Are Vintage Watches Worth The Investment? (Read this first)

Can you imagine if that watch your grandad left you turned out to be a rare Rolex Submariner with the misprint ‘kissing L’ dial, which sold recently in the UK for approximately $197,000?  What if when reaching to retrieve your mobile from between the seats of your thrift-store sofa, you found a rare and exciting mint condition vintage ‘Paul Newman’ Rolex Daytona worth $250,000?   Finds like these are thrilling but unfortunately rare but is it possible to make money from a vintage timepeace?  

Vintage watches are worth the investment; the initial impact of paying full retail price is absorbed by the first owner, leaving subsequent owners paying a fraction of the actual cost.  Bought intelligently, the right brand and model will appreciate in value and can be liquidated easily if needed. 

Why Watches?

Vintage watch

Surely an item that spends most of its ‘time’ tucked up inside the cuff of a shirt could comfortably be considered too insignificant to bother with.  However, a true watch collector understands the desire to hunt out that rarer, much sought after, highly prized model. 

It seems there are three influencing factors that inspire a watch collection:

  • The emotional aspect associated with seeing it on an inspirational figure.
  • The status it lends to the wearer.
  • The most compelling motivation though must surely be the financial return a good watch can bring.

As Seen on The Big Screen!

There is a lot of allure to owning a vintage watch associated with Hollywood royalty; just visualise Audrey Hepburn’s slender wrist encased in that breathtaking ‘Cartier Tank’ in How to Steal a Million.   Etched in the general psyche is Steve McQueen’s ‘Heuer Monaco’ worn in LeMans. What about the unmistakable Patik Philippe face which dangled tantalisingly from a watch chain in The Thomas Crown Affair and who can forget Sean Connery’s iconic Rolex Submariner in Dr No?

The combination of a glamorous film icon and the prestige associated with big screen exposure assures brand recognition which in turn drives demand and can be a guarantee of a vintage timepiece retaining a significant value. 

It’s a Status Thing!

The status associated with wearing an expensive watch is irresistible, it is such a small, seemingly insignificant possession and yet the right watch has the power to make you feel important.  The reputation of luxury watch brands such as Rolex or Patek Philippe is such that being seen wearing one gains a form of silent respect for the wearer. 

Arguably men do not have that many ways to show off their achievements or success and therefore wearing a nice watch helps the wearer to define for the rest of the world that he is accomplished in life.

You feel you are doing well if you are sporting an iconic timepiece and even if you are not in the upper echelons of society, you suspect that the success associated with wearing an iconic watch will rub off on you.   Added to this is the comfort of knowing that should lean times ever descend, a watch with a healthy muscular liquidity profile can be sold quickly for cash should it ever be necessary. 

Daytona Time!

In October 2017 the Rolex Cosmograph Daytona, also playfully known as the ‘Paul Newman’ Cosmograph Daytona, reached a never before achieved final auction price of a staggering $17,752,500.

Pre-sale estimates of $1 million had been predicted.  However, the association with Mr Newman, who had a prolific motoring and acting career and who was frequently photographed wearing the famous timepiece carried the bidding to a crescendo on the night of the auction. 

There was so much interest in this auction entry, not just from watch collectors but also movie buffs, motor enthusiasts and Newman fans, and as a consequence the auction price just soared.  Since then the value of certain early editions of the Rolex Daytona have increased rapidly.

A Record Breaking Time Piece

At $31 million, the most expensive watch ever sold to date is the Patek Philippe ‘Grandmaster Chime’.   Boasting 20 complications, which are devices not associated with time telling, and a dial that can be reversed at will from a salmon pink hue to a sleek black face, it is unique of its kind and as a consequence only likely to climb in value. This watch, although not vintage, is an example of what your watch checklist should incorporate:

  • Complication technology and complexity
  • Number of complications
  • Impressive design and aesthetic
  • Scarcity or rarity
  • Provenance and history
  • Being unrestored and in original mint condition

What to look out for


Before making a vintage watch purchase it is advisable to consider the rarity, authenticity and condition of the time piece.  Do plenty of research beforehand or consult an expert who will advise you to be informed about:

  • Edition production run or quantity in a range
  • Serial number
  • The quality, finish and condition
  • Accuracy of the movement

As you might expect, the rarer the watch model, the greater the demand and as a consequence, the greater the probability of an increase in value over time.  The vintage watch buyer needs to do the research and find out if the watch was a special edition and how many there are on the market as this will impact the value. 

The brand model, serial number, typically located on the back of a watch, inside the case or between lugs, is an important consideration as it will tell you when the timepiece was made and can often reveal who it was registered to when bought originally.  Unique serial numbers and letters record information that can be used to prove authenticity.

Along with the serial number, the quality of the movement needs to be correct, any replacement or updated cogs or any part of the movement will detract from the final value.  The condition of a watch dial in particular is important; in reality nearly 80 percent of a vintage watch’s value is in its dial where the markings should be impeccable.

Use Common Sense

Watch collection

Watches are among the top five most counterfeit goods on the market with over 40 million fakes being made each year.   A mistake when making a luxury watch purchase can be costly.

It is important to establish that every part of a vintage watch is original and genuine and has not been replaced by new versions of old parts or by other maker’s parts.   The movement should be faultless and fully functioning, however only a specialist watch maker can make this assessment but it pays to make the effort to find out. 

One of the key issues when contemplating purchasing a vintage watch involves the condition of a piece, examine and consider the watch in detail and pay particular attention to the dial, its color and any letter markings it may have as these are details that a savvy watch collector is particular about, as are dings, scratches or irregular markings, which can affect the overall value.   

It is all too easy to allow yourself to get carried away by the excitement of the moment, there can be a great deal of stress when you are buying a watch of this value but you have to be very careful to keep a clear head and use common sense.  Take your time, ask plenty of questions about the service history and movement of your pre-owned watch and keep checking up on the information that you are given by the seller. 

If you instinctively feel the deal is too good to be true, then listen to your instincts.

It is advisable to buy a vintage watch from a reputable seller with a service warranty and a guarantee.

A Timely Investment

Rolex watch

That such a small timepiece should be worth hundreds or millions of dollars is amazing but the fact is that if there is a limited number of models, or indeed if there is only one timepiece circulating the market and it is so rare that it is never going to be made again, then it will command a high value.

After a short period of really studying the vintage watch market it becomes clear that in reality the brand name and model of a timepiece dictates the likelihood of an appreciation in value.  Exceptions to this rule include the Swiss watchmaker Patek Philippe which nearly always appreciates in value from new, with a price entry level of approximately $19,000 and limited annual production, this brand is recession proof. 

Investment watches, such as the Patek Philippe brand, hold or in most cases increase in value from new and as a consequence offer the certainty of a financial return.  Produced annually, in limited numbers and boasting an extensive waiting list for specific designs, the Patek Philippe brand sells consistently whereas by contrast, other watch brands will drop in value the instant you take them out of the shop. 

Rolex too, a household name and well known for holding its value from new, is a safe investment and bought cleverly will make a return on your initial purchase. 

Other well-known brands can unfortunately lose between 40 to 50% in value after being purchased from new in the first year which makes these watches a solid second hand purchase if you want a good quality watch and do not want to pay the asking price from new. 

The benefit of buying a second hand luxury watch is that you have and enjoy the quality, luxury and status of a luxury timepiece without having to endure the pain of paying the original full retail cost. 

Does a second hand or vintage watch appreciate in value?  Clearly the watch brand is an important consideration but so to is the condition; if a quality vintage timepiece is maintained and holds a continuous record of a full service history, can prove its ownership from new, and is in immaculate vintage condition, then it is quite likely to make a return on investment.  Rarity too can play an important role in enhancing the value of a vintage watch. 

If you follow your heart and purchase because you cannot visualise life without this classic timepiece, you will not make a mistake,  and in the unlikely event of your ticking investment not increasing in value, at least you have the comfort of knowing that you adore it. 

Vintage Watch Checklist

The following considerations will impact the value of a watch:

  • Rarity
  • Authenticity
  • Condition
  • How many are there?
  • Was it a Special edition?
  • Quality and finishing which sometimes doubles the value. 

Sharon Cunningham

I enrolled in The Grafton Academy of Fashion and Design and studied there for six years before being taken on by a German fashion house with whom I worked for nine years, eventually leaving to return to university to complete my MA.

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