If you are new to the auction world, to watches even, your first question before diving in is very likely going to be, “But what should I buy?” It can be fairly loaded question, and it is definitely worth asking.
Let’s take a look at the pre-owned watches market, it has expanded significantly over the last ten years and has reached dizzying heights in the last three to five. The demand for vintage watches is high, which is not a negative thing for the buyer – the higher the demand, the more will come to auction, and the more chances you will get to find one that is right for you. More modern, or even current watches, are regulars on the auction scene too. (And, perhaps bafflingly to the novice, often sell for more than their new retail price. More on that later.) There are the big brands that you will always have known, like Rolex, then there are more niche independent brands like Parmigiani Fleurier. We cannot forget those giants like Seiko too (watches don’t all come from Switzerland after all) whose products are on the more affordable part of the scale. If this all seems a little overwhelming and potentially quite unhelpful then you are right to feel that way.
The reason is that the one good answer to “But what should I buy?” is go for what you like. Buy the one that you stop scrolling through the catalogue to look at, the one that you take a screen shot of (only to discover you had done that already a week before) the one you always seem to notice on a wrist on screen, the one you always eye in the shop window. You will be getting the idea – ultimately that first nudge towards buying is from the aesthetic. If you like how a watch looks then that’s great, it’s going to be on your wrist after all.
You should love how it looks and more importantly how it looks on you, so go to the auction viewing and actually wear it, even just for a few seconds to see how it feels. If you can’t make it to the viewings, then see if you can try it on locally, perhaps a local shop has a similar model. I appreciate that the current situation we find ourselves in may not allow this however.
Next - think about the movement – will you actually use your watch to tell the time? Most of us use our phones for that, it never lets you down (unless you forget to charge it.) If you won’t rely on it as a time-keeper and you won’t be late for that meeting because it’s running slow, then go for a manual wind watch, or an automatic. These watches are entirely mechanical devices, the former requiring you to wind it up, the latter being wound by the movement of your wrist. The choice of those that regard themselves as true collectors or connoisseurs, the draw of these mechanical watches is just that – they are miniature mechanical marvels, a credit to their creators, worn right there on your wrist. Although most will never be aware of what is inside your watch – and you may never even see it - it is akin to owning a good car, it is satisfying just knowing that something nice is there under the bonnet.
If you would rather your watch was more of hard worker and less of an ornament (if it does not run well) then go for a quartz. Reliable and generally more affordable, quartz watches were first widely available in the 1970s. A great leveller, this egalitarian object revolutionised the ownership of watches. Suddenly everyone could, and did, own a watch. Therein, however, does lie the rub – some do consider the quartz watch to be less desirable due to its accessibility, and many collectors refuse to own one. Importantly there are brands that buck this trend though, one of the most significant being Cartier. Their iconic designs are always sought after at auction, regardless of movement type.
So you have now decided on a watch, or a brand that you like, and you have settled on movement type. Next, ask the auction specialist everything and anything that you need to. There is never any judgement and we are here to help, and we like to share our (often geeky) knowledge with someone who is genuinely interested. Ask how it’s priced (on the high side? Or low, to encourage bidding?) Ask about its history and how it popular the model has been of late – if you care. Ask how it wears, any niggles? Does the crown dig in? (No need to ask what the crown is – that’s the winder.)
Budget is very important. Whether flexible and informed by your research to this point, or set from the start, one of the most important things I can tell you is keep it fixed but informed. Don’t look for a bargain, if that Rolex Daytona that you had your eye on in an upcoming auction has just popped up online for far less, start asking questions and look that gift horse in the mouth. Similarly, if you are not buying because each Daytona is selling for around £12,000 but you only want to pay £10,000, its time to up that budget, if you can afford it.
Next – jump down that rabbit hole that is the internet and start reading. Running with the Daytona idea, take a look at everything from the brand’s own manifesto and history, to their release blurbs to go with the watch. Read reviews and take a look at pictures of it in various settings, on various wrists and as a part of different lifestyles.
Once you have popped back out of the rabbit hole (and feel in a better place to make decisions than Alice did) you are almost there. Let’s say there are two iterations of the Daytona in an upcoming sale. I use the Daytona as many will be familiar with the model, even out-with the auction and watch collecting world. Paul Newman is the most famous Daytona owner-wearer. In fact his own was, for a time, the most expensive watch ever to be sold at auction. The majority available will sell at auction for between £10,000 and 20,000, but Newman’s own made around $17.5m. Auction prices for the Daytona have been on the rise for several years and as a consequence there are long waiting lists for new ones, if you can actually get on one. That’s how the anomaly of second-hand-being-worth-more-than-new has come about – those current year examples that make it to the second hand market will usually exceed the new retail price, often by several thousand pounds.
Now if we take a step back we could ask “are we in a bubble?” It’s not really possible to answer that while we are right in the thick of it, only the luxury of hindsight that can answer that one. The idea of the bubble is that with prices growing and growing, the assumption is that it will burst, and prices will fall flat. I have to be careful here, in guiding you through the process of choosing and buying, I can’t predict the future and I certainly won’t comment on surefire ‘investment pieces.’ What I am comfortable doing is suggesting an alternative interpretation of the market to the bubble. Prices have risen quickly but steadily over the last five to ten years, from an equivalent of rock bottom (many authorised dealers struggled to sell earlier Daytonas from new, the idea of a waiting list would have been ludicrous.) They have held strong through many auction seasons and significantly, through the current economic uncertainty that is Covid-19. Their popularity is also very supported, by dealers, collectors, followers online and, most significantly, the Rolex brand. By limiting the number of new watches available each year, the hunger for these watches remains strong. Prices may level out in the coming few years but few in the business would predict they would drop significantly.
It is now time to step away from all this as we may are in too deep if we look back to where we started. You have chosen your brand, movement, model and budget. Most importantly you have settled on the watch that you love. And if that’s a Daytona, you are in good, and plentiful company.
So go for it, buy a watch! What is the worst that can happen? Perhaps you change your mind. It happens, and is not a bad thing. Selling at auction is just as good as buying, and the specialists work just as hard for you as a seller as a buyer.
Our Watches department is a dynamic one with significant expertise, creating diverse watch auctions with fine, rare, modern and vintage timepieces. Currently watches are sold at our prestigious Edinburgh saleroom within our Jewellery, Watches & Silver auctions and in London within our Select Jewellery & Watches auctions. Our watch collections are amongst the most well-travelled of the goods we sell – we have in the past viewed collections in New York, Philadelphia, London, Hong Kong and throughout the UK.