How To Buy A Vintage Or Pre-Owned Rolex

How To Buy A Vintage Or Pre-Owned Rolex

| 04.27.23

Ahh, the time has come — the time to buy yourself a watch. A Rolex watch. 

Congratulations are in order, as this is a momentous event! A Rolex timepiece is still, over a century after the brand’s founding, one of the most well made, well designed, attractive and — dare we say — "investment"-grade watches one can purchase. It would be a cold day in hell that would cause us to steer someone away from the purchase of a Rolex, provided that person could comfortably afford it.

However, there are various reasons that one might decide to purchase a "used" Rolex over a new one at retail. For example:

  • Steel sports models from Rolex are increasingly difficult to come by at authorized dealers and may be more readily available on the secondary market
  • Some folks prefer the sizes, colors, and features of discontinued models, which naturally can only be purchased on the secondary market
  • Certain vintage models are still much more affordable than their contemporary counterparts

Once you’ve decided that you’d like to go the pre-owned or vintage route, how do you go about making a purchase? We can help you out, here…

Do Your Research

Man, we can’t stress this part enough: The Rolex world is vast, with thousands of different variations of watches produced over the past century plus. But you know what else is vast? The internet. Meaning there is simply no excuse not to do your homework when preparing to buy a pre-owned or vintage Rolex. Get online and start looking stuff up. This is how you’ll begin to get a feeling for what makes for a good watch, and why they cost what they do.

Rolex Datejust 'Linen'

Buy some reference material — here are some suggestions. Read HODINKEE. Read Worn & Wound. Read Gear Patrol. Watch videos on YouTube — lots of ‘em. Don’t come back here ‘til you really know your stuff. Otherwise, you won’t be properly equipped to make this kind of purchase. 

Consider the B-Sides

Listen: If you want a stainless steel, full-sized sport watch, we’ve got plenty of those — Subs and GMT-Masters and Daytonas all day long. They’re fantastic watches and we won’t argue with you if you’d like to buy one. (Not even a little bit!)

Rolex Daytona 'Zenith'

But think about the following: Rolex made (and continues to make) other watches that are equally worthy of your attention — and that, in certain cases, are worlds more affordable than their Professional counterparts. Consider the humble 34mm Oyster Perpetual or Air-King from the 1960s or 1970s, for example, or the Oysterdate Precision. These are fantastic watches in steel Oyster cases for well under $10,000 — heck, for under $5,000, in certain instances.

Rolex Daytona 'Big Red'

Part of the lack of demand for these pieces is that many folks who grew up in the era of 40+mm watches can’t stomach the idea of a 34mm timepiece on their wrists. However, before the 1990s, it was almost exclusively the case that a man’s watch, with the exception of dedicated sports watches such as the Submariner, were 32-36mm in diameter. The average wrist size hasn’t grown since the late 20th century, so we say: Look into 34mm and 36mm watches! These sizes also work beautifully for ladies.

Buy the Seller

Buy. The. Seller. We know, we know — this is trite and predictable stuff at this point. But damn if it isn’t true! If you get a bad feeling from the person on the other end of the transaction, then that isn’t the person you want to be buying a Rolex from. The world of Rolex watches is vast, complicated, nuanced, and, unfortunately, full of fakes and ‘Frankenwatches.’ The person selling you your watch should be knowledgeable, trustworthy, understanding of your personal taste and needs, and, preferably, a fun person to share a glass of Scotch with. 

If you get the heebie-jeebies from a seller, walk away

Understand Maintenance

You should understand when buying a watch — any watch, and all the more so pre-owned and vintage watches — that mechanical movements require maintenance in the same way that a car’s engine requires it.

What does this mean for you, the buyer, exactly? Depending on the watch, you might need to take it for a trip to the horological "spa" every 3-7 years or so for a thorough cleaning. The bad news is that, on a Rolex watch, this is more costly — look to pay several hundred dollars for a contemporary, time-only watch, and maybe even over a thousand for a vintage piece. (Parts are scarce and good watchmakers are few and far between these days!) For a chronograph or other complicated piece, expect to pay well over a thousand bucks.

Of course, you don’t have to service your watch — more contemporary pieces use synthetic oils that don’t dry out like vintage natural oils, meaning that they’ll keep accurate time far longer. However, we highly recommend that you do. This will ensure accurate timekeeping and will prevent friction buildup in critical parts that could cause the watch to stop working entirely. The good news is that a fine timepiece is like a fine automobile, or a well-kept house — look after it, and it will outlast you... a long shot!