Vintage, said to be a contraction of the French “vingt ans d’âge” meaning twenty years old, is one of the rising trends in watches these past years. What, indeed, could be hipper than a watch steeped in charm and history; one which has acquired its gentle patina through decades of wear. There are many reasons for this popularity, but none greater than the substance and significance a vintage watch brings in a market flooded with new products, where prices are pitched to cover promotional costs. A watch with style AND a soul!
In a society cast adrift, assailed from all sides by messages to spend, spend, spend, brands have latched on to this desire for substance and significance, and increasingly propose vintage-inspired styles.
But what exactly are we talking about here? As a genuine alternative to new, vintage covers a seemingly infinite array of models, specificities, variations… and pitfalls! Perhaps you’re about to purchase your first watch. Maybe you’re tempted to travel back in time to discover the origins of that coveted timepiece. A reissue? An original? As you’ll see, the answer is far from simple.
For old time's sake
So what makes a vintage watch so different from its modern counterparts? To be honest, just about everything! Let’s take a closer look. The heart that beats inside a watch is the same today as it was yesterday; the same as several centuries ago in fact. What can truly be considered industrial production didn’t begin until the 1980s, and this can be seen in the manufacturing quality of watches made prior to this period. More fragile, lighter, more sensitive to knocks, they also lack water-resistance.
Much of a vintage watch’s appeal lies in the fact that it has a story to tell. A gentle patina, yellowing markers, visible defects are what make a vintage timepiece so desirable. Inevitably, a watch will show signs of wear, both inside and out, but a mechanical watch will continue its life for as long as there are watchmakers trained to repair it. Can the same be said of a smartwatch? It’s worth noting, nonetheless, that a watch is assembled from hundreds of parts, and will always have a limited production time, following which it’s on its own. Meaning, to expect brands to maintain an ad-vitam stock of components for every single model they have ever produced would be asking the impossible.
Many vintage watches which appear to have been well conserved have in fact been renovated using non-original parts.
For this reason, replacement parts for the movement and even more so for the exterior (case, dial, hands, crystal, etc.) become scarce. As a result, a lot of vintage watches which appear to have been well conserved have in fact been partially renovated using components that most of the time were intended for other models. Brands know this, and are responding with restoration services proposed by their own workshops, which have the capacity to reproduce all types of component. Such a service of course has a price. A further drawback is the waiting time, often in excess of one year.
The moral being, always buy a watch in the best possible shape, both aesthetically and mechanically. You should also aim for one that is as close to the original as possible, bearing in mind that condition determines price: the difference can be up to fivefold! To avoid being ripped off, you need to do your homework and learn to understand the area you’re interested in, making you better informed about what you buy. Remember too that patience is the cardinal virtue of any vintage watch collector. This is a long, winding road and finding your way through the jungle of watches, each with their story to tell, is no easy task, but the journey is not without interest. It can even be more exciting than the find itself!
Equally important is to “buy the seller” as much as the watch. With so many opportunities for wrong decisions, it’s essential to develop a relationship with the seller that is built on trust. In part two of this article, we’ll look precisely at the purchase itself, including the traps to avoid, and what constitutes the value of a vintage watch.