TOHM: Vintage Watches

How did I become a vintage watch guy? Partly, I blame it on having the spindly wrists of a teenage girl. This lamentable truth meant that I always gravitated towards modestly proportioned watches with smaller dials. But my interest was initially kindled by the limited size of my wallet, too. When I first started to get into watches - before the retro boom really kicked in - you could pick up a steel Omega Seamaster for under $500. Given the tawdry state of my finances, vintage watches made a lot of sense.

Plus I was also a sucker for their history, too. Twelve years ago, for example, I was buying a 1950s Zenith dress watch in an online transaction from a woman in Rome. Uneasy that I was about to wire over my cash to a total stranger in a foreign country, I attempted to strike up a connection. If I was to be swindled, I figured, then at least she’d feel mildly guilty if we’d built up a relationship of sorts.  Over the back and forth of email, we quickly slid into a correspondence. Paola explained the Zenith had originally belonged to her late grandfather, a former general in the Italian army. She even shared an old photo of him - a straight-backed man in full uniform proudly saluting the camera while mounted on a snow-white stallion.

If this upstanding military man knew that his beloved watch would one day fall into the clutches of a shambolic journo in dire need of a shave, then he would surely now be turning in his grave. I, on the other hand, was thrilled by the watch’s sepia-grained voyage onto my wrist. Every now and then, huddled among commuters on a rush-hour train, I’d glance at my Zenith and imagine its former existence on the arm of the galloping general.

In short, I was hooked on vintage. My wife loved the art-deco swagger of the Jaegar-LeCoultre Luccheto that I bought her for Christmas one year. And it wasn’t long before I started to lose hours each week plotting fantasy purchases on Chrono24.

I wasn’t alone either. The Internet has revolutionised second-hand watch sales. Today, vintage watches are more sought-after, more Instagrammed, and more highly valued than ever before. The market was already growing fast before the well-documented sale at auction of Paul Newman’s Rolex Daytona in 2017. The watch fetched a then-record $US17.7 million, causing a ripple effect that bumped up vintage prices across the board.

No longer the niche hobby of watch geeks, high-end vintage timepieces were now a legitimate investment.  Buying a discontinued Rolex, Patek Phillippe or Audemars Piguet suddenly became like purchasing stock in a blue-chip company.

So far, at least, vintage watches seem recession-proof, too. Writing this in the middle of the Covid-19 lockdown, businesses are flat-lining everywhere you look (the Reserve Bank of Australia warns the nation is likely to experience the greatest economic contraction since the Great Depression). Within this financial apocalypse, the watch department at Sotheby’s auction house sold more watches in April than ever before.

If you do your research and navigate your way through the potential minefield of fakes, scams and botched restorations, then the right vintage watch could still prove a canny investment. But if you’re planning to actually wear your classic timepiece, rather than just keep it in a safe, here is a cautionary tale.

Eighteen months ago, I quit my stable day-job to hurl myself into start-up life.  Aware that my income would become slightly patchy for a while, I decided to take my chance. The watch was a Vacheron Constantin Patrimony from the early 1960s, a dress watch with a spacious, champagne dial that I found strangely calming. It came in at a touch under $4000, but there was no buyer’s remorse here. When it arrived in the post, I was bewitched.

The following week, I took my two young sons to the park around the corner from where I lived back then in Sydney’s Elizabeth Bay. The weather was muggy with storm clouds lurking overhead. After an hour in the playground, I went to check if it was time to take the boys home. Unfortunately, I was unable to do this because my watch was no longer on my wrist.

It was now that I recalled the fragility of the ageing leather buckle. Amid the shit-fight of trying to control two hooligan toddlers, my watch had somehow fallen off. Panic-stricken, I retraced my steps, desperately scanning the pavement. But the timepiece was nowhere to be found.

Back home, I hastily scribbled out a bunch of felt-tips signs: “LOST WATCH – REWARD OFFERED” and ran around the neighbourhood taping them to walls and trees. In the unlikely event that someone hadn’t already pocketed it, my big fear was the incoming storm. The Vacheron may have been a handsome watch, but water-proof it was not.

Eventually I went home and waited. I felt sick. The watch had been a slightly reckless purchase that I couldn’t really justify in the first place. Now I’d lost it after barely a week.

Just after 6pm, the call came in. A middle-aged man had found my watch on the edge of the cricket pitch and spotted my hand-written sign. Almost tearfully relieved, I sprinted to meet him. When he handed it over, I palmed him $100 and my heart-felt gratitude for life.

Twenty minutes later, the storm broke.  As the rain bounced against the window, I ordered a new strap (pale brown, calfskin leather, hand-stitched sides). That was another $250, but this wasn’t the end of the outlay.

A fortnight later I was rushing out the house on my way to work when I heard a tinkle on the ground to my left. The crystal of my watch dial had fallen clean off leaving the dial naked and exposed. The resulting repair and service required me to shell out another $700. In under three weeks of ownership, my watch had already cost me well over $1000.


Herein lies the unspoken truth about vintage watches. Yes, their provenance might carry a certain rarity value and you may choose to interpret the discoloured dial as denoting authenticity and “character” rather than degradation and decay. But let’s not kid ourselves here: vintage is ultimately a euphemism for old. And old things don’t last forever. They need to be nurtured and serviced, all of which comes at a price. The bottom line: a vintage watch is an ongoing investment (or money pit depending on your point of view).

But there is another option. What’s now happening in the watch world is that retro styles are increasingly being revived. As a result, you can buy a spanking new watch that combines the latest horological tech with all the throwback looks of a vintage piece.  The trend has even spawned it’s own vernacular with words like “fauxtina” that refers to the retro-looking, beige lume that’s used to evoke a misty-eyed connection with the past.

Does this option lack the quirky romance of buying a vintage watch? Absolutely. But it makes up for that in terms of greater functionality and considerably less stress (you may even come away with a guarantee). Essentially, it’s like buying a classic convertible with a supercar engine lurking under the bonnet.  Nostalgia isn’t the enemy of progress when it looks like this.


Vintage looks meet modern technology in the new breed of retro-inspired timepieces


Dan Henry watches are always good value for money if what you care about above all else is the immediate visual impact of a piece. The Dan Henry Racing Chrono 1962 is another excellent example. Three classic colourways – Blue, Panda and Evil Panda (black dial with white sub-dials) – are available to choose from, and all three employ the Seiko VK63 meca- quartz movement. While the seconds hand ticks like a traditional quartz
in motion, the chrono hand sweeps, adding a layer of luxury to proceedings.
Price USD$260


This nails the vintage dress watch come chronograph aesthetic with aplomb. That’s right, aplomb. All the hallmark characteristics are present and accounted for – Blued steel handset, bicompax dial, delightful deco numerals, onion crown, pump pushers … this watch has got the lot. Its polished 316L steel case measures a crowd-pleasing 40mm across and just 12mm thick, ensuring that it will be able to easily fit under the stiffest of cuffs, and ensuring that it adheres to its dress watch remit.

Price: $450


Baltic is fast making a name for itself as a seriously cool microbrand with a vintage range of accessibly priced timepieces. The Aquascaphe is the pick of the bunch, with a clean and clear dial that blends both pad-printed lume with a sandwich construction (the cardinal hours are given the sandwich treatment). A sapphire bezel insert alongside a double-domed sapphire glass gives a luxurious appearance on the wrist and puts it well above its pay-grade in the cost/value stakes.
Price: USD$654


This Hamilton is one of the best examples of a vintage- inspired military watch we have seen in recent years. It draws inspiration from a watch produced in the 1970s for the British Ministry of Defence. Retaining the same shape as the original watch, the case flows seamlessly into the lugs, all confined within the original 36mm dimensions. The grained dial texture and creamy lume add additional flavour, making it a reissue with seldom paralleled historical accuracy.
Price USD$770


Serica is a brand that has released their first model this year with the W.W.W, a watch that wants to be on your wrist in any situation, from pulling weeds to pulling champagne corks. With options of both black and white dials, as well as alpha or arrow hands, the W.W.W. offers room for personal expression in a watch that says something to those who know, and remains unnoticed by those who don’t.
Price USD$540


Every watch collector should make space for a mecha-quartz watch in their line-up. This interesting hybrid technology blends the accuracy and reliability of quartz with the visual joy of a sweeping seconds hand (when the chronograph is activated). The Seiko VK64 is ubiquitous in this field and a solid choice for small brands looking for an affordable big-name supplier. The Unimatic Modello Tre is the perfect housing for such a movement. Fun, fresh and fearless, this Italian hulk is peak weekend wear.  
Price USD$600


The Field Force probably couldn’t be more strait-laced if it tried. What is great about it is that it knows exactly what it is, who it is designed for, and proudly bellows it to the rest of the barracks from whatever watch tower to which it’s been assigned. Quite simply, it is a faithful soldier, ready to tackle any kind of day at its owner’s side. High-legibility and a welcome day/date function make this one a reliable beater when complications are exactly that, and simplicity is preferred.
Price $555


While many think Doxa and imagine a bright orange dial and steel cushion case, there are actually many other models in their design archives, including this newly revived SUB 200 model. While it still features their iconic beads of rice bracelet, it has a black dial with highly contrasting lume-filled hands and hour markers and a less stylised case shape. Price $1590


In the decade following the quartz crisis, the Swiss watch industry was forced to adapt, which produced arguably more radical watch designs than any other period in watchmaking. The Chilton offers us a taste of this era with its colourful sub-dials giving a tip of the cap to yachting chronographs. Note also the restrained case size of 37.5mm. The Chilton gives a curated collection of some of the best design elements from a period of wild innovation.
Price USD$1799


There’s something charming about British brands attempting to remind the industry that before the Swiss blazed all the trails anyone seems to remember walking, the British were sailing around the oceans of the world with era-defining marine chronometers on deck. Farer aims to capitalise on this history by naming its watches after famous explorers. Of course the funky colours that one would never associate with “traditional” British watchmaking ensure they pull it off with aplomb.
Price USD$1950


Taking design cues from the post-war golden era of watchmaking, the Longines Heritage Classic is everything you need and nothing you don’t. The dial design is straight out of the 1930s, with a sector layout that divides the time-telling portion of the dial to hour and minute circles for ease of reading. Adding to the vintage aesthetic is a small-seconds sub-dial at the 6 o’clock position, which perfectly balances the proportions of the watch.
Price $2775

The Mido Multifort Patrimony has a conservative style with a vintage flavour and it comes in three colour options, with the blue dégradé sunray dial standing out as the most eye-catching. Unusually for a non-chronograph, the dial features a Pulsometer scale, which encircles a very clear and easy-to-read display.
Price $1125


William Wood was launched via a crowdfunding campaign to commemorate the heroics of the founder’s grandfather in the British Fire Service. Consequently, fire Brigade motifs are scattered throughout this striking watch from the recycled-brass helmet on the crown to the chequered pattern of a British firetruck running between the minute tracks. There’s a choice of straps, but it’s hard to go past the bright red option made from recycled rubber fire hose.
Price £599

Sometimes, simplicity is best. For all Rado’s high-tech materials and avant-garde case shapes, a good, old-fashioned steel case with a nicely finished champagne sunray dial still remains hard to beat. The Rado Captain Cook Automatic represents the throwback era of a brand that has weathered many industry changes by evolving its USP to ensure it has a unique position in the market. A flash of the brand’s now-trademark ceramic on the bezel serves to unite the old with the new.
Price $2900


People discuss Seiko as offering some of the greatest dollar-for-dollar value in watchmaking. And with the Seiko SPB095J from the Presage collection, it’s easy to see why. You get an Arita Porcelain dial, made using techniques from the 16th century that are uniquely Japanese. The watch is powered by the automatic 6R35 movement and is cased in 40.5mm of steel, making it a contemporary dress watch that represents serious value.
Price $3100


The Tissot Heritage 1973 Chronograph is
a handsome vintage timepiece, and one of the finest in the Tissot range in terms of its attention to detail. The ETA 7753 movement powering the show is respected by watchmakers for its robustness and reliability, and with Tissot’s price bracket being what it is, you can pick up a timeless, highly functional watch for a very reasonable amount.
Price $2900


Since GoldenEye in 1995, James Bond has steadfastly worn an Omega Seamaster. The latest iteration from Q’s lab is made from super-lightweight titanium but comes with a decidedly vintage look. There’s the domed crystal and slightly smaller case, for starters, but more noticeable are the hands and hour markers coated with “fauxtina” in the form of Super-LumiNov that’ll continue to age even more deeply over time.
For the first time, a Bond watch is made out of titanium, a material so light it gives the piece a barely-there feel on the wrist.
Price $13,075


There are some watches that need to be seen in person to be properly appreciated. At first glance, the Bellytanker range could be overlooked, but in the metal, or the bronze specifically, the Bellytanker colourways are seen to mesh superbly with the range’s classical proportions. The bronze model is on-trend and the colour choices on point. If you’re looking to get involved with the bronze bonanza, this is another good option.
Price $7900


One of the nicest aspects of the IWC Spitfire in steel is its extremely retro diameter of 39mm. With an edge-to-edge dial boasting supreme legibility and enough visual interest (three pad-printed colours!) to remain eye-catching, this hardy automatic is just a great, daily watch, Overall, this is an eminently wearable classic wrapped up in an affordable package from a brand whose name is inextricable from aviation.
Price $6700


Being the first to do anything in watchmaking is a pretty big deal. Being the first company on its continent to produce
a watch boasting self-made movement components is positively tectonic. Australian watchmaker Nick Hacko has
a dream to see his team’s watches pass into watchmaking lore. And judging by the look and inherent quality of the NH1, he’s on the path to achieving it.
Price $5500


Apparently, the 1980s came decked in red. At least that’s how TAG Heuer remembers them. The decade that saw Live Aid, red Ferraris, and David Hasselhoff at the height of his hirsute powers, also saw the continued popularity of the Monaco. This gorgeous red sunray dial is
a real eye-catcher, and features unusually curvaceous chronograph registers, adding a vintage flavour to the piece. This model, like all TAG Heuer Monaco 50th Anniversary models, is limited to 169 pieces.  
Price $8600


No hardcore dive watch collector would be anything but delighted at a Fifty Fathoms being added to their collection. It is a stone cold classic of the genre.  The only problem faced by icons like it is the common desire amongst luxury cool-hunters to have something a bit different – something that distinguishes their taste as superior to those of their peers. Enter limited-edition versions like the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms Nageurs de Combat, limited to 300 pieces, and offering a twist to the classic recipe.
Price $19,400


Some designs never get old. The Breitling Navitimer is one of them. However, in the case of the Breitling 806 Reissue, older is definitely better. What we have here is about as close as Breitling has come to reimagining the designs of the Navitimer’s 1950s-1960s heyday with modern proportions and manufacturing improvements. The colourway is pared back, the old logo revived, the handset and font era-appropriate, and the limitation of 1,959 individually-numbered pieces ticking the final box of exclusivity.
Price $11,100


The EP A384 Revival was one of Zenith’s most hotly anticipated drops of 2019. In a year ripe with celebrations dedicated to the El Primero’s half-century, it makes perfect sense to launch modern incarnations of the models that first carried that legendary movement to market. The A384 is a deliciously faithful re-creation of a largely forgotten would-be classic. Its flat case middle is extremely contemporary in its design, and its tachymeter-encircled panda dial a thing of vintage beauty.
Price $10,900


Not only is this classically sized watch driven by the Spring Drive movement, but it also features one of the most artisanal, time-consuming dials ever created. Part of the elegance collection, reference SBGY002 gets its unique face from the Shinshu watch studio, where the celebrated “Snowflake” pattern was born. Unusually, this model does not feature a power reserve indicator, making the dial appear much more spacious.
Price $35,200


Old-world charm meets contemporary watchmaking techniques. The highly polished 42mm stainless steel case takes 1920s design cues with nicely rounded dimensions, slim, tapered lugs and even a period-correct fluted onion crown. The dial, however, is signature 21st century Moser, and features the outfit’s electric sunburst blue fumé colour scheme. Paired with a hand-stitched beige saddle brown leather band, this watch really does represent the very best of the old-world and the new.
Price $22,100