Hot take: vintage sports watches are great to look at, but horrible to own

Hot take: vintage sports watches are great to look at, but horrible to own

Zach Blass

In my latest opinionated rant, I am sticking my neck out a bit. Like Icarus flying too close to the sun, I run the risk of stating the obvious here, but I alluded to this thought and firmer realisation through my collecting experience when I wrote about the acquisition of my Breguet Classique Perpetual Calendar 3057. This came at the cost of trading away my Rolex Explorer 1016 – and I think it is worth taking the time to lay this perspective on the table.

To be clear, just how much this sentiment will resonate with you depends on where you are in your watch-collecting journey. It will also depend on your watch-wearing style and preferences as well. So, here it is. Vintage sports watches are great to look at, but they are not so great to own.

Rolex Explorer 1016 Zach Watch 2 scaled e1685054129603

Honestly, the only vintage sports watch I have ever owned was my former Explorer 1016, and I loved that watch with a capital ‘L’ – it was my most worn watch of 2023. But, in my year or so of ownership, I made observations that resulted in some red flags being raised. Deep down, I already knew this, and you likely knew this already as well. The romance of owning a vintage sports watch, whether because of its perfect patina or rich model backstory, can silence the logical half of your brain – the all too familiar hunt-lust taking over sense and reason. What I ultimately recognised, or rather properly accepted, was the fact you cannot treat a vintage sports watch like a modern one. And this, I later realised, did not sit well with me. I could no longer ignore this truth.

Owning a vintage sports watch is akin to owning a dress watch in regard to how it will ultimately mix into your collection. Despite being associated, rightly or wrongly, with summiting Mt. Everest, an Explorer 1016 is not a watch you can comfortably be active with in the present day. Speaking to vintage Rolex in particular, it is incredible how pathetic and tinny they feel in comparison to their modern counterparts. This is, of course, disrespectful and not entirely fair as these watches born in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, were made in an era where watches were genuinely tools rather than luxury investments, and they fulfilled their missions and purposes well and with pride. But, for example, a modern Rolex Oyster Perpetual is far more suited for any active adventure than an Explorer 1016 ever was – even in its prime.

Rolex Explorer 1016 Zach Marcus Shot

The investment factor does not help either, as you are no longer willing to take risks with watches like a 1016. God forbid you blemish what ultimately gives it its value – its dial. And with the dial being its most valuable aspect, it does not help that its sole shield is an acrylic crystal rather than a far more durable sapphire. Even with a thorough overhaul, older watches like my 1016 cannot necessarily be brought back to a point where they can meet the full depth rating they once formerly had. So, a watch once considered bulletproof is now something you have to shield with a sleeve in the event it rains harder than a drizzle.

Rolex Datejust 36 126234

This is why I mention the idea that my whole point here rests on what your watch collection looks like and your watch-wearing style. When the Rolex Explorer 1016 was brought into my collection, I already had several modern models that were more suited for daily wear – including a Datejust 36 ref. 126234 identical in dimensions. Furthermore, I had a wide range of dressier pieces that were my go-tos in more formal situations, and even in my casual daily life as a (more than likely laptop-and-desk-bound) watch journalist.

Grand Seiko SBGA413 shunbun

So a vintage sports watch, within the context of my collection, is somewhat of a forced wear, driven by the romance of having a museum piece on the wrist available for each glance of the time. Such a honeymoon, however, comes at the risk of wearing other, more suited pieces, less. Now that my Explorer 1016 is gone, I am beginning to wear pieces like my Datejust 36 and Grand Seiko SBGA413 more often again. These were both former most worn watches of the year that should not have been as much off the wrist as they were at that time. Ironic, considering I was foolishly prioritising wearing a piece that has an aspect of needing to be babied in favour of watches that were more up to the task – and that I actually love very much.

Rolex Explorer 1016

This point becomes more relevant in a world where watch collectors and buyers are once again finally welcoming dressier watches in their collections, escaping the tunnel vision of steel sports watches as the end-all-be-all. If a simple dress piece, whether a high-end Patek Philippe Calatrava or a less expensive watch that delivers similar vibes, is not your style, then this is less applicable to you. Vintage sports watches could, then, more feasibly be mixed within your watch roster, with modern pieces being your active daily wearers and vintage sports being your casual-daily and formal wear pieces. It is just worth stressing the reminder that vintage sports watches are, in the present day, sporty in heritage. They are no longer sporty in their usage and capability.

Considering the expense and appeal of these vintage icons, whether a vintage Explorer or Speedmaster, it is important to understand that you are allocating a significant portion of your watch budget towards something that, as much as you would like to and will want to, cannot feasibly be something you wear all the time – at least not without some greater level of fear and anxiety. And vintage sports watches, as the amount of correct factory service parts becomes more and more scarce, are not inexpensive to maintain. Maintenance is also that much more tricky when you are balancing originality/preservation with replacement and robustness.

Cartier Santos Dumont Beige Lacuquer Limited Edition zach
If you have a group of modern pieces you should be wearing, and a group of strong dressier pieces a vintage sports watch would contest with, then you have a bit of a (admittedly first-world) dilemma.

I fully acknowledge that the landscape of each of your watch collections may not look like mine, but I also recognise we are in a period of watch-collecting where more people have the sickness than ever before – and therefore larger and more diverse watch collections. If you, like me, have multiple modern daily wearer watches alongside a roster of dressier pieces, you may find, as I did, that having a vintage sports watch means having a watch that rests in a no man’s land space within your collection. When do you wear it? What happens to your other watches if you find yourself wanting to wear it more often? When will your luck run out when you wear your collector-grade condition vintage sports watch too often?

I was not wearing my modern daily wearer pieces enough, and with that eventual realisation, I was not prepared to substitute the wear time of the dressier pieces I invested in with a watch like the Rolex Explorer 1016 either. With my Credor, Cartier, and Piaget, these are watches I want to wear (and should be wearing) when I am not sporting my more robust pieces. Why own something that you cannot wear or cannot wear long-term enjoyably? So, my advice here is that if treating a vintage sports watch like a dress watch would not work within your collection, then it is better to appreciate vintage sports watches rather than take on the hassle and responsibility of owning one. Unless you are able to accept the disconnect between their aesthetic and their present-day functionality and capability, the ownership and wear experience will be a doomed and fleeting romantic affair.