The vintage watch collecting market has witnessed an exponential rise in both popularity and prices over the last decade.
Although it seems as if the industry is experiencing its golden age, it might be too early to tell. The phenomenon itself is a relatively new one, only really starting with any serious vengeance in the 1980s.
Prior to that, while people certainly accumulated timepieces as they appealed to them, there was a severe lack of both organization and information.
It was the 80s that saw the first magazines and books aimed directly at the watch enthusiast being published, as well as the rise of dedicated vintage timepiece auctions, by the likes of Antiquorum and Christie’s.
Vintage Watch Collecting
There were a few factors during the 80s era that caused this explosion in vintage watch collecting. Firstly, there was plenty of spare cash flying about. Although it was a volatile decade economically, particularly in the U.S., towards the latter half, the tax reforms of the Reagan administration gave a lot of people a lot of disposable income. Just as they had in the past, with other hard assets beyond the stock market, those with money to burn were looking for new ways to invest.
And secondly, the quartz crisis ended. The flood of cheap, incredibly accurate watches pouring in from Japan throughout the 70s had decimated the traditional manufacturers in their Swiss enclaves, wiping out better than two thirds of them. A number of the companies who survived bonded together in a last ditch effort to save themselves, and formed the SMH. In 1983, they launched the Swatch—a fun, fashionable and disposable watch that beat the competition at its own game, sold in countless millions and channeled much needed funds back into Switzerland.
Coupled with that, the Plaza Accord of 1985 strengthened the U.S Dollar and the Swiss Franc, breaking the Japanese Yen and bringing the crisis to an end.
While quartz watches were still appreciated for their great precision and far lower cost, they said nothing about an individual’s personality. For that, only the dedicated craftsmanship of a fine mechanical timepiece would do.
The worldwide adoption of the internet has been the main driving force behind elevating mechanical watches into the same rarefied air as other items of luxury collecting, such as fine wines, jewelry or even paintings by the old masters.
Taking the industry online has provided not only a slew of various platforms, such as Beckertime, from where the burgeoning community could easily buy and sell their pieces, but it has also given multiple stages for people to share their knowledge.
Vintage watch collecting is an information-heavy activity. There is simply a huge amount to know in order to make a sound decision on purchasing any particular model. The nature of traditional timepieces means they attract the detail-obsessed, people who love the many intricacies essential to their operation, and these are generally the people more than happy to share what they have learned.
Spend time on any of the dedicated brand forums and you will come across genuine experts, most often those who either work for the watchmaker in question or who have worked closely with them; as a repairer specializing in that particular make, for instance.
The Ugly Duckling
Many industry experts trace the continued success of the vintage watch market back to a single model, one that its manufacturer struggled to so much as give away for the first 25-years of its life.
The Cosmograph Daytona was (and still is) Rolex’s only mass-produced chronograph, a watch built for the glamorous world of endurance motor racing. A handsome, highly capable model—that no one wanted.
Launched in 1963, it lingered on dealer’s shelves for one reason; its manually-wound movement. It wasn’t given the convenience of an automatic caliber until 1988, transforming it instantly into the most sought-after timepiece in the world for a new breed of collector.
However, its self-winding engine was produced by a third-party, legendary Swiss ébauche maker Zenith. Having to rely on an outside concession for its movement hampered the speed with which Rolex was able to roll out the Daytona to an eager market, causing both massive waiting lists with dealers and, crucially, focusing impatient would-be customer’s eyes onto the previous generation.
Soon, vintage Daytonas started to change hands for incredible sums, none more so than certain examples that had once been even more unpopular than the standard piece. The so-called ‘exotic’ Daytonas, with their eccentric Panda dials and Art Deco font, were considered the ugly duckling’s less attractive sibling for many years, until photos of bona fide Hollywood royalty, in the shape of Paul Newman, started to surface with one strapped to his wrist—usually behind the wheel of a race car.
That was all the endorsement needed for the unofficially rechristened ‘Paul Newman Daytonas’ to dominate the market, culminating in the piece owned by Cool Hand Luke himself to go on to become the most expensive watch ever sold when the hammer dropped last year at $17.7m.
Like other popular forms, the beauty of collecting watches lies in the enormous range of options. It is an activity open to just about everyone, from any walk of life and with any budget.
Although it is certainly possible to spend insane amounts of money on a single, ultra-rare reference, there is also something fascinating, famous or unique at almost every price point.
Even those who look at the activity as an investment, a fairly safe way to park perhaps a considerable amount of money, do so with a certain amount of passion. It is impossible to look at the minutiae of a beautifully made timepiece and not appreciate the level of dedication that has gone into it.
What’s more, unlike, say, collecting cars, another item that says a lot about the owner’s personality, watches are a far more portable expression of character. Seeing a classic timepiece on someone’s wrist speaks volumes, whereas the car parked outside unseen does not.
The Future of Watch Collecting
From the 1980s, the appreciation in cost and sales volume of vintage watches at auction continued ever upwards. During the recession that followed the 2008 financial crisis, that trend leveled out and growth didn’t resume again until 2010.
However, it bounced back in a different way.
The prices for those pieces at the very top of the spectrum, such as the Paul Newman Daytonas, or the incredible Patek Philippe ref. 2499, continued to increase into fantasyland, while those at the more modest end stayed almost stagnant. It has only been quite recently that vintage models from more accessible brands, the likes of Omega or Longines, have begun to climb.
Now is a great time to be a beginner watch collector. With the help of the oceans of information available 24/7 online, it is an activity that is becoming open to more and more people. That textbook example of supply and demand is set to drive prices higher, as more buyers compete over a shrinking pool of available watches.
Our fascination with these amazing wrist machines means watch collecting is something that can ride out the whims of fashion, setting itself as a rock solid investment as well as an appreciation of the makers artistry.
If you were debating whether it was something you wanted to dip your toes in to, then the history of watch collecting suggests it is a venture to start sooner rather than later. But be warned; it is hugely addictive!