If you’re on the market for a pre-owned or vintage watch, you obviously want to buy the real deal, but it’s not always easy to distinguish a true vintage timepiece from a fake. As a collector, you soon learn that real vintage timepieces are rarely in 100% original condition and fakes aren’t always 100% fake! When it comes to vintage timepieces, things are rarely just black and white; it’s a market that exists in varying shades of gray. Most pre-owned vintage timepieces will have had several owners before you get your hands on it, so you can’t always get a watch’s full history. As a buyer, you have to pay close attention to details and also set clear boundaries before you start looking. What’s okay with you and what’s a no-go? After all, you’re the one who has to part with the cash at the end of the day.
Light Gray Area
You might come across a vintage Rolex, for example, that left the store on a metal bracelet many years ago but is now for sale on a leather strap. Perhaps the plexiglass has also been replaced, but it’s a high-quality replacement part. What would you call this watch? In my opinion, we’re in the light gray area of vintage watch sales. This timepiece has obviously decreased in value due to its age and the replacement of (worn) parts, but if the dial, case, and movement are all original and in good working order, I’d say this watch is in original condition. It’s not necessarily a timepiece for the purists out there due to the missing metal bracelet, but the majority of the watch remains intact.
Dark Gray Area
Say you come across the same Rolex, but it has a replacement dial and metal bracelet that do not match the model series or that watch’s production. This watch would fall into the dark gray area of the vintage market. It’s a so-called “Frankenwatch,” a cobbled-together mix of various components in the spirit of Frankenstein’s monster. The watch is no longer in the state it was when it left the manufacturer. In the worst-case scenario, the seller won’t mention these serious deviations in hopes of charging a much higher price.
Every once and awhile, stories about Frankenwatches appear in the news. A few years back, Rolex was the bearer of bad news when it told singer John Mayer that seven of his watches featured non-authentic components. According to media reports, the dials had been replaced. This prompted a legal dispute with the dealer who had sold him the (supposedly) rare timepieces for more than $656,000 (read more about John Mayer’s case).
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The more original a watch’s condition, the more it is worth. Unfortunately, some people don’t disclose or try to disguise modifications in order to maximize profit.
As mentioned, there is a wide spectrum of vintage watch conditions, ranging from 100% original to some horrifying Frankenwatches. There are so many factors to consider when making a vintage purchase. While we can’t discuss them all here, we’ve broken things down into three categories to shed some light on the topic.
Let’s start at the very top of the used and vintage watch market.
New Old Stock (NOS) Watches
These are watches that have spent decades tucked away, untouched and unworn in their original box in someone’s stockroom. A rare NOS timepiece is every watch collector’s dream. Perhaps a dealer is closing down or a warehouse is moving premises – whatever the case may be, it’s as if NOS watches have been preserved in a time capsule and survived for decades unscathed. These watches should always be in 100% original condition and the best part is, they can often be brought back to life without any need for new parts! After all, the watch barely ever ran in the first place, so wear and tear shouldn’t be an issue. You’ll probably want to get it cleaned and checked over by a watchmaker, but nothing else should stand in the way of the timepiece ticking beautifully.
These coveted discoveries are called new old stock, or NOS for short. If you’re interested in buying a vintage watch in as close to original condition as you can get, you’re looking for a NOS watch. I must admit, searching for these watches is a fun sport. Give it a try!
Of course, top-grade vintage watches come with steeper price tags, making it even more important that you ask about the watch’s background. The more expensive and rare the timepiece, the more convincing the evidence of authenticity the seller should be able to provide. NOS doesn’t just apply to complete watches, but also to spare parts. You can even find some complete watches on the market assembled from NOS parts – a kind of NOS Frankenwatch. Make sure you keep your wits about you and ask plenty of questions before buying.
More recent models are usually referred to as “safe queens.” These are watches that collectors and dealers have intentionally set aside to be sold at a later date at higher prices. This is a particularly lucrative business if they happen to set aside a model or reference number that is subsequently discontinued. Sefe queens are usually still sealed and come with a full set of accessories.
Normal: Well-Maintained to Well-Worn
Most pre-owned and vintage watches on the market will likely fall into this category. They are timepieces that have lived for years on someone’s wrist and undergone routine service and repairs – a new crystal here, a new crown there, etc. Ideally, these repairs would have made use of original parts, but that’s not always the case. Most repairs are justifiable and necessary to prolong the life of a timepiece. In my opinion, buyers need to be a bit gracious and realistic when it comes to some of these repairs and signs of wear. After all, you can’t really expect a 40 or 50-year-old timepiece that has enjoyed a fair amount of wrist time to look like it just rolled off the production line.
The only exception to that rule is a complete overhaul by the original manufacturer or specialized watchmaker. They are capable of getting a timepiece and its movement back to their original conditions. Of course, complete overhauls cost a fair bit and will, therefore, increase the overall price of a pre-owned watch.
The same does not usually apply to dials, however. If, for instance, Rolex replaces an old tritium dial on one of their own watches, it will actually significantly reduce the watch’s value. This is because collectors value a watch’s historical original condition. Thus, any deviation – even if the manufacturer does the “repair” with authentic parts – will detract from the timepiece. In fact, true collectors don’t mind if a dial is discolored (e.g., a tropical dial) or shows signs of aging (e.g., a spider dial). In fact, these “flaws” often raise prices!
In short, “original condition” is not always synonymous with a watch looking like new. In fact, a few deviations or so-called flaws can make certain models even more desirable.
Frankenwatches: Are they as bad as they seem?
We could keep this section pretty brief by simply saying: Frankenwatches are bad and have no place in a watch collection; however, things are a bit more nuanced than that. These watches are without a doubt no longer original, but the true culprits are the owners or sellers who try to disguise the true history of these watches. Some Frankenwatches are instantly recognizable because they are pieced together in a less than coherent manner. There are, however, others that are eerily similar to original models.
The Glashütte Spezimatic pictured above is one such example. In 2009/2010, I took this watch on as a little side project and assembled it using spare parts from Glashütte. I used an old movement, new case, replacement dial, new hands, a new crystal, crown, and winding stem, etc. I assume that the parts I sourced were either residual stock or reproduced on site.
It’s important to note that I built this watch solely for my own use – not with the intention of selling it on at any point. I’m always upfront about its history whenever I talk about it or if I receive offers for it. I would never sell this watch as an original or NOS watch without disclosing its origin story.
That said, not everyone is so honest. What if I sell the watch in good faith and the next person resells it as an original timepiece?
This is how Frankenwatches have entered circulation and why they’ve gotten such bad reputations. It’s also the reason that I will probably never sell my Glashütte Spezimatic.
Interestingly, you’ll come across plenty of “customized,” “mod,” or “modded” watches on the market. These are either custom-made products or ones that have undergone aftermarket modifications. Those terms all sound a lot better than Frankenwatches, right?
While these are definitely modified watches that are no longer in their original condition, they are not the same as Frankenwatches.
This brings us back to John Mayer’s collection:
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And Lenny Kravitz’s wrist:
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Both singers have had their Rolex Daytonas seriously modified. No one is up in arms about these watches, however, because it’s obvious that they have been changed. They aren’t trying to make them pass as originals.
In short, modified vintage watches aren’t necessarily a bad thing. The only sour apples here are owners or sellers who try to pass these watches off as something they are not. You have to ask yourself, what’s really inauthentic here? Is it the watch or the seller trying to make a quick buck?
That’s all I have to say about original condition vs. Frankenwatches for today. I hope it’s inspired you to think about the diversity of the vintage market and will help you make more informed purchases.