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In Search of Affordable Vintage Wristwatches

Features
By Peter J. Theriault, FGA, GG
This story appears in the January 1999 issue of JCK magazine
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The names most often associated with the collectible wristwatch market are Patek Philippe, Vacheron Constantine, and Rolex. The continued popularity of these classic high-end pieces is reflected in the prices they command – from $10,000 to $150,000 or more. But collecting fine-quality vintage wristwatches need not bust the budget. The mid-priced level (mostly under $5,000) offers opportunities for the savvy buyer.

The most desirable watches in the mid-priced league meet the same stringent criteria as their high-end counterparts: quality condition, rarity, unusual case, fine dials. Also in demand are watches with multiple functions such as moon phases, calendars, alarms, and chronographs. In the current mid-priced market, everything seems to be inching up in price, especially the more popular models. Still, wristwatches in this category continue to offer value without the broad fluctuations that make the high-end market so volatile.

Rolex “bubbleback,” circa 1940, $1,500-$5,000. The “bubbleback” gets its name from the raised-back case cover that conceals the weighted rotor, which set the standard in self-winding watch mechanisms when Rolex invented it in 1931. Bubbleback collectors covet the more obscure and exotic dial and case combinations that make this venerable yet rather plain watch come alive with style. Such combinations translate into higher prices, especially for models featuring cases in pink gold, engine-turned bezels, and fancy two-toned dials with large, luminous numbers.

“The Rolex bubbleback is now getting harder to find, with steady and significant price increases overall,” says Boston watch dealer Paul Duggin. Just a few years ago, a stainless-steel bubbleback would fetch $1,000. Now the same watch brings $1,400 to $1,500.

The popularity of the different styles varies according to the market. Says Duggin, “The Japanese market desires the rare black-dial bubbleback, especially the dial displaying the alternating Arabic and Roman numerals. The dial alone is worth $2,000 to 4,000.”

Patek Philippe, $2,500-$5,000. Is it possible to purchase a Patek Philippe, the most coveted watch in the world, for under $5,000? Yes, but your choices may be quite limited, says Dallas watch dealer Robert Wingate.

“In the $2,500 to $3,000 price range, you may expect to buy a basic Patek Philippe with a round case from the 1960s that is certainly not unique or interesting,” says Wingate. “The next step would be a simple and basic rectangular watch for $3,200 to $3,500.” The next higher price break consists of Patek Philippes with “interesting and unique dials and cases featuring fancy lugs, costing $5,000 and up.”

Wingate especially recommends the Patek Philippe Calatrava model, known for its distinguished flat bezel. The Calatrava model appears in yellow, white, or pink gold, with either water-resistant screw-back or non-water-resistant cases. Dial variations include sweep or subsidiary seconds dials. The popularity of the Calatrava is reflected in its value of $3,000 to $5,000.

Certain models of Patek wristwatches that are still in production today are quite reasonably priced in the secondary market. The Elipse, for example, sells for a fraction of its current retail price. On the shelf, you could expect to pay more than $10,000 at full retail, but in the secondary market you can get it for $2,000 to $4,000. This watch has a major strike against it, however. It has a quartz movement – the kiss of death in the collectible watch world. Collectors insist on mechanical movements.

Gruen Curvex, $1,200-$1,500. When it comes to the classic Gruen Curvex, the longer the case, the better, according to watch dealer Bruce Shawkey, editor of the Vintage Watch Report, a quarterly newsletter for the mid-priced collectors' market. The Curvex sports a gold-filled case and comes in case lengths of 42 mm, 46 mm, and 52 mm. The latter two sizes are especially prized. “The price of the ‘stubby,' the 42-mm, is around $150,” says Shawkey. “Over 42 mm, the price jumps between $250 and $300. Over 46 mm, you can expect to pay $350 and up, depending on the condition.”

The rarest variation of the Gruen Curvex is the Majesty model, housed in a case measuring a staggering 52 mm in length. When one does surface, it sells for $1,200 to $1,500. The Gruen Curvex also has dial variations, which can affect price. A two-tone dial, for example, adds 20% to the value. An unusual ladies' Curvex featuring a 30-mm case fetches a premium of 30% to 50%.

Omega Speedmaster Professional, $900-$950. “Ever since the release of the movie Apollo 13, the Omega Speedmaster Professional, the ‘moon watch,' [has become] perhaps the most popular chronograph under $2,000 today,” says Shawkey. The Omega Speedmaster has been the official watch of the NASA space program since 1965. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin wore it during the first moon landing in 1969. (Aldrin's stainless-steel, manually wound moon watch was later either lost or stolen. Imagine its value if it were recovered!)

Omega offered several models, including one with a nylon strap with Velcro closure and an engraved, NASA-approved commemorative back cover, which adds $100 to $200 to the price. A later version features a clear sapphire back cover revealing the automatic movement with the date. Omega recently reissued the Speedmaster (JCK, September 1998, p. 78), which in turn has spurred interest in the vintage models.

The Speedmaster is one of the most talked-about wristwatches on the Web at sites such as Watchnet (www.watchnet.com) and Timezone (www.timezone.com). There is a veritable feeding frenzy among participants in these collectible-watch bulletin boards when an Omega Speedmaster makes an appearance.

Breitling Navitimer, $1,300 and up. From its inception in 1952, the Breitling Navitimer has been linked to aviation – perhaps more than any other watch. The earlier models displayed a distinctive dial containing multiple bands of numbers and the winged logo of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association. A logo of twin airplane fuselages later replaced the winged design. The Navitimer consists of a three-register, manual-wind chronometer (an automatic version was introduced in 1969), a slide rule, and a navigational instrument that calculates climbing and descent rates and gauges fuel consumption.

This classic aviation-oriented wristwatch appeals to the “gadget” watch collector because of its full-function dial and movable outer bezel. The Breitling Navitimer can be purchased with a stainless-steel or yellow gold case. According to Wingate, Navitimers with a water-resistant case, characterized by round “pushers,” are far more desirable than those with square pushers. That preference holds for any chronograph wristwatch.

Universal Geneve Tri-Compax, $1,300-$3,500. This is a highly desirable watch among dealers and collectors. The Tri-Compax offers an extremely fine move- ment with a handsome, full-function dial housed in a stainless-steel or gold case.

There's one drawback. Because of the complexity of its movement and a three-register chronograph with triple date and moon phases, this watch is very expensive to fix. Experienced dealers prefer to stay away from any Tri-Compax that's in need of repair. “I would rather spend the extra amount on a mechanically sound watch, especially if it has an original dial in fine condition,” says Duggin. “I recently sold a nice Tri-Compax with a solid pink gold case and a nicely done, older refinished dial for $2,500. I could have gotten $500 more for the watch if the dial were original.”

Soviet Cosmonaut Chronograph, $170. A few months ago, I challenged myself to procure an acceptable chronometer with a mechanical movement for under $500. Impossible, you say? True, most entry-level Swiss-made chronometers start at $1,000 retail, and moderate-quality vintage chronometers run close to that figure. I browsed the Internet, checking with everyone who sold new and used chronograph watches. Finally, I stumbled across the home page of the Sovietski Collection, which includes a plethora of Russian-made goods, including relics of the Cold War such as KGB watches and Communist Party wall plaques.

The Sovietski Collection offers the Soviet Cosmonaut Chronograph, a full-featured, three-register chronograph with a 23-jewel mechanical-movement watch for $170. The chronograph, said to be the identical watch worn by Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, is still manufactured at the Poljot Military Watch Factory in Moscow.

The dial features a sweep second hand and two registers for seconds and minutes, plus date window. The movement, housed in a chrome-plated brass, water-resistant case, is a rather crude copy of a Valljoux #7730. You won't find super-accurate tolerances and attractive demaskeened movement bridges here, but for $170, how can you beat it? It remains the undisputed best value of any mechanical chronograph wristwatch on the market today.

Audemars Piguet Automatic Chronograph, $6,000-$7,000. Considered one of the world's finest wristwatches, the Audemars Piguet does not have the snob appeal of watches by Franck Muller, Alain Silberstein, RGM, or Patek Philippe. But to some, the quality of the Audemars Piguet matches any of these, and the price usually is lower. The current model sports a retail price tag of $17,000. A vintage Audemars Piguet was offered recently at the Skinner Gallery in Boston for less than $6,000.

“According to our observations, vintage Audemars Piguet chronograph wristwatches represent one of the most undervalued watches currently on the market,” says Daryn Schnipper, head of Sotheby's watch department. “Audemars has always been a limited-production watch, and in my opinion the prices they realize do not reflect the inherent value of the watch.”

Cartier Panther (nearly new, pre-owned), $1,800. This and other pre-owned “designer” wristwatches sold at prestigious retail stores such as Tiffany & Co., Van Cleef & Arpels, and Cartier also are offered in the secondary market. The Cartier Panther features an accurate quartz movement in a stainless-steel case augmented by an 18k yellow gold outer-dial bezel and alternating gold and stainless-steel link bracelet.

“We are seeing more and more new watches being sold here for a significant savings, if the customer doesn't mind owning a current-model watch that is slightly used,” says Schnipper. “Sometimes you can purchase a watch for one-quarter to one-third of retail.”

Elvis Presley-designed wristwatch, $4,000-$5,000. Elvis was quite fond of wristwatches. He owned several, including a Patek, and liked to give watches as gifts to friends.

The King also helped design watches, including a limited-production piece by Mathey Tissot. Co-designed by Memphis jeweler Harry Levitch, it has a standard gold-plated case and bracelet sporting a modified outer bezel. The watch, which features the raised letters “Elvis Presley,” recently sold for $4,300.

Peter J. Theriault, G.G., FGA, owner of Northeast Gemlab in Camden, Maine, is an independent gemologist-appraiser and a columnist for several antique and jewelry trade publications. He is the creator of an antique jewelry and vintage timepiece cyber-magazine, Antique Jewelry Times Online. He can be reached at (207) 236-3933, e-mail: gemlab@midcoast.com, Web site: www.antiquejewelrytimes.com.

Information on Vintage Wristwatches

The best way to stay abreast of vintage wristwatch prices is to attend as many auctions and shows as possible. For most of us, however, this just isn't practical. Instead, The Complete Price Guide to Watches (Collector Books, 18th ed., 1998), by Cooksey Shugart and Richard E. Gilbert, is a useful reference. This 1,100-page tome is considered the “Bible” in watch-collecting circles. It offers a crash course on basic horology and an encyclopedic reference source for American and European pocket and wristwatch manufacturers. You can obtain the book at most bookstores or order it from coauthor Richard Gilbert at Ashland Investments, 640 S. Washington Blvd., Sarasota, FL 34236-7108; (800) 424-5353.

Here are some other sources for vintage wristwatch prices:

  • Paul Duggin can be contacted for his current vintage wristwatch catalog at 15 Fletcher St., Chelmsford, MA 01824; (508) 256-5966.

  • Robert Wingate's latest illustrated catalog is available at P.O. Box 59760, Dallas, TX 75229; (800) 842-8625 or (214) 392-7676; www.tic-tock.com/wingates.

  • For Bruce Shawkey's Vintage Watch Report, contact P.O. Box 74, Evansville, WI 53536, (608) 882-4563; www.thewatchstore.com.

  • For information on Soviet-made watches, call Mitch Zeigler at the Sovietski Collection, (800) 442-0002.

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