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 told me, ‘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. The way vintage radium and tritium lume on dials and in hands can look, from a warm orange to a bright yellow, is so much cooler than the stark and sterile bright white look of LumiNova and Super-LumiNova found on new watches today.’
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, when I present to groups about vintage watches, the concept that collectors prize originality over restoration is one of the things that many people find most surprising.
However, there is something that is very appealing, even to a non-collector, about a watch that has aged in a unique way. A great example of that is a Rolex reference 8171 in steel that we sold at Christie’s New York last June. A pilot purchased the watch in the early 1950s and seemingly wore it 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.
Remarkably, 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, and it was a piece that watch people could not keep their eyes off during our preview. On auction day, there was a fierce battle for the watch and it sold for $161,000 (including buyer’s premium).
In our Important Watches auction in Dubai last October was 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 is in remarkable condition and has had its outer dial turn ‘tropical’ brown over time, which provides a strikingly beautiful contrast to the grey-black internal bezel and the dark brown-black central alarm disc. The watch is a dream for a collector and had a conservative estimate of $12,000 to $18,000. It sold for $21,250.
At our New York auction in December 2016 were many honest fresh-to-market watches that excited our clients. One notable watch 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. It had an estimate of $20,000 to $30,000, and 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 to $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 Platonic ideal for a collection, 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 I think it will continue to shape the vintage watch market for decades to come.
This article was published in the December 2016 edition of Revolution magazine