Could A Vintage Rolex Be Your Every Day Beater? Absolutely!
There’s nothing quite like getting a new watch, correct? Visiting a boutique, having a glass of champagne, and enjoying some white-glove service is a real perk. For some of us, though, buying an older watch is just as exciting. These days, buying a new Rolex borders on the nearly impossible. If the gray market isn’t your thing, that leaves vintage Rolex as an option. It sounds funny because vintage was always more expensive. Those tables have turned, though, but is a vintage Rolex a good substitute for a new model? Let’s discuss…
Before my fun experience with Swiss customs, I’d routinely travel with a few watches on longer trips. I liked switching things up and tried to bring pieces to match the activities of the journey. Now, though, I travel with one nice watch along with something rugged — my current mainstay is the Citizen Promaster Tough. On the nice side of things, I typically choose a newer piece like my 14060M Submariner or 14270 Explorer. Just recently, though, I went on a three-week trip to the USA and brought my newly purchased vintage Rolex Submariner 5513 Maxi dial. Was it the right move? Absolutely, but I gave it real thought.
Wearing a vintage Rolex every day
As I said, I give thought to which watch comes along with me based on the upcoming activities. This trip was going to be varied with a stop in Las Vegas, hiking, a journey to the Grand Canyon, and then a lot of flights and work on the East Coast. I’d be taking the watch to some places where an acrylic crystal could get marred and I’d probably find my way into a swimming pool or two. Would something like the vintage Rolex Maxi dial work? In fact, it worked really well and even caused me to think differently about the current Rolex market.
Now, “vintage Rolex” is a seriously vague definition. In my view, everything from a vintage Bubbleback to a ’90s piece with a tritium dial applies, but those watches are obviously not created equal. I’ve held 70-plus-year-old Rolex watches that feel quite robust for their age, but they still feel a bit fragile. So, for me, choosing a vintage piece that has at least a foot in the modern era is key to feeling like it will withstand normal wear.
Things to consider when choosing a model
In my view, things changed in a big way in the mid-’70s when the brand first debuted solid link bracelets such as the 78360 and 93150. The charming, yet rickety and stretch-prone folded bracelets were gone and truly sturdy, modern bracelets arrived. The result is that a decidedly aged and vintage-looking watch like my 5513 wears like a contemporary piece.
On the flip side, I really enjoy an acrylic crystal on a vintage Rolex. They bring a truly different look to a dial when compared to a sapphire version. However, acrylic does scratch and depending on the model chosen, can be incredibly expensive or difficult to replace with a 1:1 copy. For me, it’s not a huge deal because I’m used to wearing even modern watches like the Speedmaster with such a crystal. If acrylic is a concern, then I’ve got good news. Rolex began adding sapphire crystals in the ’70s to some of its models. This movement gained steam by the ’80s and there are plenty of vintage Rolex models that combine this modern touch with something like a matte dial.
A vintage Rolex for three weeks in a row
In this era where many of us add watches with alarming frequency (guilty as charged at times) or are after the newest thing, it can be strange to wear the same exact watch three weeks in a row. Make it doubly odd when it’s something somewhat arcane like a vintage Rolex. What I realized, though, is that I truly enjoyed looking down at my wrist and seeing something as good-looking as the 5513. I came to appreciate its details such as the darkened hands, the domed crystal, and how the bezel insert has slightly faded. Also, I had just bought this watch and it had been recently serviced. Therefore, I took solace in the fact that it was going to be fine for extended wearing.
I did use my Citizen in the pool despite the fact that a Submariner was made for such activities at a minimum. Some people love that extra thrill of taking an older watch in the water. However, I don’t see a reason to tempt fate when an inexpensive modern watch is at the ready. I also left the watch at a friend’s house when we ventured out into some tougher parts of a city for dinner one night. Otherwise, my vintage Rolex endured a relatively serious hike and a couple of good downpours. I also had no issues wearing it during actual air travel where smacking a watch is relatively commonplace. Just think about heaving heavy luggage, scraping armrests, and the occasional beverage trolley whizzing past. All were fine with just a touch more awareness versus when I’m wearing something brand new or less dear.
A value proposition with character
So, wearing a vintage Rolex is completely doable unless it’s the most extreme adventure. Even then, if the watch has just been checked and the seals are ok, these tools are still ready to serve. What’s more is that a vintage watch offers some uniqueness compared to the crowd of people wearing new watches. If I can think of a disadvantage it’s that someone else already added memories and experiences to the watch. The exception, of course, is if it’s a family heirloom or you actually happened to buy it new decades ago.
The bigger surprise, though, with vintage Rolex is that it just might offer a value proposition these days. I continue to be astounded by the prices of current and recently discontinued Submariner, GMT-Master, and Explorer models. It’s amazing to me that some of these now hover in the €20K realm. Folks, I realize that so many people want new and harbor concerns about used or vintage watches. Still, when one can buy something like a 5513 Maxi dial for the same or less than a new model on the secondary market, I actually think that vintage is a deal! That’s more than doubly so when looking at later tritium dial pieces with sapphire crystals because those watches haven’t truly taken off yet.
So many places to look
Have a look at the late model Submariner 5513’s, early 14060’s, tritium Explorers, and even 16750’s. For even more value, check out the bewildering array of Datejust, Day-Date, Air King, and Oyster models from the ’80s. Yes, all of these watches have increased in value over the past decade, but many are still a fraction of the price of their present-day successors. And look, I hate the question about making an investment, but if I were backed into a corner, here’s my feeling. I’d much rather spend money on a good example of a watch that is now out of production. Furthermore, find a good model where most others have been altered, polished, or abused. Compare this to a current watch in production that is being sold for well over list price and the choice feels obvious. Plus, as I said in this article, a vintage Rolex can be worn with regularity without fear of it falling apart.
I know that I’ve mentioned how the vintage Rolex market can be a real snakepit. It’s true, but there are good sellers out there. Also, there are plenty of forums and resources where people are happy to help provide advice. By and large, the watches are easy to service, mechanical parts are plentiful, and the watches just seem to last. Plus, even if you decide not to buy one of the heady steel sports models, any example can provide years of enjoyment along with loads of character. In the end, it’s also “a Rolex,” which — like it or not — is pretty cool too.
My Dad retired as a dentist a couple of years ago and he had many longtime patients. Some of these folks would come in wearing a vintage Rolex that they’d bought 20-30 years earlier. They’d wear these watches day in and day out with just a routine service every so often. My Dad would chat with them and some would talk about how they’d walk in to look at new watches. A sharpie of a salesperson would always offer to take their “old, tired Rolex” in on trade for a new one. While my Dad would always caution against this, I’m not sure it was always necessary. It seems that most of these owners knew they had a good thing and not just because their watches became collectibles.