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Longines Rare Vintage 13ZN Chronograph SS Longines Rare Vintage 13ZN Chronograph SS
US 19 2009

Vintage Watches: A Piece of Watch History

Vintage watches appeal to a wide audience. They offer the chance to buy high-quality, pre-owned watches at attractive prices. Both watch enthusiasts who love particular designs and collectors of expensive, rare pieces will get their money's worth.

Reasons to buy a vintage watch:

  • Wide price spectrum
  • Large selection of different designs and materials
  • Authenticity
  • Access to watch series no longer in production

Vintage Watches: Old, Not Retro

There are no exact guidelines laid out for which watches are considered "vintage." However, time is an important factor. Watch expert Robert-Jan Broer from the site FratelloWatches considers watches from 1990 and earlier to be vintage. However, Broer also says that everyone can decide for themselves if they consider an older watch vintage or not.
Price is one of the main factors involved when buying a vintage watch. A good example is the Omega Seamaster, a prestigious model that's been produced since 1948. A new, mechanical Seamaster costs between 3,000 and 5,000 euros. However, used Seamasters from years past, both automatic and manual, can be found for 500 to 1,000 euros in good or very good condition. This makes it possible for you to be the owner of a famous watch from one of the top Swiss manufacturers for comparatively little money. If you want to show off your knowledge and love of watches on your wrist, a 50-year-old Omega, Rolex, or Breitling is just as good as a new one.
If you've decided to purchase a vintage watch, you have another advantage: You're not limited to current models; you have a large selection of older watch models to choose from. You may even find an older model of a watch that you like better than the one currently being produced. Furthermore, vintage watches are authentic - they've experienced the 1960s or 1970s for themselves. This characteristic gives vintage watches a unique appeal and differentiates them from retro watches. Retro watches are watches that are created in the style of vintage watches, but are recently produced. They aren't historic; they just look the part. A true vintage watch offers real nostalgia.
Vintage models are sometimes the only way to acquire watches with specific qualities. Take the Rolex Explorer for example. Since 2010, Rolex has offered it with a larger case size of 39 mm. If you want a smaller size, then you need to look for an older Explorer model. The last 36-mm Explorer had reference number 114270. You could also take a look at reference numbers 6610, 1016, and 14270.
This example demonstrates the importance of being familiar with reference numbers when buying a vintage watch. Reference numbers help you identify and find watches from a certain time period or with other special characteristics faster and more easily.

Buying Tips

Searching for information and comparing prices from a large selection of watches is part of the watch buying experience. This also includes price checking. To avoid purchasing a fake, the following rule applies: If the price is unrealistically low, then you should proceed with caution. You can easily find the prevailing price level for a particular pre-owned model on Chrono24. There should always be a clear reason given if a watch is either much more or much less expensive than comparative models. Thus, an Omega Seamaster for three figures shouldn't raise any suspicion. A Rolex Submariner at that price, however, should raise alarm, as Submariners are usually much more expensive.
Knowing whether a watch is being offered at a fair price requires experience and expertise. Watch magazines and websites can provide you with a lot of helpful information. You can also ask questions on watch forums and receive competent, informed answers from experts.
The price structure of the vintage watch market can be a bit tricky to understand for the layman. For example, a somewhat damaged-looking watch can be much more valuable than a similar watch in almost perfect condition. This is because the original condition of the watch is what matters most. It's not a big deal if there are signs of wear and tear; what matters is if the watch has its original parts. If many have been replaced, such as the dial, hands, and crown, then even good looks can't prevent the watch from decreasing in value.
The price increases further if the watch is offered together with its original box and papers. The original packaging and manufacturer and dealer papers originate from the initial purchase decades ago. They're considered important proof that the timepiece offered is legitimate. However, this does not mean that you should avoid vintage watches without a box and papers. Often, there is a simple and reasonable explanation as to why they're missing, e.g. they couldn't be found and were probably thrown away by the original owner at some point.
If you don't have the time or you're simply not interested in immersing yourself deeply in the subject, then you're much better off depending on a serious dealer. A dealer can offer you a watch that they have inspected at a fair price and in some cases, even offer a warranty.
Watches without previous inspection are also offered, mostly by private sellers. In these cases, it's a good idea to have a bit of money on hand for any necessary maintenance. Even a simple inspection or repair can cost around 200 euros. When you buy a vintage diving watch, you should have its waterproofness checked and exchange the gaskets if you want to wear the watch underwater.

Small Mistakes Lead to Vintage Treasures

In many ways, buying a vintage watch is comparable to buying an antique car, or at least a highly sought-after used car. Some vintage watch enthusiasts are more like stamp collectors, however, searching for a certain misprint and paying large amounts once they've found it. Take Rolex's Explorer II, for example. Models from the 1970s had a second 24-hour red-orange hour hand which faded significantly under UV rays. Curiously, what began as a defect developed into a treasure - models with reference number 1655 and a faded 24-hour hour hand are sold for five figures today. They're significantly more expensive than a brand new Explorer II. Furthermore, the Explorer II was also linked to the actor Steve McQueen. Famous figures who wear the watch often contribute to a watch's value. This example shows that even vintage watches can be suitable investments and not just a good deal in a lower price range.
A vintage watch that's in good condition retains a relatively stable value. Occasionally, they can increase in value for reasons which have nothing to do with watches directly. For example, those who bought a pre-owned watch with a solid gold case 20 years ago certainly don't regret it, as the price of gold has tripled since then. If it were to be sold again, it would be worth more today simply because of its higher material worth.
Collections no longer in production usually yield high prices in the vintage watch market as well. The Autavia chronograph from Heuer, for example, was beloved by race car drivers in the early 1970s. Today, however, the manufacturer is called TAG Heuer and the Autavia is no longer in production. Pre-owned, it typically costs more than a significant number of new watches from this Swiss brand. A well-maintained Autavia can cost upwards of 3,000 euros. However, whether someone would choose to part from such an old treasure is a different question altogether.