We all dream of having our very own 'Antiques Roadshow' moment: the fantasy of finding a priceless treasure at a car boot sale or becoming the beneficiary of a forgotten family heirloom. It's unlikely to happen, given that such things are rare for a reason, and yet in the watch world, such stories are not uncommon.
Recently, a military Panerai watch from WWII pristinely preserved in a drawer or 75 years fetched over £53,500 at auction; last year a 'Big Crown' Rolex Submariner, similar to the model worn by Sean Connery in classic 1964 James Bond film Goldfinger, went under the hammer for £167,000 despite being in poor almost battered condition.
Vintage watches, especially those made in the '50s and '60s during the golden age of exploration and motorsports, can command big prices on the second hand market. Military and pilot chronographs of this era, known as tool watches, are especially sought after given how important they were as navigational and timing devises that could withstand the elements as well as the perilous knocks of a full throttle F1 race. Names to note include Tag Heuer's Monaco and Carrera, Omega's Speedmaster, Railmaster and Seamaster, Blancpain's Fifty Fathoms, Breitling's Nativimer, Tudor's Submariners and pretty much every classic model by Rolex. But of course, original tool watches from these decades can be eye wateringly expensive – especially if they come with authentic paperwork, so it's worth noting that second and third 'generation' issues of these specific models are also highly prized in the world of collecting if you are considering a professional timepiece that veers towards the masculine. You must, however, do your due diligence and look out for those interesting limited editions – plus it goes without saying that buying from a reliable seller – such as Watchfinder (owned by the luxury conglomerate Richemont), Goldsmiths (where you can pay in instalments, at around 10% APR), Hondinkee, the editorial platform-turned e-tailer, or a notable auction house – is paramount given the number of counterfeits and reconstituted watches that pervade the pre-owned domain.
Sean Connery & Honor Blackman on the set of goldfinger i Getty images
There's provenance to think about too when you are exploring the vintage watch market: models beloved by the glitterati from Hollywood stars to sporting heroes – from the 1950s to the mid-'70s especially - are invariably the auction 'blockbusters' and very collectible even if they are considered an offshoot of the original design. And of course, the highest bid inevitably goes to the bona fide timepieces actually worn by the stars. A famous case in point is Paul Newman’s Rolex Cosmograph Daytona which sold at Phillips auction house in New York for a cool $17.8 million in 2017. By contrast, Catherine Deneuve's bejeweled Patek Phillippe bracelet watch seem like something of a bargain: the timepiece lavishly set with diamonds, onyx and chrysoprase was snapped up for £29.500 this year at auction. When you consider that a diamond set rose gold timepiece from the marque's newly launched 'Twenty ~ 4' ladies' collection is currently priced at £35.000, Deneuve's authentic Patek appears to be a good investment.
Virginie Liatard Roessli, Phillips' watch specialist in Geneva has some sage advice for budding watch collectors:
Jewellery watches and classic dress watches from the late 1960s and 1970s are also 'hot stuff' right now, though new collectors would do well to stick to timeless classics if they are looking for a staple heirloom piece. Good examples would be a mechanical Cartier Tank or indeed a vintage Cartier Baignoire watch, since the marque has just released a new collection of watches from this family, which were once favoured by the likes of Romy Schneider and Jeanne Moreau in the 1970s. The new series will no doubt push the value of the authentic designs.
A Piaget Altiplano from this same era or a vintage jewellery watch by this marque with an exotic semi-precious dial (from iridescent mother of pearl to swirling Tiger's Eye) is going to turn heads and carry its worth for decades to come. This again is down to an illustrious past: Elizabeth Taylor, Jackie Kennedy and Sophia Loren all imbued Piaget with everlasting kudos when then wore its jewellery watches back in the day. The Audemars Piguet Royal Oak, is another enduring star of the watch world first released in 1972 and early models including those produced in the 80s are highly desirable.
Left : Sophia Loren
Above : Catherine Deneuve
And what about the investment pieces of the future: watches that are relatively new but have the potential to increase in worth? Rolex novelties are usually a low risk investment. In fact, new Rolex models are often gobbled up by a voracious buy-to-sell community: last year's steel Rolex GMT-Master II model, known as the Pepsi because of its red and blue ceramic bezel was officially priced at £7.150 by the watchmaker upon its release. Sold out within days, it immediate fetched over double this amount on pre-loved e-commerce sites. If you are lucky enough to find one in store, it's a guaranteed return! Chanel new sporty J12 (priced at the £4,675 for the 'classique' model) could be an interesting purchase too – unlike previous iterations, it has a ceramic case back for the first time since it was first released in the year 2000, which makes this new version, which has been subtly reworked throughout, something of a milestone for watch geeks. While no one can predict desirability and thus an increase in worth, the new j12 is certainly a nice 'gamble' to have should you want a statement piece that's both sporty and stylish.
Syl Tang, author of Disrobed, a pop economics book about wearables, is a seasoned watch collector with an eye for a solid heritage piece. "The closer you get to a timepiece that is universally liked, the more it will retain trade value. [So] within the classics, the rarer the edition and the more limited the issue it is, the more likely it is to go up in value as do pieces from generally rarefied makers, such as A. Lange & Söhne who make exquisite pieces and very few of them." Furthermore, Syl's key to buying any vintage watch is due diligence:
"You should really know who you're buying the piece from and they should be able to explain the provenance, provide a recent repair detail and also make some kind of timed warranty. For example, a watch from the 1950s will certainly have been serviced numerous times and you need to know what parts have been replaced and that someone has opened it up recently and given it a proper tune-up to see that it keeps good time. If the piece is expensive, then you need to know that it is authentic as well. Personally, I won't wear things that are too expensive. It's like buying a piece of couture that is just too delicate to put on. Also, as an economist, I think investments are mutual funds!"