Watch collecting probably started in the mid-1980s, when the trend for solid state movements such as digital displays and/or quartz crystal (regulators) surpassed the need for a mechanical watch and all its requirements (winding, setting, servicing). In other words, the demand for accurate, water resistant, inexpensive watches was greater than that of the old style mechanicals.
Many high-grade mechanical watches were still sold at this time, but in far less numbers compared with those up to the late Sixties. Then in the 1990s, trading in watches proved to be a good investment when compared with other collectables. This also contributed to the influx of copies, which in the long term only helped to promote the originals.
Sales of new high-grade mechanical watches increased, and companies even developed and engineered new parts; for example, Omega’s Co-axial escapement (now fitted to most high grade Omegas). Today watch companies are cashing in on the resurgence of high-grade mechanical wrist watches, and reproducing classic styles albeit with much larger size cases; for example, a limited edition re-release WWII Pilots watch, a ‘moon landing’ watch, Formula One drivers or James Bond.
What do I look for when purchasing a vintage watch?
Unlike jewellery, there is more to a watch than meets the eye. Firstly, look at the case construction, as early gold cases can be quite thin. Check fit and finish; dents are okay, but cracks in the case are not. Remember, silver is strong but it tarnishes quickly.
Steel can rust around the bezel and case back. Most steel cases were not highly polished, but brush-finished. Polishing the life out of any case does not necessarily increase its value, especially when you round off the shapely corners with the buffer.
Gold capped/filled and rolled gold cases have a sheet of gold fused to the base metal. The thickness of gold ranges from 20 to 80 microns, compared with 1 to 5 on most gold plated cases. These cases were over-engineered, outlasting the recommended thirty years of wear warranty. Usually a good clean and polish will restore the original finish.
Chrome and nickel plating provides a hard, mirror-like finish that resists corrosion. Most affected areas are around buttons and pushers, where the chromium has eroded and the skin acidity has etched away the metal. Replating these cases can be done, but it can be costly.
Also check that the crown (winder) operates properly. If it is a water-resistant case (Oyster), does the crown screw in to the case properly, and is it a factory crown? Pull out the crown to the setting position. Do the hands move easily? Under every dial are tiny wheels that should mesh freely, without slipping or grating. Winding and setting problems can be difficult to repair, especially if there is a date (wheel). It is very important to note that when winding and setting vintage watches, be gentle. Wind them gently, set them gently, remember those tiny wheels under the dial are fifty years old.
Apart from case wear, the dials (watch faces) are the next problem area. Dials can be repainted, but are rarely done to original specifications. Generally the watch is more valuable if the dial is in original condition compared to an average repaint, and a competent watchmaker can clean or refresh the dial. Luminescent hands often break down, but replacing or repainting the hands is quite acceptable.
All major companies pride themselves on the movement. Its reliability and quality is only as good as the individual parts, and there are at least seventy individual parts in a quality manual wind watch with no date. That number can triple on more complicated movements, such as timers, day-date, and alarms. So what sets apart a high-grade movement?
Jewels are friction bearings in the plates and bridges that support the wheels pivots (axle). They separate moving metal parts and act as a reservoir for oil. The wheel pivots are made of steel, the plates and bridges of brass; without the use of a bearing (jewel), the brass will eventually wear from the torque carried through to the pivot. Jewels are also used in the balance and escapement. The balance wheel contains the hairspring, roller and balance staff (pivot). Early watches are not shock proof, meaning the balance is not fitted with end jewels (little cups, held in springs that absorb the shock through the balance staff and significantly reduce broken balance staffs). The pivot, which transfers circular motion into reciprocating (sideways) motion, has jewelled pallets that allow a frictionless transfer of power.
Generally the more jewels, the longer the working life of the movement and greater accuracy. Most non-complicated, manual wind watches run on fifteen to seventeen jewels, with seventeen and above for self-winders and more for high-grade movements.
Don’t worry too much about specifications. Low grade watches such as pin pallets (no jewels in the pallet/escapement) are okay, but were not designed as high-grade time keepers. There are always exceptions, and I have had low grade watches that keep excellent time. However, jewels do serve an important purpose and are designed to be replaced if damaged.
With regard to the other components, such as wheels, mainspring, balance/hairspring and even screws, if the watch is made after the 1930s then the metals used are all generally unaffected by temperature and constant wear. From the 1900s, Russian and German scientists in particular invented new metal alloys that had more strength and flexibility, and none of the problems incurred with steel.
Other points to mention
Original box and papers/receipts do help sell watches. Just make sure they match the watch; if they don’t match, don’t pay extra. This is particularly important for chronometer (rated) certificates given with most high-grade watches. Original advertising material is also collectable.
Buying on the Internet
Use the net as a source of information, that’s what it’s designed for. Trading on the internet saves a lot of leg work, particularly if you need a specific part or a box of parts. Personally, I prefer dealing with people or at least a phone conversation, so I can contact the person if I have a problem. As we keep saying, always deal with reputable people who can warrant their stock.
What of the future?
Every year we see fewer old watches circulating; this should not deter newer collectors. Don’t give up on that 1950s Omega, but perhaps shift your attention towards a future collectable. Look out for the following: Seiko chronographs (working); any early Japanese mechanical; unusual Swiss watches from the late 1960s (15 jewels or more); LED digitals (working); 1980s quartz Omegas; and Longines Sports. Companies such as Certina, Movado, Tissot, Enicar and Bulova also made high-grade watches.
Another avenue of collecting for fun and profit is to specialise in a particular style, for example lady’s watches with gold cases, Art Deco, military and yachting designs.