With so many beautiful new watches to choose from, why choose vintage? John DiDonato of Farfo’s Vintage Watches in Franklin Lakes, N.J. (www.farfo.com) writes, “Vintage watches afford us the opportunity to wear or collect something truly rare and unique and yet at the same time, magically familiar. Vintage watches are for those who seek quality, craftsmanship, and style as a reflection of a lost era, a lost art.”
Most experts agree that vintage watches are those made before the LCD (liquid crystal diode) quartz battery-powered era. Seiko developed the quartz watch in 1969 with a crystal oscillator at its core for accuracy. This device was extremely inexpensive to produce and extremely accurate, much more so than the complicated and comparably delicate Swiss watches. Swatch saved the Swiss watch-making industry by buying and bringing back to health companies like Omega, Longines, Breguet, and Blancpain.
But wait, if a quartz watch is cheaper and more accurate, why didn’t the Japanese demolish the Swiss watch industry? Two answers: aesthetics and craftsmanship. While the Japanese still excel in accuracy, the Swiss produce watches that are also gorgeous complicated jewelry. This strategy has been successful. In Lusso Magazine, Oliver Watson writes, “…the (Swiss) watch industry is facing a serious problem; they simply cannot make enough expensive watches to satisfy the demand. This fact has given rise to a new phenomenon: the appearance on the scene of new, young, and very talented watchmakers.”
It was the venerable Swiss watch company Patek Philippe that created the first known wristwatch for the Countess Koscowicz of Hungary in 1868. Before World War I, wristwatches were worn by women and were also called “wristlets.” War got men’s watches out of the pocket and onto the wrist. Today, vintage military watches are highly coveted by collectors, according to Dean Judy in Watches (a book with great advice about buying and restoring vintage watches).
Blancpain, the world’s oldest watch brand (launched in 1735) produced the first wristwatch with an automatic wind mechanism in 1926. Rolex produced the first truly waterproof watch in the 1920s. Breitling made the first wristwatch chronograph in 1915 for WWI pilots. Some collectors buy the many “firsts” from Swiss watchmakers.
Others collect watches worn by the famous, such as the Paul Newman Daytona Rolex. Swiss cachet is enhanced, in fact, by famous wearers of their wristwatches, from Queen Elizabeth II wearing Jaeger-LeCoultre at her 1952 coronation to Neil Armstrong stepping onto the moon in 1969 with an Omega Speedmaster Professional. Queen Victoria wore a Patek Philippe. Like Victoria, collectors still consider Swiss watches to be tops, but several American companies, including Benrus, Bulova, Elgin, Gruen, Hamilton, and Waltham, are highly collectible, too.
Judy says, Hamilton is “…regarded by many collectors as the premier watch manufacturer in American history.” Hamilton was established in Lancaster, Pa. in 1892 and introduced its first railroad watch in 1893. Later, General Pershing and his doughboys wore wristwatch versions of the railroad watch in World War I. Hamilton Electric watches, produced between 1957 and 1969, are very hot right now. Designed by Richard Arbib, the Hamilton Electrics—especially the Altair, Asymmetric, and Ventura models—are futuristic, classic mid-century designs. René Rondeau, the leading authority on Hamilton Electrics writes, “You had to be something of an iconoclast to buy a VW or a Hamilton Electric (in the 1950s).” Some of these vintage watches are very affordable. While the Ventura model often sells for over $3,000, a futuristic “50s Asymmetric or Pacer can be had for less than $400.
Swiss watches dominate the auction records, and Patek Philippe rules, as you might imagine. In May, 2008, a large, gold, Patek owned by an Italian Count and race car driver sold for $2.25 million. Just a month earlier, a rare Patek platinum double-dialed wristwatch with 12 complications that brought $1,503,839 set the world auction record for a wristwatch. A complication is an additional function the wristwatch performs such as displaying the day/date, a chronograph, (where the watch performs like a basic “stop watch”), second time zone, moon-phase, alarms, etc.
So what else is hot now? Bruce Lubman of Hummingbird Jewelers in Rhinebeck, N.Y., likes Bulova Accutrons from the 1950s. Rod Cleaver of www.yorktime.com features the Rolex Submariner 5513, saying, “Of late, collectors have driven the prices of these durable tool watches to heights not seen before.” Dean Judy says “Omega watches are very collectible, especially the “Seamaster” and the “Constellation” automatic models, as well as any of its Chronographs.”
Is it safe to buy on the Internet? Richard Kenneth, who owns an eponymous store in Philadelphia, says, “Buy from a store that has credibility. Then you know they’re giving you what you’re buying.” Geoff Black, writing for Lands End, says, “Request that the dealer open up the watch for you … ask questions: Has the watch been rebuilt and why?” However, Black includes Internet sites in his article, one of which is for Aaron Faber Gallery in Manhattan, which provides one-year warrantees and has a repair and restoration facility.
Everyone says the obvious—buy what you love. Kenneth recommends, “Buy the best you can afford. Do the research. Buy it if you can enjoy it, not to put in a drawer. Buy it so that you can pass it on to the next generation.”
“Condition, condition, condition,” Judy writes. And several sources mention that vintage ladies” watches are overdue to catch fire. I’d love an enameled art deco tank watch myself… Santa, are you reading?