Collecting vintage watches is something that I truly love. The watches, the people, the endless searching for knowledge are all part of the gig. Making mistakes, getting ripped off, and, again, the people represent some of the pitfalls. Over the past ten years, I’ve been through a lot of it, and have I learned anything? I’d like to think so… sometimes.

Vintage watches are my thing and during our Collector’s Week here on Fratello, I thought it would be fun to share some of what I have learned on this fascinating journey. Well, it’s fascinating to me at least! Seriously, though, collecting has been a wild ride and pretty damn introspective too. So, perhaps some of my thoughts won’t resonate while others will. Let’s see!

At some point, you come back to the beginning

It’s sort of odd to start a story about collecting vintage watches with a full-circle segment, but here we go. I truly got into vintage watches about ten years ago around the time I moved to Germany. I tell the story often, but it was the first time I had easy access to such a large duty-free area comprised of so many countries. The EU was and is a great place to look for watches. When I arrived, I basically had my Rolex Explorer 14270 in tow. I’d been wearing it for about 13 years straight when the European smorgasbord hit me with a 2×4 square in the face. Things changed — a lot — for me in a relatively short period as I went on a serious tear. Plus, I changed styles from something simple like the Explorer to a mega focus on ’60s chronographs. I blame the influential crew I pal around with virtually for that, but the addiction ran its course after I picked up many of the key pieces I wanted.

Weirdly, I now find myself wearing, you guessed it, my faithful Explorer or some very similar Rolex models from the same period almost daily. It turns out that a watch that I truly yearned for back in 1998 is the one that still speaks at the highest level to me. If it’s not that watch, then watches like it with the same form factor come awfully close. Will my tastes change again? Perhaps, but for some reason, I don’t really think so. After all, I’m ten years older and, just ask my wife, I’m getting more and more set in my ways.

Gallet Multichron Decimal

The struggle is real and barely exists these days

Check that subtitle above because I mean it literally. One aspect that I truly loved about collecting vintage watches in the “old” days was the ability to find a watch on a platform like eBay. Every single day was like a grab bag and you never really knew what you’d find. Sometimes, the watches had great prices, perhaps they’d even go unnoticed, or an old-fashioned barn burner bid fest would ensue. It was fun, exciting, and a great way to learn. Nowadays, partially because publications like us or even an article series like #TBT (yeah, that’s my fault) exist, these opportunities are rare. People tend to know they have something valuable and the experience has increasingly become like normal retail. The thrill of the hunt now only exists in a limited fashion (I think the Gallet Decimal above was my last real find). In fact, it’s a real contributor to why I still enjoy buying Japanese watches in Japan.

Seiko H558 Arnie

Everyone has a theory on what to collect — here’s mine

One aspect I love about vintage watches is the nearly infinite number of rabbit holes one can enter. Whatever your passion, there’s probably a sub-sector of watches for you. Increasingly, though, I’ve seen more and more commentary from folks who think people should stick to one brand or one genre. Similarly, there are those who warn against amassing versus curating a focused, tight collection with nicer pieces. Personally, I’d like to tell all these folks to mind their own business. Collecting, or more directly, deciding how to spend one’s own money is a highly individual choice. The “duh” statement of the decade is, “buy what you like.” If what you like changes, so be it. Shake it up, sell some stuff, and move forward. I have loads of weird watches in my collection that are thematically unrelated to anything else. Guess what? I enjoy wearing them all the same.

Vintage Watch Market Update

Condition is important to a degree

Some collectors of vintage watches adhere to the rule of condition, condition, condition. That’s fine and it’s a perfectly good credo to live by as long as it doesn’t drive you out of the hobby due to pricing or availability. To me, though, unworn, NOS, box-and-papers watches aren’t the only way to go. Personally, I love a term that Robert-Jan introduced to me and that’s the “honest watch.” To me, that’s an original watch (translation: original parts) that has been worn and isn’t damaged. When I say worn, I mean not polished within an inch of its life. Those watches, like my Speedmaster 145.012, still represent the elemental idea of the watch when it was new, but also show history. NOS? To me, that’s borderline sad, but also realize that I like to wear all of my watches. Therefore, paying a big premium for something nearly new might end in disappointment after I scratch it.

Rolex Sea-Dweller 1665

Don’t take a chance when buying pricey vintage watches

When I buy Japanese vintage watches, I take chances all the time. I buy watches with bad photos, I accept movements that resemble dumpster fires, and I realize that the watch could be junk. I’ll even apply this on oddball Swiss stuff. However, once prices began to move above a certain level, I stopped taking blind chances on desirable, well-known pieces. In fact, the last gamble I took was a massive one about five years ago on my Speedmaster 105.003 “Ed White.” I was truly lucky that the watch turned out to be something even better than I had expected (more on that below). Now, though, I would truly consider only buying either from a handful of dealers or from a collector friend. That’s all.

We get a lot of mail here at Fratello and it pains me to say that much of it is from folks who have bought their first (expensive) vintage watch only to find out that something is dreadfully wrong with it. Desirable vintage watches are expensive today, and the risk of getting a bad one has never been higher. Therefore, skip saving a few hundred or thousand euros and buy from someone trustworthy. Oh, and realize that even those folks make mistakes, but the difference is that they will make things right. In the long run, you’ll probably come out on top and you’ll be much happier.

Seiko 6105-8000

That feeling when buying ebbs and flows…

Whether it’s vintage watches or anything “collectible” these days, it’s easy to get caught up in the hype. Sometimes, it feels like you have to or should buy something because it’s the thing to do. In the vintage game, some watches seem like no-brainers because they’re iconic. Or, for me, I love to collect a series of things. I like to have multiple generations of the same watch to see how they progressed (my vintage Seiko diver collection exemplifies this). Whatever you enjoy collecting, if you get into it hot and heavy, there’s one thing most of us realize at some point — sometimes, you’re just collecting to collect. In other words, the joy extracted from one purchase differs greatly from another. Plus, that “high” from acquiring or receiving a watch becomes harder and harder to find. That sounds like a substance abuse addiction, doesn’t it?

I don’t mean to sound so negative, but I’ve seen people burn out on collecting. I’ve also seen people look back on what they’ve purchased with a lot of regrets. For me, I enjoy curating my own little museum of pieces. Like I said, looking at the differences over a period on a certain model makes me happy. For others, that probably sounds like the height of nerdery! I guess the point is that if you’re the kind of person who burns out easily or moves on from one thing to another quickly, truly think about whether you should buy something or not. At times, it’s impossible to tell how you’ll feel about a given watch until it’s in your hands, but truly thinking about a purchase is a good thing.

Similarly, some vintage watches are more memorable than others — some examples

Related to this subject, of all the watches I’ve bought, there are a handful or so of vintage watches that truly stick out to me after all this time. That doesn’t mean that I dislike the other watches in my collection or that I’m thinking of getting rid of them. You’ll also see that some of my most memorable pieces aren’t the most valuable or even get the most wrist time. For me, though, in my little “museum,” these would be the highlight pieces of art that I’d have to go and see during a quick stop. Would you like to know what those are and why? The rationales are all over the map…

Rolex Explorer 1016

The Rolex Explorer 1016

This L-series Explorer 1016 was a real highlight for me and the fact that I went back and forth with the seller for months makes it even more memorable (that would never happen today). This was my first real buy in Europe and I was trying to recapture the magic I felt from my later Explorer 14270. Did it do that? Despite being glorious, not really! I still love it, though. The whole experience takes me back to roughly ten years ago and that was a truly special time.

Universal Geneve Compax “Evil Nina”

The admiration I have for the Universal Geneve Compax I purchased in 2015 is probably more of a love letter to collecting, vintage watch writing, and the thrill of the hunt versus the watch itself. To this day, one of my favorite watch articles of all time is the Hodinkee post on the Universal Genève “Nina Rindt”. It was a watershed moment for me and highlighted everything about vintage watches that I still love — the discovery, the stories, the people, the designs, etc. In terms of buying the watch, I still remember waking up in Europe a couple of months after the article. I was cruising eBay at what would have been midnight in the USA. I saw the “Evil Nina” for something around $3,000, had the audacity to make an offer for $500 less, and landed it. Epic stuff.

The Breitling 765CP

Breitling 765 CP “Jean-Claude Killy”

The Breitling 765 CP stands out because it is unequivocally my favorite vintage chronograph of all time. It’s big, simple, and bold. Plus, I was in Vienna airport when I caught it on eBay, messaged Fred Mandelbaum, and pulled the trigger for a “buy it now” of $4,500. I love its connection with Fred, the fact that the watch blew me away when I first saw it, and still makes me tingle when I wear it.

Heuer Autavia 2446 diagonal

Heuer Autavia 2446 “Jochen Rindt”

Oh, how I pined for a Heuer Autavia 2446 “Jochen Rindt” and it took a while to locate a good one. Weirdly, it was on the same Vienna trip above that I found the Autavia that entered into my collection. I saw it on eBay, watched it disappear, and then watched it return. The watch came from the West Coast and the funds from its sale were apparently used to send a child to college. It was a good story and in the end, the juice was definitely worth the squeeze. I love an early Carrera, but there’s something about this generation of Autavia. No other watch embodies ’60s racing quite like this one.

Speedmaster 105.003 Ed White

Omega Speedmaster 105.003 “Ed White”

This was a funny one because I owned an even shoddier Omega Speedmaster 105.003 “Ed White” and wanted to find a donor. I spied this one on eBay and the case looked good enough for redeployment to the other watch. The rest of the piece looked rough and it was listed from Venezuela. I waited. The watch later returned as a US listing (I “guess” the seller was traveling) and I decided to take a gamble. Condition-wise, the watch was better than expected, but the movement serial number was suspiciously late. During that time, I found that the watch had been discussed and panned on a certain forum (also probably because the watch was and still is used in scam for-sale ads!). Two years later, I worked up the courage to ask Omega about the history of the piece. It turns out that it was delivered to Venezuela in October 1967, thus making it a truly late Ed White and a rather “honest watch.” I was lucky, but as they say, that’s better than being good. 🙂

Breitling Navitimer All Black

Breitling Navitimer 806 “All Black”

The Breitling Navitimer 806 “All Black” is one of those vintage watches that will never leave my collection for a couple of reasons. Aside from being a stupendous, completely original, and iconic watch, I love it based on more personal grounds. Firstly, my wife bought it for me for my 40th birthday. Aside from it being a big year, it also highlights how supportive my wife is of this crazy hobby of mine. I’m incredibly lucky on that front! The other reason that this watch resonates is that it was previously owned by Gerard. We like to pick on G2, but it’s only because we like him so much. He’s a wealth of knowledge and an all-in-all great person. I still recall making the deal with him on this Breitling while at Baselworld, and I feel fortunate that it’s now in my collection.

Seiko 6215-7000 16

Seiko 6215-7000

Ah, there’s a Japanese watch! The Seiko 6215 is one of those special vintage watches for so many reasons. First, I never thought I’d get one and this was a “grail” if one has ever existed for me. Second, it all came together so quickly at the playground on a very cold and gray January day in 2020. Finally, the watch highlights one of the best things to come out of watch collecting — the friendships I have built throughout all this (you know who are). We all know that the last couple of years have been trying, and these friends have made life better instead of the opposite. Memorable? I’d say so.

Final thoughts

Collecting vintage watches can and should be whatever YOU want it to be. It can be fun, an investment, or a complete mess! Messes, by the way, can be good or bad. For me, it has been a self-study in how my interests (and behaviors) have shifted and continue to shift. Plus, it has allowed me to meet and befriend some fabulous people from all over the world. Lest I forget, vintage watches also afforded me the opportunity to join the crew here at Fratello. It may sound hokey, but we are like family here. I’d say that benefit alone due to picking up some old metal has made it a very worthwhile adventure indeed.