With 25 years of experience in the watch and jewellery industry working for companies such as Cartier, Van Cleef and Arpels, Mappin & Webb and seven years as Boutique Manager for Breguet, watches have been both a career and a passion for Adrian Hailwood, Dreweatts senior watch specialist. Here he talks you through what to look out for when buying vintage watches.
When buying a vintage watch, you are also buying its history. This may have been a quiet life resting in its original box at the back of a safe, or, strapped to a hard-working wrist, sharing all the trials and tribulations of its owner, picking up dents and scrapes along the way. For dress watches, fine condition is preferred hopefully reflecting a more refined existence; for tool or sports watches, while mint condition is great, some degree of wear and tear is also acceptable as it suggests the watch has been used appropriately.
For today’s market, originality is key. Repainting a worn-out dial and repolishing a case to remove all its scratches may make it look nice, and two decades ago this would have been considered standard practise, but now this is regarded as a last resort, heavily devaluing the watch.
Be prepared to accept condition in keeping with age and use. Buy the best condition you can afford as improving this later may be costly and counterproductive and avoid anything that is obviously restored or over polished.
Patina is a word frequently used in watch collecting circles. While it may be used in connection with the nicks and scratches picked up by a watch case during its life, it usually refers to the watch dial. Patina is discolouration due to age, sometimes caused by sunlight or humidity. This can create an attractive and unique effect on the dial testament to its age and use. Popular examples are so-called ‘Tropical’ dials where the original black colour has turned various shades of brown due to sun exposure, conjuring up an idyllic image of a life spent on dive boats in the Caribbean etc.
Care must be taken not to confuse patina with damage. It is only a question of degree as to where attractive aging becomes irreparable disintergration. The fashion for patinated dials is relatively recent and no one knows how watch dials will continue to age over time. Be aware that not all brown on dials is ‘Tropical’ aging, rust can be the same colour and if there is rust on the dial, the movement may be a wreck.
The science of horology is constantly evolving and, on the whole, mechanical watches of today are more accurate than vintage ones. That is not to say that an old watch cannot be made to run within its original tolerances, and for a vintage chronometer that would be on a par with a modern watch, but this will require frequent maintenance. With the availability of accurate timekeeping on phones and computer screens, vintage watches should be enjoyed more for their retro styling and historical significance rather than their precision.
Almost as a standard, modern watches are made to be water resistant to 30m or more. Vintage watches were commonly made without water resistance unless they were sports models and so care should be taken exposing them to moisture or humidity. Vintage watches with a stated depth rating should not be trusted unless they have recently had replacement gaskets and been thoroughly tested. As with accuracy, these watches can be brought up to standard if required, but this will require the services of a trained watchmaker.
Like any mechanical device, a watch will require care, maintenance and servicing to provide good service over a long period. Lubricating oils dry out, parts wear and seals perish all of which will necessitate attention at some stage. Vintage watches are the same, except they are further down the line of wear and tear and so may need more intervention if previous owners have not had regular servicing carried out. The only question is whether a movement has become obsolete or if parts are still available. This varies from brand to brand which some discontinuing support quicker than others. If the brand cannot help or no longer exists, independent watchmakers can, if necessary make parts from scratch, the only consideration being whether the cost of the repair outweighs the value, sentimental or monetary, of the watch.
Remember, buying a vintage watch is not the same as a contemporary piece, but if you manage your expectations accordingly you may end up with a watch that is cheaper, more stylish or possibly, the original that the modern re-issues are based on.
For more information about buying and selling watches at auction, please contact our Watch Department:
+44 (0) 1635 553 553 | email@example.com
18 March: Fine Jewellery, Watches and Silver
13 May: Jewellery, Silver, Watches, Pens and Luxury Accessories
14 May: Jewellery, Silver, Watches, Pens and Luxury Accessories (Timed Online Auction)
Sign up for auction alerts and our monthly newsletter to receive expert analysis and insights from our specialists and keep up-to-date on forthcoming auctions, valuation days and previews.