Collecting Vintage Watches
The simple rule to invest wisely in time is to buy with your heart.
We talk collecting vintage with James Dowling.
I was talking to a friend and fellow collector the other day and, as is often the way, we fell to chatting about how collections are formed. After an hour or so, and more than a few glasses of wine, we failed to come to any kind of agreement. Nevertheless, it perked my interest enough for me to set down my thoughts here. Please remember, they are MY thoughts and, as such, worth no more than anyone else’s.
Starting a collection
- For your first collectable watch, buy something you will wear on a regular basis.
- Every collection must have a focus.
- If you can afford it, everyone should own a pre 1980s’ Patek Philippe.
- Despite item 1, do not buy watches only because you like the style.
- Do not ignore quartz and/or Japanese watches.
- Never buy a watch just because you think you can make money on it.
- Just because no one else collects something should not stop you. Choosing a collector’s watch There are three things to contemplate when choosing a collectable timepiece: budget, source and make. I make no apologies for putting budget first, as it is always the major limiting factor, and as collectors’ watches are available at prices from £50 to £50,000 it is always a good idea to know in what area to start looking, so as to avoid undue disappointment.
I shall choose to divide the market into four distinct areas: the first £50 to £500; the second £500 to £2,500; the third £2,500 to £5,000 and the final one with all watches above £5,000.
The first group will be older models of watches of which you will probably never have heard; however there is nothing wrong in this. However, when buying any watch it is important to make sure that it has been recently serviced. Any dealer offering a guarantee on their watch will have had to have the watch serviced; but you must realise the cost of servicing a £50 watch is, more or less, the same as servicing a £5,000 watch. So there will be very little value left in the watch; it is for this reason that we do not recommend buying in this area. The second group will include many names you have heard of in steel, silver and sometimes in gold; most watches (particularly in the higher end of this price bracket) will be perfectly usable daily watches with just that bit more style than a new watch at the same price. Therefore this is where any collector should begin. Putting it simply, you can afford to make mistakes in this area (not that many, I will admit). So my suggestion is that you should try and buy your first watch in the lower levels of this band. Buy your first watch in the third group only if you are very specific about the way your collecting is going – if, for example, you admire a friend’s Patek or Rolex collection and have decided this is the way you wish to go. Frankly I do not recommend it because collecting is about your vision, not copying someone else’s. Anyone who chooses to begin their collection in the fourth (and highest price) group has, quite literally, more money than sense. Any collector will make mistakes when starting and making mistakes at this level is going to cause considerable fiscal pain. Also the other point worth considering is that starting at this point leaves you very little room for upward expansion.
James Dowling has been collecting and trading in collectable Rolex watches for over 25 years. He began collecting wristwatches even earlier, and soon decided to focus on early automatic watches (Harwood, Wig-Wag, Autorist etc.). “Of course I also bought an early bubbleback, the first automatic from Rolex, and quickly realised that the bubbleback was the only one of the whole bunch that actually worked for any length of time. It was this first impression which started me on the Rolex trail.” Since then James has gone on to co-author the recent book on the history of the company “The Best of Time; Rolex wristwatches” with his American friend and colleague Jeffrey Hess; the book has had excellent reviews and is now on its third edition. He writes on Rolex, and other associated topics, on a regular basis for a number of magazines throughout the world; for the Japanese magazines Time Spec, Watch a Go Go and Rolex Fan (all published by World Photo Press); for the US magazine The International Watch & Jewelry Guild Bulletin; for the Australian magazine Luxe; and for the British edition of Esquire. He is a member of the IWJG (International Watch & Jewelry Guild) as charter member number 63, the WTA as founder member 155 and of the NAWCC (National Association of Watch & Clock Collectors) as member number 94620. In 1997 James was hired as a consultant to Christie’s auction house in London to help catalogue the Ravenborg collection of Rolex watches. This was the largest single-owner single-make sale the watch market has ever seen, and it raised well over a million pounds sterling. He has also worked with Sotheby’s helping to catalogue specialist Rolex pieces. At the end of 1999, James was asked to give the Dingwell-Beloe lecture to the Worshipful Company of Clockmakers (founded 1631); he was the first wristwatch specialist ever to be accorded this singular honour. In 1997 he became editor-in-chief of Watchnet.com and in 2001, when Watchnet merged with Timezone.com (the world’s largest watch website), he became editor-in-chief of the combined sites. He is also moderator of TZ’s Rolex forum, the most visited of the 30+ forums on the site. Like all collectors, James soon arrived at a point where he needed to dispose of watches in order to upgrade his collection; in selling these surplus pieces he began to learn the niceties of watch dealing and before long he had become a member of the London watch-dealing fraternity. Seven years ago James gave up his booth on London’s famed Portobello Road, which he had inhabited for over a dozen years. He travels widely to buy and sell watches, usually racking up over 150,000 miles each year in his frequent-flier account. He sells mainly to U.S. and Far Eastern dealers and has made a speciality of working with individual collectors helping them build tightly-focussed collections (one collector has over a dozen Princes, another has more than 30 Bubblebacks). James’ website is an extension of this philosophy, as he hopes to be able to show his watches to a wider audience.