Eventually as your journey down watch collecting lane matures, you’ll likely be intrigued by the absolutely fantastic vintage watches in the market today. Many of us start this journey with new or fairly new “non-vintage” pieces, but one day your interest will change.
It is imperative to know what you are looking at, and what you are looking for in a vintage piece. The vintage watch market is strong and prices are higher than ever. More often than we’d like to admit there are some funky “vintage” pieces on the market, doing you due diligence is more paramount than ever during a vintage watch acquisition. You can get royally screwed very quickly.
Collecting vintage timepieces requires a keen eye, and being aware of the many things that can go wrong is incredibly important.
1.) Avoid Redials. A redial is essentially when the dial has been “redone” in some capacity. Sometimes a redial is simply a dial swap out, others; the dial has been repainted by a watchmaker or “artist”.
When considering a vintage piece, you are looking for originality on every facet of the dial. Are the numbers consistent? Is the logo period correct?
Example of a redialed Vintage Rolex Submariner – note the sharp, crisp lume plots, the stark white lettering, and the smooth, clean dial. All indicators of a redialed watch.
Example of an original dial Rolex Submariner – notice the imperfections in the lume plots, the dial is somewhat matted, imperfect. The lettering, faded. Indicators of originality.
2.) Luminous. Its important to understand lume. First and foremost, lume on a vintage piece should never “fire” or glow.
I recall a time I acquired a Rolex 5513 from 1970 that the lume fired like a modern Seiko; it was promptly returned for a refund. Everything on the dial appeared correct from the pictures, but it was quite surprising to see a 47 year old watch have such bold lume. This piece had obviously been “re-lumed”. Watches that have been re-lumed, you want to avoid like the plague.
If the lume does not fire, you want to start looking for any type of major inconsistencies in the luminous material. You should notice fairly uniform patina on all the markers and hands; though expect there to be some differences in the luminous materials as the natural aging of the piece will produce some minor inconsistencies.
3.) Service Hands. This typically applies to vintage Rolex pieces, though I have seen it on some vintage Omega watches also. Service hands will appear new in comparison to the luminous markers. If I am considering a watch that has service hands, I always ask if the originals are available. If I can obtain the original hands with the watch then if it checks out, I will move forward with it. Typically I steer clear of watches which I can’t obtain the original hands.
I strive for originality in the vintage pieces I seek. I find the stark difference between service hands and original patina to be too drastic; therefore I tend to shy away from service hands.
4.) Crowns & Bezels. These two are equally important, mismatches of either will turn me off from a purchase very quickly. In my eyes, both of them need to be original. Believe it or not, people will take their old watch o any jeweler or watch maker and get the crown replaced, and often with a generic. This is easily identified and should be very simple for you to determine.
Bezels on the other hand can be difficult to decipher. Replacement bezels are available from a million sources online, and their quality is certainly subpar to the real deal. When deciding if the bezel on the prospective watch is original look for clues. How old is the watch? If you don’t know look it up by the serial number —here —(for rollie). Does the bezel show any fading? Is is scuffed up a bit? Does it look like its been there for 30+ years?
A very old bezel should be faded to some degree, it should have some battle wounds, some patina, some evidence that this watch was previously loved. If it looks brand new…and the seller does not have the original, take a pass.
5.) Service History. It is likely impossible to determine the overall service history of the vintage watch you are considering; though if the complete history is available – that is awesome; but don’t expect it. Ask your seller for verification of it’s last service date. If the service history is unknown; price having the watch serviced once you purchase it, and adjust your offer to the seller accordingly.
Know what your prospective piece is going to cost to service. Generally speaking, vintage timepieces are more expensive to service vs. the modern watch you are probably wearing right now.
Enjoy the hunt for your next vintage watch, it is half the fun. Weigh all the conclusions about the watch you are purchasing carefully, and don’t put too much emphasis on the “box and papers” sales pitch. Boxes get sold on eBay everyday, and papers can be faked. Always seek out. a reputable dealer or private seller; and if you are buying online…be sure you can return it. Your seller should stand behind their watch; if they don’t, keep looking.