Vintage Watch Buying Guide

The Vintage Watches Buying Guide

Many of you know by now that I am an admirer of vintage watches. While, I certainly enjoy new timepieces and marvel at their advancements, my preference is vintage wrist and pocket watches that tell a story.

A couple of weeks ago, my editor Sven Raphael Schneider, approached me asking for advice on a watch. He was interested in acquiring a vintage Cartier tank watch for his lovely wife and soon realized that the world of online watch buying can be intimidating especially when there are hundreds of iterations of the same model. He bought a book just about the tank watch, I was able to help find a Baume & Mercier Tank watch in solid 18k gold for a fantastic price instead that was considerably less expensive than a Cartier. One can often find an excellent deal on vintage watches while scouring eBay and other online markets. However, with great reward comes great risk, and there are many horror stories about those who have ponied up thousands of dollars and received counterfeit or broken watches in return.

Since the internet is global and policing it is next to impossible, it really does come down to buyer beware. Most law enforcement agencies will give you the run around or simply say no when you ask they investigate the watch you bought online from China. Often the difficulty lies in deciphering jurisdiction, but more often it’s simply that they have more important things to do that are less of a headache and don’t require as much paperwork.

Vintage timepieces are an area that many people are attracted to. Often it’s due to budgetary constraints, yet for many horologists it’s simply a matter of the watch itself and the lineage it possesses.

For those who are interested in acquiring a quality timepiece at a fraction of the price, vintage markets may be your best friend. Of course, you should also read our Watch Buying Guide, which provides general information about how to buy a watch.

What is a Vintage Watch

Technically, a vintage watch is any watch that is 20 years or older. It does not matter if the watch is new in box, new old stock, pre-owned or used. However, often the term vintage is really just a nice way of saying “used” or “pre-owned”. The term was originally coined as a more elegant way of stating the latter. Instead of saying you bought a used watch at a pawn shop, you could say I acquired a vintage timepiece at an antique shop. Today, we are going to focus on affordable vintage watches, which are generally pre-owned. With that said there are two basic types of “vintage” watches.

Estate or Important Timepieces

Important timepieces are the horologists holy grail. While we throw that term around a lot, and often loosely, an important time piece is valued or determined based on its lineage. The watch may be deemed important due to it being a limited edition, having an unusual complication for that model, or even due to the calibre. Another aspect that can make a watch important is the history behind the owner. Obviously the pocket watch carried by Abraham Lincoln is far more important and valuable than the one my great grandfather owned. Typically these watches are not found for a great deal and the value can often far exceed that of a new model. In fact, many assume that to purchase a vintage watch would save money, but when it comes to estate watches, nine out of ten times you’re spending almost as much as you would new, or even more. Of course, you can also buy vintage timepieces  that are expensive even though they were not owned by any celebrities.

Preowned Watches

Generally, a watch that has been owned for 1 day but was never worn and one that has been worn heavily for 100 years are both technically pre-owned watches.  You may find many vintage watches on eBay, at flea markets, estate sales, antique shops… These are the deal makers, the watches that have considerably lower prices than their counterparts and the kind that men like me hunt for day in and day out.

It’s these kinds of watches that we’ll primarily focus on in this article. If you’re interested in an estate watch, I highly recommend scouring auction sites such as Antiquorum, Christies and Sothebys. You can also try Tourneau as they often carry a range of beautiful pre-owned timepieces.

How to Buy Online

The first thing you need to determine is if you’re looking for a specific watch, a style of watch, or just any watch that’s a good deal. Once you’ve made your decision, the next step is to put together a list of your wants vs. needs.

Do you need gold or just want gold? Does it have to have an alligator strap or will cordovan suffice? Must it be manual or is quartz acceptable?

It’s these questions that will keep you rooted in your search. It’s important that you take the time to devise a game plan, because that’s what vintage watch buying is – a game in which you search for the best possible watch for your needs and budget.

Buying on eBay

First thing’s first. The first rule of vintage watch buying is never buy on impulse. If the deal sounds too good to be true, it probably is. What you want to do is carefully discern exactly what kind of watch you’re looking at, what quality it’s in and how much you feel it’s worth. Unlike other purchases you may make online, this is not the time to simply hit Buy Now or to bid on a whim. This is the time to research the product, and if the seller is pushy, push back or walk away.

Once you’ve come across a watch that tickles your fancy, you need to immediately look at all the pictures and read through the description with a fine tooth comb. Unless you’re a watch fanatic and know your stuff, expect to lose your shirt, because if you get lucky once, it may not happen again. eBay is notorious for counterfeits, broken watches and everything in between. Often the best deals are found on eBay since many sellers really have no idea what the values are, or they’re motivated for one reason or another.

Once you’ve looked at the pictures you want to decide if you’ve seen enough of the watch and if the description matches exactly what you’ve seen. Try and use a scale to determine the watches value. Unfortunately, there is no ebay or industry wide grading standard, and so you will find many different systems Here’s the simple scale I use, and it’s a fairly common. A more complex rating system can be found here but over time, I have found that my simple system works just as well:

  • AAA = Excellent Condition
  • AA = Very Good
  • A = Good
  • B = Fair

Anything that doesn’t at least get a mark of a B isn’t worth your time or money. Forget it and move on. There are three areas you want to look at in order to determine whether the watch is worth the buy:

  1. The case
  2. The dial
  3. The movement

Step 1:  Ask Yourself These Questions:

  1. Is there any oxidization, rust, damage?
  2. Are there scratches and if so how many and how bad? Does it appear to be worn? Is it gold? If so, what karat? Is it plated, solid or filled? Look for the markings to give you proof. Are there dents, chips, engravings?
  3. Does it match the period the seller claims it does?
  4. Is it water resistant? (If so, you want to be extra careful and ask the seller what their return policy is should you find out the seal is broken.)
  5. Has the watch been serviced? Do the parts appear to be originals or replacements?
  6. Are there missing pearls, stones, etc?

Step 2: Contact the seller

These are just some of the things you want to look for in the photographs. Next you want to contact the seller. Ask where the watch is from, how many owners its had and what the story is on it. If the serial number wasn’t visible in the pictures, ask for it. You can then contact the original manufacturer and in most (not all) cases, they can confirm its legitimacy. One of the most important questions you want to ask is “is the watch GENUINE?” If you don’t get a straight answer, run away. Research the exact watch you’re looking at to find out what markers appear on it. Most watch companies have some very specific markings to prove legitimacy, however, with the counterfeit market as advanced as it is, many fakes are virtually identical to the real ones. You’ll want to discuss return policies, any additions or restorations to the watch. What material the strap is made of. The list goes on.

The most important thing to remember is to check the sellers rating, how many watches they’ve sold, and to ensure you have a way to get your money back should you be taken advantage of. If the seller has a rating below 99% positive, I always walk away. I always pay with a Credit Card via  Paypal account and I only purchase from those who sell regularly and offer money back guarantees.

In the event you do decide to purchase the watch or you win the bid, immediately take screen shots of the post. Save all of the pictures to your hard drive and copy all your communication with the seller into a document or better yet,  cloud storage. This tactic has been the saving grace for many vintage buyers I know and it might just help you as well.

Remember that eBay bidding is like gambling. Set your limit and stick to it, which is best achieved with a sniper tool such as www.snip.pl. And, always remember to get a tracking number and shipping insurance.

Step 3: Pay With a Credit Card

After purchase, you can pay via paypal. Make sure to pay via a credit card so you can file a chargeback in case the seller tries to scam you. By default, paypal will try to use money from your bank account (if you have one connected) or from your paypal balance, so make sure you choose Credit Card as funding source.

If you would like me to help you find the right watch for you at the right price.

Other Sites

Two sites I often recommend looking at are Chrono24.com and JamesEdition.com

Both sites are regulated, unlike Craigslist or eBay. They have verified reputable sellers and it’s rather unlikely you’ll be taken advantage of. The only issues with both sites are that most of the sellers have significant market knowledge so you’re not going to get the amazing deals you can often find on eBay. The trade off of course, is that you generally are much less likely to get a fake or non-working watch either.

Authentic & Fake Rolex

Authentic & Fake Rolex

Brick and Mortar Watch Buying

One of my favorite places to buy watches are antique and estate jewelry stores. The fact remains that ladies watches are considerably less expensive than mens watches. The reason is that women tend to have less interest in watches and the movements inside them. If it’s pretty or has a brand name, they’ll wear it. Sometimes, these stores are owned or operated by women, most of which are around middle age. While they may have extensive knowledge of the jewelry market, I’ve found some incredible watches that they simply didn’t know the value of. Of course, I have met female watch experts, and this is just the result of my observations over the years: generally the best watch deals I scored were in stores with women, at the same time the best deal I ever made was when I bought a watch from a man. He was just a substitute and sold me a solid gold, custom made watch for Bob Hope for a few dollars.

In addition to those, there are many watch stores that specialize in vintage timepieces. Most major urban centers will have one or two and while you may not get an incredible deal, you will have the ability to see it before you buy it – and that goes a long way.

Just remember to ask a lot of questions to determine their knowledge and don’t be afraid to take some pictures of the watch so you can research it at home and then return to buy it. I’ve often found that most places will hold a watch for the day or at least a few hours. That gives me enough time to be able to perform some due diligence and determine if the watch is worth the investment.

If you’re still unsure, conduct a google search and call an appraisers nearby and offer them a small fee if they’ll come look at it for you. Just be sure not to talk with them in front of the sales staff.

Vintage Watch Dealers

Websites

Chrono24.com

JamesEdition.com

www.BobsWatches.com (Rolex Specialist)

eBay.com (Best deals – Best place to get scammed, as mentioned above, use a Credit Card via Paypal to pay which makes it safer)

Brick and Mortar

Tourneau

Boutique Stores (Manufacturer Owned)

Aaron Faber’s Gallery (If you’re in New York, visit – it’s amazing)

Matthew Bain Fine Watches (Miami)

Auction Houses

Antiquorum

Christie’s

Sotheby’s

Bonham’s 

Heritage Auctions

Fellows

Shows

World Wide Traders Watch & Jewelry Shows - Regional Shows

National Association of Watch & Clock Collectors NAWCC – Regional Shows

Information Sources

WatchUSeek.com

Your local library (books are a great source – especially on vintage watches)

A Few Last Tips

- If you’re unsure whether the watch is genuine, post pictures on watch forums asking for assistance. Make sure not to mention where you saw the deal or you may inadvertently start a bidding war.

- When bidding on eBay, wait until the last few seconds. Premature bidding only drives the price up.

- Always Google the watch you’re looking at. Just because it’s old doesn’t mean it’s rare and you’ll be able to find pictures of other watches from the same period. This can often save you from buying a fake.

- Check eBay regardless if you’re buying on eBay. Often by looking at a number of similar watches under “recent purchases”, you can safely determine what the “going price” is for the watch you’re considering.

- Make sure you know the shipping costs. Often these costs are marked up so that the purchase price can be kept low. In the end, you don’t end up saving.

- If you live in a different country contact a customs broker. Find out if you can expect any fees, and if the watch contains any rare materials, make sure they can be imported. As an example, even an alligator or ostrich strap can sometimes be turned away by certain countries.

- Expect something about the watch to be “off”. If it’s not worth the aggravation and doesn’t deem the watch unusable, it’s sometimes just better to have it fixed yourself.

- Most reputable sellers will put a new strap on vintage watches. Expect ahead of time to replace the strap. Even if it’s new, chances are it won’t be high quality.

- Only one thing other than counterfeits can completely ruin the purchase and that is condition. Just as you would make absolutely sure that the watch is genuine, ensure it’s also in good condition. If you can’t see a part of the watch ask for a picture and detailed descriptions.

- Let the seller know that you can be their best friend or worst enemy. If they screw you around you’ll give bad reviews and tell everybody. If they provide the watch as described, you’ll give positive reviews and still tell everybody.

- Watches are a terrible investment. Buy vintage watches for the love of them, not because you’ve heard you can make money. You may eventually draw a profit, but you won’t be able to retire on it.

- If it’s gold check the lugs for signs of gold plating. Check to make sure if it’s gold plated or filled that it hasn’t begun to wear off. Clarify with the seller about whether it’s gold, gold plated or gold filled.

- Remember watch parts can be replaced. Ask if any of the parts have been.

- Is the movement dirty or dusty? – this can be a huge problem. Avoid watches with dirty movements like the plague.

Conclusion

Buying any vintage watch that isn’t from an authorized dealer is dangerous. It’s a gamble and a game. Make sure you know what you’re looking at or seek the advice of someone who does. Just as you wouldn’t buy a used car from a guy in a back lane if you knew nothing about it, don’t do that same thing with a watch.

10 replies
  1. Frank
    Frank says:

    Boy I can’t see the difference in the two Rolex watches.

    How is one able to determine the difference?

    • Sven Raphael Schneider
      Sven Raphael Schneider says:

      Open the watch, look at the movement and know what to look for. However, a Rolex in steel is often times faked to perfection, so even the movement is great. On the other hand, A. Lange & Söhne fakes are usually quite easily identified…

  2. Dave M.
    Dave M. says:

    Dear Raphael,
    How are you? I hope all is well. I just had a read through your article on buying vintage watches, and as a fan of your website and a collector of vintage watches for over 10 years, I have a few concerns. There is an old adage in poker that says if you can’t spot the sucker in your first 5 minutes at the table, you’re the sucker. The same thing applies to vintage watches. There are experts and there are suckers, and honestly not much in between. One might argue that there are many enthusiasts with some knowledge who don’t claim to be experts, and I would agree and say that’s fine. When it comes to buying vintage watches, however, those people must consider themselves potential suckers as well, and seek proper help in purchasing, or they will almost certainly be ripped off. Your author, in my opinion, wrote a buyers guide that will almost certainly lead to many of your readers getting burned, as I hope to point out below.

    First of all, there are no deals on eBay, and unless you are a true expert you should avoid buying anything on eBay that’s worth more than $100. Watch dealers and expert collectors scour eBay 24/7 in search of “hidden gems”, and they will all tell you that because of this 99.9% of watches worth their salt are sold for fair market value. In over 10 years I have only seen one instance, well documented on the vintage forums, where a collector was able to buy a rare bird at a good price. It was an early Rolex Sub and he paid about $60k for it, but it was still an amazing score. On the other hand, almost every other day someone posts on the forums asking to have a watch verified, only to find out it’s fake. A lot of the time these guys don’t get their money back because of how the description of the item was worded. I could go on for days but the bottom line is that for people new to vintage watches, eBay isn’t risky, it’s suicide.

    The second point is the author’s “rating system”. This is a bit laughable, I’m afraid. On what are these ratings based? How do they synch with the rating system of the person selling the watch? Or the person who is hopefully advising the buyer? It might make someone feel better to say, “Yes, I’d say this is an A- watch”, but it means nothing and really only opens the door for disappointment as a shrewd and unscrupulous seller will easily cotton on to this mindset and be able to manipulate the buyer, refocusing their attention on an overall grade, and distracting from specific points that actually matter a lot. I’ve seen this happen often, as well.

    This brings me to the discussion of condition. Your author points out that case, dial, and movement are the important points to look at when buying a vintage watch. This is true but only in the most superficial, and again, meaningless way. Unless a watch is solid gold and has a disproportionally high melt weight value, the “money” is almost always in the dial. Case condition and authenticity of movement are certainly important but how are buyers to judge them? In fact many collectors prefer banged up “honest condition” cases to cases that have been polished and look new, and the prices support this philosophy. So you may see a pretty ragged looking case that has never been polished going for more than a clean one, as unpolished cases rate a premium. Very confusing to people who don’t know why. And as for movement, I wager that no newbie to vintage watches can tell a real movement in good condition, from a fake movement or real one in bad shape. So yes, consider it but by all means get it looked at by an expert before you buy. To return to the dial for a minute, there are innumerable factors to consider. All vintage dials will show age. The question is, what kind of aging do they show? Some aging, such as patina’d indices or a “tropical” dial (one that has turned an even shade of brown) increase value quite a bit. Other signs of age, like discolouration on the markers, often indicate water damage and should decrease value. But many sellers will try to call discolouration patina. If a buyer doesn’t know the difference, they’ll be losing money. And there is no mention whatsoever of refinished dials, which are another huge can of worms. Or how sellers can try to hide value-reducing damage with cute terms like “beautifully aged”. This stuff takes years to figure out.

    Also, the notion of getting a watch authenticated by the manufacturer is a bit weak. Of all the big brands, only Patek maintains a vintage division that will authenticate watches. Rolex flatly refuses to authenticate watches now. The best they will do is allow you to submit it for service ($900) and then they will tell you if it has any aftermarket parts. If it has more than 3 they will label it a fake and return it to you. Omega is a bit better about cooperating but any of these companies takes weeks to months to get back to you, at which point all of your return rights have vanished.

    Now on to the author’s suggestions about where to buy a vintage watch. As I already stated, people shouldn’t be warned about the possible pitfalls of eBay, they should be flatly told to steer clear until they gain some degree of expertise. Anything less is really doing your readers a disservice, in my opinion. I’m also a bit concerned about some of the suggestions your author makes as alternatives. Chrono24.com is a fairly honest marketplace, but even that is very complicated unless you know what you’re doing. Take a red Rolex Submariner for example. There are 6 original dial variations, plus one service dial variation. They are all valued differently. Without knowing even that basic bit of info, how can a buyer not expect to get ripped off? You can bet the sellers know and you can also bet they can spot uneducated buyers in a flash. As for brick and mortar stores, he’s not giving much better advice. Aaron Faber does sell some nice watches, and they do honour their service contracts, but they charge on average double what comparably honourable sellers do. There are much better places to send new and inexperienced buyers, and if you’d like I can offer some suggestions.

    The last point that really rubbed me the wrong way was the author’s suggestion that readers might do well to threaten eBay dealers with bad feedback and with berating them publicly. If one is so out of one’s depth that the only way to feel secure in buying a watch is to threaten the person selling it, it is better to not buy the watch. Additionally, to behave in the way the author suggests is the furthest thing I can think of from being a gentleman, and as someone who has written several articles on etiquette I’m surprised you allowed that in the article.

    My suggestion to your readers would be to look around, find a type of watch they like, and then find an internet forum that deals with those watches (like vintage rolexforum.com or omegaforums.com, for example.) Then they should register as members, introduce themselves, and start reading and searching through the site, and asking questions of course. What they should not do is find a watch on ebay, visit some forum they’ve never been to before, and ask “is this authentic?”. It’s rude and also foolhardy, as a lot of the experts who frequent these forums, while generally happy to help, are also tired of people doing this. So it may turn out that the person who answers your question doesn’t know much more than you do. If however, you spend time on the forum, read up, and get to know people, you will come away with enough knowledge to fair well, as well as people to give you second opinions before you buy.

    I’ve not even skimmed the surface of the complexities of buying vintage watches. Each area I’ve raised concern over warrants it’s own in-depth article. I do understand that not everyone has the time or the desire to become fluent in the language of vintage watches, but there are many better ways to proceed than were laid out in this article. I’d be wary of allowing this person to charge your readers for consultation services based on what I’ve read here. That said, mine is only one voice from the peanut gallery. I hope you take this letter for what I intend it to be, the friendly concern of a reader who enjoys your site and the diligence you have historically put into the articles you publish. If, on the off chance you make some correction or alteration to the article based on this letter please do not credit me publicly. That’s not my point in writing to you and not something I’d want anyway.

    Best wishes,
    Dave M.
    Brooklyn, NY

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] Over at Gentlemen’s Gazette, they tackle the topic of buying a vintage watch. It’s an area that has a lot of interest, especially now that mechanical watches are en vogue. In this article, they really focus on the bargain-hunting aspect, which is something we don’t often see. They cover all the usual bases (know what you want, don’t believe the “too good to be true”, get to know the seller) that these articles normally cover. What I like that they did here was they’ve even thrown in some good “checklist” type of stuff for when you’re evaluating the condition of the watch. For anyone bargain hunting in the “old watch” section, this is a must-read article. […]

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