Time Machines: Tips on Vintage Watches
In this throwback article from 2Mag days of yore, we offer tips to those looking to enter the vintage timepiece collection game.
July 13, 2017
Buy a new Rolex Submariner and you get a watch that keeps excellent time, looks great, and has plenty of pedigree. “Congrats, you’ve made it!” you might say to yourself after walking out of the store, having spent your entire bonus on a black-faced Sub in 904L Steel. Buy a beat-up, faded, vintage Submariner from the 1960s and you get a watch that may or may not keep excellent time or may be a little scuffed up. But that watch comes with something few modern pieces do: genuine history. Besides, movements can be serviced and cases can be refinished –if you must insist.
Each nick in the case, every streak in the bezel, tells a story. Watches sitting in dresser drawers for decades only appeal to the most serious collectors; fans of tool watches know that cases don’t pick up any blemishes by sitting in drawers or safes. That dent on the cushion case of a Seiko 6105-8000? That may have happened when a G.I. snagged his watch as he was jumping out of a Bell UH-1 (also known as the “Huey”) during the Vietnam War.
Vintage watches have earned such a sterling reputation among watch enthusiasts that they’re often faked, or reproduced using parts that aren’t genuine, creating a “franken- watch,” as it’s been dubbed. This is the first obstacle collectors have to tackle when buying a vintage watch: will you be happy with a watch that uses replacement parts? Or does it have to be 100 percent original? Are you buying it as an investment or do you simply yearn for watches from the days when they were primarily used to tell time?
When you send a vintage watch in to a well-known manufacturer like Omega for restoration, they’ll often replace the hands and/or dial with a NOS dial to bring the watch back to its former visual glory. This sort of practice is taboo amongst collectors, as the watch isn’t exactly the same as when it left the factory decades ago. Even though genuine parts are used, it can still be considered a “franken,” that is, a watch that uses a mixture of new and old (and sometimes non-genuine) parts. The same logic applies to the case. If the case is refinished, it breaches the golden rule of vintage collecting: if it isn’t the way it originally left the factory, it isn’t right. The reasoning behind this is that collectors admire a certain amount of patina on the timepiece, and the only way patina occurs is by aging, and that takes lots of time – in some instances, more than half a century.
However, this philosophy is strictly limited to the purists. Many casual collectors believe that a watch is akin to a car, wherein owners must face the reality that parts need replacing in order to ensure reliability (40-year-old crystals and seals are prone to leaking) and aesthetics (rusty hands can be unsightly). If a new crystal is installed, or a new crown is fitted to a vintage watch, the average enthusiast wouldn’t be bothered by the updated part and might appreciate being able to wear the watch without constantly worrying about dust and the occasional splash.
There are 100-percent original watches and there are “correct” watches using genuine replacement parts, but the third type of “franken” watch is why the term most likely earned its negative connotation. In an attempt to bring a watch back to a condition in which it can be sold, scheming watchmakers will borrow parts from other watches and install them on watches in which they were never originally used. An example might be using third-party hands, frequently originating from China, on an original watch, or something as duplicitous as a two-tone GMT bezel on a Yachtmaster, a combo that has never been issued by Rolex.
The best way to avoid purchasing these watches is to read through popular watch forums and consult the resident experts. Comparing the watch to pictures of old advertisements works well, too. This type of “franken-watch” should be avoided, and this is the reason most people shy away from vintage collecting altogether. Sometimes it is very hard to tell if you’ve purchased the real deal. And while these piecemeal watches may keep perfectly good time, the feeling of being cheated sets in once you find out that the parts on the watch aren’t original. The takeaway? When it comes to vintage, caveat emptor.
Top Shops for Vintage Watches
Tracking down the perfect piece is half the fun; you can head to a number of shops, such as Siam Discovery’s Because I like It
, for collector favorites, but the best watch hunting is done at JJ market. Enter Gate 1 and head down the first alley on the right to sift through stalls slinging everything from ‘70s-era Seikos to 500,000THB Rolex “Il Freccione” models. Online marketplaces can be sketchy, but analog/shift
, run by a group of enthusiasts, ensures that every piece is original and authentic, if you must buy online.
Best Instagram Accounts for Vintage Watches
@ursmidur - Stefan is known for having some seriously clean vintage tool watches. His collection slants towards Omega, and sometimes he puts him museum-quality pieces up for sale.
@Vintagediver - Certina, Scubapro, Squalie, Doxa, are just a few of the marques you’ll find on Vintagediver’s feed. If you’d rather strap on a mechanical dive watch than a diver computer, this is a feed you’ll appreciate. These are the watches that were actually used to time real dives.
@Watchesbysjx - A Singapore-based watch writer, Su Jia Xian, has the low-down on all things horology in Asia. His blog not only delivers watch news, but delves into opinionated pieces on what makes the watch industry tick.
@Hodinkee - Of course you’ve probably heard of Hodinkee by now, but if you haven’t followed them on Instagram then you’re missing out. Follow Ben Clymer and his posse on junkets around the world, WIS style.
@Vintagerolexmania - Lex Kittichoke owns some pieces with some serious street cred, but his feed isn’t solely Rolex watches, hel’ll throw up the occasional picture of his Thai-market-only limited edition Seiko.