6 minutes

5 Tips for Finding Your First Vintage Watch

By Barbara Korp

While buying a watch is an exciting prospect, it’s definitely easier said than done. There are a lot of important questions to run through: What model do I want, where should I buy it – and most critically when it comes to vintage watches – can I even buy it? The beauty of vintage watches lies in the fact that they’re not fresh from the factory; they’re experienced and have stories to tell. That said, you’ll want to avoid any that are defective or completely busted. It’s a fine balancing act, but we’ve put together our top-5 tips to help ensure your purchase goes off without a hitch.

Before we jump into it, I want to touch on the definition of “vintage watch.” In general, a watch is considered vintage once it’s 20 to 30 years old. A lot of collectors consider any model made before 1990 to be a vintage piece, while others won’t award the title to anything produced after 1980. The younger the model is, the more favorable its market price will be, and it’s also likely to be in better condition. Then again, older models boast that retro flair that vintage collectors and enthusiasts pine for. Models with a few decades under their belt are also rarer finds, which boosts their desirability.

Zenith El Primero Vintage
Vintage Zenith El Primero from the late 1960s

1. Decide What You Want

Before you swing into action, ask yourself if you really want a vintage watch, or if you just like the idea of one. I say this because yes, vintage watches are a fantastic planet in the watch universe, but they’re not home ground for people who like their timepieces to be 100% accurate, or completely scratch-free, for that matter. That’s not to say that you won’t find pristine vintage models for corresponding prices, but vintage watches have, by nature, already spent some time out and about and don’t brandish the latest technology. And don’t forget that they’re smaller: It’s normal for vintage men’s dress watches to have a 36-mm diameter.

If you search for “vintage watches” plain and simple, you’ll quickly realize that your options are virtually endless, which is overwhelming and not at all helpful. You’ll need to narrow down the results radically. Maybe you want a watch from the year you or a loved one were born, a special edition, or the original version of a watch you already own. There doesn’t have to be a significant meaning behind your choice: You’re free to pick up a classic vintage model and see how it feels to wear it.

The next item on the agenda is the watch’s condition: Do you want it to be in mint condition, or would you not mind a few dints or scratches? As with any purchase on the secondary market, you’ll also need to decide if you want the original box, papers, and warranty, or if written confirmation of recent servicing by the manufacturer will do. You can of course do without any of that, but a little peace of mind is never a bad thing. Ultimately, it’s entirely up to you. My advice is to choose a model and keep your criteria in sight when browsing offers.

The watch’s condition is just as important as the choice of model.

2. Learn About the Model

So, you’ve done most of the heavy lifting and decided on a model. Now it’s time to read up on your Rolex, Omega, Breitling, or what have you. You should know when the model was produced, how easy (or hard) it is to find, what the current market prices are, and the conditions it’s available in. After you’ve got the basics, check if the watch comes in different versions, for example with and without a date display. It’s best to give these things some thought beforehand to avoid disappointment in the long run. It’ll give you a good footing and confidence throughout the buying process, and not to mention build excitement!

If you want to buy a timepiece from a brand’s current portfolio, you’ll find the exact same model copy and pasted in each store. If you’re looking for a vintage watch, you’ll be greeted with a different one every time. Sometimes the piece is more or less brand-new, other times a bit battered; you might even come across some that we’re given a bit too much TLC and have a few too many aftermarket parts. In order to recognize which models have been “improved” in this way and which haven’t, however, you need to know the original inside out. What should the crown look like? Does the dial have a special finish? Even if this research sounds tedious, it’s what separates the enthusiasts from the average watch wearer.

Jaeger-LeCoultre Memovox Polaris 1968 Re-Edition

3. Set a Budget and Stick to It

Once you’ve done your homework and know what’s out there and what to look for, set a realistic budget and don’t lose sight of it. I know all too well that frantic feeling when you find a vintage watch and want to nab it right away, often forking over more than planned as a result. But believe me, the first offer you find is rarely the best, or the be-all and end-all. Take your time, sleep on it, and only spend as much money as you had planned. Your bank account (and future self) will thank you. Nothing is more annoying that seeing the same model in better condition and at a lower price a little later down the line.

Vintage Breitling Top Time
Vintage Breitling Top Time

4. Choose Where You Want to Buy

There are many places to buy vintage watches: specialized jewelers, markets, online, and so on. Imagine your watch on your wrist and its condition; if you want a collector’s item in the best possible condition, your best bet is a jeweler or auction house. There, you’ll be able to scrutinize the watch, take a look at the movement, learn if it was overhauled, and probably even get a warranty. Also, you can find out what other collectors’ experience was with this seller, read up about them, and check their reviews online.

If you like the chase, try your luck at markets or trade shows. Keep your wits about you in these places and don’t make any impulse purchases. However, if you enjoy taking matters into your own hands, you might find vintage pieces that after a good clean, polish, and a new strap, look completely rejuvenated. Giving a watch a new lease on life is a truly satisfying feat, and what a great anecdote to tell, too.

Vintage Heuer Autavia

5. Listen to Your Gut

It might seem obvious, but it’s important to mention all the same: Listen to your gut feeling. If alarm bells start ringing, don’t go through with the purchase. I’m not talking about the usual jitters that often accompany big buys, particularly online – a degree of uncertainty is natural. Genuine reservations should be taken seriously. Red flags are unconvincing information about where the watch came from, late or vague responses from the seller, or constantly changing prices. Services like Chrono24’s Buyer Protection offer you a great deal of security.

Another bad sign is being pressured to buy the watch right away. Of course, flea markets are going to pack up and leave town at the end of the day, but you should still be given the opportunity to look at the watch closely, and head off for an hour or so to mull things over with a coffee. The watch isn’t going to grow legs and walk off – no matter what the seller might tell you! It is completely normal to take some time to think about it.

Rolex Vintage Submariner 5513, circa 1965
Vintage Rolex Submariner 5513, circa 1965

Summary and One More Tip for the Road

As you can tell, planning is key to avoid getting lost in the maze of vintage watches. But with all the researching, don’t forget to enjoy the experience! You’ll discover lots of great pieces, probably buy or even resell a few, gain lots of experience, and inevitably fall in love with a watch or two. While you’re at it, don’t compare yourself to others, and don’t rush from one watch to the next. It’s not a race, it’s a journey – and a wonderful hobby to revel in.

Read more about vintage watches

The Best Five Vintage Watches Under $10,000

Vintage vs. Revival: Four Stunning Remakes

About the Author

Barbara Korp

The moment I learned that watches were a lot more than just simple jewelry, I was hooked; I become enamored with the elegance of timekeeping. But there was one small hitch: most models were just too big for me to wear! That didn't discourage me, however. In fact, I developed quite a niche interest.

Read more

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