Vintage vs. Contemporary Watches

Archives September 25, 2002 admin

Vintage vs. Contemporary Watches

Posted by Michael Friedberg


Lately, my collecting tastes have gravitated towards vintage watches rather than contemporary ones. For a number of reasons, I am beginning to think that vintage watches are better buys not just in an economic sense, but for collectibility and aesthetic reasons. This note sets forth some of my thoughts, and I would solicit comments.

At the outset, I’m not sure of the definition of vintage, but I do not mean used in the sense of relatively new watches that are resold. I’m not sure of any magic cut-off date, but perhaps vintage watches are those that pre-date the quartz revolution.

In a sense, one can argue that there have been few advances in
watch making over the past three decades. Occasionally, novel complications are introduced and some production techniques have increased efficiency (and therefore minimized costs). But the essence of how a movement is designed, made and adjusted has remained basically the same. The differences between most cutting edge contemporary movements and classic vintage movements are small. In like manner, the differences in casings, dials, and the like are equally small.

This is not to say that there are no improvements today. The use of titanium is relatively new. Specific movement designs are new (such as Patek’s annual calendar module not using levers). But, on the whole, the major differences today in contemporary watches are matters of style a new design and some new features (second
time zones, etc.). The basic complications are still the same: calendars, chronographs, rattrapante chronographs, flyback chronographs, etc.. In fact, many of the most coveted watches today actually recreate prior
workmanship standards.

And, interestingly, many of today’s styles are recreations of classic designs. The Mark XII recreates the classic flight watch and many new IWCs (such as the UTC and the Aquatimer) are reinterpretations of classic designs. The Breguet Type XX recreates the Type 20 of the 1950s. Blancpain labels its new watches with names from the past (Fifty Fathoms, Air Command). The newest Audemars chronograph, the strikingly beautiful Jules Audemars model, is based on a classic 1930s design. Minerva’s latest watches use classic movements and styles that existed before. JLC’s Reverso follows the 1930s and its Master Control follows the 1950s. Rolex, which frequently is criticized for a lack of innovation, has found a classic formula, of styling and movement, and stuck with it.

Why, then, shouldn’t watch consumers buy the originals and not the replicas? A large number of reasons come to mind. The newer watches are in better shape; the dials haven’t faded, the cases aren’t scratched, the movements are new and, at least for some time, warranteed. The newer watches are, in some ways, more contemporary (the style today seems to like larger cases). The new watches are more accessible information (advertising, etc.) is plentiful, there’s a theoretically unlimited supply of product, and there’s a dealer/distribution network in place (with economic incentives to distribute new product). The value of a good dealer, as a source of information and service, cannot be underestimated. All of these are valid reasons to buy contemporary watches.

But do these reasons withstand scrutiny? I would suggest that in many cases, although certainly not all, they do not. It is much more difficult perhaps to find good vintage watches, but accessibility shouldn’t be a primary criteria. There are close to pristine vintage models out there. They are more difficult to find and command a premium, true, but the hunt is part of the collecting process. Most watch collections are relatively small, at least compared to other collections (artwork, for example). Hunting for that special watch might be a particularly worthwhile endeavor. Is a Mark XI a better watch than a Mark XII? That’s difficult to say and, probably in terms of durability, no. But the well purchased Mark XI, when one can be found, probably will depreciate less and is a much rarer collectible.

Buying vintage watches does require, possibly, more knowledge and the availability of a good watchmaker (plus, in some instances, the availability of almost no-existent parts). However, many of the finer
watch making firms do have large supplies of parts for their vintage models. And some of us are fortunate to have met skilled watchmakers.

In a sense, the ultimate issue may be economic. If vintage watches have deficits (more risk and more future costs), are those deficits compensated by a differential in market pricing? I would suggest that in many cases (although certainly not all) the market for fine vintage watches is undervalued. A classic 1950s column wheel chronograph can be bought for a fraction of what most modern ones cost. I recently bought a mint JLC from the 1940s for less than a new Minerva Pythagore costs. A vintage Patek “Top Hat” or even a vintage Pagoda is still much less than a new Pagoda. Antiqorum is auctioning some vintage Breguet chronographs for prices that seem low to me.

There’s also a real difference between the buy and sell spread in the vintage market. If a dealer buys a new watch at 55% of list price, then the buyer cannot resell that contemporary watch to the dealer except for much less. Like a new car, there’s a large depreciation hit the moment most contemporary watches walk out of the showroom. The margins in the vintage market are much slimmer. Well executed vintage purchases stand less chance of losing money.

Please realize that I am not attacking contemporary watches. Many models are wonderful and the prices for them are fully justifiable. What I am saying it that vintage watches may be relatively overlooked. Many true classics are still available, although they are getting increasingly harder to find. They are not supported by the same dealer and information systems, but when they can be found are frequently very attractive buys. And many of them are truly fine mechanical instruments, perfectly executed and classically styled. True collectibles are out there, even though the search can be much more difficult than walking over (or even e-mailing) your favorite retailer,

And I won’t even get into the subject of how vintage pocket watches are even better buys than vintage wristwatches!

great post…..and my addition…

Posted by R. Paige

In Reply to: Vintage vs. Contemporary Watches posted by Michael Friedberg

Hi Michael,

Very thought provoking post……

From where I sit, I see things slightly differently…

I started off in the watch business in the mid 1960’s…as a young teenager…and I learned to fix watches and hone my dexterity skills by working on
junkers…to my dad this was any watch that was over 15 years old, and only had 15 jewels. I’m embarrassed to tell you how many of today’s classics I abused and did obscene things to in the name of learning to repair watches…most of these watches were trade ins…the older guys in town would come to the store and trade in their Gruen Curvexs and Hamilton Boltons for a Bulova Accutrons on a twist-o-flex bracelet…These trade ins were relegated to the scrap heap…hence the teenage autopsy..

After graduating college, and migrating to San Francisco…I got caught up in the world wind of the post hippie days…not very many people my age even wore watches, and the ones that did kind of drifted into the Pulsar and digital world…the lowly watchmaker wasn’t the most sought after skill for the job market…but, hey, if you could put in batteries…!!

So I decided to specialize in the repair and restoration of American Pocket watches….beautiful pieces of machinery with a lusty history…

I had developed a good niche for myself fixing up pocket watches for the post flower children, who thought the pocket watch was far out…and really looked good with jeans…

It was at this time that I started to collect vintage watches…in the late 1970’s vintage watches were anything manufactured before 1955…now it’s considered anything manufactured before 1965…these could be bought for a
song…mostly $5 to $15 for even the most uptown brand…

In the late 1980’s the vintage watch craze was born in Italy…and spread like wildfire throughout the world…now the heat was on, and the prices started to move fast…some watches literally appreciated 5 times in value in 1 year…and a global vintage watch collecting world needed to feed their collections…The great houses finally were recognized again…but only in vintage…the prices skyrocketed and the unique models of the great houses became the prizes…

By 1992 the prices were ridiculous…and then the recession began to have it’s affect…the prices began to fall and the investment quality watches became an albatross…

By 1994 the watch companies in Switzerland began to produce some very interesting watches, and the vintage collectors started giving new watches a second look…by 1996 the new watches came on like gangbusters and started to make the vintage watches look uninteresting and expensive…a brand new JLC
Reverso could be bought for less than a vintage one…and the new one was better
made…shock proof, water resistant, sapphire crystal and NO engraving…

Today to get an important vintage watch…you must pay for the privilege…but a collector today can buy something important in new, with style, movement and name for under $3000.

I’m wondering if the trend is shifting again…when a collector, like yourself, starts to pay attention to the great vintage watches again…You may very well be the beginning of the wave…

Thanks for your post…

best regards, Richard