I am sometimes asked for my opinions on starter, entry-level watches for new collectors and for special occasion or gift watches. It’s probably not too shocking a revelation to admit I’m a big fan of vintage timepieces. There are many reasons for this, and some are less obvious than others. I thought I’d take a moment and count the ways, as it were.
Bang for Buck
First of all, the mechanical watch really hasn’t progressed too much in the last 50 or 60 years. At least in terms of their movements, a high quality dress watch of the late 1950s is very much the equal—or even superior to— one of more recent manufacture, given roughly equivalent price points.
In other words, a vintage Omega Seamaster with a solid gold case manufactured in 1960 that currently sells for $1,500 is probably a much nicer watch than anything currently manufactured and sold for $1,500. Even the acerbic and notoriously fussy Watch Snob at askmen often tells readers to consider vintage watches from the 50s and 60s when they are buying on a budget.
There are still a lot of nice old American-made Hamiltons and Elgins out there with gold filled/plated or stainless cases from the “Golden Age” of the 1950s and 60s. The watches can often be picked up for only a few hundred dollars, even in great shape, and they are fun to collect and wear.
A good friend of mine gets a lot of compliments on his 1939 Hamilton Sutton. I think it’s especially cool because it has a neat military presentation inscription on the case back. It was found (in running condition) in an antique store for $65 dollars and only required a clean, oil, and adjustment (COA) that ran another hundred bucks.
He loves it and I wish it were mine.
Sometimes Less is More
Watches made 50 years ago tended to be smaller—although there are bigger vintage watches out there. (If you’re a younger guy and feel you must have a bigger watch, look for the larger sports models.) If you have small or even average to medium size wrists, you may find a vintage watch with a 33-38mm case actually looks just fine on your wrist.
Here at VCH, we also think that after the big watch craze tapers off, as it probably will (think back to bell bottoms and super wide ties from the 70s), smaller watches that don’t look like they were made for The Rock or Japanese Sumo wrestlers may even come back. In dress watches, smaller has always been in style. There is just nothing elegant about an enormous watch—barely—stuffed under a dress shirt cuff. There just isn’t.
The Pleasure of Patina
Your humble scribe was once the proud owner of a brand spanking new Rolex Submariner, Reference 16610. This (now superseded) reference looked at ten feet much like a Rolex Sub made in the 1970s, but its millennial origins were very apparent up close and personal. The white gold surrounds on the dial, the scratch free and flawless sapphire crystal, its factory-fresh polish job, all made for a dazzling beauty indeed. So much so that upon first seeing it, my best friend’s only comment was, “Wow. It sure is shiny!”
This rather deflating comment caused me to have a bit of an epiphany. I realized I preferred the subdued luster of the older steel in my vintage watches. I sold the 16610 and kept an older Submariner made in 1978 that didn’t have the white gold surrounds. It’s a Reference 1680 that has a warmer acrylic crystal and more charm and character than a bucket full of shiny modern watches. At least to my eyes.
The Class of Old
And it’s not just VCH who digs vintage. It has become fashionable in recent years to collect and to be seen wearing vintage watches. An article in the online UK Guardian newspaper a few years ago reported that many collectors were turning to older watches, “their dull patina considered a sign of class.” Some of these collectors are as well known as rock legend Eric Clapton and pop star John Mayer and actor Daniel Craig.
We understand the attraction. Who wants to be the guy (who shall remain nameless here —we are going for class in an article about vintage watches, after all), who gives girlfriend Liz Hurley a big, bright, shiny, bling watch only to have it called “a pimp’s watch.” Ouch.
And you certainly don’t want to wear one of those yourself, do you? Just something to think about when choosing your next watch.