Watching to Score
I can make it sound slick and smart and economically polished and use terms like undervalued assets, or I can be Romantic and address how all watches are ultimately involved in some Big Pursuit of Truth/Beauty and Accuracy. While both aspects are true, it’s easier to admit up front: most of the time I’m looking for people who don’t know what they have and I pounce.
I don’t know how many folks exist who do the same. Have to be quite a few. A week back it was a Girard Perregaux 3-register chronograph somebody posted for $600. Gone in literally two minutes. A couple nights earlier it was an un-refinished black-dialed pie pan Omega Constellation for $595; that took a minute and a half. I nabbed neither. The $4000 full-kit Submariner from a few weeks back, last night’s $1000 Omega Co-Axial Seamaster, this morning’s Omega Dynamic Chronograph for $240: all to other sharks. I’m the one who landed a $500 Rolex weeks back I sold the next week for almost double, and the Wakmann panda chronograph I sold for 50% more, and the modern Longines chrono for 30% more, and in this way I make the hobby pay for itself.
What I won’t be able to do, regardless of how much time or energy or money I dump into this, is make it make any more sense than this: I want to score, though I don’t know what.
I had no intention at the start of this summer to spend thousands of dollars on watches. I’d earned a modest grant for writing and was gonna just do that. I only got into watches in the first place because my dad—a watchmaker—gave me this watch during my wife’s first pregnancy:
That’s a Tissot Seastar Navigator. 1970’s chronograph, powered by a Valjoux 7734 movement. The subdial on the left (at 9) keeps what are called running or elapsed seconds; it’s always going. The center hand pointed at 12 is the chronograph; clicking the upper right pusher starts that thing’s ticking; it tracks seconds. The subdial on the right keeps track of elapsed minutes on the chronograph. Most of us have little need for a chronograph—read stopwatch when I write chronograph—day-to-day, though it’s a suprisingly helpful complication.
That’s what they’re called. Anything a watch does other than tell time is a complication. Showing the date’s a complication. Day, month, moonphase. On my Tissot, the chronograph is actually in service of a tachymeter, a feature that allows one to measure one’s speed. Those numbers around the outside, on what’s called the bezel? They tell you how far you’d go if you covered one unit of measurement in an hour (most of us’d use miles, but you could pick whatever). See how, beneath the six, the bezel reads 120? If we were in my Mazda5 minivan and I started the chrono as I floored it, and if we were to cover a mile in 30 seconds, we’d know we were on pace to travel 120 miles in one hour.
My dad gave me that Tissot because a) he’s a Tissot guy (he’s got his grandfather’s), and b) he wanted me to be able to time contractions when my wife went into labor, though I’ve ended up using that function much more often to time the duration of red lights as I sit at them.
Mechanical watches are akin to writing, piano tuning, restoring old cars; activities in which perfection is pursued with total perfection almost never achieved. That’s not meant critically: walking through the Alhambra in Granada, Spain, you may be lucky enough to overhear a guide explaining that the freakishly detailed and beautiful tile mosaics are not, despite their appearance, perfect, that each one contains at least one intentional imperfection because the artists who did the work knew only God was perfect. I remember spending half an hour in some domed entrance there, entranced, kinking my neck as I failed to spot errors.
You’d be hard-pressed to find any serious watch person who’d argue there’s any perfect vintage mechanical watch. Most of us have our lists, but they’re personal, idiosyncratic. Plenty of watch folks’d talk about the sort of Standard Big Deal watches that attract current attention—a Rolex Red Submariner, a pre-moon 321 Speedmaster, a Movado M95, a Longines 13zn—but no collector’d say any of those are perfect watches and mean that watchmaking had reached its zenith, it’s absolute truest expression. Each watch represents an attempt at getting it/everything right (whatever it/everything even is), and the price- and attention-fluctuations in the world of watch collecting reflects how unanswered and unanswerable those questions are and will likely remain.
Plus there’s legacy: the majority of collectible watches are Swiss despite that Seikos are, in all sorts of ways, just as well- and often better made. Only the most minor of damns is given regarding Elgins or Bulovas or Hamiltons or Gruens, the great American brands of the early 20th century. Make up a story for why this is so; whatever you come up with is as compelling as any market-based reason.
Mechanical watches are also, like any art, functionally useless, or at least superfluous. If you’re into mechanical watches you’re into some Romantic element of them; if all you’re after is knowing the precise time, your phone’s got your wrist beat (the analog: if you’re after naked/basic emotional appeal, Hallmark cards and rom-coms take poetry to the cleaners). If you’re into vintage mechanical watches, you’re almost certainly in thrall to some non-time-based aspect of them. Sometimes it’s nostalgia—for the dead mechanical world where hand-made actually meant something—which is the true danger: nostalgia’s terminal.
But all this pretty stuff about beauty or utility or nostalgia’s bullshit. What we’re looking at here is value. Feel free to drown in the results of Googling “vintage watch value” or “market.” Stats are hard to find, but here’s a good one from the NYTimes: “Watch sales at Sotheby’s have gone from $22.7M in 2009 to $85.8M in 2012.” That’s four years out of date and only considers one auction house’s results, but you’re encouraged to extrapolate and round up significantly from this data: since 2012, the vintage watch market’s been on an absolute tear.
After the Tissot there was the Bulova Spaceview my dad gave me for my birthday right after the birth of our second daughter. By then I’d been bit by the bug, just a little—had purchased a Seiko 6139, plus was casually looking at eBay more. But it was still manageable. Last year I got him a Leonidas moonphase, and the hunt for the right one—we’re talking about 50 year old watches that don’t come up for sale that often and, when they do, can be in any condition imaginable—got me more involved in watching watches. It was a fun diversion, but nothing serious.
Then this spring someone was selling a Wakmann chronograph on eBay. I ended up with it for several hundred dollars. It had a badly scratched crystal but otherwise worked fine. I can’t remember even feeling anxious about spending several hundred dollars, which seems nuts to me now. This is the watch:
How’d I figure it was worth not just what I paid for it but, perhaps, more? That watch is powered by the unsexy Valjoux 7736, and it’s equally unsexilly and unpopularly gold-plated, and Wakmann’s at best a second-tier brand, so obvious reasonable explanations were out. What I knew was that it had a dial made by Singer, a company that’d made dials for Rolex (among others) in the same period, and I further knew the dial was basically identical to a Paul Newman Daytona, maybe the most lusted-after vintage chronograph. After having the crystal buffed out, I sold the watch for more than double what I paid.
That hardly means that’s what the watch is worth. None of this is gospel, and the vintage watch market is governed by that evergreen Wall Street line: past performance goesn’t guarantee future returns. I realize now I got lucky in selling that Wakmann, or lucky-ish. I could find only one other example on offer and it was asking $6500 (it’s still available), meaning mine would look like a bargain. But, past that, if you’re buying and selling watches, you’re playing a scary, odd game that doesn’t have rules, only historical examples, which of course is nothing: history changes.
This opacity regarding value makes buying and selling watches a gut-roiling game. Every purchase is gamble. The Omega Seamaster I got a couple weeks back for $300; a steal? Probably good enough: it’ll likely sell for profit, but that’s hardly guaranteed. This spring I ended up with a Wittnauer chronograph—pretty, stainless steel, 1950s. I paid a couple hundred for it; it needed work. Comparable examples were selling for around $800-1000. Seemed a no-brainer. What happened between my getting the watch and turning it around two months later was that that particular market—Wittnauer two-register chronos—weakened. Lots of other examples came up. I made money, but far from what I’d initially, delusionally imagined.
Meaning no matter what I tell myself as I buy the ‘cheap’ Girard Perregaux Gyromaster or Seamaster Deville or Helbros chronograph, it’s almost always a dice roll. Some things are fairly safe: the $500 Rolex was a no-brainer, and those perfect/dream watches listed above? If those things are available for anything less than Huge Money they’re a steal. A red Rolex Submariner sold two weeks back for $20k, 321 Speedmaster Omegas almost always go big, a Jaeger Polaris Memovox is up for bidding right now on eBay that’ll likely go for $14k [amazingly it only went for $6.2k], etc. Yet it’s worth noting that even those watches weren’t always great values. The Paul Newman Daytona mentioned above (again: feel free to lose hours Googling that)? I’d contend that one of the reasons Newman Daytonas are so loved is precisely because of how unloved they were for so long. Not under-loved; un-. They sometimes sold, through Rolex dealers, for under retail, often after languishing on shelves for years. There are stories of people at 1980s watch shows treating them like the junkiest quartz piece.
(If all this sounds bats, consider for just a second how Healthy Food has evolved. My dad grew up in an era when Living Better Through Science! carried the day, and when most parents gladly purchased food that had added nutrients; I myself was raised hearing about the health benefits of more carbs and less fat. I’m currently taking bets on how long this current phase lasts.)
There is in fact a strong argument to be made that the vintage watch market is poisoned by the Paul Newman Daytona: that story’s made it impossible to not contend with notions about which other watches may face the same potential. The shit part’s that there isn’t, that I’m aware of, any objective reckoning with why the current Hot Watches are so desirable—why Newman Daytonas (or take your pick: Heuer Autavias, Speedmasters, etc.) got so hot. The vintage market is not just opaque but relatively new, having exploded in the last 5-10 years, and not only does no one have a solid sense of its potential size (even if it’s easy to confirm that the vintage market keeps improving while the market for new Swiss watches declines), there’s absolutely no certainty about which watches will hit next. That mini-bubble, on eBay, re: Wittnauer chronos, is just part of a larger ocean of rising and falling.
Lots of this price-inflation’s simply got to do with vintage watches having for too long simply been undervalued, but that can’t even begin to address the question of what their actual correct value might be.
I happen to like 1970s chronographs, big funky-looking things with—often—automatic movements. After a year I managed to get this Le Jour chrono with a Valjoux 7754 movement:
I like the watch, liked paying to have it brought back to life, enjoy wearing it, will keep it for at least awhile. But am I willing to bet actual money that the whole 1970s automatic chronograph market will take off? I currently own a Heuer Carrera 150.573, cal 15 movement. It’s hard-ish to find, but not impossible. Worth it? Bonhams sold one for $1200 more than I paid, but that was new old stock; one on eBay didn’t get taken for $1860 just last week. I’ve got one of the big gold Omega Mark II Speedmasters. Worth it? Similar, less-good examples are on offer for $1000+ what I got mine for, but listed prices are rarely what watches actually sell for. Plus here’s where watches get ferociously tricky: the difference between a $1000 and $10,000 watch can be so small that almost nobody outside of obsessives/experts’d even notice any difference. I mean small: the color of subdials or hands, the presence or absence of a certain bracelet, box, tag, the placement or absence of writing on the dial—these things can have multi-thousand-dollar effects.
Which begs the old question: why are some watches worth what they are? What’s driving the market? One answer’s auction houses—Christies, Sotheby’s, Philips—but those upper-level sales are for the tiny populace willing to drop more than $10k on a watch, and the effect of those auctions exists but isn’t heavily felt at the lower-level selling most of us are engaging in; certainly prices on eBay don’t shift the day after these auctions, reflecting new records set.
Yet the objective aspects that’d drive other markets—innovation, rarity, inherent value (i.e. precious metals or stones)—don’t apply universally in watches. The movement inside that Paul Newman Daytona is the same as you’ll find in lots of other watches worth a tenth, a twentieth, a hundredth of that piece; the face was obviously similar to other watches as well. Plus as wonderful as the Valjoux 72 is—the movement in the Daytona—it’s in no way technically better than lots of other chronographs. Yes: while lots of the watches that go at the big auction houses are exceptionally rare—watches with platinum cases, watches of which there are only a handful of known examples, watches made by the highest-end manufactures (Patek Phillipe, Vacheron Constantin, etc.)—down at the lower ends of the spectrum, that fact just doesn’t hold.
The other big answer about what’s driving the market in establishing values of vintage watches is websites. Specifically a handful—my list’d be Hodinkee, Analog/Shift, and Fratello Watches (each of which is phenomenally good and informative, and each of which features just tremendously intelligent writers and editors)—that’ve helped both explore and guide watch values over the last 5-10 years. The guys (they’re almost all men) who run these sites are, now, experts, guides, dealers, but, in most cases, these sites were started by fervent amateurs, folks who Loved Watches. Meaning the world of and market for vintage watches at present has, in significant ways, been molded by the tastes of a very small group of almost overwhelmingly male voices.
This gets dicey, and I don’t at all mean to make any of it critical. Ben Clymer, at Hodinkee, has arguably single-handedly driven up the price of vintage Longines chronographs, specifically the 13zn. It’s a fine watch, and worth attention, but that movement’s not in-and-of-itself leagues better than lots of other vintage chrono movements. There’s a very real Hodinkee bump: if that site features a watch, its price climbs. James Lamdin and the Analog/Shift folks have had a similar influence. But it’s not as if these guys set prices: they have, so far, been able to point attention toward undervalued pieces and, after they’ve done their jobs, the pieces typically raise in price.
The question then becomes: what else, other than these websites, can help establish prices? Watch people talk about social networking as being the real fuel for vintage pieces, so the question now has to be: how long till some Instagram account takes off and, instead of championing the sort of watches that’ve already been hyped, starts championing other old overlooked watches?
I sometimes wish I hadn’t doubled my money on that first watch, or maybe I even wish I’d lost money. This isn’t a first-world complaint; this is the same rattling moan you’ll hear from any addict: if there’d been no pleasure, we tell ourselves, we’d’ve never fallen. It’s a nice story.
Plus all this shit in my head now. A year ago, if you’d said “Rolex 1675,” I’d’ve blinked. Now I’d think Pepsi bezel? If you say “Omega Constellation” I wonder: pie pan dial? The arcanity of numbers and details in this essay is nothing compared to the sinkhole you’ll fall into if you decide to even get remotely interested, and, of course, you have to know a ton: losing one’s shirt’s a breeze on eBay without gobs of info. Why’d I skip the Omega Dynamic chrono this morning? Because I wasn’t sure it was correct (its back seemed shallowly etched, and how many layers of obsessive craziness must you tumble down to even land at that analysis? You’ve got to know what the watch’s back should look like, have to know what other/faked Omega examples look like, how likely it’d be for this fairly underknown piece to get faked, etc.). I’m sitting on more pieces than I’m comfortable with, all of which I believed, when I purchased them, were worth more than I paid. I’ll spend the next few months finding out if I was wrong and how much my incorrectness will cost. Because I’m the main character of my story, I keep believing it’ll all work out.
Plus all of this’d be easier were I unable to go onto eBay right now and type in the name of any watch and see how it’s sold recently. This feature gives lie to any notion that there’s anything resembling stability to the vintage watch market. In the last two days, you could’ve found a vintage automatic Omega Seamaster for anywhere from $150 to $800. There are differences in models and the conditions of some of these watches, sure, but not enough difference to justify that sort of price swing. That $500 Rolex? I got that because I happened to be the one there when the listing loaded. That’s all. Meaning: as much as this is about the vintage watch market, it’s as much about eBay, and the ways we sell our old shit. I happened to be the guy who looked on Craigslist recently and landed a 1960s Heuer Carrera for a sum so small I’d feel guilty listing it here. I sold it literally six hours later. And as much as I like to tell myself I earned that money by some skill or trait, it’s not that, at all: I was just the guy who happened to look and happened to know what he was seeing.
A friend describes gambling in similar terms to how I’d describe watches: a secret emotion. I began writing this with hopes of accessing or explaining that feeling, of grappling with why I’ve spent the majority of my time and energy this summer watching watches. The simplest answer’s just money: so far, I’ve come out ahead, and so, like the coughless smoker, I keep going back.
But there’s also this weird realm of beauty I keep getting hooked back in by. The sensation of finding a fantastic and underpriced watch on eBay’s not remotely dissimilar to how it felt, as a radio programmer, discovering a new band, how it feels as a reviewer to get knocked on your ass by some new voice. This is almost certainly me justifying my several-thousand-dollar investment as legit even as I acknowledge the potential loss that investment represents. But there is something wildly thrilling about this play (a note: it’s only play to me because I’m lucky and middle-class in a city it’s cheap to live in; this playing I do’s facilitated entirely by my lucky life, the money in my bank, etc.)
Play is probably the wrong word. Maybe exploration is better. Again: the vintage market has been shaped by a so-far exclusive group, for both good and bad, and all the key aspects this group’s championed—original everything, unrefinished dials, stainless steel vs gold, chronographs as the key complication—must be considered, at present, fashion. Remember the Newman Daytona: today’s hot watch is tomorrow’s what-were-we-thinking; today’s that’s-garbage piece is tomorrow’s how-did-we-miss-it? Such a drastic shift’s unlikely, but that doesn’t make it less compelling to consider and purchase according to. Maybe my tastes are right, and the automatic chronographs of the 1970s will take off. Maybe my suspicions are correct and divers are going to keep picking up speed. Some things feel certain—quartz watches will never command good prices, for instance—but past that there’s a whole world.
This fluidity is thrilling, terrifying; the possibility.
Yet I can’t even count how many times I’ve opened eBay and checked my followed searches as I’ve written this, and I can’t remember the last time I checked my email in the morning before checking ebBy, and I can’t tell myself the most recent watch I bought is the last, and I have to admit that the only bookmarked pages on my work’s browser are watch searches. What I don’t know and maybe can’t know is what the end is: I like the watches, but I like the score just as much, the catch. And somehow I keep believing, or telling myself, that at some point soon I’ll end up with some amazing piece so finally satisfying I’ll just stop even as I keep hitting refresh, waking sometimes in the middle of the night to see if I can strike something I can convince myself is a gold I’ll stay so dazzled by the whole internal enterprise’ll go quiet.