3 Things to Know Before You Buy a Vintage Watch

Purchasing a vintage watch is not typically a spur-of-the-moment decision like scooping up the last on-sale Attico jeans in your size or buying Zara sandals right before you head out on vacation. Especially when dealing with luxury brands, a vintage watch purchase can take months—years even—of saving up, scouring online and in person for the right piece, negotiating, comparing, shipping, etc. We can’t guarantee to speed up that process—good things take time, pun intended—but we did tap the advice of an expert to help us navigate the process in a smart way.

Nathan Hall is a watch expert with The RealReal and he has identified the key terms we should look for when shopping. “Broadly speaking, many aspects of what defines a vintage watch’s desirability reside within the way the watch has aged over time. These terms include ‘lume,’ which in this context is used to describe the way in which the hour markers have changed in color, or ‘tropical,’ which is a unique discoloration that can happen to watch dials over time. Additional key words and points to be on the lookout for also include, ‘replacement’ or ‘service,’ ‘box and papers,’ ‘never polished’ vs. ‘polished,’ and ‘refinished.’”

He also explains that each of these terms helps communicate value, and being aware of them will better educate a serious buyer. “For example, a vintage watch that has a ‘service’ dial would be worth less than the same watch with the original dial—and a watch ‘never polished’ carries a much higher premium than if it has been ‘polished.’”

Furthermore, while Hall warns us that fakes are ubiquitous and shoppers should only work with trusted resources, he’s also outlined three key questions that every vintage watch shopper should ask before pulling the trigger:

  • Can the seller speak to the originality and authenticity of the components of the watch?
  • Is there a unique history surrounding this brand and model that would increase or decrease its value?
  • Is this a watch that I'm looking to enjoy by wearing, simply collecting, or a combination of both, and is that aligned with the aspects of the watch that are providing the value?

Simply put, vintage watch shopping can be a bit trickier than your everyday purchase—or even your typical occasional splurge—but it’s well worth the hunt. “The true mark of a great vintage watch is when it transcends time,” Hall tells us. “The wearer can envision the watch on the wrist of their father or mother, themselves, or generations to come.”

Take a look at a few amazing vintage timepieces below to get your search underway.