Any watch made before 1990 could be considered vintage, although some collectors put the maximum year of “vintage” at 1980 or even earlier. I’d like to use 1990 as the baseline for this article, which offers my tips on buying vintage watches, but in the end you’ll have to decide for yourself whether a given watch is old enough for you to qualify it as “vintage.”
There are two very important questions to consider when it comes to buying vintage watches:
Can you and do you trust the seller of the watch?
Does the seller have a good reputation when it comes to selling vintage watches? Investigate! There are enough forums, Facebook groups and blogs out there that might have mentioned the seller in a positive — or negative — manner. Although it might sound cliché, also learn to trust your gut feelings. If the purchase doesn’t feel good or legit, let it go, and rest assured that another nice vintage piece will come along.
Have you gained as much knowledge as you can on the watch you want to buy?
There is quite a bit of coverage out there on vintage watches. Google is your best friend if you’re just starting out. Sometimes you will find relatively small websites that specialize in just one brand or even one model, and these can be gems. An example is this website on vintage Omega Constellation watches. A truly amazing source of information, and all for free. And along with websites, we also have these old-fashioned things called books. Don’t forget about those.
The publisher Mondani has done a good job on documenting replica Rolex watches, but another book on Speedmaster watches (by WatchPrint), Moonwatch Only, sets new standards. Books such as these may seem expensive, but they can prevent you from making mistakes that will cost you a fortune later. Read here why you should invest in a good book on watches. Another interesting source of information are the auction-house websites and catalogs.
Beyond all that, there are a few other things to consider:
Don’t expect invoices from the 1950s and 1960s to be included in the sale. I assume your parents or grandparents don’t have these anymore either, do they? It is important that a vintage watch is technically in good working order. If not, you can go through hell with regards to the availability (and prices!) of spare parts. It can be a long road. I had to wait for over a year on a silly movement part for one of my 1950s Omegas. Some watchmakers are able to reproduce the parts themselves, or reuse something from another movement. It would be best if the watch is serviced at the manufacture, but having receipts from a good watchmaker will also do the job — as long as there is some kind of proof that the watch has been taken care of.
Box and papers
If a watch is 30 or 40 years old, it is quite common that its original boxes and manuals are gone. If possible, make sure to get the correct box for your watch. It should match the actual watch or at least be period-correct. Through the years, some imitation watch brands used different boxes for their watches. Some brands can supply you with information on the correct boxes and manuals.
One more topic I would mention is “provenance.” Be very careful when a watch seller offers you items that speak to a watch’s provenance in order to prove to you that it is authentic. These may include photos of people wearing the watch to napkins with the signature of the first owner. I’m not joking here, unfortunately. Only real provenance counts. Acceptable items include invoices with mention of the correct serial number and/or movement number and the work performed on the watch, as well as original, stamped papers and warranty cards. Do not pay a premium for items that look fishy or have the slightest signs of being fabricated to make a sale.