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Old is gold when it comes to watches

Of vintage watches and the ever-elusive ‘new old stock’ timepieces — here’s what to look for

“We’re seeing unprecedented interest across the board in vintage watches.”

Over the last 20-30 years there’s been a constantly growing interest in luxury watches. Just like cars and furniture, there seems to be a booming demand for the older pieces in watchmaking — but, ironically, the most coveted pieces are those that are as near to new as when they were first released. Today brand-new watch sales are on the downturn globally.

However, the same cannot be said for vintage watches. Financial analysts believe the worldwide vintage watch industry is now worth in the region of $2 billion, with $300-350 million of that overseen by auction houses — primarily Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Phillips.

And it’s growing each year. “We’re seeing unprecedented interest across the board in vintage watches,” Eric Wind, vice-president and senior specialist of watches at Christie’s, told Business of Fashion. “Everything from vintage Rolex to emerging brands at a level under $10,000 has gained incredible amounts of new followers and collectors in the last year.”

While there are a number of collectibles that trade for a few thousand dollars, there are some that fetch in the hundreds of thousands, and even millions of dollars. High on the list of the most valuable are vintage Rolex, Patek Philippe, Longines, Universal Genève and especially those that can be truly classified as “new old stock”.

As a veteran in watch collecting, I often have to explain this term. People wonder why we don’t simply call such items “mint”, so perhaps a little clarification is in order. A “mint” vintage watch is in extremely good condition, considering its age.

“We’re seeing unprecedented interest across the board in vintage watches.”

We’re seeing unprecedented interest across the board in vintage watches.

— Eric Wind, Christie’s

There are very few or no scratches at all, and no faults or signs of damage. However, at some point in its lifetime the watch was taken out of the box and worn. Perfect as it is, it’s no longer in “new” condition. From there, as the quality and originality decreases, the road is downhill — until you end with watches that have been hacked together and patched using nonstandard parts. Buyers beware of these. To truly be called new old stock, the watch needs to be exactly as it was when it was first bought — never worn, except perhaps to display to potential buyers, and kept safely in storage for years. It is a timepiece acquired purely as an investment, not a functional item. It doesn’t really matter how many times the watch has changed hands, or if the watch has been serviced by a reputable dealer, as long as no parts were exchanged that shouldn’t affect its status.

As with many collectibles, the moment the box has been opened, it loses value. In a sense it’s a shame, since the watch was made to be worn and enjoyed, but that’s just one of the many quirks of collecting. Of course, when you’re shopping for a vintage watch as an investment, you need to stay informed. Along with the evolving surge in online activity, blogs, Instagram or Pinterest groups and other social media channels, collectors are now better informed than ever before.

This is a very big part of the reason that there is so much interest in collecting old watches. With dedicated interest groups in just about every country, there is no shortage of information about the year a watch was made, which calibre it came out with, what the inscriptions on the case-back means and which parts are standard or not, so all it takes is a little digging. For the more technical details, it’s always good to ask a dealer who’s worth their salt. It all adds up, and the end result is that watches with the right pedigree, and specifically new old stock pieces are in demand. Then again, the vintage watch world is a curious one.

Sometimes it doesn’t seem to make sense why certain watches would command the kind of respect they do from collectors, or how they manage to sell for the prices they do. If you happen to know of an old watch that’s been in storage for years, now might be the perfect time to have it evaluated. Who knows, you may even be sitting on a specialist collector’s Holy Grail.

The writer is cofounder and managing partner of Momentum

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