If you feel like the conversation around timepieces has shifted over the last few years, respectfully, there’s a good chance that you just haven’t been paying close attention. While you can absolutely attribute the younger generation’s newfound interest in classic styles, like Cartier’s It girl Panthere, to trendsetters, such as Rihanna or Bella Hadid, a good watch is an age-old status symbol that was cool long before your favorite fashion muse started wearing it. Like with anything else, this influx in demand has encouraged many shoppers to explore the secondhand route, but careful: It’s not an investment to take lightly.
“Pre-owned watches are sharply rising in popularity due to the scarcity of new watches available for purchase — walk into any Rolex store in the world right now and the shelves are practically empty,” Brynn Wallner, your resident timepiece aficionado and the founder of Dimepiece on Instagram, tells NYLON on the current state of the market. “Buying pre-owned can be very overwhelming, though! What dealers can you trust? Are mainstream retailers properly authenticating their pieces? Is everything priced right? You certainly have to dig and do your own research to make sure you’re not getting ripped off.”
Apart from the hefty price tag that is often associated with buying a luxury watch, pre-loved or not, there are many other things that one should know before fully committing. It requires a certain basic-level knowledge that, quite frankly, other categories don’t require. From understanding what type will serve you best — mechanical versus manual — to being able to identify the top brands and their unique selling points upon first glance, it’s important to be well-versed in it all.
It’s also worth asking yourself why you’re buying the watch in the first place. Are you getting it with the idea that you’ll be able to recoup some of your money later on, down the line? If so, Wallner calls doing so a “losing bet,” following it up with the notion that because the market can be somewhat finicky, it’s best to buy something because you like it and that the real value is in the sentiment — which, ultimately, you can’t put a price tag on. And for those that are going the custom route, you might as well just forget about it altogether.
“Customizing your watch in any way will depreciate its value,” Wallner explains. “One of the main things that collectors and dealers prioritize when buying pre-owned is that the watch is ‘factory,’ which means it only has parts that came straight from the watch manufacturer. Any customization after that — a fun colored dial, more ice — is considered ‘after-market,’ which may as well be a slur in the industry.”
If you ask the president of Bvlgari’s Latin America and Caribbean regions, Christian Konrad, about the key to maintaining value (which I did, while celebrating the luxury brand’s boutique opening on Celebrity Cruises’ new Apex ship), it truly depends on the watch itself. “There are brands out there that gain more value in the secondary market than they do in the primary market because of the exclusivity or rareness of a watch,” says Konrad. “When it comes to jeweler’s watches, the reality is we sometimes see [them] on auction for much more than the original price. So if you buy a piece that’s kind of unique in its own way from a design point of view, you won’t lose money on the timepiece when you look at it from a financial aspect. This is true, even today, that there has sometimes been even more demand than supply, so we have seen the value of the watch actually increasing rather than decreasing.”
Before you get started on your search, it’s important to get all your proverbial ducks in a row. This will ensure you’re making a well-informed purchase and getting the most for your money. Not sure where to start? Consider the breakdown ahead as a handy checklist of all the things you need to know about buying a vintage watch.
How To Buy A Vintage Watch Tip No. 1: Get familiar with brands
When it comes to the list of timepiece brands you should have on your radar, Swiss watchmakers like Rolex, Audemars Piguet, Patek Philippe, and Omega are a few of the names at the top. Knowing a bit about these brands before starting your search will at the very least give you a goalpost in terms of pricing, whether it’s within your budget or not. Those that are hoping to get their hands on one of the aforementioned will know which details are specific to each respectively, that way you don’t get duped.
How To Buy A Vintage Watch Tip No. 2: ... but don’t get caught up in labels
Much like a pair of jeans, finding the right watch is an extremely personal experience. So while it’s important to know the top names in the market, don’t be a stickler for designer brands. When you come across a no-name style that catches your eye, it’s best to lean into that feeling. Chances are that as long as you like the way that it looks, you’re more likely to integrate it into your everyday wardrobe. It’s also worth mentioning that by going with a nameless timepiece, you’re almost guaranteeing a one-of-one design that won’t be found on the arm of anyone else.
How To Buy A Vintage Watch Tip No. 3: Look out for “Frankenwatches”
A “Frankenwatch” or “Frankenstein watch” is a term loosely used to describe a timepiece that is made from mismatched parts. The design in question could include a compilation of Rolex and other no-name parts that help make it a functioning design. But just be warned that while you may have a perfectly good piece for your jewelry box, these generic details essentially water down the Swiss-made name. “One of the big vulnerabilities about buying a watch online, if you’re not an expert, is what we call in the industry a ‘Frankenstein watch,’” divulges Kat McCoy, founder of Connecticut-based jewelry concierge service Best Kept. “This could be the original bezel but they’ve added a new movement or painted and replaced the hands. It takes away from the overall value as you think about long-term investments and resale.”
How To Buy A Vintage Watch Tip No. 4: Know the timepiece’s movement
Understanding the difference between something as minuscule as the watch’s functionality tells you how you should care for your watch long before you bring it home. That way, you know whether or not you’ll need to replace the battery later down the line or should expect to get it to tick by hand. Regardless of your personal preference, knowing how to fix your watch should something happen is key to ensuring it lasts for years to come.
How To Buy A Vintage Watch Tip No. 5: Find out its origins
When you’ve finally found a style that catches your interest, the real digging begins. You’ll want to find out everything you can about the piece before fully committing. Yes, everything. This means the year it was made or at least a ballpark, where it was made, and whether or not it has all of its original parts (see the point above about “Frankenwatches”). Having all of the information up front will prevent any surprises from popping up after you’ve pulled the trigger.
How To Buy A Vintage Watch Tip No. 6: Check for original packaging and papers
Of course, this tip depends on the timepiece, but most Swiss-made watches come with a box and a set of papers proving that it’s legit. But much like when you’re buying a pre-loved designer handbag, whether the piece comes with all of its documents and original packaging is directly reflected in its value and price tag. “As you’re assessing a buy and if the price feels right, the question you’re going to want to ask yourself is are box(es) and papers available,” McCoy explains. “I don’t necessarily think that every time you have to have the original box and papers, but if you have that, it adds a tremendous amount of value to the overall purchase, just in terms of authenticity. Oftentimes, even a very reputable [seller] isn’t going to have [them] so it shouldn’t be a dealbreaker.”
How To Buy A Vintage Watch Tip No. 7: Tap an expert
When mulling around with the idea of making the investment, it’s important to reach out for help when necessary. Whether it’s having an expert on hand to run questions by or hiring someone to do all the heavy lifting, which also sometimes means an extra finder’s fee. Talk to your friends who are already vintage watch owners and compare experiences. “Get a watch buddy — anyone who knows a thing or two about watches who’ll support you in your process and help answer questions,” Wallner insists. “If you don’t know anyone who can fill this role, DM me!”
How To Buy A Vintage Watch Tip No. 8: Warranty, warranty, warranty!
The last thing to know before bringing your watch home is how protected your new (old) timepiece is. In other words, does the seller you’re purchasing it from offer a warranty? If so, you’ll also want to be aware of what is covered and how long it lasts. For example, should the timepiece come in contact with water or break, accident or not, will it be covered? McCoy also mentions that depending on how much you invest on the watch, it may be eligible to be covered by your insurance. That way, if something happens that’s not included in the warranty, you won’t be out of luck. “I often recommend that clients add their watch to their jewelry insurance rider immediately,” she adds. “Some people add it to their homeowners while others will open a completely separate jewelry policy. Most of my clients will [do that] if they are investing more than $5,000 in a watch.”