It is possibly the most frequently asked question in horology circles: How do you spot future collectible watches?
There’s no doubt that choosing to buy the right luxury watches at the right time could lead to significant returns on investment. There was a period of time, for instance, when you could have walked into a Rolex retailer and bought a stainless steel watch right off the shelf (imagine that!) Even more incredibly, that luxury watch could have been a Rolex Daytona. And, if you really wanted to make the dealer a friend for life, you could have opted for one of those unconventional “exotic dial” models, which were slow-sellers and never likely to catch on.
Back in the 1960s, no one would have believed the sky-high prices that vintage Rolex Daytona chronographs trade at these days. Come to think of it, it’s hard to believe now. But a watch that was more-or-less being given away when it was first released can go for the high five figures and beyond today. How about the exotic dial variants that later became known as Paul Newman Daytona dials? Add a zero on the end.
Many serious watch collectors will admit that finding a similarly performing model would be a dream piece to add to any collection. The question is, how do you spot them early? While there are no certainties in collecting watches, there are a few best practices to keep in mind if you want to spot future collectible watches.
Click here for a closer look at some of the best luxury watches for starting a collection.
Table of Contents:
The Beauty Of Hindsight
First up, as watch lovers, we would never advocate you buy any piece just because you have a hunch it might work well as an investment. Luxury timepieces are to be enjoyed for their heritage, aesthetics, and engineering prowess, rather than for any sort of financial consideration. Found a watch you love? One that appeals to your unique tastes and falls within your budget? Buy it – and let the cards fall where they may as far as monetary returns.
That being said, it never hurts to know a little about the factors that tend to increase the chances of that particular timepiece rising in price over the years. So below, we’ve listed a few things to look out for when shopping for the next piece to add to your collection. However, as far as stone-clad certainties go, this is about as inexact a science as you can get. A watch fulfilling all these criteria might never become highly collectible for one reason or another – but that’s what makes the practice so fascinating.
It seems only logical that for a watch (or anything else) to become collectible, it must be relatively difficult to obtain. If you can just wander into a store and buy one brand new, it takes away one of the main things hardcore horology fans crave the most: the thrill of the chase.
The rarer the model, the more challenging it is to find; therefore, the more valuable it is (as long as there’s a demand for it, naturally.) If you are looking to hedge your bets on a future collectible watch, perhaps the best time to buy it is just as it goes out of production. It leaves enough in circulation to keep the buy-in price somewhat reasonable, but choose the right one, and there’s a strong chance that (at worst) you won’t lose money on it. At best, you could see its value rise as supplies on the pre-owned market dwindle over time.
Some relatively recent examples are the yellow and red dial variants of the Oyster Perpetual, which Rolex discontinued in 2022 after less than two years of production. These vibrant Oyster Perpetual watches were already exceedingly popular while in production, with street values reaching well over twice sticker prices. Now that Rolex has simply stopped making the Oyster Perpetual with yellow and red dials, prices for them start at $20,000 for the 36mm and $26,000 for the 41mm on the secondary market; that’s about four times the MSRP for a modern entry-level Rolex watch!
Even more valuable than those OP colorways, however, is the Oyster Perpetual 41 with a turquoise dial. Again, after only two years of manufacturing it, Rolex discontinued the Oyster Perpetual ref. 124300-0006 and it’s not uncommon to find priced at $40,000 or more on the secondary market. If you were lucky enough to buy this model straight from an AD, you would have only paid about $6k for it.
The poor-seller that transforms into a hot collectible phenomenon brings us back to the great example of the four-digit reference Rolex Daytona chronographs during the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. Arriving a few years short of the automatic chronograph breakthrough and in production during the frenzy of the quartz era, the Daytona’s superb but “old fashioned” manually-wound mechanical movement condemned it to sit gathering dust in dealers’ showrooms. The lack of demand for the Daytona pushed Rolex to slow down the production of its flagship chronograph, thus, fewer models left the factory. Fast-forward a handful of decades, and this inherent rarity explains at least some of the fanatical devotion to vintage Daytona watches today. There simply aren’t all that many of them out there.
While the Daytona is about the most extreme instance, there are a few other examples sprinkled throughout Rolex’s archives. Otherwise great watches that tanked at the box office upon their release – either by being overpriced, not meeting the market’s tastes, or about a dozen other reasons – now find themselves heavily prized and thin on the ground. The Milgauss ref. 1019 and the Explorer II ref. 1655 come to mind, both of which were considered flops during their manufacturing run, yet are highly collectible vintage watches today. Of course, some watches didn’t sell because they were just undesirable watches, so it takes a keen eye and a dose of luck to identify the ones destined for greatness.
Aside from the Rolex Daytona, another watch that began as a slower-seller but pivoted into a grail-worthy timepiece is the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak. It’s been reported that it took AP three years to sell 1,000 units after the Royal Oak’s 1972 debut. How things have changed!
Giving a timeless classic a little twist can sometimes increase its chances of becoming a highly desirable watch. The Rolex Submariner is one of the most immediately identifiable pieces ever made, so when it was fitted with an unorthodox green bezel on its 50th birthday, it already had one mark in its favor. Less than a decade later, Rolex replaced the green-bezel “Kermit” with the all-green Submariner “Hulk” with a matching bezel and dial. Finally, in 2020, Rolex unveiled the new ceramic Kermit Submariner (a.k.a. the “Cermit”) with a green Cerachrom bezel but a return to the traditional black dial. Regardless of the particular reference, each of these three green Submariner models is notably more valuable, thus collectible, than their classic all-black Submariner counterparts.
Sometimes, a transitional model – a bridge between two generations of the same piece that introduces new aspects to the range, while still retaining plenty of elements from the previous iteration – hits collector’s status. Other times, the final appearance of a beloved feature often marks out a future winner. The Sea-Dweller ref. 116600, which was only around for three short years, was the last of the series issued without a Cyclops lens over its date window. For many fans, this was one of the main reasons to opt for the Sea-Dweller over the Submariner, and that short-lived reference is now being held in increasing affection, with prices rising to reflect that.
Occasionally, the distinguishing feature can be unintentional. A faded bezel, a cracked spider dial, accidental color transformations (a.k.a. “tropical” dials,) and an imperfection in text printing – all add to the prestige and give the watch that vital characteristic: exclusivity.
In many ways, all roads lead to this. Fans quickly tire of wearing the same watch everyone else has, and so finding something that sets them apart becomes the overriding goal.
Collectors want unique pieces; the ones that no one else can get hold of, the model that separates them from the herd. The most collectible watches are the rarest, and they become rare precisely because they fall into one or all of the above categories. They might have been produced more or less as prototypes, in extremely low quantities, or as testing grounds for various innovations. They may have been so badly received upon their launch that no one bought them and they had to wait for their moment in the spotlight, sometimes decades later.
There’s the story of the now-famous Rolex Yacht-Master Cosmograph prototype (circa mid-1960s), which was rumored to have been developed to try to offset the failure of the Daytona. Only three known examples of the prototype Daytona Yacht-Master are known to exist: one used to belong to Eric Clapton before he sold it in 2003, one owned by legendary Rolex collector John Goldberger, and the last one apparently sits in Rolex’s safe in Geneva. More recently, a titanium Rolex Yacht-Master prototype was spotted on the wrist of sailor Sir Ben Ainslie in 2021. You better believe that if that ultra-rare Rolex watch ever came up for sale, collectors would be all over it.
Alternatively, a future collectible watch could have been issued as a special edition of a well-known name; although it does have to be special. Sometimes, certain watch companies, such as Omega, are a little too zealous about limited-edition or special-edition runs, which can harm more than benefit the collectability of a particular watch, model, or brand. However, there are exceptions. For instance, the Snoopy Speedmaster watches made to commemorate the success/failure of the Apollo 13 mission and Omega receiving NASA’s most prestigious award, are currently performing extremely well on the collector’s market. Omega made 5,441 examples of the 2003 version, 1,970 examples of the 2015 version, and the newest version from 2021 is not limited but definitely hard to get and trading hands at a steep premium above its brand-new retail price.
Collecting for Pleasure Instead of Financial Gain
As mentioned above, spotting future star performers in the watch world is often just as much about luck as judgment. If there was a way to do it with absolute certainty, we’d all be incredibly wealthy. But finding a watch from a top brand, one produced in low quantities and preferably not anymore, perhaps debuting new technology or with some other discerning feature, is as good a bet as you can make.
It is even more difficult to make these judgment calls in today’s robust luxury watch market since so many watches (particularly ones made by Rolex, Audemars Piguet, Patek Philippe, and Richard Mille) are valued higher on the secondary market than their retail prices suggest. With the interest in top-tier timepieces at an all-time high, many new releases become instant collectibles right when they’re announced by the brand – and this is even before they leave the factory for boutiques around the world.
The most important point to remember is to buy watches you love. If you have a watch you enjoy wearing, that is going to be a much more pleasurable experience than trying to speculate on the financial gain you may or may not see in the future.
I really enjoyed reading your article and there is no arguing with any of your criteria. And certainly your disclaimer is so correct… there are no ironclad guarantees when when attempting to predict this kind of performance in the marketplace. I think everything you said here could easily apply to any area of collecting even if you only have a collection one. Having said all that, l recently became very interested in “tuning fork” watches and as result purchased an Omega Speedsonic “lobster.” The watch is in very nice but not perfect condition and functions perfectly. Do you have an opinion on how this piece may do over the long term?
If you think it will do well, then, hooray! But no matter, l love it, no one else l know has one, and l am likely to leave it in my estate one day.
Thanks for the excellent articles and please keep up the good work.
Very best regards,
The Omega Speedsonic Lobster is one of the more unusual chronograph watches from the brand’s history. It will likely never become the next Paul Newman Daytona in terms of value; however, there has been increasing interest in some of the more obscure sports models from Omega’s history, and should that interest continue, it can only help the value of certain models like the Omega Lobster. With that in mind, regardless of all possibilities of future value, the fact that you enjoy the Lobster is reason enough to have it in your collection, and you will likely never run into another person wearing it – and if you do, the two of you will almost certainly have something to talk about!
Mr. Altieri, I own a Submariner that has Square Crown Guards, knowing that it is NOT Original, as the Logger that purchased it New in Switzerland most definitely considered it a ” Tool Watch “, the Dial is Wrong, Serial number on case is worn off and Hands have been changed, however the Case and works are as purchased in 1961.
I am looking for advise as to value, or suggestions as to restoration, or direction to any individual that would restore, or may want to purchase.
Any help / recommendations are Greatly appreciated.
Many Thanks, Randal Scott
Without a serial number, there is a good chance that Rolex will decline to service it. Consequently, your best option may be to seek out a qualified independent watchmaker or service center that would be able to carry out the necessary repairs. With that in mind, should Rolex decide to service it, they would almost certainly mandate that you replace the case, which would result in a new serial number (service case) being issued for your watch.
I bought a rolex red submariner in 1975 for $250 sold it in 2015 for $13500,im still looking for the next Red Submariner.
Not sure if you can help, but I’ve been searching for answers and after reading this article thought I’d give it a try. I received a genuine Michael kors watch , I know it is in fact real I have all the paper work and it came directly from Michael kors not a 3rd party. On the dial the L is missing from there name. I had planned to return it but couldn’t help wonder if since it is in fact a real MK with an error , does it hold any value to collectors? Thanks for reading, any help is appreciated. Also I enjoyed your article very much!
For the die-hard Michael Kors watch collector, the fact that it has an error may hold some additional value; however just because something has a production error doesn’t necessarily mean it is more valuable because of it. Michael Kors doesn’t have the same brand reputation as Rolex, so the general collector network isn’t nearly as strong – for example, there are no Michael Kors watches selling for hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars.
Additionally, a large part of the reason why Rolex watches with errors are valuable is because Rolex is known for its pursuit of perfection. Production errors virtually never happen and when they do, it truly represents a very rare occurrence. Nine times out of ten, a flawless watch will be worth more than one with an error, and the instances when an issue with the quality control during the production process actually results in a higher monetary value are really limited to only the most prestigious and celebrated brands, with long and celebrated histories of producing largely flawless work.
I liked it when you shared that it is great to find a watch from a top brand that is produced in low quantities so you can have something that is special. My friend just mentioned the other day that she is planning to give her husband an antique watch for the anniversary next month. I will suggest to her looking for the one that is rare from a reliable collectible.