What builds vintage watch value? Here’s how to avoid totally destroying your watch’s worthBrendan Cunningham
Everyone’s familiar with Antiques Roadshow, the TV program where members of the public have their dusty collectables examined and valued by experts. This often results in a pleasant surprise, as you can see from Time+Tide’s own coverage of some of the momentous watch discoveries on the show. But not all of the “reveals” are pleasant. A recurring disappointment involves furniture. For example, in 2018 an Irish silver table from 1740 was brought to appraisers in Belfast. It was beautifully designed and the grain of the wood was clear (video here, article here). The table looked brand new. The appraiser mentioned that many of these tables are typically much darker in appearance, in part because original owners used peat to heat their homes and the soot would become deposited on furniture over time. The appraiser knew the table had been restored, “taken right down to the wood”, in his description. The owner agreed. And because of that restoration, the table lost AUD$13,400 of value. The dark soot and years of “damage” does not detract, it is actually valued by collectors. It bestows uniqueness onto furniture, it makes the table unlike any others. The work done on the table by a furniture restorer, intended to fix it, was actually damaging. Watch collectors: learn this lesson well. Because we can also fall prey to a similar mistake in damaging our vintage watch value.
There is perhaps no greater expert on the canon of vintage watch collecting than Eric Wind. He has years of professional experience in the watch community, including as a Vice President, Senior Specialist for Christie’s auction house. He now has his own company, Wind Vintage, which deals in watches directly and also offers advisory services. Earlier this year, during a lecture at the Horological Society of New York, Eric described the hazardous environment that watch collectors face: “Many watches are being destroyed each day by manufacturers, by watchmakers. I say that my personal hell would be sitting in a Rolex polishing room and one of their service centres with tape over my mouth and my hands tied behind my back and watching them just polish away on these beautiful watches with beautiful bevels, and unfortunately that happens every day.”
Often unwittingly, vintage watch owners occupy dangerous waters roiled by two crosscurrents. The first is the vintage market, a market that counterintuitively places a premium on the depreciation, wear and tear created by decades of use and exposure to the elements of nature. The second is watchmaking professionals, for whom there is a solution to every “imperfection” in a watch. Lume doesn’t glow anymore? No problem, they’ll scrape that old, radioactive stuff off and put on fresh, modern markers. But then when a vintage expert uses a Geiger counter as part of her or his investigation into a watch’s “honesty”, it fails to register. Which immediately decreases the value of the timepiece and raises a potential Pandora’s box of additional condition questions.
We see, then, that a watch owner must proceed slowly and carefully when it comes to watch servicing. Something that is “wrong” with a watch from a watchmaking perspective may very well be “right” and valuable from a market perspective. Christian Lass is one of the top watchmakers in the world, having previously worked as the watchmaker and restorer for the Patek Philippe Museum in Geneva, Switzerland. On a recent episode of the podcast Keeping Time (around minute marker 52) he described his perspective on dials that have changed colour through the passage of decades: “When you see some of the more, let’s say, more modern watches, even after 20 or 30 years you see them get … today’s there’s a huge hype about them being tropical dials and all this, but it’s basically dials deteriorating really fast because of UV light.”
Christian is right. A faded dial is an imperfection from a manufacturing perspective. It does not conform to the design “language” that initially created the watch. It is an unexpected and unpredictable change in the appearance of the watch. So, not surprisingly, when watches are sent to anonymous watchmakers working away in large brand service centres there is frequently a search for a new old stock replacement dial and, if it is found, the faded dial is replaced. There is some chance the owner will receive the faded dial back, but there is also a chance it will be discarded. And the owner will have just paid a service fee to lose a potentially large amount of money.
Why is a faded tropical dial valuable? The answer has to do with uniqueness. Most vintage watches are mass produced or nearly mass produced. And depreciation turns a watch, which otherwise looks like every one of its sibling references, into a “pièce unique”. It has its own character and its own style created by the process of time. Contemporary watch manufacturers have even begun to ape this process by decorating hands with intentionally yellowed lume or greyed dials. This “faux-tina” trend is a clear signal that buyers want this look in their watches, even when new. So true patina, when found in actual vintage timepieces, should be preserved in order to retain the value of a watch.
How can an owner preserve the value of a vintage watch? I’ll offer a few guidelines which might be helpful:
- Choose your watchmaker carefully. You must be able to direct the work the watchmaker does so that nothing unexpected happens to the piece.
- Change as little as possible. Certain changes will maintain or enhance value. For example, if the watch has the wrong crown and you find a correct crown for that reference then making the change is a safe bet. But modifying a timepiece away from its original condition is very, very dangerous. Even though it might “enhance” the appearance of a timepiece, procedures such as laser welding, which can sharpen lugs or eliminate dings, have very unpredictable and perhaps negative impact on the value of a vintage watch. Remember: original is far more important than aesthetically pleasing.
- Make sure alterations are reversible. If you can undo it then, if a mistake was made, it can be undone. Always try to get back any parts a watchmaker removes from a watch, undamaged, so that you can backtrack on mistakes if an appraiser suggests.
- Have fun with straps. If you would like to alter the appearance of a vintage watch then straps are fertile ground. They are like the tyres on a car — in almost all circumstances they are easy to replace and do not impact a watch’s value.
At the end of the day, a vintage timepiece is yours to enjoy. If you plan to never sell it and the monetary value isn’t that important to you then go ahead and re-lume so that you can read the time in the dark. But just be aware that you are paying more than the work being done on the watch, you are also paying from the perspective of diminished resale value.