This third installment in my series on vintage gold watches is one that I hesitated to write because of my own relative inexperience, certainly in comparison to some seasoned watch traders. Scouting and buying vintage watches is a pursuit fraught with potential mishaps and pitfalls. However, I don’t think you can go wrong by paying attention to any of these common-sense tips. Some of them apply more specifically to precious metal watches, and all are useful to keep in mind when browsing the market.
These are listed in rough order of importance. Happy hunting!
Plan To Pay for a Service
Never max out your budget when buying a vintage watch. This is one of the most important things to keep in mind. Always assume that whatever vintage watch you buy will need immediate service, and shop accordingly. Many times they don’t and can run without issue for a good while, but as a good watch collector you should plan a service at some point in the watch’s life anyway, if you plan to keep it.
For many common, simple three-hand watch movements this can range from $150 to $250; for more rare movements or ones requiring replacement parts, the cost can be much higher. Vintage chronographs are often things of beauty, but they’re often a rich, patient collector’s game.
Incorporate the cost of a service in your mind when shopping and you will be much more selective and less prone to buyer’s remorse.
It’s probably smartest to stick to well-known vintage brands with cataloged movements and parts. For vintage gold these would include Longines, Hamilton, Smiths, Benrus, Omega, Waltham, Bulova and Gruen, and probably a few others. All of these brands made many, many watches — replacement parts, should they be needed, will be less expensive and less difficult to source. Because many were made and occasionally original catalogs are available, it’s also easier to verify the originality of various parts of the watch.
Some brands were known for cutting corners, especially with precious metals. Chronographe Suisse watches in solid gold are fairly common; however, the brand was notorious for its paper-thin cases and actual hollowed-out lugs, in order to cut down on the amount of gold required to case the watch. Although I love the Smiths brand, their presentation line was cased slightly thinner and smaller than their normal line of solid gold watches.
Research on any brand you’re considering purchasing is an important and usually fun and rewarding part of vintage watch collecting and should especially be attended to when shopping for precious metals.
Verify Originality of Parts
This is easier to do for some watches than others, and ties into the earlier point about brand selection. The more common or widespread a brand or model of watch, the easier it will be to ascertain what the original parts looked like.
The key parts of the watch to scrutinize are the handset, crown, and movement. These are the ones most likely to have been replaced at some point in the watch’s life. Look up the watch brand and model on Google Images and eBay, and find as many pictures to compare to as possible. Look for differences in shape and inscription, for movement layout, and jewel count. If articles exist, read them. Auction houses usually carry product far above my general price range, but they can be resources as well.
For some more esoteric watches this can be very difficult, even impossible. At that point you must simply be OK with a possible Franken-watch if you still wish to buy. And for some people that’s not a problem–although it’s best practice to buy as clean and original an example as possible, in the end it’s a personal choice. Be sure to try to pay well below average market price for such a watch, though, as resale value is what’s hurt the most by incomplete or non-original parts.
Be Wary of Bright, Blemish-Free Cases
Gold is a soft metal. It wears more quickly than steel or brass and doesn’t retain a new, polished look easily. Occasionally you’ll come across a gold watch for sale that appears almost like new- unscratched and brilliantly lustrous. Very rarely this does mean an old new stock watch, but more often it means the case has been polished.
Case polishing is a bit controversial among vintage watch collectors; there are some who insist on a watch being completely unpolished, while others are OK with a light touching-up. I think all can agree, however, that a heavily polished case is a detriment to any watch. Aggressive polishing, especially on a gold case, will round edges and corners, and will soften and reduce definition at key points on the case (such as the transition from case to lugs). It makes a watch look “blobby” or soft, and inevitably reduces the value of the watch severely. In very bad cases, such as removing material from the case back in order to erase an inscription, it can even compromise the integrity of the case and lead to more trouble.
Good polishing is difficult to get right on steel, and many times more so with gold. If a gold watch shows scratches and wear, don’t be afraid of it–that’s actually a positive sign. And if you wish to restore some luster when it arrives, that’s OK too–just be gentle and use a very mild product such as Cape Cod cloths.
Just as with verifying parts integrity, find as many pictures of other examples of the watch to compare to, and compare the case edges for sharpness and definition.
Examine the Dial
The dial is where most of the action happens on a vintage watch. Examine the dial as closely as you can. Similarly to cases, be wary of a dial that is exceptionally clean and blemish-free. It may have been cleaned or repainted, and dial cleaning is like case polishing–difficult to do well and easy to mess up. Often when a dial is cleaned, printed text on the dial disappears with the dirt. Sometimes the refinisher will try to letter in the printing by hand afterward and this is usually pretty easy to spot. Omegas seem especially prone to this for some reason. If the printed text on the dial looks crooked, poorly formed, or bears other marks of hand writing, avoid it.
Dial repainting or refinishing is a much more drastic modification and is generally very undesirable. A repainted dial, even one done to look like the original, is typically considered in the same class as replacement crowns or even a re-casing.
A cleaned dial is not necessarily a bad thing–but if it has removed original printing, it is undesirable. A repainted dial should be avoided at all costs.
As all of us watch collectors know, the hunt is one of the fun things about this hobby–the acquisition of knowledge in pursuit of a special piece. Use these tips to your advantage in your next search for vintage gold!