Watches are an expensive indulgence. With the exception of perhaps the billionaire class, there’s a tier of watch expense that will make you think twice no matter how well-heeled you are, even at the “entry” level. They’re even more so if you do as watch brands want you to do, and make your purchases at MSRP. Like a new car, the minute you peel the stickers off, most watches lose 10-30% of the money you just paid. In most cases, this immediate lost value is completely unnecessary, thus this article.
I am a well-blessed middle-class American, but am not as prosperous as most watch brands would like me to be. Enjoying variety in this hobby requires me to be perspicacious of the actual value of what I buy and sell.
The tips I give in this article are the most important ones that have helped me personally not lose money on watch collecting. I hope they help you, too, to feel better about your acquisitions and allow you to try a greater variety of watches without the sunk costs.
Note a small, but important detail: This article is not on how to make money on watches. Collectibles in general have skyrocketed in price as people look for places to put money outside of traditional investments. The AD waiting list and outrageous gray/secondary market prices for certain hyped watches are a part of this hobby now. More and more brands and watch journalism outlets have realized the immense attention and interest a collaborative limited edition commands, and the steady stream of these has given rise to an entire new class of scalpers and quick-typing middlemen who get there first.
While it’s hard to condemn scalping on principle, there is something strongly wrong-smelling about the valueless profiteering that has become commonplace in this hobby, and I don’t promote it or recommend it at all. I myself have yet to snap up an LE for resale, and I’ve managed so far to make the watch hobby profitable for myself in spite of it.
I also won’t recommend trying to get on AD waiting lists. That’s a running joke that you will inevitably be the butt of, even if you are able to cajole your way into actually getting a watch.
Disclaimers and philosophizing done with, here are my tips for not losing money on watches, in rough order of importance.
Abandon the Idea of Grails
Or at least abandon the idea of having multiple grail watches. This is kind of a silly term we use in watch collecting, really. In the Arthurian legends from which it is taken, the grail is the goal of a lifelong quest, an item to be obtained at any and all cost. Certainly no watch actually fulfills those criteria. These are luxury trinkets, after all.
If you decide to pursue a so-called grail, a piece that will entail more money and time to acquire than is probably wise, do so cautiously, and do so rarely (once).
My personal experience has been that it’s more rewarding to read, learn, and talk about watches that are more in my responsible price range, or else watches so wildly above my price range that the thought of acquisition is laughable. To me, it’s more fun to study a Seiko or Glycine release that I may actually own someday, than to look longingly, face pressed against the glass, at the latest iteration of something from Tudor or Rolex. Fixating on watches that are just a bit too far beyond the pale of responsibility will likely just cause frustration.
In the end the heart wants what the heart wants, but the heart is also deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked. It’ll trip you up and leave you wondering how you got to this point if you just chase it willy-nilly.
Learn to Enjoy Watches From Afar
We have a peculiar compulsion as humans and especially as collectors to make things that we like our own. If you can learn to appreciate a watch and be happy that it exists without feeling the need to try to own it, you’re in for a lifetime of enjoyment and a well-funded 401(k).
I like to think of watches, particularly expensive ones, as I do fine art: I have no desire to own a Monet, Hopper, El Greco or Van Gogh, but seeing pictures of them and learning more about them is still a delight to the mind and senses. This is normal in the art world; it should be more so with watches.
This has never been easier than in our current time. An enormous wealth of photos, writing, even video exists on virtually every watch imaginable. Depending where you live, you may even get to see some in person at a friendly dealer or collectors’ meetup. A highly detailed photo of a Lange chronograph movement is among my computer desktop backgrounds, and I never get tired of admiring it when it scrolls around. I don’t have aspirations of someday trading my house for one, though.
Turn FOMO into JOMO
FOMO: the Fear Of Missing Out. It seems like this has become more ubiquitous than ever, thanks to the way the Internet operates, and ultimately the way humans operate.
Brands and dealers do everything in their power to fuel this feeling by pumping out highly hyped limited editions, and we as a collecting community aren’t guiltless either. There’s a lot of prestige and clout, albeit fake and empty, that comes with being the first to acquire a new or limited release that everyone’s wild about. You can humble brag about it on social media, post your initial thoughts for everyone to breathlessly read about, and enjoy the satisfaction and pride of being on the cutting edge of horological consumerism. I’m not bitter, honestly.
Now of course that’s not to say you should never buy a popular watch, or get in on a new LE. But make sure if you buy, you are buying for yourself and not for the fake Internet points. If you’re buying for yourself, the value you’ll place on the piece will be more in line with what it’ll be worth to you after the hubbub dies down and it becomes yesterday’s news.
In episode 133 of the 40&20 podcast (still the best one ever, in my opinion) Everett went into some detail on a concept from blogger Anil Dash: JOMO, or the Joy Of Missing Out. The idea is that there are experiences and things out there that other people are enjoying, ones that you would enjoy yourself, but you can joyfully step back and not participate. It’s taking control over your feelings and obligations, and as such being able to relish what you do participate in all the better.
This could be a whole article on its own, and has profound meaning in many areas of life. I recommend you listen to the podcast and read Anil Dash’s article, easily found by searching these terms.
Be Indifferent About Instagram
In 2021 Instagram is the king of watch social media, but this applies to any past or future forms as well.
Owning and updating an Instagram account is almost a given amongst watch enthusiasts. It’s where a lot of conversations happen, and where we go for a visual watch fix. Since it’s widely known that some people are able to make it big using Instagram, it’s tempting to pay a lot of attention to things like follower count, likes, reposts, etc. There can be the thought in the back of the mind, “Maybe I could be a watch influencer too!”
Don’t fall for it. Instagram (and all large social media platforms) doesn’t care one bit how good your photos are, how much work you put into them, or how earnest you are about it. They care about one thing: how to more successfully advertise.
Everyone’s familiar with the algorithm frustration; that even though you may have followers interested in your posts, the algorithm hides them in favor of whatever else it deems more likely to get them to buy something. You can’t fight the algorithm and you can’t fight Instagram. If the IG gods frown on you, no amount of reasoning or justification will change it. We’ve even seen in recent times unnerving instances of well-known watch media outlets being shut down unjustly, and while some have been restored, others have not.
How does this tie into not losing money? When you’re pressured to keep a steady stream of fresh and exciting content coming, you’ll be apt to try to buy more, at worse prices, just to keep up the flow. Even worse, it can force you to participate in FOMO when perhaps you would have been happy to experience JOMO.
Instagram’s a good platform, and can be a ton of fun to use. But the best way to use it, I’ve found, is to not really care about it as its own entity, or turn it into a business, and treat it like the simple communication utility that it should be.
Don’t Pay Retail. Be Content With Low Resale
And now we get to buying and selling advice. This one should go without saying. Used prices never equal new, except in certain unnatural cases. The best way to buy a watch is usually used.
In my opinion, factory warranty is not often worth the extra you’ll pay for a new watch. Swiss watch companies are notorious for their painfully slow turnaround times and are likely to leave you on the hook for expensive international shipping. Japanese companies tend to simply say a watch is performing within tolerance, unless something is actually really broken.
And as far as the AD experience… one’s value system could perhaps use a bit of an overhaul if that bit of pomp and circumstance is worth many hundreds or thousands of dollars to you. Or you may just like it, and that’s ok, but you’re not going to Not Lose Money On Watches.
The other option, though a bit rarer to come across, is just to buy a new watch on sale at average used price. Watch Recon is a great way to determine what the market thinks a watch is worth, as well as eBay- make sure to filter by “sold” items only, though.
These kinds of deals aren’t usually available year-round, but often during holidays there are a few good bargains to score. Forums, such as Man on Time’s Watch Deal Forum, are great resources.
The other half of this is also simple: don’t feel like you have to chisel the last cent out of a watch sale. If you were shrewd enough in buying, you should be able to resell and give the buyer a bit of a bargain as well. And if not, shrug your shoulders and chalk it up as a learning experience.
Since private watch sales, especially those conducted online, are built purely on trust, your reputation will be helped by quick sales and happy customers who feel like they got a good deal as well. Reputation is key, and can give you advantages in bargaining and in things such as preferred payment methods.
Perhaps if you list that watch high someone will buy it, or it may get discontinued and the market prices will rise to meet it. However this article is on how to not lose money, not how to make money, and in the goal of not losing money a quick, low-profit sale is always better than a slow, maybe higher-profit sale.
I guess it’s become painfully obvious that only the last tip is directly tied to the action of buying and selling watches. In my opinion, it’s probably the least important. In his masterpiece Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig wrote:
“If a factory is torn down but the rationality which produced it is left standing, then that rationality will simply produce another factory. If a revolution destroys a systematic government, but the systematic patterns of thought that produced that government are left intact, then those patterns will repeat themselves in the succeeding government. There’s so much talk about the system. And so little understanding.”
The key to not losing money on watches isn’t just “buy low, sell high”, or “find the best deals;” such advice is far too simplistic. It’s modifying the way you enjoy the hobby, so that your good habits naturally prevent you from making poor or costly decisions. If you impulsively buy watches chasing grails, keeping up with the Instagram Joneses, or because you must have it if you like it, no amount of deal-finding or high-reselling will keep you in the black. Your pre-existing constructions of systematic thought will work against you. Get them on your side, instead.
Enjoy the hobby, and don’t lose money!