If only we all aged so gracefully! With enduring designs that evolve over time rather than alter dramatically, vintage Rolex models will never look dated or old fashioned and never go out of style.
More than merely a piece of jewelry, Rolexes have always been made to be worn, and often in harsh environments. Older examples have a personality of their own and it’s displayed in the fading of their bezels or the patina on their dials—much like the passing years add a certain character to the faces of some men (so I’m told).
A collection of vintage Rolex Daytona Chronographs watches.
Coupled with the fact that vintage Rolex watches tend to appreciate in value, along with their reliability, and exquisite craftsmanship, it all adds up to a vintage market that has always thrived – never more so than today.
When Does a Rolex Become Vintage?
That depends on who you ask. Some say a watch has to be at least 20-years old to qualify, others believe a piece doesn’t reach that status until a new version of that particular model is released. Others think when certain materials are phased out of its construction: for example, when tritium gave way to Luminova in the nineties.
A vintage Rolex Submariner is a great timepiece to have in your watch box.
Whatever definition you decide to go with, owning a high-quality vintage Rolex can be an extremely rewarding experience, not just for the cool, set-yourself-apart factor, but also for the thrill of the hunt. For collectors, nothing beats tracking down and snagging that perfect reference—that one-of-a-kind model with a story to tell.
However, there are few areas where the old adage of ‘buyer beware’ is more apt than the vintage market. Often described as a minefield, although “The Wild West” might be a better description, there’s no shortage of bandits and n’er do wells waiting to prey on the unwary. Fakes and counterfeits are rife, and their ruthless suppliers will happily relieve unsuspecting customers of considerable amounts of money.
So where is the best place to get your hands on a genuine vintage Rolex?
Knowledge is Power
Where you purchase your vintage Rolex depends on your level of knowledge about the brand.
You can buy one on eBay, but should you? As a novice, it would be extremely risky and even avid collectors are particularly cautious. A 100-percent seller approval rating, in this instance, is no real guarantee due to the fact that previous buyers might not know what they were buying.
The quality of the current influx of fakes is so convincing that no amount of pictures of the watch can give you all the information you need to tell if you’re bidding on the genuine article. eBay is an unregulated marketplace, so you are essentially gambling on the trustworthiness of a stranger.
Ebay is simply not trustworthy with luxury timepieces (credit: ebay.com)
If you really think you’ve found the watch of your dreams, ask questions, and keep asking them. Find out where the seller got the watch and why they’re selling it. See if they know when it was last serviced or any of the watch’s history. Ask for further photos, specifically of serial numbers if they haven’t already supplied them. Verify that number on one of the charts you can find online.
Has the watch been relisted? If so, why didn’t it sell the first time? If the answers to any of these questions give you pause, run and don’t look back. Deals that are too good to be true are generally not trustworthy.
The more traditional type of auction, rather than the eBay version, is growing massively in popularity. You’ll have read about the incredible sums being paid out recently for lots such as Paul Newman’s Daytona or the ‘Bao Dai’ that belonged to the last emperor of Vietnam—now the most expensive Rolex ever sold. If you were thinking that your pockets might not be quite deep enough to join the elite at one of these events, think again.
The lots that make the headlines are just a tiny sample of the pieces sold at auction. The auction houses make most of their revenue offering the type of vintage watches that are well within reach of the rest of us, and can be a great place to find that special reference you’ve had your eye on. Auctions are great, but only if you can keep your emotions in check! It’s very easy to get caught up in a bidding war in all the excitement and go well over your budget. It’s just as easy to forget the extra 10-20% buyers fee you have to pay to the auctioneer on top of your winning bid.
Christie’s Watch Auction is a safe option, but there are additional fees. (Credit: TheWatchBlog)
Where buying at auction scores points is in its transparency. You can physically hold the watch in your hand, discuss it with the staff and also get a good idea of its provenance in the site catalog. Reputable houses, such as Sotheby’s or Christie’s, have highly trained specialists to inspect every watch that comes through their doors and the pieces are offered for sale on their recommendation. So, if they feel they are looking at a ‘Franken-watch’, a vintage piece that has had parts interchanged with non-standard or inferior replacements, that will be noted in the item’s description and reflected in the estimate.
Any bid you win will also be bound by the establishment’s General Conditions of Business, your guarantee of authenticity should anything be found to be amiss after the fact.
Even so, go prepared with your own research – it is essential.
Buying a Vintage Rolex Online
Buying a vintage Rolex from a reputable online dealer is often seen as the best of all worlds.
Unlike sites like eBay or Craigslist, you’re dealing with experts whose only job is to buy and sell watches, with all the specialist’s knowledge.
Forbes has an article on Bob’s Watches. (Image on Forbes: Ethan Pines)
That doesn’t mean you get away without having to do your due diligence here as well. Take as much time as you need to investigate the seller among forums and by reading testimonials. See how long they’ve been in business, the qualifications of their watchmakers, and whether they use genuine Rolex parts for servicing. Additionally, search if there are any major publications endorsing a vintage Rolex seller for an unbiased opinion. You’re buying the seller as well as the watch.
See what kind of guarantee they offer and what it entitles you to in the unlikely event you end up with a fake. Even the best have been fooled by an especially good counterfeit.
Buying a vintage Rolex is an adventure. Get it right, and you’ll be rewarded with a truly stunning watch that transcends fashion and will be passed down to children and grandchildren. Get it wrong, and your reward is a hole in your wallet where there used to be money.
If it sounds like buying a vintage Rolex is fraught with danger, it is. This is one of those occasions where a healthy paranoia is an asset. I can’t overemphasize the importance of knowing everything you possibly can about the watch and the seller before you hand over your cash.
Above all else, spend time conducting research. Try and take your emotions out of it, and if anything seems off, move on.