Collecting Luxury Watches

Should you invest in vintage mechanical timepieces?

Rolex Stainless Steel & 18K Gold Men's Watch

Morphy Auctions

Experts usually advise secondary market consumers to buy what they like rather than focusing on “investing” in antiques and collectibles. But are high-end watches the exception?

A continued strong market indicates that luxury watches not only retain their value, but they have the potential for growth in value when held over a number of years, or even decades. While there are certainly no guarantees, prestige brand watches do catch the eye of many collectors who hope to cash in somewhere down the line.

Which Watches Are Worth the Most?

Patek Philippe and Rolex always come to mind when high dollar watches come up in conversation. Examples that were worn only on occasion and in mint or close to mint condition, of course, bring the most money. Watches with provenance—examples owned by celebrities or made expressly for well-known individuals—always have added value if they come with appropriate documentation.

With that said, in her book Vintage Wristwatches (Krause Publications), former Antiques Roadshow appraiser Reyne Haynes (who now goes by the name Reyne Hirsch) points out, “Much like buying a monogrammed piece of silver…collectors often don’t want someone else’s name, business affiliation, wedding anniversary, etc. on their watch.” So when it comes to monograms, whether you’re looking at a wristwatch or pocket watch, steer clear unless it’s one with provenance or a rare example from a top tier brand.

Patek Philippe represents the elite when looking at top notch timepieces. Rarely will you find an example offered for sale outside of high-end auction houses or the inventory of a very upscale jeweler. In other words, if you spot a Patek Philippe at a flea market or thrift store, it’s most certainly going to be fake with the rarest of rare exceptions. This is the caliber of watch purchased by folks with means and passed down from generation to generation as heirlooms.

Rolex is a more attainable prestige brand but still remains out of reach for the average consumer. Start looking at vintage examples in great condition, and they move even further into the stratosphere in terms of cost. Even so, the older models always appeal to collectors with the means to attain them.

Vintage Rolexes, including Daytona models that sold for moderate prices in the ‘60s and ‘70s, are now bringing five to six figures on the secondary market. Sometimes that extends to $1 million or more for really special examples sold at auction.

“Whether it’s Patek Philippe, Rolex or other brands, their new current models do different and evolved from their vintage pieces–we see a real retreat to the vintage market. There are fewer and fewer of these great vintage pieces that remain in exceptional condition, and those really exceptional pieces will only continue to appreciate over time,” said Reginald Brack, senior vice president and international head of retail for watches at Christie’s in an April 2015 Cigar Aficionado magazine feature. 

Other Brands Worth Noting

Even if you’re not wealthy enough to afford a Patek Philippe for your collection, there are other mechanical watch brands within the reach of more mainstream collectors. In fact, the industry is seeing a shift in watch interest to younger collectors. Yes, even those in their 20's and 30's who have the means are looking at the beginning and furthering watch collections. Watch-wearing saw a decline as mobile phones became commonplace, but timepieces are now often seen as both a fashion statement and a way to express individuality.

For higher end quality from lesser-known brands, Vacheron and A. Lange & Söhne have lots of potential to rise in value, according to industry experts like Saori Omura of Antiquorum USA, a leading watch reseller. “The craftsmanship and quality of finish are on par with Patek,” said Omura, also in Cigar Aficionado magazine.  

Many know the brand Tag Heuer, which has some emerging collectible examples. The more unusual and colorful, the more attention they get. This includes the Monaco model, although these models have already gained enough status to be on the high side in terms of value when they have received proper care and storage. Other brands with potential for budding collectors are Ulysee-Nardin, Universal Genève, and Longines when in mint condition, all of which are featured in Haines’ book Vintage Wristwatches.

Omega tops the list with brands often recommended to budding timepiece enthusiasts, however. Many deals can be had on vintage Omegas that are very nice watches. This includes the Speedmaster which has a similar look to the Rolex Submariner but sells in the more reasonable $2,500 to $5,000 range. And for anyone who bought one inexpensively a couple of decades ago, now could be a great time to cash in on that investment.

Should You Buy Online?

When learning about watches, as with most antiques and collectibles, seeing them in person and handling as many as you can is paramount. There’s nothing like touching an object and feeling the quality right there in your hand.

Once you’re comfortable, however, shopping for collectible timepieces online can be both a convenience and a pleasure. Zooming in and really examining a photo on a computer screen can offer a clear picture of condition even more acutely than what’s visible to the naked eye. Condition reports are also provided when buying from reputable online sellers, and that’s a key comfort factor since you'll always want to buy watches in the best condition you can afford.

Many high-end auction sites have regular watch sales online now. Whether you bid or hit a “purchase now” button, make sure that the seller stands behind the sale with a guarantee, and ask about the return policy upfront. There’s no reason why a business on the up and up won’t stand behind a pricey purchase like a luxury timepiece. Stick with sellers who have a long track record of reputable deals to further err on the safe side. 

Watching out for Fakes

Patek Philippe fakes you might run across, as mentioned above, are most often obviously not genuine. One look at them and you know they don’t measure up to prestige brand status, especially the unparalleled craftsmanship of Patek. Rolex, on the other hand, can be a nightmare when it comes to distinguishing counterfeits.

For instance, there are many, many fake versions of the popular Submariner and Daytona models in the secondary marketplace. Some look cheesy and obvious, but others are quite convincing even when held side by side with originals. Some appraisers won’t even evaluate a Rolex without removing the back and confirming that the movement is authentic and all original.

Remember that buying from someone who doesn’t support having a high-end watch authenticated, or better yet an establishment that has already taken that step before offering the timepiece for sale, isn’t worth the risk. Stick with established dealers and auctioneers who will stand behind their merchandise to avoid purchasing a fake.