Q: When is a little wear and tear too much? Is it ever a good thing?
A: For a watch specialist, a vintage watch is like any work
of art: you really want it to be all original. And if a watch has replacement parts, it’s better if they’re vintage — as close to the original in age as
you can get. For example, we’re offering a very rare early Rolex Submariner, Reference 6204, from about
1954. It has a replacement dial, but it’s a very early replacement dial — a mirror dial from probably the first half of the 1960s, right after Rolex switched from using the
hazardous radium for its luminous markers to tritium. If you’re going to have a service replacement part and the watch is that old, it’s a real bonus that
the replacement itself is 50 years old.
But we do prefer all original parts when we’re evaluating a watch. And sometimes what seems to the novice collector like detrimental wear and tear can
actually add to a watch’s value. At the very least, it often means the parts weren’t replaced.
Bezels can fade in color. Bezels can crack. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing — on the contrary. Bezels on the first Rolex GMT-Master, Ref. 6542, for
example, were made with bakelite, an early hard plastic used to reduce glare so it wouldn’t be distracting to pilots in the cockpit. But bakelite is
brittle. Those inserts would crack, and when they did, people would change them out for metal inserts. Back then, it was seen as a malfunction that needed
fixing. But bakelite is particularly rare these days, so it’s exceptional when we find one that’s in really good condition. They were only made in the 50s
and early 60s, so even if it’s a little cracked or faded, it’s still worth more than a replacement.
This early Rolex Submariner, ref. 6204 has a vintage service replacement dial almost as old as the original — a good thing among collectors. The fading on this so-called 'ghost' dial shows it's original.
The hottest word in vintage watch collecting right now is “tropical,” which essentially means something has faded because of the sunlight. The paint on the
dials, for example, can fade. That does create more value in many collectors’ eyes. And it also shows use, which gives a watch a story. It hasn’t just been
sitting on the shelf. That’s particularly appealing with vintage Rolex sport watches which could have been used anywhere from a racetrack to a mountaintop
to a deep sea military excursion.
Some of the early mirrored black dials on those same GMT-Master 6542’s have faded beautifully over the years. The matte dials turn more of a dull brown,
but the gilt ones are like baked caramel if you see them in the sun. It’s so different than how it normally looks, and so exciting for someone to find and
wear. That said, when we look at tropical dials, we really look for ones that have a consistent patina — not one that's only faded on side, or that has some other
damage. It’s still something that has to be charismatic and pleasing to achieve higher values.
Another thing some collectors love is what we call a “crazed” dial, which happens because of a defect in the lacquer. That lacquer can crack over time and
create this great spider web effect on the surface. It’s not necessarily something that adds value, but it can. Sometimes it just comes down to the
personal taste of the collector.
When it was sold in 2011, the oxidization on the case of this Rolex 6062 triple-date moonphase with a ‘star dial.’ was not viewed as detrimental; it indicated the watch basically untouched, boosting its worth enormously.
When it comes to wear and tear on a case, there’s a balancing act when it comes to value. Scuffs and scratches don’t exactly add value — we obviously want
the most pristine examples we can find. But all other things being equal, no matter how scratched you think it is, in terms of value it’s always better to leave it unpolished.
In 2011, we sold a
Rolex 6062 triple-date moonphase with a “star dial.”
It has an 18k gold case, and is one of only two watches that Rolex made with a moonphase. There was so much oxidation on that case, it looked almost black.
But that greatly increased the value of the watch because it was clear the watch hadn’t been polished or really worn. (According to legend, it was
literally kept in a sock for 60 years.) It sold for over half a million dollars.
Two weeks earlier, another auction house had sold the exact same model from the same year for only $62,500. The difference? Among others, the latter had
been polished. It had that bright golden color, but was valued much, much lower because serious collectors put a premium on pristine.
Replacing a crystal really does not hurt the value of a watch, even on a big vintage Rolex. Sometimes it’s the just the opposite: it’s often better to
replace an overly scratched crystal, or buff out the scratches if the crystal is acrylic. That can really freshen up the watch. A really bad crystal can
hurt the value, especially if it makes it hard to read the dial.
Bracelets aren’t usually a deal-breaker on a watch. Exceptions exist, however. Some vintage Patek Philippes, for
example, may have a Gay Frères bracelet, which was a manufacturer that made many Patek precious metal and steel bracelets. It’s the same with vintage
examples of the Audemar Piguet Royal Oak A Series; you want the bracelet to have been made by Gay Frères. If specific examples of those models have a later
or incorrect bracelet, it might adversely affect the watch by as much as 30 percent.
The watch should work. You definitely don’t want the movement to get water damage, for example. If a watch gets moisture inside of it and you continue to
use it, that could damage the movement to the point where the rotor or the balance wheel or some other component needs replacement.
That’s not good.
Sometimes only certain functions stop working. For example, we’ve seen grand complication Patek Philippe minute repeaters where the minute-repeating
function had stopped working; you could be looking at $4,000 and eight-to-twelve months of being without that watch to get it fixed. It might make a
collector say ‘I don’t want anything to do with it.’
But again, there’s a balancing act. On some big, complicated watches, internal replacement parts can affect the value. We have collectors who ask us to
open casebacks on big vintage Patek Philippes, and we literally examine the screw heads to see whether Patek has serviced it, or if it was serviced by
another jeweler. It’s another reason to take care of your watch, and to make sure it gets serviced the right way.
Lead Image: The faded color of the classic 'Pepsi' bezel on this early Rolex GMT-Master is an indicator of value, not a detriment. Browse and buy vintage watches like it at Christie’s Watch Shop.