When you work with pre-owned and vintage watches every day it is easy to assume that everyone else is a fan and that no new watches ever get bought. Patently this is not the case, but more and more people that I talk to outside of the industry would happily consider ‘going vintage,’ as much as they would have previously purchased from new.
This experience can make it feel as if vintage watches are somehow ‘fashionable’ at the moment but I rather suspect that the market is only just getting started. If the mainstream has only just noticed vintage, its devotees have been happily buying and selling under the radar for decades in the same way that bamboo can spend years building a root system before even showing its first shoots above ground.
Rewind back before 1980 and vintage wrist watches were not seen as collectable commodities. Osvaldo Patrizzi proved they could be popular with his pioneering auctions and was quickly imitated by Sotheby’s and Christies. Lower down the value scale, the rise of the internet forum allowed watch geeks to share information and trade with each other across the world and the 1995 launch of eBay opened up a whole new way to buy.
Like any interest, the more you know, the more you love the subject and watches, with their endless variety, fascinating history and sporadically documented past were and are the perfect vehicles for discussion, debate and research. This process identified rare or unusual models and so values for these shot up and the market began to mature. Since then, the whole process has accelerated with every new form of social media being populated with images of vintage watches being shown off or traded, watch dealers proliferate online an specialist watch auction houses have established themselves to serve the middle market as well as the uber-rich.
This organic growth collided with two other major factors to create the position that we have today. The first was the introduction of more restrictive distribution practices by many of the major Swiss brands. This slashed the number of agents, leaving many established retailers with nothing to sell. Not wanting to take on lesser known brands, these retailers have turned, in increasing numbers, to the pre-owned market and by a natural extension to vintage as well. The second is the obsession that the major Swiss brands have developed with re-issues. In an effort to prove their ‘heritage’ credentials, the annual offerings at Basel and SIHH sometimes look like a back-catalogue ‘greatest hits’ collection. Of course this celebration of brands’ past glories only serves to focus attention on the original watches, making them more desirable for collectors.
It is unlikely that the growth of the vintage market will impact on the new market in any significant way. They are very different buying experiences and while a single collector may buy from both, the motivation is different. Vintage offers choice, historical significance, charm and originality as opposed to the robustness, reliability, water resistance and warranty that you might expect with a new watch. This is in contract to the contemporary pre-owned and grey market watch business where the main driving factor is price. A comparison might be the car market where classic and vintage cars are a more specialist area for enthusiasts, whereas the second hand car market is about getting a better deal than new. Yes it is true that some vintage watches may cost significantly less than the new equivalent but a quick glance at the achieved prices for collectable vintage Patek and Rolex at auction should dispel any idea that buying vintage watches is a money-saving venture.
While the twin titans of Rolex and Patek are set to dominate the vintage collector’s market for the foreseeable future, it seems that the love is starting to be spread a little wider. As the top prices push out of reach of most buyers, other brands are looking like a good investment; while not competing at the same level, rarities from the likes of Audemars Piguet, Omega, Heuer or Longines are starting to attract serious interest. No one brand is showing any dramatic shift up or down in value, but the market is becoming polarised in terms of condition and originality. As buyers become more educated, they are demanding that watches are absolutely correct, in pristine condition and are willing to pay for it. Incorrect or badly restored watches that may have found a home a few years ago are suffering in front of a more discerning audience.
Fellows’ Watch Sale takes place monthly, with the next four coming up on May 24, June 28, July 26 and August 23. Pre-auction viewings take place in both the company’s Birmingham HQ as well as their Mayfair office. All lots can be viewed at www.fellows.co.uk.