Do you want to buy a “new” old watch that will not drain your bank account but will also be elegant, stylish and may even trigger a watch collecting hobby? It’s a tall order, but the Gentleman’s Gazette did the hard work of discovering how to buy an affordable vintage watch.
I believe that watch collecting is addictive, so be warned! If you want to get started as a collector, know that you may find them in antique shops, weekend fairs, garage sales, eBay, websites, and auctions galore (such as Sotheby’s, Christie’s and others). Sometimes, a friend has one to sell; another time, they may know of someone who is willing to part with some nice timepieces. Your dad or an uncle may be soft-hearted and help you with the “seed watch” in your collection.
Obviously, it is a very competitive market, and some watches may sell for thousands, hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars, as is the case of very rare watches – think about Winston Churchill’s Lemania gold chronograph from 1946, recently sold at Sotheby’s: its pre-auction estimate was US$19,000-32,000, but the hammer dropped at over US$208,000.
Or Paul Newman’s own Rolex Daytona “Paul Newman” model, the watch that started the whole premium vintage watch market: it was sold for US$17,752,500 (including buyer’s premium), a world record for a wristwatch at auction.
Obviously, we will not be dealing with this kind of collectible. Our aim is to provide you a practical and affordable guide to vintage watches and brands below the US$1,000 point. In this price bracket, you will find many good steel watches and some gold-plated ones, with an eventual solid gold piece. But you should be looking for design, demand, and style, not for a financial investment!
Guidelines for Buying an Affordable Vintage Watch
Your focus should be on mechanical timepieces. Quartz watches – with very few exceptions – seldom appreciate in value, and many have their catalog price highly reduced after leaving the store. If you look carefully, you may even find the greatest value in vintage watches: the “new old stock“. These are watches that were never sold before and found a nice spot in the seller’s deposit or drawer until being sold now. Many will require a professional inspection and perhaps an overhaul (lubrification, change of gaskets, etc.)
However, resist the temptation of changing certain parts of a vintage timepiece, such as dial, hands or bezel. If you do so for esthetical reasons, keep the original parts in an envelope, so that they may be put back in place if you wish to sell the watch someday. Some repair shops “restore” (change!) the dial, devaluating the watch. The most you can do is ask a specialist to clean the dial, but without changing its original design.
Do not buy a watch just because it is a blue-chip brand, such as Rolex, Patek or Cartier. Buy it because you like it, and keep it running properly (which includes regular winding). By the way, an automatic watch should not be shaken around like a maraca to be wound; you must do it through the winding crown, giving it a start, and then wear it. Arm movement will do the rest.
Brands to Consider
For starters, let us talk about Omega, one of the most serious and known watch brands, with many collectible pieces. Founded in 1848 by Louis Brandt, it is now one of the most important brands of the powerful Swatch Group. They have many successful watch lines, such as the Speedmaster, the Seamaster, the De Ville and the Constellation.
You can buy a gold-plated Seamaster from the 1970’s for approximately US$1,000. It has an automatic movement and comes with a leather strap or metallic bracelet. It is sleek, clean and has a date window at 3 o’clock (some versions have a day window, too).
One of my favorites is the Dynamic. Created in 1965 and released in 1968, it featured an elliptical ergonomic case and came in many options of dial, strap and case material; also, you can choose between manual and automatic winding movements. It has a more relaxed look than the Seamaster, but may surely be worn for work. Prices range from US$250 to US$900, depending on the state.
The brand started as Heuer in 1860, founded by Edouard Heuer. In 1985, TAG (Techniques d’Avant Garde), a Luxembourg-based holding owned by the Arab Ojjeh family, bought it and helped it renew its portfolio, establishing TAG Heuer as one of the best chronograph makers. Finally, in 1999, it was bought by the LVMH luxury group.
The 4000 Automatic was produced in the 1990s and it is water resistant to 200 meters, making it a good companion for the weekend; a small window at 3 o’clock indicates the date. You may find this watch for US$650-700.
Created in 1884 by Léon Breitling, his namesake watch company created a reputation for producing watches with great design. I will not emphasize their chronographs, their most prized collections because that would take you to another price range. The examples shown here have prices in the US$500-800 range; some have date windows and the older ones have a second subdial at 6 o’clock.
Another brand from the Swatch Group, Longines is considered an elegant brand, with an affordable price point. You will find many great Longines timepieces from the 1950’s and 1960’s, for instance. In this brand, founded in 1832 by Auguste Agassiz, you will find many 18k gold cases, something that in most other brands covered here will take you to a higher price point.
A Comet Automatic as the one shown has its case in yellow gold and automatic winding movement, with a date display on the dial, and would cost you less than US$1,000.
The Tissot family founded their namesake watch company in 1853 in Le Locle, one of the most important watch centers in Switzerland. What was said about good value for Longines also applies here (and, by the way, Tissot is another Swatch group company!)
When you look for vintage Tissot timepieces, try to find the italicized name on the dial, with a long horizontal bar on the first “T”. Tissot produced interesting models and I would not hesitate in buying a pocket watch from this brand, such as this 1940s gold-plated model, selling for around US$800.
Another nice Tissot watch is the Militaire, with grey and black dial; the photo shows the stainless steel version, which would cost you US$300-350.
The brand was founded in 1891 by the Stolz brothers and is mostly known for their table clocks and combos, such as the thermometer/barometer/clock seen above.
However, their wristwatches have always had a following, and the brand is still producing. An automatic model from the 1960s will set you back around US$450.
Baume & Mercier
We have talked about this Richemont group brand here. I know it is not as vintage (in the sense of “before 1980”) as most of the other watches mentioned here, but I have a sweet spot for the Hampton line, with its curved case adjusting to the form of the wrist. The Dual Time is my travel watch, with one movement for each dial – reference or home time and second-time indication. You may pay around US$850-900 for one in steel; the leather strap is an alternative for this model.
Usually, Cyma is an underrated brand, even though they have been on the market for over 150 years. A nice timepiece from the 1950s is the Triplex, a military-style watch with good design. Expect to pay US$ 450-500 for one.
The brand’s flagship is the Kontiki, called after the famous Thor Heyerdahl expedition in 1947. He sailed 5,000 miles across the Pacific Ocean in a hand-built raft, in an attempt to prove that the ancient peoples could have made long sea voyages, eventually spreading their civilizations to distant places.
A stainless steel model such as this, from the 1970s, will cost you around US$800-850, with automatic movement and date window. With a leather strap, it may serve you double time – at the office and on weekends.
Another brand with a name that does not resonate instantly in the American market, but has a long tradition dating from 1887, is Eberhard. Their most famous model is the chronograph with four subdials, but with a price range out of our self-imposed limits.
Their vintage models in steel may be purchased for reasonable prices (from US$350 to 800), depending on the conditions. A gold automatic model from the 1960s will cost a bit more (perhaps around US$850).
The Meylan family founded this company, which became famous for their Airman watch, with a 0-24 hours indication, making it popular among the aeronautic crowd. But for normal everyday use, I would go with the 1940s or 1950s model. The rectangular model shown has a yellow gold case and manual winding movement, and costs about US$950. I like the numerals and the railway track around the dial.
The company was founded in 1881, but their flagship design is the Museum Watch, created in 1947 by Nathan George Horwitt. It is unmistakable for its big dot at 12 o’clock, as a symbol of the noon sun. In 1960, it entered the Museum of Modern Art, and it was the first watch to do it.
Recently, a vintage Movado Sapphire watch was being sold for US$225 at Chrono24, and in my opinion, it is one of the best buys around.
Elegant and clean, the watches produced by Universal Genève – by the way, one of the few watch companies to include “Genève” in their name. However, when founded in 1894, it was known as Universal Watch. They have some claims to fame, such as the first 24-hour indication timepiece, as well as the first wristwatch chronograph in 1917.
One of their most interesting watches is the pocket model from the 1960-70s in stainless steel, a thin design that can be a conversation piece: it can be found for US$700.
You may also find models with 18k gold cases in the US$300-700, depending on the state, such as the one from the 1970s shown.
Founded in 1875 by an immigrant from Bohemia, it is one of the best-known American watch companies and one of the rare exceptions I would make to the “non-electronic movement” rule, because they created the Accutron in 1960. This watch uses a 360 tuning fork instead of a balance wheel for running the watch more accurately (and thus its name, a mixture of “accurate” and “electronic”). You’ll find an Accutron model such as the Spaceview for US$600.
Even though they are renowned for their quartz watches – after all, they were the guys that almost broke the Swiss watch industry in the 1970s, after the release of their Astron watch – Seiko has been around since 1892. (At the time of its release, an Astron cost almost the same as a medium-sized car!)
A nice manual winding timepiece such as the Seiko Crown, with a diameter of 34mm, may be found in the vintage market for US$950-1,000.
I hope this modest guide may help you find a “new” vintage watch for your portfolio, no matter if you are a beginner or advanced collector, or just a gentleman that wishes to buy a classic model from a good brand – and comfortable price. Happy hunting!