One of the most interesting evolutions in vintage watch collecting has been the desire to move away from watches that have been restored and polished to look ‘like new’ in favour of watches in original condition with honest patina. Nicks, scratches and fading that may have developed over the course of decades of wear can enhance a watch’s desirability.
As with many trends, it is hard to track the exact origin of this appreciation, but certainly one of the places it originated was in Japan, where the wabi-sabi aesthetic values imperfection developed over time. In Japan, this has affected watch collecting for many years, particularly in regard to vintage Rolex sports watches.
Japanese collectors have long preferred original cases made beautiful by years of wear — with accumulated scratches, and fading on original parts such as bezel inserts on Submariners and GMT-Masters — compared to vintage watches that have been made to look pristine. Of particular interest and desirability is a black dial that has turned brown or ‘tropical’ with fading over the years.
This trend towards seeking honest patina has extended worldwide, particularly over the last five years, and is associated with a massive growth in the number of vintage watch collectors. Many people are drawn to vintage watches for the beauty of having something that looks old.
As one new, younger vintage watch collector explained, ‘If I wanted something that looked new, I would just go into a boutique and buy it. But I wanted something different; a watch that has been made unique by the ageing process.’
One issue surrounding this desire to collect vintage watches with honest patina is that it is extremely difficult. Well-known watches such as the Rolex Submariner and the Omega Speedmaster are especially rarely found in original condition because of their famous affiliations over the years.
Those who owned one were likely to wear it and have it serviced over the years, when parts were frequently replaced (such as bezel inserts and crowns), and perhaps the luminous material on the dial and in the hands was refreshed for better night visibility — all with the goal of making the watch a more effective tool, and with no mind towards future value to collectors. Furthermore, the cases were polished to remove scratches and make them look like new, making the lugs a bit thinner in the process through the removal of metal.
For non-collectors, it is not at all intuitive that a watch inherited from their father or grandfather needn’t be restored. In fact, the concept that collectors prize originality over restoration is one of the things that many newcomers to the category find most surprising. However, there is something that is appealing, even to a non-collector, about a watch that has aged in a unique way.
A great example is a manual vintage Rolex chronograph offered in our Important Watches sale in Dubai on 22 March 2019. Part of the celebrated reference 6241 with Valjoux movement, pump pushers and black bezel insert, its exotic ‘Paul Newman’ dial, which is preserved in excellent overall condition, has turned tropical over the years. This is very probably because of a reaction between the compounds used in the dial and external factors such as humidity, heat or exposure to the sun. A uniform brown patina such as this is a rarity, and therefore highly sought-after by collectors.
Another highlight from the same sale is an extremely attractive example of the popular Rolex Submariner reference 5513. The dial has developed a beautifully even ‘stardust’ effect due to ageing, which only amplifies the collectability and aesthetic impact of the watch.
One of the earliest representatives of the iconic Rolex reference 1675, the wristwatch shown above is offered with a very attractive dial, which has tropicalised throughout the years to the present uniform colour.
The demand for watches with patina is not a new phenomenon. In June 2016 we offered a Rolex reference 8171 in steel (below) in New York, which had been purchased by a pilot in the early 1950s and worn for a few years until it stopped working. The reference 8171 is one of the most complicated watches ever made by Rolex and featured a moon phase indicator as well as a complete calendar display. Perhaps due to the complexity of the movement and the associated cost of servicing it, the gentleman put it away and it passed down within the family unused for decades.
This Rolex retained what appeared to be its original grey leather strap and also the original Rolex buckle. Furthermore, the large steel case that earned the model the nickname ‘Padellone’ (or ‘large frying pan’ in Italian) had remained unpolished with its striking case and edges retained. The dial had developed an unusual and striking patina, perhaps from heat and moisture that had gotten in the non-water-resistant case over the decades.
Like finding an amazing vintage motor car that has somehow survived the decades with its original upholstery and all its original parts, the discovery of this reference in original condition was spectacular. On auction day, there was a fierce battle for the watch and it sold for $161,000 (including buyer’s premium).
In our October 2016 Important Watches auction in Dubai we offered a Jaeger-LeCoultre (signed ‘LeCoultre’ on the dial for the American market) Polaris dive watch with alarm from 1968 — one of the most desirable vintage watches made by the venerable brand. The watch was in remarkable condition with an outer dial that had turned ‘tropical’ brown over time, which provided a striking contrast to the grey-black internal bezel and the dark brown-black central alarm disc. The watch is a dream for a collector and came to auction with a conservative estimate of $12,000 to $18,000. It sold for $21,250.
In our New York auction in December 2016 was a Patek Philippe reference 565 in steel on original bracelet, originally retailed by Freccero. It has retained its original water-resistant case in remarkable unpolished condition, with a dial that has also undergone a unique ageing process. The vast majority of these 1940s reference 565 watches have had their cases polished at some point during their 70-year and more lives, and lose the strong definition of the case shape. Offered with an estimate of $20,000-30,000, the watch sold for $77,500.
Additionally, we had an Omega ‘Ed White’ Speedmaster reference 105.003 with a dial that has turned a tropical brown to match the original bezel, which has also faded in a unique way. The watch has an unpolished case, which is an extreme rarity in the world of early vintage Speedmasters from the 1950s and 1960s. It had an estimate of $15,000-25,000, and sold for $30,000.
While, in general, the hierarchy of vintage watch collecting would rank a true ‘new old stock’ vintage watch that has never been worn as the ideal, second place is now strongly held by that same watch in original condition with honest patina and wear, rather than a watch that has been restored. In some cases, a watch with a beautiful ‘tropical’ brown dial can even be worth more than it would be in ‘new old stock’ condition.
This desire for honest patina seems so strong with collectors across the spectrum today that it is likely to continue shaping the vintage watch market for decades to come.