Watch 101

Watch Out: 10 Tips For Buying a Vintage Watch

By Ross Povey
16 May 2022
6 min read

Investing in vintage watches is the best thing you can do right now. Here’s our expert guide to being wrist-wise as you dive into the compelling world of timeless designs and understated elegance


Walking into your local Authorized Dealer and buying a new watch, whilst incredibly rare when it comes to the big brands, removes from the purchasing equation any concerns or doubts about the originality, authenticity and working condition of your hard-earned purchase. The exact opposite is true when it comes to buying a vintage watch. Very often there are fewer guarantees around originality, authenticity or working condition and so the risk is much higher. However, panic not! Let me share some tips to help you on the road to buying vintage watches and hopefully avoid some of the bear traps.



Keep It Stupidly Simple! Before you begin your search in earnest, make sure you know what you’re looking for. There are literally thousands and thousands of vintage watches on the market. Dealers, auction houses, eBay and trade shows can all offer you the world and more. It can be overwhelming, so enjoy narrowing down your choices and spending time focusing your tastes and requirements.


2. Buy the Seller

Maybe this can be seen as a cliché, but I still believe it’s true no matter how experienced you are. Anybody with an iPhone and an Instagram account can be a dealer now, but a reputable and established dealer will always stand behind the watches they sell. Why? Because reputation is everything and career-dealers have spent years and sometimes decades building these reputations as well as a plethora of knowledge and experience. Money can buy that experience when you buy from the dealer!


3. Do Due Diligence

You’ve narrowed your search down and you know the model and maybe even the reference. The internet is awash with dealer websites and auction house results, so get a feel for the market price of the watch. Find specialist websites on your preferred model and learn about the chronology, variations and details of the watches. Many websites also share things to be wary of or to look out for when buying a model. Use the experts’ knowledge, that’s why they publish their blogs!


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The dial of a vintage watch is most important, it's the face and soul of the watch Photo: Perkin Yu/ Wristcheck


4. Hands On

Where possible, handle the watch. You might try it on and realize that the watch is too big or too small for your wrist. If you’re buying at an auction, almost certainly sit and inspect the watch or employ a dealer or expert to do that for you. Photoshop and clever photograph angles can hide a multitude of sins, so be careful. Ask the dealer to send you some pictures in natural light and a video of the watch, if possible, showing the watch at different angles in different lights. A good dealer won’t mind doing this as they want you to be happy with your purchase and avoid any after sales issues.


5. Polished Off

One of the most contentious issues in the vintage world is case polishing. Generally, collectors prefer a watch to be polished as little as possible. For many years, the term ‘unpolished’ was bandied around to lure buyers into believing that they were buying an untouched example. In truth, it’s safe to assume that most watches have had at least one polish over the years. These watches pre-date the collecting phenomena by decades, to a time when polishing was a routine part of service that nobody thought twice about. If you took your car for a dealership service, you’d be a bit miffed if it wasn’t valeted wouldn’t you? Of course, new-old-stock and genuinely untouched watches do appear on the market and when they do, they command phenomenal prices. But take “unpolished” with a pinch of salt; Eric Ku banned its use on the Vintage Rolex Forum’s sales section many years ago.


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Test the chronograph functions, change the date or roll the watch past midnight and check if the date changes when it should Photo: Perkin Yu/ Wristcheck


6. Look At The Lume

Many vintage watches have painted luminous plots, especially Rolex and Omega pieces. Over the years the lume changes and can darken, which can look really great. Who doesn’t love some patina?! It was, however, quite common for the luminous plots to be repainted at service in the past. This affects the value of a watch significantly. Remember that in some cases, up to 90%25 of the value of some watches is in the dial. If you have the watch in your hands, use a loupe to check the quality of the lume and if possible, use a UV light to check the lume’s reaction to the black light. Professional dealers will even go as far as using a Geiger counter to check the radiation levels, knowing roughly what levels to expect from different dials from different eras.


7. Service Without A Smile

When a manufacture completes a service of a watch, certain parts of a watch need replacing. Waterproofing rubber gaskets, crystals and crown tubes can all be considered wear and tear items and very few collectors will have a problem with these being replaced over the years. In fact, it’s good that they are as these components protect the watch from moisture ingress and damage. When more significant parts get replaced with later service replacements, the impact on the value can be significant. Service bezel inserts on dive watches and pushers on chronographs are usually quite different to the original versions. A red triangle Rolex Submariner inset from the mid-1950s can cost $30,000 USD where a service version costs $100. This will be reflected in the watch value. Most important is the dial, the face and soul of the watch. My advice is to avoid service dials. Finding an original one will be beyond tricky and very expensive.


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Patience is a virtue and waiting for the right watch is akin to the art of fishing Photo: Perkin Yu/ Wristcheck


8. Does It Work?

A lot of dealers offer a one-year mechanical warranty, but it's less simple at auction or at shows. Go beyond making sure it ticks, if you can. Test the chronograph functions, change the date or roll the watch past midnight and check the date changes when it should. It's sometimes a good idea to factor in the cost of a service, but remember that with the scarcity of watchmakers that we are currently experiencing, it might not be cheap. Many dealers tell me now that younger buyers prefer a recent manufacturer’s service, with accompanying paperwork. This is always something worth looking out for, especially for peace of mind. Just watch out for service replacement parts (see point seven).


9. Quality, Quality, Quality

Always buy the very best example that you can. Don’t compromise on the quality, because I assure you that every tiny element of the watch that you’re not happy with will nag at you and drive you mad! Patience is a virtue and waiting for the right piece is akin to the art of fishing. Getting set up, reading the conditions and waiting for the right time to strike!


10. Buy What You Like

Nobody likes losing money, but has the investment angle of watch collecting taken over from the passion? Every dealer, tastemaker, influencer and hype beast will tell you which watch you should be buying and why. Does their opinion matter? It depends on why you’re buying the watch. My advice is to buy what you like. Then, whether the watch tanks in value or spectacularly skyrockets, every time you look at your wrist you’ll smile!


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Service bezel inserts on dive watches and pushers on chronographs are usually quite different to the original versions Photo: Perkin Yu/ Wristcheck