Unless you’re buying and selling vintage watches at the volume and frequency of an experienced trader, the pre-owned watch market isn’t the most reliable investment engine. Rather, most vintage watch collectors buy out of love, or for sentimental value. Still, unlike many pre-owned goods, some vintage timepieces—notably brands like Rolex, which has kept its models quite consistent over the years—do retain value or even appreciate. Patek Philippe, whose watches also hold their value, has an age-old slogan: “You never actually own a Patek Philippe. You merely take care of it for the next generation.”
This fall, luxury watch brands announced some record losses in sales: Richemont, whose brands include Cartier, Piaget, Jaeger-LeCoultre, IWC Schaffhausen, Panerai and others, announced that sales were down 14 percent for the first five months of fiscal year 2016 (from the same period the year prior) and profits were down 45 percent. Swatch Group, whose brands include Breguet, Harry Winston, Blancpain, Omega, Tissot, Longines and others, announced its profits were down 54 percent in the first six months of the year.
But experts say that among brands that hold their value, vintage watches—meaning those at least 25 years old—are as compelling as ever. Sites like Bob’s Watches, which specializes in Rolexes, are doing brisk business. Rolex’s consistency is one thing that holds the brand’s value: Except for small tweaks, most models are nearly the same today as they were 30 years ago. And functional models, such as the sport models GMT, Submariner and Daytona, do best. Of course, vintage models also hold their value for the same reason vintage cars do—there’s a finite quantity of them in the marketplace. Yet also like cars, which famously lose half their value once they’re driven off the lot, a new watch depreciates dramatically after purchase. So buying vintage or pre-owned is often a far better deal.
Naturally, the danger of buying a counterfeit increases when you’re not going through a licensed dealer. Bob’s Watches offers a list of 10 ways to spot a fake Rolex, from checking the movement to looking for subtle stamping differences, dial inconsistencies and caseback variations.
In the market for a vintage watch? Here are a few more sites to try:
Beautiful photography and compelling narratives accompany a well-edited selection of vintage Rolex, Tag Heuer and Omega watches on this site dedicated to pulling together modern design and men’s heritage pieces.
For those looking for a wide variety of vintage pieces, this site contains treasures, such as a circa-1960s Heuer Autavia made for the Argentine Air Force and a mid-century Excelsior Park watch made for the Japanese Self-Defense Forces formed under a newly minted NATO.
Third-generation San Francisco jeweler Scott Kaplan runs this resource for both new and pre-owned watches from brands like Rolex, Patek Philippe, Audemars Piguet, Vacheron Constantin and more.
This century-old, Philadelphia-based family business sells a wide variety of jewelry and new watches, but its pre-owned watch section is fascinating (and huge), including Rolex, Omega, F.P. Journe, Ulysse Nardin and many more. It’s an official Rolex jeweler and sells certified pre-owned watches along with its own 15-month warranty.