Old wristwatches can be a gold mine or a minefield, depending on a million different factors. Watch collecting is a trendy hobby of the rich and famous, the simply rich, and even regular folks. What makes a watch valuable is a mysterious combination of age, material, condition, manufacturer and provenance.
Yes, they do. According to Jeffrey Hess, a vintage watch expert and author of The Best of Time: Rolex Wristwatches: An Unauthorized History, all fine men’s watches have value, whether they work or not. Even some non-working mediocre men’s watches are worth something, he says. Why Mr. Hess specifies men’s and not women’s is unclear. The first wristwatches were worn by women, after all in the 16th century, while men were still carrying pocket watches.
Wristwatch collecting is a favorite hobby of the rich and famous. A recent New York Times article compared it to Bitcoin, as it’s become the trendy investment of Silicon Valley millionaires and billionaires. But it’s not just the techies who are into watches.
Name just about any male celebrity and you’ll find he’s got a wristwatch collection. Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio, John Mayer, and David Beckham are just a few with enviable and valuable timepiece collections. According to the auction house Christie’s, more women are also investing in watch collecting than ever before.
The reason for watch collecting is an elite hobby is that it can be a very expensive one. The most expensive wristwatch ever sold is a Patek Philippe Grandmaster Chime Ref. 6300A-010 that went for $31 million at a charity auction in 2019. Before that, the record was held by Paul Newman’s old Rolex Daytona, which sold for $17.7 million in 2017. Of course, most collectible wristwatches aren’t worth quite that much, but, if you have an old wristwatch, it’s certainly worth investigating to see if it’s valuable.
What makes a wristwatch valuable?
There are many factors that contribute to the value of an old watch. The most important of these are age, material, condition, manufacturer, and provenance. It’s impossible to rank these factors by importance because what determines a watch’s value is a mysterious combination of all these factors.
Collectible watches are like collectible art. There is no black and white formula for what makes a piece valuable. It’s in the eye of the collector. However, all valuable old watches will meet some basic criteria in the following departments.
If your old watch is old enough to be considered an antique or vintage, it has the potential to be valuable to collectors. To achieve antique status, a watch must have been manufactured more than 100 years ago. The definition of vintage is harder to pin down.
Some collectors believe anything more than 20 years old qualifies, while others say a watch must be made before 1960 to be considered vintage. If the watch you have is no longer available to buy new from retailers, it’s definitely worth trying to determine its age.
How do you determine a watch’s age? Many, though not all, old wristwatches have serial numbers, which can be used to determine age (as well as the manufacturer). The serial number is usually found on the back of the watch. If your watch has a serial number, you can use an online serial number reference table to match it to the year it was made.
If your watch doesn’t have a serial number, there are other ways to estimate age, such as movement style and construction. A massive amount of information about watches is available online, and you may be able to research your way to an age estimate. If not, you can always take your watch to a professional appraiser. Some, though not all, jewelers can provide appraisals. Auction houses are another option. There are also online appraisal services like Worthy.
As with all jewelry, the type and quality of material from which a watch is made affect its value. Watches can be made of stainless steel, titanium, gold, silver, and a range of other metals. They can even be made of non-metal materials like ceramic. If you’re selling your watch for parts that is, if its only value is the material it’s made of, then the more valuable the material, the more valuable the watch.
But that’s not generally how selling old watches works. Old watches have value to collectors or stylish people who like to wear them as a fashion statement, based on many different factors. Particular watch models, for various reasons, are considered more valuable than others, and the material of which your watch is made is one factor that determines which model you have. The value of the material itself doesn’t always translate directly to watch value. For example, a gold version of a certain watch may be less valuable than the stainless steel version.
The more pristine the watch, the higher the value will be. Every imperfection will lower the timepiece’s value. Sadly, engraving can count as an imperfection. An exception to this is if the engraving was commissioned by a famous person, and the watch comes with paperwork that proves it. Even too much polishing can negatively impact a wristwatch’s value, as it reduces the crispness of the watch case’s edges.
And condition includes not just cosmetics, but functionality. Watches that work are worth more than those that don’t. If you decide to have your watch professionally appraised, the appraiser will assess the timepiece and assign it a grade. There are about 10 watch grades, ranging from mint plus (the best) to scrap (the worst). Once you know your watch’s grade, it will be easier to gauge its worth.
Manufacturers may be the single most important factor in determining an old watch’s worth. Certain brands are simply worth more than others. The highest valued names in watches right now include Rolex, Omega, Patek Philippe, Audemars Piguet and Vacheron Constantin.
What is provenance? A watch’s provenance is its ownership record. Usually, in the form of documents that accompany the watch, provenance is proof of the timepiece’s origin, authenticity, and history of owners. On many fronts, provenance can add to a watch’s value. Simply being able to prove it was made by the manufacturer you say it was, and that it is made of the material you say it is, is huge in terms of being able to command the price you want. And if your timepiece happens to have had a famous owner, which will definitely add to its value, provenance will authenticate that.
What might disqualify an older wristwatch from having value?
Wristwatches are like any collectible: not all are valuable. The vast majority of wristwatches decline in value as they get older. Reasons an old wristwatch might not have value include:
It’s not a valuable brand
Certainly, there are many brands of watches that were never particularly prestigious and still aren’t. Cheap watches are not made with the kind of high-quality parts and craftsmanship that high-value collectibles must-have. However, don’t dismiss a brand just because it’s not in the Rolex category.
There is a whole subculture of watch collectors who are into vintage Timex, the brand best known for its reasonable price. Sure, the most valuable old Timex might fetch somewhere between $500 and $750, as opposed to the millions a Patek Philippe might command. But $500 is still money.
It’s in poor condition
A working watch of any age, brand or material may have some value. A watch that has little going for it besides the fact that it tells time will have no value if it doesn’t work. By the same token, a cheap old watch that works may have no value if it’s so broken, scratched or otherwise damaged that no one would want to wear it.
It’s been modified
Looks can be deceiving. Even a seemingly valuable watch can be rendered valueless, or at least much less valuable if its inner workings have been modified. If you’re considering purchasing an old watch, be sure to have it appraised first. For the maximum value, a watch must have all of its original parts.
How to determine an old wristwatch’s value
Once you’ve gathered as much information about your watch as possible that is, its age, material condition, manufacturer, and provenance you’re ready to estimate its value. You can begin by checking several online sources and comparing results. If you look at several sources, you will likely start to get a ballpark estimate of what it’s worth. Be sure to ignore any prices that are wildly different from most of the others, as these are probably unreliable.
Chron24.com is a great place to research how much an old watch might be worth. The site aggregates watch retailers and private sellers from all over the world. You can also use the site to try to find buyers for your vintage watch.
Creating a listing is free, and, if you make a sale, the site manages the transaction, receiving the purchase price from the buyer and depositing it into your bank account minus a 6.5 percent commission. Watchrecon.com, a site that aggregates listings from private watch sellers, is another site you can try.
If you suspect your watch is extremely valuable, it makes sense to visit a jeweler or auction house that specializes in wristwatch appraisal, to be sure you know exactly what it’s worth.