The Life Cycle of a Vintage Watch Collector

Watch collectors are a different breed. How did we get this way?

At Analog/Shift HQ the end of the year warrants a certain level reflection. As dealers we can look at what was hot in 2017 or which watch skyrocketed in value. There's a bigger picture, though. The vintage-watch community is the sum of many individuals who all have their own unique tastes and entry points into the hobby, however, having gotten to know collectors of all ages and backgrounds, we've noticed we all share a bit in common.

Back in Issue 002 of SHIFTed, John Field, veteran collector and close friend of Analog/Shift , offered his  very relatable analysis of what he calls, "The Collector's Arc."

My interest in watches caught fire at an early age, sparked by seeing my dad’s Rolex Oyster Perpetual with Jubilee bracelet every night on his desk with his wallet and car keys. Before the days of disposable timepieces, watches were made to last decades. My dad was given his watch by my grandfather in 1963. Few things we collect are such an important — perhaps intimate is a better word — part of our lives. For many men, a watch is the only accoutrement other than a wedding ring worn next to the skin every day. Whether my father was at the office, sitting down to dinner or enjoying the weekend, that watch was on his wrist. It was, I felt, as unique to him as his fingerprints.

Reflecting on what drives our passion for watches, it’s helpful to think about how our collections began, where they are now and how we got here. My collection and knowledge have grown in tandem over the years, but in many ways my interests now are right back where they started. I call this journey the Collecting Arc. Just as I retrace the steps I took, reminiscing at every turn about the rationale — calling it “logic” isn’t quite right — that led me to collect this or that timepiece, you might find it worthwhile as well to look back at your own arc to see if any common themes reveal themselves.

Given my fascination with my father’s watch — and with the collecting gene woven tightly into my DNA — my collector’s journey, I now recognize, was plotted early. It unfolded in a series of distinct stages.

Stage 1: The Beginning

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Anyone who started collecting watches at a relatively young age knows the overriding factors in the decision were two: Did it look cool, and was it affordable. This was before the internet, of course. There were no watch forums; there were pawn shops. Seiko divers with their large, robust cases looked impressive on the wrist, as did many timepieces from Hamilton and Gruen, with their gold-filled cases and their seconds hand at 6 o’clock. It was always a good idea to have an everyday watch and a dress watch, I figured. In addition to the Seiko, I was able to find an inexpensive Curvex.

Stage 2: The Collection Grows

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Moderation? I never liked that guy. My collection began to take shape with the addition of brands such as TAG Heuer and Omega. Their sporty look and waterproof case design made both wearing the watch and caring for it enjoyable and trouble-free. As for that waterproof case, well, even though I rarely swim with a watch, I might wear it in the rain — and besides, the safest place for a watch is on the wrist, right?

Stage 3: Looking for Something Special 

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As we get older, we reach certain milestones: graduation, marriage, new job. Special milestones, of course, call for a special purchase. I graduated from medical school, got married, took my licensing exam and started my internship within the span of a week and a half. To mark the occasion, I bought a Rolex Oyster Perpetual. Another significant feat: graduating from my residency and starting private practice. If one Rolex is good, two are better — so I picked up a current production model Submariner complete with box and papers. This watch, I assured my wife (and, truth be told, myself), was perfect. No need for any more! 

Stage 4: Not Convinced Yet

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Then it happens: Someone shows you a vintage watch, perhaps a Rolex, and for the first time, you take notice. Questions swirl. Looking at the new Submariner on my wrist, I couldn’t understand why anyone would pay more for an older watch. Certainly my Submariner’s sapphire crystal, unidirectional bezel and increased depth rating would command a higher price than the aged model, I reasoned. After all, why should I pay more for a watch that doesn’t even glow in the dark anymore? The improved movement alone should make a newer watch more worth more. Yes?

Stage 5: Testing the Waters

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At some point, the best way to answer such questions is to experience a vintage watch firsthand. After doing a little homework, I found what appeared to be a nice vintage 1680 Submariner. The matte dial with eggshell patina, faded bezel insert and acrylic crystal took a while to get used to. In addition, the bracelet seemed a little stretched. I realized it might require more time than I’d thought to warm up to the virtues of a vintage Submariner.

Stage 6: Setting the Hook

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When in doubt, get some perspective from trusted, respected collectors. Rather than being points of concern, they informed me, the unique quirks of a watch should be celebrated and embraced. I was beginning to understand that the patina on the dial, the faded insert and the surface wear on the case were what made my watch special, one of a kind. Time I used to waste I now spent on watch forums with like-minded collectors.

Stage 7: Money Is in the Dial

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Themes began to emerge on these forums, among them that vintage watches are more valuable in their original condition — and the money is in the dial. With that in mind, I began paying close attention to the watches I was considering buying. Rather than purchasing a 1675 GMT with newer hands and a service insert, I went for one with original hands and original insert. I also made sure there were no chips or peeling on the dial and that the tritium was intact on the hour markers.

Stage 8: The Unpolished Movement

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Watch dealers laud the beauty of an unpolished watch case. The collecting community takes notice, and another theme emerges on the watch forums: A great watch starts (but doesn’t end) with a great dial. Two words to describe the sharpness of a case work their way into the watch-enthusiast lexicon: chamfer and bevel. Collectors are nothing if not obsessive-compulsive, though, so chamfer comes to take precedence. Wanting to keep pace with this unpolished-case movement, I began to look for watches with fat cases and sharp, well-defined chamfers and lug holes. Always good to get a view of the watch from the case-back side to check for lug thickness, I reasoned.

Stage 9: Focusing on the Details 

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Another forum theme: period correctness. Buying a vintage Rolex with original parts from the original owner is nice, but with so few original owners knocking on my door, I realized l’d likely have to be satisfied with my watch being, at a minimum, period-correct. With the internet at my fingertips, it was not difficult to research my next purchase. I spent considerable time confirming that the Mk4 DRSD dial was consistent with the serial-number range between the lugs, the Mk3 insert was correct for the year the watch was produced and the crystal was the correct T39 super-dome that would have come with the watch when new. I tend to favor solid over folded-link Oyster bracelets, but since the folded-link version was original to this watch, it was fine. Did someone say “box and papers”? The original outer box had a paper tag that read 1665, and the guarantee paper had the serial number not written in, but punched. Hang tags were included.

Stage 10: Guidelines 

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After talking to collectors more knowledgeable than I, I realized that when collecting vintage Rolex, things don’t always fit into neat little boxes. Over the years, Rolex made numerous improvements. There was often a transition period during which it was introducing newer parts in some watches while fitting others with existing stock. Clearly, the rules I’d been following regarding serial-number ranges, dials, inserts and bracelets should be viewed more as guidelines that permit a degree of flexibility in determining the period correctness of a watch. When a great 5513 Maxi Mk1 became available, I was initially concerned that the serial number was a bit “late” for a Mk1 dial. Thinking of guidelines rather than rules helped me move forward with the purchase.

Stage 11: The Forest for the Trees

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At some point it was bound to happen: I spotted another 1665 Sea Dweller, and it was not a safe queen like the one above. This one had benefitted from a fresh polish; the chamfers had just been cut. The dial and hands had a gorgeous patina, but with a loupe I could see that one of the hour markers had broken at the edge of the dial where it met the case. The bezel insert evinced a unique fade that changed colors depending on the light. It had a great look, but would the polished case and dial bother me down the road? Did I need an exit strategy in case I came to regret buying it? No harm in trying it on, I thought. I still own that Great White, and it never fails to bring a smile to my face. I was able to see past its imperfections and add a great watch to my collection.

Stage 12: Consolidation

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“Just how many watches do you need?” a little voice kept asking me. Certainly more than one, I reasoned; after all, I have two wrists. “Trust me, you have a lot more than two watches,” the voice replied. Turns out it was not in my head, but rather belonged to my wife. She offered some good advice: I can’t own them all. She was right — it was time to sell a few so I could add another. Some great watches went to a happy new home, and I was able to add a gilt/gloss 1675 GMT to my holdings.

Stage 13: Community

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As I walked the delicate balance between passion and obsession, it was important that I connect with other collectors who shared my enthusiasm. Much of the joy of watch collecting stems from the friendships you make along the way. Meeting fellow collectors at a get-together (GTG) is a wonderful experience. I always look forward to hearing others’ insights and seeing the interesting watches they’ve assembled firsthand. It’s not unusual for us to ask one another’s advice about watches we’re considering buying. An extra set of eyes never hurts.

Stage 14: I’ve Been Here Before

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I attended a GTG recently and was thrilled to see a collection of chronographs from CWC, Hamilton and Gallet. The military-issue pilot chronographs with fixed lug bars, issue numbers on the case back and circle T on the dial really appealed to me, as did the Gallet with its well-preserved two-register dial and beautiful case. These watches had a really cool look, and compared to vintage Rolex, were pretty affordable. I ended up buying one of each, and that’s when it occurred to me: I was back where I had started, buying cool-looking, affordable watches. My Collecting Arc had come full circle, as it were.

With age comes wisdom, and as I continue searching for my “grail” vintage Rolex with a beautiful dial and sharp case, I understand the need for proper perspective. It’s easy to get bogged down in minutiae and lose sight of what made this hobby fun in the first place: the fact that vintage watches are unique and cool. If they weren’t we wouldn’t be chasing them down and collecting them. If my only concern were telling time, after all, I'd get an Apple Watch. 

Photo c. Atom Moore 

John Field
John Field

John B. Field Jr. attended Texas A&M University where he received a Bachelor of Science degree in Biomedical Science. He attended medical school in Galveston, Texas, his internship at Bowman Gray in North Carolina, and completed his residency in Anesthesiology in Birmingham, Alabama. Married with two children, he has been in private practice for 21 years.

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Timely musings on vintage watches, men's fashion, cocktails, cigars, travel, cars, racing and more . . .

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