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.
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.
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:
Step 1: Ask Yourself These Questions:
- Is there any oxidization, rust, damage?
- 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?
- Does it match the period the seller claims it does?
- 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.)
- Has the watch been serviced? Do the parts appear to be originals or replacements?
- 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.
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.
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
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
Boutique Stores (Manufacturer Owned)
Aaron Faber’s Gallery (If you’re in New York, visit – it’s amazing)
Matthew Bain Fine Watches (Miami)
World Wide Traders Watch & Jewelry Shows – Regional Shows
National Association of Watch & Clock Collectors NAWCC – Regional Shows
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.
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.