Outside of the world of fine collectibles, what’s old is trash, and what’s new is flashy and exciting.
However, within the market for watches (and cars, and art, and furniture, for that matter), there’s a growing community of passionate enthusiasts who are fixated on details and fine distinctions, from aged luminous plots to patina to bracelets to lugs. In short, if you’ve spent much time around ‘watch people,’ you’ve probably met a collector or two who are obsessed with vintage pieces.
Why do vintage watches generate this romantic intrigue, inspiring a following of dedicated nerds? To begin with, those who collect watches (of any kind) are often nostalgic people. Valuing watches for more than their immediate utility as tools, collectors form emotional connections with pieces, and look to timpieces as a means through which to connect to the past. Furthermore, while such a pursuit was once the purview of an older crowd, more and more younger folks are breaking into the hobby.
Spurred on by the increasing presence of watches in the zeitgeist — helped in no small part by brands such as HODINKEE, Worn & Wound, Analog:Shift, and others — Millennials and Gen. Z are turning their attention to the mechanical marvels that are vintage watches. As you'll see, the entry points into and appeal of these watches are legion.
It’s always interesting to learn how these younger collectors wind up in the vintage space. For many, it begins with an heirloom watch passed on from a parent or grandparent. Oftentimes, these collectors never had any connection with the watch world prior, but are exposed to the other, less commercial side of the watch game, and one that isn’t focused on nearly enough — the emotional.
There’s no doubt that watches are often statement pieces; for some, a watch is just a flashy accessory. (Indeed, with the popularity of all things "vintage" and with "thrifting" having become an amateur sport, the increased popularity of vintage watches as accessories is of little surprise.) At the same time, watches can be immensely personal, and a way to express individuality. While this aspect of collecting may not be as easily flaunt-able on social media, it’s no less important to watch collecting as a whole. Talking to big collectors today, you’d be surprised to learn just how many began their journey with a family member’s watch.
Alongside the sentimental, there are a variety of aspects of vintage watches that are simply not available today with modern timepieces. Patina, for example, is often favored by vintage collectors. It’s difficult to describe precisely why the aging of white lume to crusty golden yellow is appealing, or why a faded aluminum bezel gets collectors’ hearts racing, but when holding a vintage watch, the attraction is undeniable. These timepieces have lived entire lives prior to your ownership — and they show it. This is a powerful emotional connection that new watches simply can't provide. Furthermore, collecting vintage watches is an opportunity to repair and reuse a product, which has it own implications for the planet, and tugs on its own set of emotional heartstrings for many consumers today.
Heuer Autavia GMT - IN THE SHOP
A modern ceramic bezel simply will not age the way an aluminum version will. Super-LumiNova does not ‘bake’ like radium or tritium. Of course, these modern materials come with advantages: The durability of modern substances will objectively outperform and outlast outdated technologies. That said, the point of a vintage watch is not for it to look brand new. When you’re the first owner of a new watch, you grimace at every ding; you want your watch to keep its form and maintain its pristine quality. With a vintage watch, however, half of the intrigue is its aged dignity. A well preserved and evenly patinated timepiece oozes character without looking exhausted or damaged.
We’ve previously covered the advantages of neo-vintage watches, which offer some of the best aspects of vintage pieces with a blend of modern materials. (For example, the use of a bracelet with solid rather than folded links, the added functionality of a quick-setting date function, or the use of sapphire crystal rather than acrylic.) For many, this is a great way to experience a vintage aesthetic without the risks inherent in vintage ownership; it's also a more affordable entry point into vintage-inspired collecting for younger collectors.
For those wishing to pursue true vintage, however, there’s yet another draw that seems to attract a different sect of collectors — namely, those who appreciate history, both of the watches themselves, and in a larger respect. With vintage watches, collectors can often single out a particular generation of timepiece that has a fine detail they appreciate, taking the entire evolutionary history of a model line - or even a category of watches as a whole - into perspective when making the decision to purchase. Younger collectors, having grown up on the Internet, have more information available at their fingertips than was ever available before to the generations of troglodytes that had to make due with information coming solely from books, trade publications, and brochures.
Similarly, vintage pieces often have stories associated with their historical contexts. Take the Rolex GMT-Master for example, a watch that’s intrinsically interwoven into the story of modern aviation. Collectors now associate the story of the watch with the historical context in which it was released in the 1950s. This is yet another source of meaning for those collectors who view watches in a nostalgic or — dare we say — nerdy manner.
The wealth of details to obsess over with vintage watches — from a flawed dial, to a rare reference, to an obscure dial color, or even a combination of these factors — all help to add to the collectibility and intrigue that a piece may generate. With an understanding of the various reasons, emotional to practical, that a younger collector may have for purchasing a historical timepiece, let’s highlight some of our favorite vintage pieces that exemplify these qualities and epitomize the crux of the vintage market.
Some of Our Favorite Vintage Watches to Collect
Rolex GMT-Master 'Pepsi' OCC
Rolex GMT-Master 'Pepsi' OCC
First up is a Rolex GMT-Master Reference 1675 that dates to 1960 with several attributes that help to define a great vintage piece: It has a glossy-gilt dial (a quality found on many vintage Rolexes and appreciated by collectors to this day); a fine ‘riveted’ Oyster bracelet; a beautifully aged, aluminum ‘Pepsi’ bezel; and pointed crown guards, a hallmark of a great 1675. To top it all off, this example is in exceptional condition, with matching, ‘correct’ components such as a first series bezel, pointed crown guards, and the mega-rare 'red small GMT-hand' that exhibit light wear, making for even aging. Examples of the 1675 like this one are among the most collectible, serially produced vintage Rolexes.
Audemars Piguet Perpetual Calendar Moonphase First Series
Audemars Piguet Perpetual Calendar Moonphase First Series - IN THE SHOP
Next, check out this cool Audemars Piguet perpetual calendar from the 1980s. This Reference 5548 is representative of the world of Audemars Piguet prior to the contemporary dominance of the Royal Oak. While the maison’s modern fame is certainly due to that octagonal icon, in years past, A.P. was first and foremost considered a master of haute horlogerie. Vintage collecting allows us to explore pieces like the 5548 from this previous era. While A.P. wouldn’t necessarily make a thin, dressy calendar watch in 36mm like this today, this vintage example can be enjoyed in its historical context.
Omega Seamaster 300
Omega Seamaster 300 - IN THE SHOP
The Omega Seamaster 300 Reference 165.024 showcases yet another great example of the beauty of aged vintage watches. The 1960s reference has a consistently patinated set of tritium indexes that match the rotating acrylic bezel with its own embedded tritium lume. As far as vintage Seamasters go, this piece is in excellent condition, making it quite desirable from a collecting perspective. Additionally, it carries with it the aura of similar pieces used by Royal Navy personnel in the mid-20th century — a history of daring warfare carried out with Omega tool watches on the wrist.
Rolex Oyster Perpetual Date
Rolex Oyster Perpetual Date
Yet another reason people gravitate towards vintage has to do with cost: With the exception of highly collectible variants, in many cases vintage pieces are relatively affordable considering what they bring to the table. This accessibility can be a great way to explore a brand without shelling out massive sums of money. A vintage Oyster Perpetual, for example, such as this Reference 1501 from the 1960s, can be had for under $5,000, while modern variants cost significantly more.
See for Yourself
These pieces should help give a sense of the enthusiasm vintage watches generate. The stories, histories, and design details of these early examples shed light on the evolution of the watch industry and the contexts in which these timepieces were originally released. Vintage watches are ultimately a fun way to access and engage with the watch world in a meaningful way. Pick up a vintage piece from Analog:Shift and you’ll no doubt agree!
(NOTE: Remember that before you buy, you should be sure to do your research — our Transmissions column is an excellent source of information on all things vintage watches.)