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Vintage watches: An ode to patina

With collectors’ timepieces, don’t underestimate the worth of heritage and provenance — an old timepiece should look like it has a story to tell

Authenticity is more important than restoration, and a discoloured dial often has no effect whatsoever on the movement of the watch.

Our culture is somewhat obsessed with new things. Whether it’s a car, a movie or the latest gadget — if it’s new, chances are people will be fascinated by it.

Then there are those who, like me, prefer something a little faded and worn, something with a scratch or two — something comfortable, real and interesting. Something with a story. As the saying goes: “Old shoes wear better than new ones.” 

When the latter kind of person stops in at the watch boutique, I’m usually pretty good at spotting them immediately — largely because they’re drawn to the vintage models first. Some will even ask about the patina — a sure sign that they know the worth of heritage and provenance.

But what does the patina refer to, and what does it mean on your old watch?

Patina is basically the discoloration of metal over time. Buyers of antiques will sometimes use the term arbitrarily to describe all kinds of things, even a build-up of sediment on an old wooden tabletop. Writers will use the term metaphorically, meaning an aura or a look, as in: “He has the patina of wealth about him.”

But that’s not exactly accurate — and it has nothing to do with watches.

Patina on vintage watches refers to the discoloration of tritium or radium-based luminescent material (or “lume”) on hands and markers, the discoloration of dials, and even the metal of certain kinds of cases. Cases that contain bronze will typically develop a distinctly “nautical” look over time. The dial colour will usually darken and sometimes crack. This cracking is called “spidering” and buyers will very rarely actually seek out dials like that.

Most collectors love patina, though, and some sellers who know this have even developed methods to “fake” patina using egg, vinegar, liver or sulphur and who knows what else. Sometimes they create horological abominations — so beware.

What exactly causes (genuine) patina is a topic for heated debate among watch enthusiasts. Some say it’s the radiation from old types of lume, while others ascribe it to UV rays from the sun. Not that it’s important — call it wear and tear, if you like. What matters is whether or not you like the look of it, and whether it increases or decreases the value of a vintage timepiece.

Personally, if I’m buying a vintage watch it needs to look its age. The more unique and interesting the patina, the more it’s worth. An old watch tells a story. A shiny dial on a vintage piece seems counterfeit.

So generally speaking, patina is a good thing. In fact, the dial of a vintage watch is the most important factor that determines its relative value, and a rare “chocolate” or “tropical” patina and deep orange lume can add an extra zero to the price of the right watch.

Rolex watches made between 1950 and 1970 often have the best patina. Particularly popular are the GMT’s, Red Submariners and the “Double Red” Sea Dwellers (models with two lines of red writing on the dial including “Submariner, Seadweller 2000”). If these have great tropical dials they can become “grail watches” for serious Rolex collectors. They may have cost perhaps a few hundred dollars new in the 1970s, but around 2008 some actually skyrocketed in value to close to $40,000, to give you an idea. They remain popular now.

I’ve seen a number of these timepieces worn with Nato-style straps, but in my opinion they look particularly authentic when matched with a fitting vintage strap. Authenticity is more important than restoration, and a discoloured dial often has no effect whatsoever on the movement of the watch. The timepiece will run perfectly, and look like it has a story to tell.

Examining the amount of discoloration is also a sure-fire method to check whether parts of an old watch have been replaced — if the patina on the markers doesn’t match the patina on the hands, for example, you know something’s amiss.

So, while there is such a thing as too much patina, it’s something I rarely come across. It’s usually a bad replication of a dial, non-genuine replacement parts or botched repair jobs that detract from the value of a good vintage watch. When it comes to patina on vintage watches, “old” is definitely a good thing.

The writer is cofounder and managing partner of Momentum

Authenticity is more important than restoration, and a discoloured dial often has no effect whatsoever on the movement of the watch.

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