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How to buy a vintage watch

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I buy old cars, cameras and watches. I buy these things for the aesthetics, often for the value, and occasionally for the story behind them. Sometimes all three criteria converge like the time I bought Faith Hill’s 1995 Toyota Land Cruiser for a good price. At least I was told it was Faith’s.

Those who read about recent watch auctions and still don’t wear a watch, will not understand this story. That’s because buying vintage watches is not a spectator sport. You have to wear one. You have to love its age, its imperfections and you occasionally you have to get fooled.

Because of this, I will try to give you some of my general guidelines I use to browse and buy.

Know what you like.

This really is the most important point when you first start looking at old watches.  Don’t let someone tell you what you should buy or like. Don’t be the person who buys a watch because you think you should have that brand and model.

I couldn’t stop looking at WW2 military watches when I first discovered the world of vintage. The military watches had incredible stories that were partially revealed by the engravings from previous owners.

What do you like? Consider the dial color, the case size, the case material and color or even the functions. Know what you like and your search becomes more productive.

Narrow your hunt to a specific area.

I’m not saying collect only one watch, but consider categories of interest to help you deepen your knowledge of watches.  For instance, some enthusiasts only buy Seiko’s like the founder of WatchRecon.

Another approach would be to collect only watches with specific movements.  Chronographs offer this options. The Valjoux movements are prolific and can be found in many brands, cases and dial designs. This collector has an incredible collection of jump hour watches from the 70s. Narrowing your approach allows your knowledge to grown deeper and not as wide.  This will give you some anchor points to build onto your own research and shopping skills.

Know the market for what you like.

So, what is the market for vintage watches anyway and when does a watch become vintage?  This is the fun part. Looking at the sold watches on eBay is a good place to start. Auction houses can also show you the very high end of what the market can tolerate. I can learn a lot about the retail prices of vintage watches by finding online retailers too.  When you see what an online retailer is asking for a watch, just know that they didn’t pay that much for it.  Use this information to help you know how to approach private sellers.

Know who will fix it when you need it repaired.

If you are trying to buy vintage watches, then consider knowing where you’ll take it to be repaired. A way to get a little more time out of your watch before a service is to buy one in the very best condition you can find and afford.

I remember taking two vintage watches into a jewelry store and wanting them fixed. One was a yard-sale-find and the other one was my dad’s watch he wore when I was a kid.  Both watches could be repaired for more than they were both worth.

So, here’s a story I did a story about watchmakers. If you don’t want to use a certified watchmaker, consider sending a watch back to the manufacturer for a repair estimate.  Swatch has a repair facility in the States for its brands like Hamilton, Longines, Omega, Rado, etc.  Ultimately, one of the best resources would be a trusted friend referral based on their experience.

Learn, look, buy, sell and repeat.

Some of us have trusted retailers and friends who have vintage watches.  This is great.  Learn as much as you can from your friends by putting your hands on as many watches as you can.  This tactile understanding will give you more confidence to buy online where case condition, weight and quality are only as good as the photograph.

eBay is the obvious place to look, but be cautious. Consider only buying from those you’ve interacted with and don’t be afraid to scrutinize their feedback.  My kids have made fun of me and my early eBay watch buys.  I’ve had the watches fall apart as I unwrap the package. This is the less desirable way to learn.

Here are some places to look and learn.  Buy at your own risk and make sure you understand the return policy.

There’s no perfect way to buy vintage watches. Let us know what you learn and please be willing to add other ideas in the comment section below.

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