It’s hard to have a conversation about watch collecting and not talk, at least a bit, about vintage watches. The vintage watch market has boomed over the last decade or so, and it’s not hard to understand the appeal. They represent a veritable kaleidoscope of variety, great opportunities for learning and scholarship, and of course a constant source of the “thrill of the hunt,” a guilty pleasure of pretty well all collectors.
Do any amount of used watch shopping, and you’ll find, unsurprisingly, that the majority of watches made during the vintage era were cased in either stainless steel or base metal– an inferior alloy, often of brass, either chromed or plated. This is all fine and good, but I’d like to let my fellow watch lovers, nerds, enthusiasts, or however they identify in on what I feel is a vintage sleeper- solid gold.
Vintage watches on the whole are popular, but very few people seem to be avidly pursuing precious metal watches (which for the record, seems to be exclusively gold; I’ve yet to see a vintage men’s watch in platinum, though womens’ watches exist). It seems everyone who’s into vintage has an old Omega or Hamilton in their collection, but at least in most western countries, very few have gold pieces. This is a real shame, because precious metal watches are far more accessible than many may think.
Why is this? Well, there’s of course the perceived price of admission. At least for myself, when I thought solid gold watch, my mind never went to sub-$1000, much less sub-$500 or even $250. And if you’re interested in a modern gold piece, that price will be staggering — staggering meaning multiple thousands at the lowest threshold.
There’s also the bizarre stigma that gold is an old man’s watch. It is true that precious metal has an old-school dignity and elegance to it that stainless steel lacks. That doesn’t mean it’s exclusively for old men — my opinion is that it’s just been out of style for some years. Style is cyclical, and in forty years our dress watches and designs will no doubt seem quaint and elderly.
So why should you be interested? Primarily, gold is and always has been the metal of choice for a truly elegant, classic luxury watch. I use the word luxury here in the proper sense, without affordable in front watering it down. One could reasonably argue that all wristwatches in today’s world are luxuries. What better material for a watch, an item that, while still nominally serving a practical purpose, is meant to delight and entertain its owner?
There’s the unquestionable value of the material itself. For millennia gold has been the standard of value and worth; the phrase gold standard didn’t come about by accident. As long as civilization exists, gold will have intrinsic value and remain precious, no matter the changing of fashions or societal whims. This inherent value elevates the rest of the watch’s good characteristics; it forces you to give it a second glance.
And lastly, I feel there really are genuinely good deals to be had in this market at this time. Earlier I alluded to watches for under $500, or $250, and I’ve found and purchased excellent gold watches at both those price points. It takes a little patience and a little shrewdness, but it is not outside the abilities of any moderately interested collector.
Finally, a surprising and pleasant attribute of gold is that in vintage dress watches it is almost always extremely subtle. We may equate gold with gaudiness in today’s culture of excess, but in the watches of the past the use of gold was much more muted and tasteful. The slightly heavier weight of a small gold dress watch feels great on the wrist and brings satisfaction to the owner and very little, if any, attention from anyone else.
If you’ve come this far, the question inevitably arises about plating and filling. These are methods used to give a steel or base metal case a microns-thin (in the case of gold filling, slightly more) coating of gold to achieve the look without the expense.
Some Buying Advice
My advice and personal philosophy is to avoid plating as much as possible. A major reason for this is that a plated watch will only look worse with age. Scratches and wear spots will quickly reveal the true nature of that case under the plating. Wear is also far more noticeable on a plated watch due to the contrasting case colors. Plating can also discolor and tarnish over time, from reacting with the metal underneath. Wear on a watch should give it a homely, used-well look, not an ugly, cheap appearance.
There’s a bit of a philosophical element to it as well, if you’ll excuse me — a certain satisfaction and good feeling about something being authentic and true, the whole way through. You know that that watch on your wrist is the real deal. Some people are sensitive to this feeling, others not; there isn’t really a right or wrong to it. It’s probably akin to the endless homage-vs-original debates.
Gold isn’t for everyone. Some people dislike the color (there is always white gold), some object to the size of vintage watches, and some just don’t like dress watches. But hopefully this article has piqued your interest, and caused some thought and maybe investigation on your part. There’s a little room for gold in every watch box.
Read part 2 here