Vintage Watch Buying – A Short Guide

What do I look out for when buying a vintage watch? The areas covered lightly below highlight a few of the relevant topics and should help to explain the minefield into which you are treading…

  1. I always buy the seller and not the watch and always a wristwatch I like. I cannot sell something I dislike.

If the seller is easy to contact, trustworthy, has a decent website and history in dealing, then I am more at ease. Will they accept the watch back if I decide I am not happy with it and are they bound by any trade bodies or institutions, to behave well. Do I like and trust the story of how they came about the watch.

  1. Is the dial perfect, because most of the money is in the dial?

Buy a decent loupe with a light on it. Without the light, you won’t see enough detail. Look all over the dial and around its edge. When watches are serviced they may get damaged around the edge when the movement is taken in and out again. Tilt the watch to make sure the light gets into any scratches on the surface. To test the “lume” on the dial you will need an ultraviolet torch, but that is another essay! The details on the dial must match up in terms of script and hands to what is generally agreed by collectors and dealers to be correct. This is another huge subject. Make sure the hands have not made circular scratches on the dial.
The “lume” dots should be even in colour. If they were white and someone has dyed them, this should be obvious. The “lume” in the markers should match or nearly match that in the hands. Sometimes they age at different levels to one another. Just because a MKII Rolex Red Submariner has white markers as opposed to yellow ones, does not mean it is wrong. If a dial has been re-lumed then it is considerably less valuable. One good way to tell is if the lume does not exactly cover the plot it should sit on, if there is any residue on the dial around it and if it is very thick and bulbous.

  1. Is the case correct, nice and crisp or has it been polished time and again?

Compare the case to others, is yours thicker or thinner in the lug or crown guard? Many watches are polished when serviced, which decreases their value. Rolex factory original cases should have chamfered outside lugs with some wear to them. You should be able to see the sharp lines of the case and the chamfers. During a service, the lugs will often be re-chamfered by Rolex and you can tell because they will look in the main, new and too perfect and highly polished. A vintage watch will have a patina to it. If it is too perfect, it has been polished. Take the case back off and see if the movement is correct for that watch and is there any pitting where water has got in and rusted the case where it meets the case back? Are there any date and model marks inside the case back, do they match the year the watch was made? Learn how to distinguish the different serial number fonts and the year in which the watch was made from the serial number. Rolex played around with this a great deal. If the dial should be from a certain year period and the case says another year, they won’t match up. I prefer to be able to clearly read the whole serial number.

  1. Is the movement correct?

Check the watch is sporting the correct movement for that model. Is there a movement number and does that match with the year of manufacture? Does the movement work and does it rattle? If an automatic, the rattle may mean a worn rotor bearing, which isn’t serious, but will usually mean a service. Check it is clean and there is no rust anywhere inside the movement.

  1. Is the bracelet correct?

Some bracelets are now £3-4,000 for a vintage watch so make sure the bracelet is the correct one for your model of watch. The serial number should be right and the date stamp on the buckle should roughly match the year of the case. Many bracelets don’t have year stamps. The bracelet ends must also have the correct serial numbers and be the right width for the case. If the bracelet is gold, make sure it hasn’t been over polished and rounded in appearance. It must be nice and sharp. IMPORTANTLY, the links must be tight and not worn out. Hold the watch head vertically with the crown pointing to the sky and let the bracelet hang to the ground at 90 degrees. There should not be too much sag.

You don’t have to have the bracelet to buy the watch, you can always find it later, bearing in the mind the extra cost.

  1. Are the crown and if relevant, the pushers, original to the watch?

Early Rolex 1680 red Submariners had no dots or line under the Rolex crown logo on the crown. Heuer watches usually have Heuer written on the crown and some Omega watches have the Omega logo with a flat under side to it. Learn these details, you can buy crowns, but they can be expensive.

  1. Check the hands are correct.

Certain watches must have old, particular hands. If they look new, they are probably replacement ones and if they are not like the ones generally perceived as correct, then they are aftermarket and can affect the value of your watch.

  1. Is there any literature with the watch and any relevant boxes?

All decent vintage watches are worth significantly more if they have their original certificates, boxes and any relevant service papers, stories of ownership or other.

  1. No-one is an absolute expert on vintage wristwatches.

I learn something new every single day that I am involved in the business. Remember everyone is apt to get it wrong, even the most experienced dealers, auction house experts and so-called scholars. The only way to get better at it is to handle the items. Take in masses of balanced advice, never trust one source. Don’t go onto an internet forum and take as gospel truth one line of thought.

  1. What you are after is a “feel”

Any expert in their field will tell you it isn’t the individual details which make the item right or wrong it is the “feel” ie does it feel right or is there something nagging you about it that isn’t right. Whether a watch, a painting, a piece of furniture, it must feel right and for that to be so, you must have enough knowledge to make that decision.

GOOD LUCK !!!