Mike’s Top 5 Mistakes Most Make When Collecting Vintage Watches
I often speak with people who are either getting into vintage watches or are considering it. Often, people are afraid of making mistakes. Here’s a handy list of things to consider to avoid those pesky pitfalls.
I think we can all agree that vintage watches are a wonderful way to expand one’s love of our favorite hobby. Whether you’re into patina, history, or collecting a certain sub-genre, there’s something for everyone. Besides, with around 100 years of wristwatch production under our belts, the choices are virtually endless. If it sounds like you can’t go wrong with vintage watches, that’s not exactly the case. You can make momentous mistakes, but I’ve found that there are some really simple ways to avoid this. Here are 5 of my top tips for whenever you’re tempted to head down the olden path. But first…
You will err and err again
Look, when you decide to start collecting vintage watches let it be known that you will screw up at some point. Your screw up may be small (lucky) or your screw-up could be large (less lucky). More than likely, though, you’ll make small errors and, hopefully, the result will simply be a watch that just isn’t as nice as you thought. And rest assured, sometimes it doesn’t come down to how well informed you are. Even the best get bamboozled from time to time. And now, finally, let’s get to it.
1. Do your research on vintage watches
Did you just finish reading one of our #TBT articles and walk away full of inspiration? Perhaps you’ve just read about any number of rare vintage watches and you start scouring the web for an example right away. One of us has told you that they’re extremely rare, but you come upon said model and, worrying that someone else will step in, you pull the trigger and buy it right away! Oof… Now, depending on the seller, everything may turn out perfectly. But maybe not…
I get the whole “FOMO” thing and also the thrill of the hunt. I’m more than guilty of acting with my wallet before consulting my brain when it comes to vintage watches and plenty of other things. But my first piece of advice is this — do your research! If that means reading articles and forums, then get to it. If it means reaching out to a well-known expert (paging Fred Mandelbaum, aka @watchfred when it comes to Breitling), you’ll find yourself surprised at how well that works.
Afraid those experts will swoop in and buy your watch once you’ve alerted them? Relax, they probably already know it’s for sale. And while I most definitely cannot vouch for all the wisemen out there, there’s an underlying unwritten code that dissuades that type of behavior. Failing that, I tell people that the cheapest reference is almost always right near them. Head to google images and do loads of visual comparisons between different examples of the watch. It’s not scientific, but you can really start to get a feel for what’s generally correct and what’s not.
2. Don’t listen to idiots who tell you to stay away from eBay
So, now you know how to do some research on vintage watches. You’ve joined some forums. You’ve developed eagle eyes. And poor Fred is being woken up in the middle of the night so you can bother him for the umpteenth time about ratty old Navitimers. Good work! But because you’re new at this and have read some other “how to” articles or have listened to some doofus podcast episodes, you decide to look only at dealer websites. You do this because some lazy dipstick collector with more money than brains told you that places like eBay, Craigslist, or an estate sale are bad places to buy. Well, that collector may be lazy, but you’re not!
I don’t want to stereotype our readers, but I’d wager that you’re here for “the love of the game”. The result is important, but I’m guessing that you enjoy the journey as much if not more. Therefore, why leave all your searching to a dealer when you can do your own home cooking on vintage watches? Scouring ads with crummy photos and learning how to decipher those images becomes really rewarding.
It’s wonderful if you get the watch for a song, but it’s still incredibly satisfying to receive a great watch that you found on your own. And here’s something else to note. The bulk of my collection came from eBay or other similar online sources (just look at that Autavia above!). I’m not batting 1.000, but I’d probably make the starting lineup. Now, before I get some angry comments from dealers, I’ll throw them a bone.
3. Dealers are great for specific things and…
Looking for an incredibly rare watch that’s incredibly difficult to source? This is where a reputable dealer comes into play. For those watches that rarely pop up or frequently pop up with problems (missing parts, etc), a dealer can be a godsend. They have access to some amazing watches because of their extensive networks and this can lead to some great finds for the seasoned collector or one who has a very specific watch in mind. For me, though, after roughly 10 years of buying there is one category of watch where I’d always suggest using a dealer.
Call me crazy, but I really don’t trust myself with Rolex. Don’t misunderstand me: it doesn’t stop me from doing research, learning about changes within models, or getting a bead on market pricing. The problem with Rolex, plain and simple, is that there’s so much interest in the brand that it’s literally created a cottage industry for fakes. Even worse is that some of these fakes are really good. On top of that, while Rolex doesn’t communicate at all about vintage watches, there are established norms for given models.
Things changed over time and the changes were often seriously subtle. When a 1960s or ’70s Sub or GMT was worth $5,000, I trusted my gut to choose the right dial and bezel combo. Now, my gut concerns itself with food and I leave the increasingly expensive questions to some trusted dealers. I don’t buy Rolex often and it’s been nearly two years since I last did, but I really only call two people when I’m looking. That’s Eric Wind of Wind Vintage and the Davidoff Brothers. There are other trusted dealers out there, but I’ve simply not interacted with them. I’ll leave it at that because books could be written, and have been, about vintage Rolex.
4. “Cheap” vintage watches are rare
Have you ever heard the saying that there’s no such thing as a cheap insert exotic car brand name here? Well, the reason is that exotic cars are often complex and cost money to maintain. A lot of people sell such vehicles just shy of an expensive service. To the uninformed buyer, this can be disastrous. Vintage watches usually aren’t quite that bad, but you’d be naive to ignore the potential running cost of an old watch. Always factor in the cost of a service unless you have real proof that a recent service was done. It’s bad to run a dry, potentially dirty old watch, and it can only add to the damage. So yes, if you’re heading into vintage watches, it’s wise to keep a “war chest” on the side to deal with these costs.
5. Find a good watchmaker
So you’ve landed some vintage watches and now you need to get them serviced. It’s time to call your friendly neighborhood watchmaker! What, there’s no watchmaker living next door and if so, he or she’s not friendly? Well, most watchmakers are friendly, but they’re kind of like doctors or car restorers. Doctors often decline new patients and car restorers typically have incredibly long lead times. If you’re going down the vintage path, you need to get used to both of these responses. But here again, you can do some research and just ask people who they use. Despite the jokes about us wanting to keep the names of our watchmakers to ourselves, we do share. Just don’t hog them for the next year!
A couple of other things to note about your watchmaker. Some do have great access to parts, but if you’re looking for something truly specific you can often find yourself out of luck. This means that you will likely need to do some sourcing on your own to make things easier — translation: faster — for your watchmaker. Believe me, he or she has watches stacked up and has better things to do than look for a specialty crystal for your Roamer Mustang. Finally, if you can find a watchmaker who likes working on the types of watches you collect, all the better. My experience is that sending a watch that a watchmaker can fix, but doesn’t enjoy means more time.
Bonus: Buy what you like
Well, I fibbed a bit and have one more piece of advice. This one is good for new and vintage watches and it’s simply to buy what you like. Following the herd is rarely good unless it’s out of a burning building and it’s the same for our beloved timepieces. Social media and sites like ours can be educational, but also quite persuasive. After all, seeing and reading about something does drive interest. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I can honestly tell you that some of the most fun I’ve had in this hobby is due to exploring roads less traveled.
I own a lot of vintage watches from the big Swiss names and they’re lovely. I enjoy almost all of them and some were even great eBay finds! But guess what? I’ve gained the most satisfaction from stacking up some incredible Japanese watches from the likes of Seiko, Citizen, and Orient. They’re not unpopular, but it’s an entirely different ballgame when compared to Rolex or Omega. Do I care? Not at all and that’s because I truly enjoy them. The fact that they’re priced accessibly only adds to the joy. So, whatever corner of the vintage watch world you find yourself in, have a little faith that it’s the right one for YOU.
That’s all for now
I could write for days when it comes to mistakes I’ve made on buying vintage watches. It takes time to learn the right questions to ask, the right things to look for, and even then it’s impossible to know until the watch arrives. I completely understand that this lack of clarity is just too much for some. For me, it’s just part of the whole risk-reward scenario that comes along with the thrill of the hunt.