I am by no means an expert on watches, but since I have been interested in vintage WW1 era "Officers" or "Trench" wristwatches I have bought some good ones and some bad ones, and leaned a little bit along the way, so I hope the following might be useful and help you to avoid some of the mistakes I have made.
Important things to look out for when buying a vintage wristwatch are:
- First, find something you like the look of - if you like it, then chances are others will too so it will hold or increase in value; don't buy something just because it's old. The most important thing is to make sure that the watch is in good condition, running and keeping reasonable time, and that the case is OK, with no broken lugs or hinges - spare parts for watches that are getting on for 100 years old are no longer available so repairs to the movement can be at least very expensive or at worst impossible, and case hinges are also very difficult and therefore expensive to repair. A broken wire lug, or scratched or discoloured crystal, is not too bad, but make sure it is reflected in the price.
- Avoid the temptation to buy a non-runner that needs repairs unless you are sure you know exactly what is wrong with it, and exactly how much it will cost to repair. Be very careful about a watch described as simply "over wound" - this is not a fault recognised by watchsmiths! Vendors who use this phrase are trying to imply that it can be easily fixed, and I am sure that this will turn out not to be the case. A watch that doesn't go at all always requires repair, which certainly won't be cheap, and may be very expensive or impossible. A cheap purchase can easily turn out to be an expensive mistake! You should expect to have to get a watch serviced, that is cleaned and oiled, if you want to actually wear and use it. If someone doesn't mention the going condition, ask - they may be trying to hide something.
- Try to get a watch of a reasonably large size: ideally 34/35mm or bigger across the case diameter, excluding the lugs and winding crown, but definitely at least 32mm+. Watches smaller than 30mm are either ladies, or are just too small to look good on a man's wrist and therefore have a low resale value. If you have a small wrist or just like a small watch, then by all means go ahead and buy it, but remember that it won't be so easy to sell, or likely to fetch a good price. Very few people collect ladies watches. If someone doesn't mention the size, ask - they may be trying to hide something.
- Be aware of the dangers of luminous dials, but don't be too afraid of them, they are usually on nice period military watches. See my web page about luminous dials for more on this. If you are going to wear the watch every day, you can get the luminous paint replaced for a reasonable cost. If you only wear it occasionally, don't worry about it, just take basic precautions. But don't open up a watch with luminous paint unless you know what you are doing. So long as the radium in the paint stays inside the watch it is reasonably safe, but if you open the watch the flaky old paint and radioactive dust inside the watch can get out, contaminating you and your workspace. There is more about this on my web site,
- Make sure that the hands match the numerals in style. If the numerals are railway style, that is outlines which were painted in with luminous paint, then the hands should be cathedral or poire squelette style of open lattice work design to carry luminous material. You see lots of watches with luminous numerals that have had the original hands, which were very delicate, replaced with plain hands that don't match the numerals and couldn't possibly carry luminous paint.
- If you are going to wear the watch every day, bear in mind that shock protection for the balance was not invented for another couple of decades after these watches were made, and that they are not water or dust resistant like a modern watch: So you mustn't drop it else you will likely break the balance staff, which will write it off from an economic point of view at least. And don't get it wet or dusty. Take it off when washing your hands or mucking about with water or gardening etc. And no chopping wood while wearing it!
- Price: This is a very rough guide as these watches are going up in value all the time, but if you can get a nice watch in good condition that you like for under £100, you will certainly make money in the long run. If you can get it for £60 / £80 you have done very well. This will be an anonymous watch in a silver case - solid gold cases are rare (many have been melted down for the gold, which is why there are lots of uncased movements about) and expensive, and also tend to be on the small side, which doesn't look so good. Avoid gold plate / rolled gold / gold filled cases. (Note: this was written a while ago and prices have doubled since then - a good investment!)
- Watches with the maker named on the movement go for more money - sometimes a lot more money, especially in the case of well known makes such as Omega or Longines. Rolex prices are always much higher than even these, and the legendary makes such as Patek Philippe or Vacheron Constantin are stratospheric. Be aware that watches of this era almost never had the makers name on the dial, that only started with Rolex in the 1920s. If there was any name on the dial it was that of the retailer, and this was screen printed on in indian ink or similar, so has often worn off. If you see a watch with a makers name on the dial but not the movement, be very suspicious - it's easy to paint a name onto a dial.
If you have found this guide useful, then I would be grateful if you would register a positive vote for it.. If you have not found it useful, or noticed any errors or ways that it could be improved, I would be grateful if you would let me know. Thanks!
Kind regards - David Boettcher