Every collector likes bargains. Or at the very least, like the feeling that fair value for money has been had. Although the definition of value is relative and will vary from collector to collector – we all have a different sense of aesthetics after all – there are some things that hold across the board.
This article will try to identify those watches, both new and on the secondary markets. Pricing, where given, is a rough guide only.
Let’s first define what’s important:
1. Some sense of differentiation from other similar pieces, be it pricing, movement, aesthetics or other technology;
2. An in-house movement would be nice, but not a necessity;
3. Sound aesthetics and design; something with attention to the details that will likely stand the test of time;
4. Pricing below pieces of a similar tier;
5. Perhaps exclusivity, or something not commonly seen on the wrists of non-collectors
6. Cult status (though given the economics of pricing and demand, it would be extremely unlikely to find anything falling into this category.)
Without further ado, in no particular order:
GP Ferrari chronographs – used
Produced until the early 2000s, these can be found in myriad variants – all the way from the rare Enzo tourbillon, slightly less rare SF Foudroyante a Rattrapante to the more garden ‘pour Ferrari’ versions. Starting prices on the used market are around US$2000, which let’s be frank, barely gets you a new basic Tag Heuer these days. Movement is usually an ETA base with Dubois-Depraz module; take care that the chronograph is in working order, because these are a pain to repair (usually the entire module is swapped out) and parts may no longer be available for the rarer variants.
Sinn pilot models – 756, 856 and variants – new, but especially used
Although fairly common at one point, the Sinn pilots have been overshadowed by the newer U series – partially because of size, and possibly also because of changing tastes. All models of 756 and 856 are technologically loaded: special movement oil for thermal stability to extreme temperatures; Tegiment-treated (and sometimes TiAlCN PVD’d) cases for durability; magnetic shielding to 0.1T; crystals secured against negative pressure; copper sulphate moisture absorption capsule and extra durable Viton gaskets, amongst other things. These are very durable every-day watches that can stand up to significant abuse, and keep going. Not to mention having a dive rating (200m, for a pilot watch!) and double-gasketed chronograph buttons.
Sinn U1, U2, U1000 – new and used
The U1 perhaps offers the best bang for the buck new; effectively indestructible and very well made. Points can be deducted for a sometimes so-so dial finish (especially printing and luminous material details) but case quality is excellent. The U1000 – at one point quite common on the used market – for some reason takes a big depreciation hit after the first owner; it really is an excellent watch and has a good chunk of Sinn technology in it too (Tegimented submarine steel, antimagnetic protection, copper sulphate capsule, captive bezel, special oils, argon filling, insane water resistance)
Omega DeVille Coaxial – used
New Omega prices have been increasing constantly. The DeVille Coaxial – early 2000s model – has a somewhat polarizing case design but contains great movements – especially the chronographs, which use the Omega 3133 – an automatic vertical-clutch column wheel (with coaxial escapement) movement, derived from the venerable Piguet 1185. The new DeVille dials are a bit of an acquired taste, though retain the same cases.
Seiko 5 – new and used
How many watches are there out there that boast an automatic mechanical in-house movement for under US$200, or sometimes even US$100? Only one: the venerable Seiko 5. There are countless variants of this watch out there – although most are ‘near misses’ in terms of aesthetics, there are a few models like the Military, Pilot and ‘Fifty Three Fathoms’ that look great, and cost about as much as a good OEM strap from any one of the high end Swiss brands. Sure, you don’t get an instantaneous date, hacking or even crown winding, but at this price, who cares? Well built, and pretty much bomb proof. A testament to their reliability is my mother’s Seiko 5 – she’s worn it for the last 15 years, it’s never been serviced, and still keeps time to within a few seconds a day. And it’s the smaller, ladies-size movement.
Omega Dynamic Chronograph – used
New, these were the unloved child of the Omega line and produced from about 1997 to 2000. They had nothing to do with the funky oval 70’s predecessors bearing the same name; if anything, they were more like the watches issued to the RAF in the 1950s. While there’s nothing exceptional about any of these pieces – they are either ETA 2892 derivatives, or add a DD module for the chronograph – they are aesthetically solid and really quite pleasant. And very different to anything in the current Omega line without appearing dated. I picked up a NOS chronograph in 2002 for a little over US$600.
Nomos Tangomat, all variants – new and used
Where else are you going to get a clean, modern design with well executed case, impeccably finished dial, and a nice in-house movement under US$3k? And on top of that, it also comes with the exclusivity of something uncommon. The new Tangomat GMT variant is a great watch, although a little larger than the regular Tangomat – but it does have a useful complication.
Jaeger-LeCoultre Master Date, Master Moon and Master RDM in 37mm cases – used
If you want a classically styled dress watch with a hint of complication – respectively, triple calendar; moon phase and triple calendar; power reserve and calendar – then look no further. I suspect these have fallen out of favor these days due to their smaller case sizes. But this makes them perfect for a dress watch, or for ladies. It’s not hard to find a mint example in steel around the US$4000 range. There are of course more interesting variants – the blue dial platinum editions, for instance, or the white gold anthracite dial boutique editions – but these tend to be much rarer on the secondary market and commensurately priced.
Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso Classique or GT – used
A true classic, and in many ways a victim of the big watch trend – to the point that JLC had to release a larger ‘1931 Ultrathin’ model of the Reverso despite already having a thin model in the collection! Once again, sizing is a little on the small size, but the only real downside of this is the crowns of the Classique or GT sizes is quite small, and not so easy to manipulate if you have large fingers. It doesn’t help at all that this is a manually wound watch. Still, for a true classic, you can’t go wrong. Just watch out for engravings on the blank reverse side; unless you like that, of course.
Rolex Explorer (114270) – used
A Rolex which is good value for money? Well, yes. The Explorers are perhaps the quintessential understated sport model; they can be had for significantly less money than a new Submariner – less than half in some cases – but are every bit as legitimately a classic Rolex, at home in pretty much every situation. The cases are just 36mm in diameter, but wear a little larger thanks to a rather thin bezel. It may not have the same degree of horological pedigree as some of the other watches in this article – the movement is known to be a little rough in places, and the clasp/ bracelet are frequent causes for complaint – but it is a classic.
The non-Oyster Rolexes
Would you still buy a Rolex if it wasn’t obviously a Rolex? Not an easy question to answer. But some of the less common models, like the Cellini, are actually quite nice – and I suspect would enjoy greater popularity if they weren’t overshadowed by their more famous bretheren.
Early A. Lange & Sohne regular serial production pieces
There was a time when the Lange 1 and Datograph were the largest pieces in the collection – at a mere 39mm – and there were plenty of models hovering around the 34mm-37mm range. I personally prefer smaller watches as I’ve got small wrists; but the rest of the world doesn’t. Still, these are the early, classical, Langes; and in many was the purest execution of the idea. They are not cheap by any means – but neither are they expensive compared to contemporary options. I saw (and was unfortunately too late) a Saxomat grand date go for US$10,000. If I’m not mistaken, that’s around Submariner money, or perhaps one of the 8-day Panerais – if you can find one. One look at the movement and it should be patently clear that these represent great value for money.
H. Moser & Cie – new
Good luck finding a used one – if you can, go for it. However, the current Perpetual Calendar is both good value for money, extremely well made, and very unique. It only displays the date (big, of course) in a window, and the month on a stubby central hand that uses the regular time indices; the leap year is on the back. More significantly, even though the date changes instantaneously, you can set the time back and forth even across midnight without damaging the mechanism. It is handwind, but will run for several days. Finishing is impeccable. And I believe street retail is lower than a Patek annual calendar; you’re not giving up anything in compromise, either.
Peter Speake-Marin – new (SM2) and used (others)
The inhouse SM2 caliber is beautifully executed, from every point of view. The aesthetics are superb (use of circular bridges doesn’t do any harm, either); it appears to be intelligently designed for future regulation and service, and above all, the one thing that constantly impresses me is the quality of the finishing. We have presented several photoessays of the Speake-Marin watches here in the past – and I think you’ll all agree that the movement finishing is truly first class. The hands are particularly refined and excellent, too. I suspect the case design is somewhat polarizing, which may explain the relatively small numbers seen on the wrists of collectors.
Chopard LUC regular production – 1.96, 4.96, 1.98 calibers
I had the chance to photograph a 1.96 recently (photoessay here) and was actually very surprised by the movement. First off, it’s beautiful. Secondly, it’s well designed – the ratchet winding system attached to the microrotor is both efficient and compact. And thirdly, the finishing is totally deserving of its Geneva Seal. The 1.98 is more interesting (8 day power reserve, four barrels) but offers a bit less to look at as half the movement is occupied by the barrels and covered by a single plate. Still, the finishing here is no less excellent. Perhaps the greatest shame is the diver cased watches, as they mostly have solid backs and hide the beauty within. My personal preference goes to the more classically styled models though. These are timelessly elegant and very well executed.
Vintage pocket watches and clocks – used, obviously
The reader is probably wondering why I haven’t mentioned used vintage wristwatches, but instead choose pocketwatches. Simple: popularity. Not only are pocket watches much cheaper – a solid gold Lange from the turn of the 19th/20th century will go for about US$5-10,000 – it’s also relatively easier to determine the provenance of what you’re buying. Popular vintage watches are a minefield of frankenmovements, refinished cases, repainted or non-original dials, and incorrect crowns. It’s possible this could happen to a pocketwatch too, but far less likely. And where else can you find an immaculately finished rattrapante chronograph or a minute repeater for under US$10,000 – and all with a movement big enough for you to enjoy the details? Just make sure it’s in running order and recently serviced before committing, because repairs will be expensive and require experts.
Perhaps the most important thing to remember when buying used watches is that you’re really buying the seller: if you trust them, and others do too, it’s far less likely that you will land up with something other than what was expected or promised. And also be prepared to face potential repair bills: even though a watch may well be running fine now, there’s nothing stopping it from, well, stopping – a few months into your ownership, and it probably isn’t the fault of the seller. There is always going to be a risk, but be wise about your purchasing and there are still some value for money pieces to be had. MT