Sales trend shows it’s time for a closer look at vintage watches

For years, when out hunting antique and vintage valuables in the great indoors, I paid no attention to a certain strain of background music, the call of the male bargain hunter flying up and down the aisles of shows, malls and flea markets.

You might recognize the familiar warble of the deep-throated species searching for his prey. His call, often quick and urgent, goes like this: “Got any old watches? Got any old watches? Got any old watches?”

Omega Ref 2473 This circa 1950s manual-winding Omega Ref. 2473 features an 18-karat yellow-gold case, silver dial with applied gold markers, gold lance hands, bronze and gold moon display in the sub seconds aperture and adjustable length patented band. The back cover is engraved “To My Friend Carl from Bob.” It sold for $5,079 at Heritage Auction Galleries Nov. 18, 2011.

I never grasped the gravitas of the question, never trained an ear on my fellow treasure hunters until two incidents put an end to my oblivious meanderings.

I always thought the quest for wrist wear and pocket pieces was just a guy thing — one of the few items any man could feel good about collecting. But it wasn’t just a guy thing. Two events grabbed my attention to show that time really is money. And clearly many of us were missing out on a handsome and lucrative niche.

When it comes to watches, women really should pay more attention to what time it is.

My first wake-up call: An eBay auction with a starting bid of $19.99. Pretty ho-hum, nothing necessarily screaming “Watch me!” But a woman whose husband was a member of the National Association of Watch & Clock Collectors (NAWCC) alerted an Internet jewelry club to the listing, suggesting the auction would be “fun to watch.”

It was.

All eyes in the watch world turned to the offering, a circa-1870 gold pocket piece from E. Howard & Co. Boston. Unaware of its value, the seller found it in a drawer while cleaning out his grandfather’s house. He started the auction low, but when it ended, the high bid chimed in at an almost deafening $18,766.

It’s a stunning amount when you realize some great works of art or one-of-a-kind toy robots don’t always enjoy this kind of result. At least nine Howard watches like this were known to exist. A key-wind watch, it didn’t even run — and was missing its front crystal.

But the watch collector’s wife explained that the custom movement was so complex and unique, its creator Edward Howard decided it was too expensive to make in quantity.

Little did Howard know he was creating windfalls for people more than a century later.

Elgin 14-karat gold pocket watch  This Elgin 14-karat gold hunter’s case pocket watch with fancy-engraved, double-hinged back and blank front cover features an enamel face with Roman numerals. With a faint hairline crack and non-running condition, the case is in very good condition and still sold for $688 at Heritage Auction Galleries’ April 3, 2012, sale.

This watch wasn’t the loudest ticktock on eBay that month. A Cartier Tank and one Piaget topped $25,000. But everyone knew those were valuable timepieces. It’s the fact such a prized object as the 1870s pocket watch was tucked away unnoticed for years in a grandpa’s dresser drawer that stirs so much hope and excitement. It’s serious money, an amount that can foot the bill for a down payment on a house, an adoption, business and exotic travel to the far corners.

The fact that time is money struck home again while I was in an antiques mall where a man asked in friendly fashion if I’d found anything interesting. We chatted, and then he inquired if I frequented some of the scuzziest flea markets in the boondocks.

I said I’d tried them but most seemed like a waste of time. He countered that appraisal with the fact one trashy al fresco flea we both patronized had provided him with the find of his collecting life: a discarded Patek Philippe watch — with a price tag of $10.

Uncertain if he’d found the $10,000, $20,000 or $50,000 version, he shook all the way home, tightly gripping the steering wheel to steady himself. Ten seconds flat after making it available to a collector, he had a hard offer on it for $60,000. He decided he couldn’t let it go for less than $80,000 (and didn’t seem anxious even at that).

Why should watches bring such riches? And where are women in this hands-on hobby?

The questions of the hour were originally passed to Chris Cooper, a navigational and military timepiece specialist with a focus in marine chronometers.

John Wayne 5pm wristwatch  John Wayne’s wristwatch, 1950s, with a square face reading “Duke” and each marking reading “5 PM,” with a 17 jewel movement by Elgin (serial #S570064), case manufactured by Roy; in working condition but needs to be wound up every 30 hours; with a tan leather watch band that appears well worn. Length: 9 inches. $10,755, Oct 6, 2011, Heritage Auction Galleries.

“Watches have a higher initial value [than many other collectibles], and watch collecting has been in place since the 1940s,” he reasoned. “It’s a more established hobby than many others.”

So watch collectors aren’t crazy forking out such fantastic funds?

“Quite a few collectors are wealthy, but not all of them, and they’re not crazy,” he said. “It’s all about supply and demand.”

Cooper thought maybe men have the upper hand in wristwatches because “they’re essentially the only jewelry men can wear to show their style and socioeconomic level.”

Naturally we wanted to hear from watch-loving women on the subject and asked decorative-arts specialist and nationally recognized appraiser Reyne Haines, author of “Vintage Wristwatches” and the “Warman’s Watches Field Guide” for Krause Publications, why watch collecting remains a mostly male domain.

Patek Philippe fine gold pocket watch  This signed Patek Philippe (and Spaulding & Co.) 18-karat gold minute repeater with split second chronograph, circa 1908, has a plain back, white enamel face with Arabic numerals, Brequet moon hands, gold slide on the rim and gold button for the split-second function. It sold for $44,813 at Heritage Auction Galleries May 3, 2011.

“That’s a great question and one I am afraid I don’t know the answer to. I mean, watches are a piece of jewelry, and what woman doesn’t like jewelry? Women are also missing the fact that wearing a vintage watch makes them stand apart. It’s not like you have to worry about the other women at the same dinner party wearing the same new Rolex as you,” she says.

More women acquire watches as jewelry, Haines explains, not so much for who made it, or the movement complication, etc. “Many women who buy know little to nothing about the maker at all. They just like it. Men more commonly buy them as collectibles, whether that means a collecting passion for a brand, or for chronographs, etc. — as opposed to getting a great watch to match a new suit.”

Since supply and demand is one key driver of values, making some scarce men’s timepieces rocket to stratospheric levels, we wondered if women’s watches are typically less valuable because fewer women collect watches, or because… ? “In the case of women’s watches,” says Haines, a regular Huffington Post contributor, says, “there is supply, but less demand. There are better finds out there in vintage women’s watches than men’s.”

For newly intrigued parties who suddenly want to get hands on, how hard it is to locate wheat among the chaff? “It’s not every day you are going to find something valuable, but I have had numerous people tell me about their scores at garage sales and clothing resale shops. Finds are definitely out there,” says Haines, who has co-hosted Antique Auction Forum podcasts with Martin Willis.

Patek Philippe rare gold 1908 inside  Inside view of signed Patek Philippe (and Spaulding & Co.) 18-karat gold minute repeater with split second chronograph, circa 1908. $44,813, Heritage Auction Galleries, May 3, 2011.

She reminds time travelers to mind condition, since vintage watches can be costly to repair. (Remember, too, if there’s no one qualified to repair vintage timepieces in your corner of the world, you’ll have to send it off to a specialist.) And if you’re just beginning the investigation into “second-hand” treasures, the advice to “buy what you love” isn’t as crucial when you’re strictly buying to resell, but Haines suggests learning to appreciate watches as works of art, “for the workmanship that went into making them, and the history behind when they were made.”

We also turned to respected watch expert and internationally recognized authority on luxury timepieces, Meehna Goldsmith. Her take on the market is valuable, because she has a keen understanding of emerging trends. To our query about the category being male dominated, Goldsmith thinks, specifically when it comes to mechanical watches, “Collecting mainly appeals to men because they have a natural inclination toward mechanics and appreciating their complexity and beauty at the high levels. At the lower end, watches might be thought of as gadgets.”

Goldsmith, who’s been a contributing writer to the Financial Times and Robb Report, says women are becoming more educated on the subject and consequently finding watches more interesting.

This article originally appeared in Antique Trader magazine

Learn about subscribing to Antique Trader magazine for just $1 per issue!

“Once women are made aware that a quartz watch doesn’t hold its value anywhere near that of a mechanical, they realize it makes more sense to purchase a ‘real’ watch,” Goldsmith gives as an example. “And brands are also seeing the value of the female market, making watches specifically for women, which means new movements just for those watches, rather than placing an already-established movement for a men’s watch in a woman’s case.”

Goldsmith mentions Van Cleef & Arpels, Cartier and Corum as three savvy brands catering to the market.

Women not intending to collect timepieces (or to resell them with any serious intent) might still wonder what could be out there that they shouldn’t overlook. “It’s possible for a newcomer to accidentally find something valuable, but it seldom happens,” Goldsmith says. “When it does, the seller doesn’t know what they’ve got and part with it for a price way below market value. Conversely, a person who has a watch that was inherited or purchased years ago may have a valuable watch on their hands. Rare pieces can always be had for a price.”

Women's Patek Philippe vintage watch  This circa 1970s signed Patek Philippe Ref. 4185 lady’s gold bracelet watch in 18-karat gold, with silver dial and Arabic numerals, has a fold-over Patek Philippe buckle and double-level oval link design. It sold for $3,346 at Heritage Auction Galleries Nov. 18, 2011.

Goldsmith agrees with Haines that women’s watches typically are less valuable because the market isn’t as large. “There is a trend toward larger watches. In fact, size has gone up pretty dramatically in the last decade, from 38 mm being large to an average of 42-44 mm for men now being the norm, particularly for sport watches. Women can wear men’s watches and do, but a woman’s watch on a man just doesn’t work.” That’s not the case in Asia, though, where, Goldsmith notes, styles are different, and Asian men want the smaller sizes for their smaller wrists.

There are three important things to know, says Goldsmith, whose work has also appeared in the Watch Journal and International. “First, women should educate themselves about the difference between quartz and mechanical watches.” As author of the blog, Goldsmith emphasizes, “Women should research a watch to understand its merits, drawbacks and features, as well as what it should cost. The third thing: Try on the watch — and trust your gut. If you like it and want it, then it’s the correct watch for you.”

When it comes to names, be sure to watch for the usual suspects: Audemars to Zeno, with Vacheron, Rolex, Patek, Breitling, Heuer, Omega, IWC and more in between.

“Got any old watches?” sounds funny at first when uttered from the throat of the female treasure hunter, but it’s probably a call worth practicing for women who don’t really know what time it is. It’s one kind of time management that might prove enjoyable and profitable. The learning curve could be slightly complex, but face it, totally intriguing.

Kathy Flood is author of five book titles including Warman’s Jewelry 4th edition and The Jewelry Face Book of Pins & Pendants. Follow Meehna Goldsmith on Twitter@TheWatchLady, and Reyne Haines on Twitter@ReyneHaines.

More Related Posts from Antique Trader: