Opinion: Old Timers

There is a multitude of reasons for looking to the past when buying a wristwatch.

Has there been a single conversation among those in the watch business during the past three years that hasn’t included E-Commerce, pre-owned watch sales or other threats to traditional bricks-and-mortar retailing? Every new wristwatch ever sold, since the first Cartiers that appeared a century ago, probably found its owner through a store. Pre-owned/vintage/used/second-hand watches (delete the terms that offend you) used to be offered only by specialists or auction sales. But all that has changed forever.

As one who bought, traded and sold watches in the years before the internet, an enthusiast using this method to amass a collection rather than as a livelihood, I witnessed the birth of wristwatch-only auctions and auction houses. When I started scouring shops for old pieces – the new watches I coveted were always beyond my reach – there were no magazines, no websites, no vintage network per se. The hunt was part of the fun, frequenting charity shops, estate sales and other places where the odd vintage timepiece might appear.

David Duggan, Somlo Antiques and other specialists appeared in the 1970s and 1980s. Thanks to them, vintage dealers of pre-owned watches are now found in most major cities. In parallel, Antiquorum, Dr. Crott and other auction houses completed the creation of a market wherein nearly every used timepiece was acquired via these two outlets: from retailers with fixed prices, or at auction.

All the internet did was add online access. In some ways, then, WatchBox, Chrono24 and other online vendors and marketplaces are simply the cyberspace equivalents of physical shops. What hasn’t changed is the motivation of the consumer and the attitude of the manufacturers.

Past Glories

As one can surmise, watch companies are not interested in the sales of pre-owned timepieces because they see nothing from them. Aside from Cartier’s efforts, when they acquired historic pieces, refurbished them and provided collectors with 100-per-cent approved, worry-free examples, few makers deal with vintage, beyond servicing pieces when possible or supplying documentation, such as Patek Philippe’s “Extracts from the Archives”. I wish more would emulate Cartier and Patek.

Imagine being able to go to a brand’s boutique to buy an original Fifty Fathoms overhauled and warrantied by Blancpain, or a 1960s Explorer sold to you by Rolex? Thanks to Somlo, you can do that with Omegas, but in most cases, the best you can hope for is that the original maker has an affinity for supporting its older pieces.

The Rolex Submariner 5513 MAXI Dial MK V (© Revolution)
The Rolex Submariner 5513 MAXI Dial MK V (Image © Revolution)

I have a friend who’s had two family heirloom Patek Philippes serviced to perfection by PP, as well as a 40-year-old Reverso revived by Jaeger-LeCoultre. My father’s 1944 Longines was not refused service by the manufacturer, so my son will inherit a piece that looks as fine as it did the day it was made. (Longines noted with astonishment that the dial and hands were as new.) Alas, other companies – they know who they are – will tell you to go buy a new watch.

Why keep old pieces alive, let alone prefer them to new models? Even without a family connection, older watches have the same charm as vintage cars. Two of the Sad Bastards, from my Saturday Sad Café group, maintain 40-year-old Lancia Fulvias. They will never part with them, but they own them because they love them, not because the Fulvias are superior to, say, Porsche Caymans or BMW Z4s or other current two-seaters. (Although, they would actually argue the Fulvias’ case.)

Pre-owned: A Win-Win

What I discovered about those buying recent pre-owned watches was that a love for retro was rarely the motivating factor. It was usually about price. Then, as now, all watches save for Rolex Daytonas, Patek Philippe Nautiluses and others with lengthy waiting lists depreciate substantially. Hence, someone on a fixed budget can buy a pre-owned Omega or Breitling for roughly the same price as a new TAG-Heuer.

What differs, of course, are two specific aspects of new-vs-used. The first is the guarantee, although some brands have transferable warranties, while every serious vintage watch specialist offers some form of coverage. The second is subjective: some people only want fresh, virgin, untouched items. Like another friend of mine who would rather pop into Ikea than inherit “used furniture”. Go figure!

Revolution, for reasons as varied as undertaking a sensible business plan and providing a service for readers, is now committed to finding and supplying select pre-owned watches. What the manufacturers who bristle at this might wish to admit is that there’s another service being provided – parting with one’s existing watch often finances the acquisition of a new replacement.

There’s another rarely acknowledged upside to healthy second-hand watch sales: hot vintage pieces always impact favourably on new models. From Tudor Black Bays to Omega Speedmasters to Heuer Autavias, all have benefitted from a vibrant pre-owned market. How so? Well, you don’t need a degree in economics to know that more of us can afford a brand-new Black Bay than a mint 7928.

1959 Tudor Oyster Prince Submariner Square Crown Guards ref. 7928 (Image © Tudor)
1959 Tudor Oyster Prince Submariner Square Crown Guards ref. 7928 (Image © Tudor)
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