount and has expanded just as much since its beginnings. Nowadays, there are hundreds of thousands of available watch models from thousands of brands around the world. Hell, there are over 500 watchmaking companies located in Switzerland alone. Even just learning the most significant and/or successful brands can seem like quite a task — albeit a necessary one to get a lay of the land. And that’s to say nothing of those brands’ histories and catalogs of offerings.
Beyond that, there are even more factors to consider in your search and many other things to learn. This includes the mechanisms that allow watches to function at all. Referred to as “movements,” there are numerous styles — including manual (meaning they need to be wound-by hand), automatic, quartz, and even digital. As most people are not in pursuit of becoming watchmakers themselves, knowing exactly how these devices work down to the smallest springs and gears isn’t what we’d call a necessity. However, a baseline understanding of them can be of tremendous value. Furthermore, regardless of the type of watch, the specific calibre (another word for a watch movement that denotes a specific version/model) can also affect the overall value of a watch. For instance, a modern Rolex Submariner comes with a 3230 Movement but the brand, over its history, has produced over 80 different movement calibres of varying types and values, some of which are vastly more respected and coveted than others.
Then there are complications, which can be broadly defined as “any function that exists beyond the standard time-telling of a watch.” These will also affect the value, as well as the appearance and even rarity of a given timepiece. Like movement calibres, these vary widely, but they cal also be combined in a single offering (to a degree). One of the most common complications is that of a chronograph — which (at the most basic level) can tell standard time but also functions as a stopwatch. Others include (but are not limited to) calendars, alarms, power reserve indicators, tachymeters, moon phases, GMTs, and tourbillons. Knowing what these alternate functions do and how to use them is paramount to understanding and accessing the complete value out of a watch.
As if that’s not enough, the overall value of a watch will also be determined by its materials — gold, for instance, is more valuable and expensive to manufacture than basic stainless steel — the complexity of its design, the designer that penned it, and more. In short, there is a seemingly endless number of factors that can alter the value, rarity, popularity, etc. of a given timepiece. And that means, in order for you to make a reasonable, informed decision regarding which watch to purchase for yourself, you’ll want to bone up on at least a measure of that information. Even a basic understanding of the watch world can help you tremendously in your search.
Set Your Expectations
Condition vs. Popularity vs. Rarity
Once you’ve figured out how much you can spend, how much you want to spend, and you feel that you are reasonably informed, the next step is to set your expectation. As mentioned above, there is a legion of factors that will alter the overall value and, therefore, price of a wristwatch. But there are some other things to think about when looking for one that qualifies as vintage — namely the condition, popularity, and rarity of the watch(es) you seek. Below, we’ve outlined some of the ways these factors play a part.
Condition: Interestingly enough, condition often has an inverse relationship with the overall age of a vintage watch. That is to say, the older a vintage watch is and the better its condition, the higher the overall value will be. This is not a hard-and-fast rule, of course, because there are other possible factors that could increase the value of a watch regardless of its age-condition relationship (for instance, even a non-functional racing chronograph once owned by Steve McQueen may fetch a higher price than a working non-McQueen example of the same model). But, as a general statement, it rings true. It’s worth pointing out, too, that many watches — like cars — can actually dip in value following their release and then steadily increase over time.
Popularity: This particular factor can be explained by a basic supply-and-demand concept. By definition, vintage watches are no longer in production and, therefore, the number that exists can only go down. So, the more popular a particular watch model (also known as a “reference” or “reference number”), the higher the average price will be in order to purchase one. The inverse is also true. Furthermore, the popularity of a watch can also be impacted by outside factors — like its appearance in a feature film (which has, in particular, driven up the price of quite a few timepieces old and new).
Rarity: There’s a direct correlation to the above factor, popularity, and this one. Since vintage watches are ones that aren’t being made anymore, the highest number that can exist is the number of watches that were initially built across a production run. Sometimes that number is substantial; other times, there are far fewer watches to begin with. Then, you must factor in the number that have been lost and/or destroyed over time. The logical conclusion, then, is that a particular watch model’s value is directly increased by how few are known to exist.
Trust The Experts
Though it might seem like we’re beating a dead horse, allow us to reiterate once more: the watch industry is absolutely gargantuan. Even if you’re a professional in the industry, it would be simply impossible for you to know everything about all the brands, all the models, all their subsequent valuations — the list just goes on and on and on. As such (and as a consumer), you will likely be better off by seeking out the opinions and knowledge of genuine professionals in the watchmaking industry. Of course, there are a number of ways you can access that information.
For starters, the internet is rife with websites, blogs, and videos (as in YouTube) that can help you learn more yourself and perhaps point you in the right direction regarding vintage watches in which you might be interested. Beyond that, there are dozens (if not hundreds) of watch forums — some hosted by the very blogs we just mentioned — where people exchange information, stories, and even barter with one another — though we’d suggest exercising caution in these instances (you never know who’s behind that keyboard). Finally, if you’re more of a boots-on-the-ground type person, you can seek out the services of a watch retailer or a watch repair shop in-person for all your inquiries, especially if you already have a watch you’re curious about. Just remember, these are businesses owned by people and they’re predicated on their ability to make money — don’t take advantage of them if you’re not actually going to support them.
A Watch's Personal History
Okay — so you’ve found a watch you like, you’ve learned all you care to learn about it, you’ve checked-in to get the expert opinion, and you’ve even found one for sale. What comes next? If you thought “buy it,” we’d suggest holding on just a touch longer. This is because every watch, on top of all the other factors, also has its own personal history — just like a used car. As such, you should feel empowered to ask about that history until you feel satisfied that you have enough information about it. This includes things like discovering the watch’s repair/service history, inquiring as to how well the watch is running and its accuracy, if all the parts are original, etc.
eBay’s Authenticity Guarantee
If you’re buying online, we’d strongly urge you to check out the options on eBay. Not only does eBay have a huge number of highly sought-after vintage watches available for purchase on its platform, but they also make determining the legitimacy of an available watch incredibly simple thanks to the aptly-named Authenticity Guarantee. It works thusly: in scouring the pages of eBay, you’ll see a listing marked with a little blue checkmark logo with the phrase “Authenticity Guarantee” next to it. If you purchase any item with that logo and phrase on the listing, the item will first be placed in the hands of a team of crack professionals tasked with determining the legitimacy of the listing and ensuring that what you purchased is genuine and in the condition promised by said listing. If anything seems fishy, eBay will make sure you keep your money. If everything is legitimate, your purchase will then be shipped directly to you. The best part is, you don’t actually have to do anything or spend any extra money for this service — it is simply included as marked.
Refine Your Collection
If you’re a new collector, this may not apply to you. However, if you have a few watches in your collection and you’re willing to let them go, you can always use a platform (like eBay) to resell those watches in order to raise funds for your dream watch. For many, we’re sure this seems a bit like blasphemy — how could we ask you to part with any of your babies? — but, for others, this could be a shortcut of sorts toward owning the timepieces you’ve wanted since you were a child but has always been just out of your grasp. The choice is ultimately yours, but we’d certainly ask that you consider it as an option.
Brands Worth Considering
Names You Should Know
As mentioned earlier, eBay is one of the best places on the web that you can find and purchase vintage timepieces. This is further solidified by the company’s air-tight Authenticity Guarantee — which sees any qualifying watch sent to a team of top-level experts for verification (ensuring the watch is genuine and meets the conditions of the listing in its entirety) before being shipped to you, the buyer. The following represents five of the most historically-significant watchmaking brands whose vintage offerings you can find on eBay. However, this is only a small snapshot of what you can expect when using the platform to go on a watch hunt.
Disclaimer: The prices you see here are reflexive of the current lowest-cost option that is still backed by eBay’s Authenticity Guarantee at the time of writing and is not necessarily specific to “vintage” models.
Started back in 1884, Breitling’s namesake — Léon Breitling — made a name for himself creating innovative features for his pocket watches, especially in regards to chronograph complications. Since the brand’s inception, Breitling has continued to innovate and, thusly, maintained a sterling reputation. Some of this brand’s most sought-after models include the lauded Navitimer and Superocean, but the brand offers plenty of other models, as well.
Perhaps best known as the watch brand trusted by both NASA and James Bond, Omega has a spectacular reputation in the watchmaking world. And while this Swiss brand was founded all the way back in 1848, they still have a healthy fanbase and a catalog deserving of the highest respect and admiration. Some of Omega’s most significant models include the Speedmaster (of which the Moonwatch is a sub-model), Seamaster, De Ville, and Constellation — all of which have numerous sub-models and varieties.
If you’re not familiar with the name Patek Philippe, it’s probably because you aren’t absurdly wealthy. Founded in 1839, Patek Philippe is not what we’d call an approachable brand for the layman, as their timepieces start in the tens of thousands of dollars. However, their quality, accuracy, and craftsmanship are legendary to the point that — despite their high price — they often have substantial wait times for their products. And perhaps none are quite as sought-after as the brand’s iconic Nautilus model, especially the Ref. 5711 that was, shockingly, just discontinued.
If there’s any Swiss watch brand that needs no introduction, it’s Rolex. Originally founded in London, Rolex has since moved onto Swiss soil and stands as perhaps the most recognizable watchmaking brand on the planet. Their offerings, even at the entry-level, aren’t cheap, but they may actually be more approachable than you think. For reference, some of the brand’s most significant and historic models include the Submariner, GMT-Master, Day-Date, Datejust, and Daytona — just to name a few.
Originally founded as Uhrenmanufaktur Heuer AG back in 1860, this Swiss watch brand is perhaps known best for its connection to the world of automotive racing and, as a direct result, Hollywood. You see, the brand’s iconic Monaco square-cased watch was worn by none other than Steve McQueen in the 1971 car movie masterpiece Le Mans and it has remained perhaps the most significant of the brand’s watches ever since. Of course, this is also the same brand that makes the Carrera, Autavia, Silverstone, and Camaro — so there are numerous options therein.
Our 8 Favorite Vintage Watches On eBay Right Now
The selection above is only a small fraction of the great deals you can find on eBay’s platform. Take a deeper dive into the possibilities with this follow-up guide covering the best vintage watches on eBay right now.
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