Despite the fact that everybody now carries a phone with the time on it, the world of luxury watches has never been more robust - amateur collectors, professional ‘buy and flip’ dealers and first-time enthusiasts flock to internet dealers, boutiques and social media communities to try to get their hands on limited supplies of Swiss timepieces.
But the resale mark-up of the iconic pieces (a new Rolex Submariner can double in price as soon as it leaves the store, just because it’s so difficult to source one on the ridiculous waiting lists) has seen communities embrace the vintage world with renewed enthusiasm - you can get superbly maintained pieces from celebrated brands for a fraction of the price, as well as carrying a little bit of history on your wrist.
But it isn’t without risk, of course - dodgy dealers often offload fake or overpriced models to unsuspecting buyers, looking to increase their margins and capitalise on a world with very little regulation.
The good news is that now, more than ever, there’s a plethora of information available online, and a lot of authorities to speak to for advice. With that in mind we asked Haydon Barnes, owner of vintage watch retailer Barnes Watches, for his tips on navigating the world of vintage timepieces.
Consider a birth year watch (a watch made in the year you were born) or buying it for a significant occasion (like a promotion or wedding) to add some sentimental value to it. It adds another layer of story to what you’re wearing each day, and it also helps stop the urge to sell it every time you see something new that you like or overspend on the weekend.
Buy for personal love of the watch, not for resale value. It’s all about your own style and taste. If you’re buying to make a profit, a world that’s full of beauty and history can feel like work. You want to look at your wrist and forget to check the time because you’re too busy admiring the watch.
If you’re buying a daily watch or your first watch, buy something versatile that will go with anything, from your work suit to jeans and a tee on the weekend. A stainless steel or two-tone midsized watch, such as a Rolex Datejust 36mm, Tudor Oysterdate 34mm or a Tag Heuer Professional 1000, are some good examples at different budgets. Something loud and unique will be difficult to wear and limit how much use you get from the investment - you can add quirky and bold watches to your collection once you’ve got the basics sorted.
Buy the dealer, not the watch. It’s a saying in the industry for a reason - find and buy from a reputable dealer who has some references. The market is flooded with fakes and poorly refurbished watches - you’d be amazed at how many watches we see, which someone has been wearing on their wrist for years, that turn out to be outright fakes or full of dodgy after-market market. If you find the right watch through a private seller, always get a third party authentication done.
Look out for Frankenstein watches, where the bracelet is from one watch, the movement from another and the head from a third. The value and significance of that piece is severely reduced. Do your research before buying anything and check where the correct markings are on each watch. YouTube is your best friend for this.
Usually if the watch is incredibly cheap, there’s a reason why. Other collectors are steering clear for a reason.
Box and papers (the original packaging that came with the watch) are a personal decision - they aren’t a must in my books but they will affect resale value (they speak to the legitimacy of the piece and many collectors won’t touch a watch without them) and give you a little extra storytelling. But expect to pay a premium - if you’re looking for outright value for a daily wearer, you’ll save by choosing a vintage piece without (just make sure you trust the dealer and the piece).
Please… Don’t swim in your vintage watch without getting it pressure tested. It’s an inexpensive process and it will save you a big headache, because you just don’t know what a watch has been through before it came into your hands. And always wash your watch with fresh water after swimming in salt water - it may be waterproof, but it doesn’t stop them from slowly deteriorating.
Enjoy them! Watches are there to be worn and loved. Don’t treat it like a business and don’t buy things you’re too scared to actually wear - there’s nothing worse than a beautiful piece sitting on the self collecting dust.