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What’s Happening in the Vintage Watch World?

September 24, 2016

BY Ed Estlow


Richemont broke the news on Tuesday, September 14. Sales were down 14% for the first five months of their fiscal year 2016, over the same period in 2015. Profits were down an astounding 45%! And horological super-group Swatch’s profit was down 54% for the first six months of the year. Something’s clearly going on. And yes, we know we’re not the first to write about it.

On the other hand, the fall auction season is approaching. While it’s hard to predict that records will fall, why wouldn’t they? New records have been set in each of the last few auction seasons. And pre-owned sales services like ours and our peers (Analog/Shift, Chrono24, H.Q. Milton, etc. plus a raft of smaller brokers) are doing very well, thank you!

So something’s clearly going on in the vintage and pre-owned world too. (For the purposes of this article, we’ll say vintage is anything over 25 years old. Pre-owned is newer.)

vintage datejust - Bob's Watches

Vintage Rolex two-tone Datejust

Now, taking all that into account, what’s up with vintage & pre-owned vs. new watches? Much of the financial woes of the new watch industry have been laid at the feet of shrinking Asian markets, and that may be the case. But we submit that there’s also something compelling – and unique – about a vintage timepiece over a brand spankin’ new one. Price is part of it, but there’s more.

These days, any given Rolex reference is going to look like any other one, and is likely to do so for years, if not decades to come. Quality control has gotten better, as has, say, the dial printing process. So there will be no more tropical dials (which are likely due to chemistry issues with dial paint rather than exposure to sunlight), no more font variations, no more “open 6” vs. “closed 6,” “meters first,” “underline,” etc.

Tropical Dial - Bob's Watches

Submariner Tropical Dial

Beyond actual dial color permutations and evolutionary upgrades, that kind of thing is history with the Rolex brand. We’ll never see its like again.

And I’m betting those kinds of variations are a big part of what drives the vintage and pre-owned market. Certainly they drive the collector market.

Another driver – albeit a small one in the grand scheme – is the phenomenon of the birth year watch. Young men – and not-so-young men – today are chasing after timepieces made in the year of their birth. For a geezer like me, this is a problem. I found a birth year Submariner at a vintage trade show last year. The price? $350,000. I admired it through the case glass.

But for a 30-year old guy, a 1986 Datejust is a reasonable purchase. A little heavier, but still reasonable, is a 1986 Submariner. And the piece they buy will have some uniqueness, due in part to the variations produced in that year, but also due to the vagaries of Rolex quality control back then. Blasphemy, I know… but there you are.

Datejust - Bob's Watches

Rolex Datejust 16013 circa 1986

New watches, on the other hand, are certainly superior timepieces – at least on paper. The references have evolved, the materials are better, the watch’s timekeeping ability is more accurate, and (silly to make note of it, I know) you always get the box and papers.

And there’s just something about something being brand new when it comes to you. You get to be the one who breaks it in. You put the first ding in the case. And (again) silly as it sounds, you get the privilege of bonding with it.

But until you mark it up, it’s going to look like the same model on every other wrist out there. It’ll take 30 years to acquire its own personality, and though it will have its own stories to tell, that personality – and the mystery that goes with it – may never be what a 30 year old watch’s is today.







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