Antique watches: Timeless design fuels vintage watch collecting

Watch designs have changed greatly over the last 100 years. The first company to manufacture a wristwatch was Patek Philippe. It was designed in 1868 and sold to the Countess Koscowicz of Hungary in 1876. It was wound with a key, and had gold panels on each side of the dial encrusted with diamonds.

Before World War I, wristwatches were thought of as jewelry, and meant for women only. During the war, soldiers needed to have access to their watches quickly, and were often unable to reach into their pockets to check the time. Their watches were worn on their wrists for easy access. They were called “trench watches” and were made out of pocket-watch movements that were big and bulky. Often the winding crown was at the 12 o’clock position. From that point on, they were no longer seen as just for ladies.

In 1923, the first self-winding movement was produced by Swiss watchmaker John Harwood. This type of movement would wind using the motion of the wearer’s arm. An internal weight would rotate back and forth as the watch moved, keeping the watch wound for approximately 12 hours.

The next evolution of the watch would be the creation of the electronic movement, which never needed winding. It was designed by the Hamilton Watch Co. in 1957 and was called the “Hamilton Electric.” It was an instant hit with consumers. Unfortunately, technology was soon to change and Hamilton ceased production of the line in 1969.

In the 1960s, several Swiss firms began designing quartz watch movements. The Swiss decided not to pursue production of quartz movements, as the cost to overhaul their factories was prohibitive, and it would put many watchmakers out of work.

The Japanese, however, moved ahead with the quartz designs. In 1969, Seiko would place their first quartz wristwatch on the market. This type movement was more accurate than a mechanical watch, and quickly gained a large portion of the marketplace. Not only was it more accurate than a mechanical watch, it never needed winding. And a quartz movement would not need regular servicing like a mechanical watch. It merely needed a battery replacement over time. Numerous Swiss and American watch manufacturers withered before Japanese dominance. Many closed their doors, or filed bankruptcy.

There were a great number of watch manufacturers around the world producing fine timepieces over the last 100 years. Some watch companies designed the complete watch, while others designed the case and dial, and partnered with another company to provide them with their movements. We’ve even seen some watch manufacturers produce watches under different brand names.

There is never a simple answer to the never ending question of “What’s it worth?” There are a number of factors that go into determining the value of wristwatches. What is the condition? What is the case material? Is the case sterling, stainless steel, gold or platinum? Who made the movement?

What are some tips on becoming a better watch collector?

vintage wristwatches
For more watch collecting information, pick up Vintage Wristwatches by Reyne Haines.

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Antique and vintage watch advertisements tell us so much we might not have already known. For example, the cost of the watch originally, the name of the line, when it was made, and what options were offered.

For the new watch collector, learning a little watch terminology can go a long way. What is a tourbillion? What does chronometer mean? What are jewels? What is a pusher used for? Books on the subject offer a broad array of commonly used, and not so commonly used, watch “words” to help clear up any confusion.

Finally, one of the great aspects of collecting is meeting others with similar collecting interests. Joining a local collectors club, or even one online, can greatly expand your collecting horizons. Watch collecting Web sites have links to even more sites filled with information on collecting, where to find parts or local a watchmaker for a repair, message boards to learn more about new acquisitions, and more.

How to buy online

One of the not-so-positive aspects of Internet collecting is the sheer volume of reproductions out there posing as authentic watches. They turn up everywhere, with links to professionally designed Web sites offering the best of the best for a discount, or up for bid on an Internet auction. You must keep in mind the old saying, “If it looks to good to be true, it probably is.”

Not everyone is trying to put one over on you, but there are a few other concerns that should be addressed. One person’s definition of “excellent condition” may not be the same as yours. Some people are more accepting of “wear and age” than you might be.

So between dodging reproductions, and trying to determine if an authentic watch is in an acceptable condition for you to want to acquire it, there are a few questions you should consider asking anyone online before opening your wallet:

1. Many people assume if it doesn’t say it’s a reproduction, it’s authentic. Not necessarily so. Ask for a guarantee that the watch is authentic.

2. How did they acquire the watch?

3. Do they have the original receipt for the watch? (If they do not, it doesn’t mean the watch is a reproduction, but if they do have the original receipt or paperwork, it helps you to feel more confident buying it).

4. Is the watch working? Seems like another question where the answer would be obvious. If you ask the question, you have the answer in writing, Should it arrive not working, you can go back to the seller.

5. How long have they had the watch? Is it something they recently purchased, or did they inherit it? If they are a collector selling some of their collection, the longer they’ve had it might give you confidence in how accurate their description of the watch is. The longer one collects, the more trained their eye becomes and the more knowledgeable they (hopefully) become.

6. What are the markings on the watch? Some case markings or movement markings will help you determine if the watch is all original, if the movement has been replaced, or might even tell you more about the period in which the watch was made.

7. Have they ever had the watch serviced? If yes, what work was done to it and when.

8. Ask for close-up images of the watch. Close-ups of the back, the dial and perhaps the band are a good idea. It is common practice for scammers to take a photo from someone else’s Website and use it to sell a fake, or to take your money and send you nothing in return. If you ask for additional photos, and they do not actually have the watch, it will quickly become obvious when they cannot provide the images you ask for.

9. What is their return policy if the watch is not as described? You should never buy a watch where there is no return privilege.

10. If possible, pay with a credit card. If the watch does not show up, or if it is not as described, you have recourse. If using Paypal, or another online payment program, look into buying insurance.


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