Watch Collector Series: The Different Types of Watch Collecting
The world of horology is massively diverse. There are countless different brands, each with their own archive of models. In the case of some manufacturers, Rolex being one, those individual pieces have enough variation in their makeup to fill an encyclopedia. Tiny discrepancies in dial markings, logo design or text can mean the difference between two almost identical looking watches being deemed comparatively run-of-the-mill or virtually priceless.
There is also a wide variety in the type of internal mechanism, the engines that power the watches in the first place, which are the subject of endless fascination and debate.
And away from the timepieces themselves, there is a huge range of related minutiae: marketing paraphernalia, advertising materials, brand novelties, etc.
All of these separate elements, and more, can form the basis of a collection. Where some people are happy to accumulate any and all watches that appeal to them, others prefer to specialize.
You will find enthusiasts who collect nothing but their favorite brand (Panerai fans, for example, call themselves the ‘Paneristi’). There are those who are captivated by a particular type of complication, a tourbillon or chronograph perhaps, and make it their mission to gather as many as possible. And there are still others who won’t rest until they’ve hunted down every ultra-rare holy grail watch they can get their hands on.
Below, we’ve put together a list of the many different types of watch collector out there, and look at what it is that motivates them.
The one takeaway is, the only real similarity amongst all the different genres is the all-consuming passion horology tends to inspire in its followers. It means the practice is open to just about everyone, from every walk of life and with any size budget.
Modern or Vintage
Just what constitutes a modern versus a vintage watch is a debate that has raged for so long the argument itself is bordering on the antiquated.
You can take your pick from any number of determining factors of when the changeover happens. Some people put a number on it; watches more than 25 years old, or 30, or 35 suddenly become vintage—anything younger than that is modern.
For others, the transformation occurs the second that particular model goes out of production, or the manufacturer stops making spare parts or a certain element is first introduced. Some references are seen as modern in some circles, for instance, when the old acrylic crystals are replaced with sapphire.
It also changes from brand to brand and even in individual models within that brand. So a Rolex Datejust from 1987 wouldn’t necessarily be classed as vintage, but a Rolex Daytona from the same year, just before the introduction of its first self-winding caliber, could well be. It really depends on who you ask.
The point is, it is both subjective and confusing. There is nothing official that states that such-and-such is the dividing line between the two, unlike in the world of car collecting. Vintage autos (as opposed to those dubbed ‘classic’ or ‘historic’) are very definitely those built between 1919 and 1930. Because of reasons.
Still, there are those who collect only vintage or only modern watches and, without anything being formally recognized, they are allowed to set their own parameters.
Each category has its own advantages. Modern watches, with a few notable exceptions, are generally easier to acquire—mostly because many are still being made. In a broad sense, they are also more accurate and reliable; improvements in both technology and materials are pretty much constantly ongoing and, much like a new versus classic car, a recent model is usually lower maintenance.
Depending on how well you choose, modern watches can make a good investment. Although buying brand new from the store comes with an unpleasant hit of depreciation once you walk out the door, buying a two or three-year-old piece on the pre-owned market after someone else has shouldered that first hit can represent a relative bargain. Then, subject to the watch itself and how long you hang onto it, it can either retain around the same value as you paid for it or, if you are lucky or clairvoyant, it might become the next highly sought-after piece a few years down the line, selling for many times what you shelled out for it.
So why would anyone choose to collect vintage watches? They lack the dependability, the features and the availability of their modern equivalents.
The value with a vintage watch is in all the things money can’t buy. Yes, they can also make great financial assets, but the ones that perform best are normally the ones with the higher initial price up front.
What the old models have that the contemporary ones don’t, at least not yet, is the story. They are a piece of history, made back when watches were indispensable, often created to fulfill a specific purpose. If you were diving, or racing cars or exploring into the unknown, a dependable watch was a vital companion. There is a romance to them, a human connection, and you can’t put a price on that.
Of course, for others, there is also the thrill of the chase. Nothing satisfies a collector like tracking down the elusive piece they have been searching for over months, years or even decades—ending the treasure hunt for the one with the exact configuration of dial and bezel and bracelet; all the details present and correct to add to the collection.
Some collectors fall in love with one specific manufacturer, and content themselves with going about acquiring as many of that watchmaker’s creations as either they or their bank balance can take.
They are motivated by a passion and admiration for the brand itself, and gathering examples from across the company’s usually extensive history makes a fascinating visual record of their technological and design progression.
For the most dedicated, it can turn into a mission to own every model that particular watch house has ever made, and the hunt for them will commonly become a lifelong challenge.
This level of commitment to one brand comes with significant perks. Many advocates will buy their watches from a small number of dedicated specialists, and their loyalty to a certain retailer usually grows into a relationship that lasts for years. Those are the customers, the ones with the history, who find themselves at top of the list for any especially rare, special edition or even unique examples that happen to pass through the dealer’s hands. When the phone call from your watch guy comes to tell you the grail piece you’ve long been after is due any day and you have first refusal, it signifies your entrance into the upper echelons of brand devotees!
Of course, there is a subgroup of collectors who go further and set about accumulating every version of one particular model. The Rolex Submariner, for instance, has over two dozen individual references, and countless variations of dial types within that range. So, there are those with vast collections made up of only the world’s favorite dive watch, in all its assorted permutations.
There are a number of ways to categorize the different genres of watches. They can be split by the type of movement powering them, by the metals used in their construction or by their specific function—usually denoted by the complications they feature.
The movement, or caliber, is an area that attracts a large number of collectors. Luxury watches can be broken down into one of two very general groups; mechanical and quartz.
(Ah boy, here we go!) While ordinarily a friendly bunch, there is a huge amount of snobbery from horologists about quartz watches, and whether or not they have any place in a serious collection.
No one is arguing over whether or not they are more accurate than their mechanical counterparts, mainly because it’s not even close. Even the cheapest battery-powered effort will keep time better than the best of the best with its springs and gears. They are also, with far fewer moving parts, easier and cheaper to service and maintain, and generally have a lower buy-in price too.
Where the snootiness starts is with the perceived lack of status. A mechanical watch is the end product of many hours of labor by skilled artisans, each pouring blood, sweat and tears into every component. The quartz, by its nature, is much more simple and much less expensive; churned out in huge numbers and missing that vital touch of soul.
It is also a relatively new technology and its introduction almost killed off the mechanical industry, something that perhaps still rankles the purists. They will point to the absence of any story connected to quartz, unlike the traditional pieces, which have been worn by the greatest figures in history and accompanied the first missions to the top of Everest, the bottom of the ocean and even the moon.
But there are definitely some very impressive and highly prized quartz watches. The incomparable Casio G-Shock forms the entirety of many collections, with a range of different models too numerous to count.
At the other end of the scale, Seiko, who introduced the Astron, the world’s first production quartz watch in the 60s, have elevated the movement to an art form. The company grows its own crystals and the 9F quartz caliber is assembled, finished and decorated by hand and sits inside the excellent Grand Seiko Quartz line—a watch accurate to +/- 10 seconds a year and which only needs servicing every half a century!
For the traditionalists though, it is mechanical or nothing, and these movements can be further broken down into two more groups—automatic and manual.
It refers to how the calibers are provided with their energy. Manual winding movements, the oldest type of wristwatch mechanism, are powered by a mainspring that slowly unwinds, driving the watch’s hands through a series of gears. That mainspring has to be rewound by the wearer via the winding crown, and the frequency with which it needs to be done differs from watch to watch.
Automatic is another name for self-winding, and these types of calibers, popularized by Rolex in the 1930s, are powered by the motion of the wearer’s wrist. Instead of having to wind the watch manually, a weighted rotor spins round with each movement and transfers its energy to the mainspring.
For collectors, a manually winding caliber represents the absolute essence of watchmaking, and a link to where it all began, while the automatic movements win out in the convenience stakes. But both types, at their best, are incredible examples of precision engineering, and their intricacies and sophistication are what draw many people in to the world of watch collecting in the first place.
The individual types of tool watch also form the basis of collections. From around the 1950s onwards, models have been created to fulfill a certain purpose or solve a particular problem.
So, when the sport of Scuba diving took off in popularity, a whole genus of highly waterproof watch emerged. As well as being built to cope with the extra pressure, they were also packed with features that safeguarded wearers during their underwater adventures, such as a rotatable bezel that acted as an easy-to-use timer.
Similarly, as the jet-age blossomed and transcontinental travel fell within reach of more people, the problems of crossing multiple time zones led to the development of the GMT watch. With its additional complication able to keep track of the time in two places, it helped to offset some of the psychological effects of jetlag.
And with motor racing entering its own golden age, chronographs started to be introduced to help drivers time their laps with pinpoint accuracy.
Over the generations they have been in existence, these and other types of watches designed to help wearers with a specific task have become standards in the horology world and fostered myriad variations on their own theme. There are many people whose collections consist partly or entirely of nothing but various styles of tool watch, with some able to meet more than one role.
In general terms, the rarer a watch, the more you can expect to pay for it. Scarcity creates more demand and more demand will usually push prices up. But it is the difficulty in finding the holy grail pieces, and the exclusivity that brings, that attracts many collectors. The thrill of the chase is a powerful force, and the truly dedicated can spend years tracking down and securing their dream references.
Nearly all watch brands, if they have been around long enough, will have their own selection of extremely rare models. They might be the early test runs of now well established pieces, they may be one of a handful of prototypes that were never put into production for one reason or another, or they could be the limited run special editions, created to commemorate a particular occasion and retired soon after.
They might even be the exact model worn by some ultra-famous icon, making them not just rare but a true one-off. Prices for these can reach stratospheric proportions, as we saw with Paul Newman’s own Daytona last October.
So where can you go to find these ticking unicorns? Auctions dedicated only to selling watches are a relatively recent phenomenon, pioneered by the sale house Antiquorum in the 80s. They and others like them, with recognizable names such as Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Phillips, have since turned it into a huge business, attracting the super wealthy from all over the globe. Usually held every May and November, these auctions feature some of the most sought-after and legendary, not to say mythical, watches there are—and command prices to match.
But what if your first name isn’t ‘Sheik’ and you don’t have six figures lying around to drop on one of these near-unique examples?
More modest budgets are certainly not excluded from collecting uncommon watches. There are a number of pieces, from even some of the biggest players in the industry, that qualify as both rare and affordable.
The Oysterquartz models, the Datejust and Day-Date, were made in very small quantities, especially for Rolex. Only about 1,000 a year emerged over their 25-year run, driven by two of the most accurate and reliable quartz movements ever (still being serviced by the brand today). Yet you can find Rolesor versions for around $3,000.
Early 60s versions of Breitling’s first Navitimer, the wonderful 806, complete with its innovative slide rule feature and distinctive ‘beads of rice’ bezel detailing, can be had for around $5,000.
Whichever your favorite brand might be, a little research will dig up the sort of models that really stand out from the mainstream and which also won’t break the bank.
Watch collectors, by definition I suppose, own a number of watches. While the majority are not in it for the money, you will often find them swapping or trading in one or some of their haul in order to free up the necessary funds to buy the next piece which has caught their fancy.
However, with many of these horologists, there are generally a few watches in there with which they wouldn’t part for any amount of cash.
These are the models that have the sentimental attraction that is almost exclusive to timepieces; one that goes far beyond the face value.
Particularly for men, a fine watch can be a singular link to the past, and to the most important people in it.
There are many collections that have started with the gifting of a piece at some major milestone—a university graduation being among the most traditional. That watch becomes part of a time capsule, reminding us of our achievements and those who were there to share it with us.
Many collectors, as they progress to bigger and better things throughout their lives, reward themselves with ever more valuable and expensive models, representing their upward trajectories in both status and wealth.
For others, it can be receiving a watch as part of an inheritance, passed down from father to son or mother to daughter. It is why brands such as Rolex and Patek Philippe, with their hard-won reputations for reliability and longevity, remain at the top of the list for those shopping for an heirloom. The marketing campaign, “You never actually own a Patek Philippe…”perhaps said it best. It is very common to invest in a luxury watch with the birth of a child, the intention being for it to stay in the family for generations.
Of course, sentimental watches don’t have to have any monetary value at all to still be impossible to part with. Even the cheapest digital disposable, if it has a definite connection to a treasured memory, is irreplaceable.
We all know watches are cool, otherwise we wouldn’t be here. But there are a select few which, through the patronage of some of the world’s most enduring icons, are just cooler than others.
Real or fictional, we all have our idols. Whether we want to admit it to ourselves or not, there are those who we just admire, put on a pedestal and, in our more honest moments, downright envy.
They have the lives we want, the attitude and the sense of style. And while we can’t really do anything about the first two, we can certainly do our best to copy the third.
Some of the most famous and important figures in history have worn what are, or have gone on to become, some of the world’s most emblematic watches.
We already touched on Rolex’s legendary chronograph, the Daytona. An outright failure for decades, it took movie star royalty in the shape of Paul Newman to elevate it to its current standing as the most sought-after watch in horology-land. Particularly the exotic dial versions that unofficially bear his name, they now change hands among well-heeled collectors for incredible sums of money—all because the Daytona was Cool Hand Luke’s favorite way of timing motor racing laps for the last quarter century of his blue-eyed life.
His contemporary, Steve ‘coolest-man-who-ever-lived’ McQueen has enough models associated specifically with him to count as a small collection on its own. While his preferred piece was reportedly the ref. 5513 Submariner, he actually has another Rolex named, erroneously, after him. There’s no evidence the first Explorer II, the ref. 1655, a true cult darling in collector circles these days after living most of its life in the shadows, ever made its way onto the actor’s wrist, but it will forever be known as the Steve McQueen Rolex.
But perhaps the model most people associate with him is the Heuer Monaco, the innovative square-cased beauty which shot to fame when he wore it in the quintessential 70s racing movie Le Mans.
Even watches sported by the gods of pop culture have become highly collectible. The archetypal English spy James Bond, another Sub devotee in his 60s heyday, has recently made the switch to the Omega Seamaster; both watches are now inextricably linked with the fictitious character.
Political figures may divide opinion, but many have become synonymous with a particular make or model of watch. Oftentimes, a manufacturer will seek these powerful figures out and present them with one of their creations, in the knowledge that piece will be seen countless times and its wearer will become a tacit ambassador for the brand.
So, Churchill was gifted his rose gold Datejust in 1948, and Eisenhower received one of the same, the 150,000thwatch Rolex ever made, in 1951. Lyndon Johnson was the man responsible for giving the Day-Date its ‘President’ epithet, and Kennedy’s most remembered piece is the Cartier Tank given to him by wife Jackie. Both Nixon and Truman were fans of the Vulcain Cricket and, more recently, Obama was seen wearing a Jorg Gray model JG 6500, a birthday present from his secret service detail with their own logo on the dial. Only available to buy in the secret service member store (which is a place that exists apparently) Jorg Gray catered to the demands of watch collectors everywhere by releasing special editions for the public.
Curating a watch collection by cost generally comes down to a game of ‘would you rather…’
Is it better to have one or two high value pieces or a larger assortment of less expensive models to choose from?
As with everything, there is no right or wrong answer and everybody will have their own opinion. For some, if they have a certain amount of money to spend, it will be spent on the very best—perhaps their own personal grail watch.
For others, they are more concerned with having enough variety to see them through every situation; one piece to match with a formal suit, another for casual and a daily beater for everything in between.
Of course, with having multiple watches, you can invest in not only a range of styles but also functionality. So rather than having to decide between getting yourself a GMT, a chronograph and a dress watch for instance, you are able to have all three.
On the flip side, the single high quality timepiece you paid top dollar for is more likely to at least retain its value and could even end up appreciating.
It is a multi-faceted problem, but not a bad one to have on the whole. In the end, it depends on which homespun cliché you prefer; is variety the spice of life or will it always be quality over quantity?
For a hobby with the possibility, and probability, for its practitioners to spend significant amounts of money, very few people collect watches for the sole purpose of investment.
The vast majority are governed in their choices by emotions rather than by some purely financial motivation.
That being said, a lot of collectors do keep at least one eye on the prevailing markets when it comes time to select their next purchase. There are some brands and some models that have performed incredibly well over the years and watches as a commodity have increased by about 70% in the last decade. The real trick is knowing which ones have that sort of potential in the early stages.
A number of manufacturers will pretty much always hold their value at the very least. Unfortunately, these are the ones that also require a hefty investment of your own to begin with.
Top end houses with legendary names; A. Lange & Söhne, Audemars Piguet, Patek Philippe, IWC, Rolex, etc. Always desirable and always in demand, therefore liable to do well.
But unless you have a substantial budget to start your collection, the pieces that have traditionally yielded the best returns can remain far out of reach. Watches are really no different to any other form of investment; you have to spend money to make money.
However, those of us with more limited means can still take part, we just have to work a little harder.
There is a seemingly endless supply of information around collecting watches for profit, and all the experts agree on a few fundamental points.
Firstly, it is a game you only want to play if timepieces are your passion. The amount of research required to make even an educated guess at the examples with the best potential is formidable, and only those who really love horology are likely to put in the effort needed.
Secondly, buy the watches that appeal to you personally. The financial world in general comes with no guarantees, and there is similarly nothing set in stone over the performance of your latest purchase. If, for whatever reason, you don’t get the return you were after, you will still be left with a model you enjoy.
So, apart from investing in watches you are interested in and which you know a lot about, is there any other advice from the professionals?
A watch that had a limited production run is an obvious one, giving it a rarity value that is always highly prized by collectors. Likewise, a model with a particular flaw in its manufacture can, ironically, make them especially sought out. The ref. 16520 Daytonas with the so-called Patrizzi dials, for instance, where the famous chronograph’s sub dials turned a chocolatey brown over time due to a paint defect, are one such example. Basically, anything that sets a standard model apart from the rest has a good chance at doing well on the market.
In all though, watch collecting is all about a love of watches rather than money. If you happen to find yourself the owner of a piece suddenly worth far more than you paid for it, all to the good. But it should always be passion first and profit second.
By the Extras
Finally, one of the most interesting, diverse, and affordable forms of collecting centers around all the various add-ons that grows up around a successful watch brand.
Many of the more prestigious houses release a range of accessories to complement their main output, allowing brand devotees to subtly, and not so subtly, advertise their love for the brand.
So, you can buy Patek Philippe cufflinks in the shape of their famous Calatrava Cross logo or the distinctive Gérald Genta-designed Nautilus. Audemars Piguet has similar products fashioned like their Royal Oak, as do Rolex with their coronet.
You will find baseball caps and polo shirts, ties and keychains—all emblazoned with enough company insignia to leave no one in any doubt where your loyalties lay.
Some of the most fascinating products are the old marketing materials from each brand’s history. Seeing advertisements from the 50s and 60s for iconic models such as the Submariner, with grainy black and white images of professional divers and tag lines such as, ‘If you were working here tomorrow, you’d wear a Rolex’, are wonderful touches of vintage nostalgia.
All these products can either round out a collection or form one of its own.
In all, being a watch collector is a wonderfully fascinating and diverse club to belong to. With the amount of information available at your fingertips, on just about every aspect of the hobby, and with an ever-growing community of horologists keen to share their own knowledge on every topic under the sun, there has never been a better time to join.
It holds a different attraction for each member—but whether they are charmed by the styling and engineering prowess, an association with a personal hero or timepieces act as a roadmap of individual milestones, there really isn’t anything else that inspires quite the same level of devotion.