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Last modified: 20 jan 2003



One of the most commonly asked questions I receive through email is "Can you tell me more about this watch and what is it worth?". Good question. And the toughest one somebody could ask. The valuation of wrist watches without seeing the watch is a very difficult thing to do. Not only to get a feeling for the authenticity of the watch, but also to see the condition of the watch and movement and the mechanical status of it.

And even if you DO have a good idea of the state of the watch, the issue about "Value" comes to mind. What does one mean with "Value"? Replacement value? Market value? Do you wish to sell the watch?

If I look at an image or a description of a watch and tell the person what I think it is worth, the reply is usually set in a tone of disappointment. The dream of inheriting a small fortune from a late uncle or grandfather seems to prevail. But let's face it. About 99% of all the watches made were manufactured in the thousands, if not tens of thousands, and holds little interest from a collectors point of view. There is a great number of brands that brought out watches which were entirely made by other companies, and sold with the brands name on it. The value of these watches is very little, and I often have to give people the disappointing reply that the "Emotional" value must be much more than the actual monetary value. "But I have no emotional connection with the watch" Even still... Since the early 1990's, the market for antiques has grown immensely, and everybody seems to be selling their old stuff as "Valuable antiques" or "Collectible items".

Does that mean that old wrist watches from unknown brands are worthless? Not in the least. There are two markets to be distinguished in the used watch field: the world of collectors and the people that want a vintage watch for estethical reasons. Because although a watch may not be the most interesting collectable, it still holds the contemporary beauty and craftsmanship of the period. In this "fin de siècle" era, people tend to look back at the past century, and develop a specific liking for the items and styles of that century. The retro look... But it is beyond the scope of this website to discuss this matter in great detail.

So what determines the value and collectability of a watch? There are 6 terms that describe collectability in general: Quality, Craftsmanship, Availability, Desirability, History and Reputation. The higher a watch scores on all of these factors, the more collectable it is. Below I will explain these term in detail.

The quality of a watch comes close to the craftsmanship. It is exemplified by the care that was taken in the design and construction of the watch, both the case, dial and movement. The accuracy in time keeping, the reliability and longevity of a watch determine the quality. Watches that have an accuracy of +\- 5 minutes a day are not good time   keepers, are not reliable as timepiece and are not very interesting from a collectors point of view.

Not only determined by the quality of the watch, but also by the complexity of the movement (how many functions does the watch have) and the mechanics of it. Some watches were mechanically very innovative, although they were not very reliable. These watches were probably not a great success, and very few were made. Thus, the craftsmanship determines other factors as availability and quality as well. One good example is the Autorist automatic wrist watch.

Autorist automatic wrist watch

The main spring was wound by the action of the wrist, which stretched the lugs of the watch by pulling on the leather strap. The idea was great, but it didn't really work. It required too much wrist movement to keep the watch running. This watch has become very collectable, because it was one of the first automatic wrist watches, and very innovative.

The numbers in which a watch was produced determines the demand for it. A watch that was made in millions is less collectable than a watch of which only 500 pieces exist. Availability is the key factor for the value of a watch. For instance, the Bulova A-11 military issue wrist watch was standard equipment for GI's during WW II. And there were vast numbers of GI's during the war, thus the number of that particular watch. It is still considered a collectable watch, since it is of good quality and has an interesting history to it. But the value of these watches is rather low, around US$ 100-150 at the time of this article.

Desirability almost seems misplaced here, because it sounds very much like collectability. Desirability in my view is a combination of collectability and attraction. Some watches from the 1950's and 1960's are so odd in shape and design, that they become a curiosity. Designer watches are a good example of that.
Another form of desirability is the brand name. A number of brands are so famous and are widely considered as a status symbol, that many people wish to own one. Rolex is such a brand. In the case of Rolex, availability is not really an issue for the basic collectability.

Watches and brands with a history hold particular interest of the collector. The Longines Hour angle for instance. Designed by Charles Lindbergh for his solo flight over the Atlantic. Or the Omega Speedmaster Professional Mk I, the first watch worn on the moon. One interesting detail is that there is an assumed piece of film in which on e of the astronauts sets foot on the moon and notices: "Hey, my watch has stopped". I have not seen this piece of film yet...
Watch brands never fail to advertise with the history of their watches.The Longines Hour Angle has been reproduced by Longines, and the Omega Speedmaster still bears the inscription "First Watch Worn on the Moon".

Reputation can be divided in two categories: Reputation of the watch and reputation of the brand. Watches of a reputable brand are likely to fetch higher prices, no matter what the quality of the watch is. In contrast, some models of smaller brands are very sought after because of their reputation, functionality and rarity.
The reputation of a brand can well be established by good marketing. In the 1980's, for example, Oris made a huge come back on the watch market, with their first hit the Oris Big Crown. Good marketing and the production and development of new models gave the brand a good reputation, which reflects on the older watches of the brand. The company has been manufacturing watches and small clocks since 1905, but the earlier watches are not of as high quality as their reputation claims that they make now. Mind you, I do not want to suggest that they make low quality wrist watches these days. I am the proud owner of a Big Crown, which is probably the only watch that I will never sell.

So, where does that leave us in valuating our watches? As I said before, the value of a watch is pretty much a wild guess, depending on whatever the buyer wants to pay for it. However, there are a few rules, dictated by the "market". In short, one can assume that a watch has a standard value depending on age, material, complexity and condition. Below I have placed a table with values of watches, which can form a guideline for valuating a watch. In general, a watch can be valuated according to this table, unless...

Chrome plated Gold plated All Steel Gold
Manual wound $50 $50 $75 $125
Automatic wound $75 $75 $125 $150
Chronograph $200 $200 $250 $350
Moonphase $200 $200 $250 $350

How does this table work? Well, first let me explain how I got these figures. The prices in this table are an average for wrist watches from before 1979. Watches from the 1980's are too young to be placed in the market of collectable watches, with a few exceptions, of course.
The prices are for non-specific brands, which means that a number of watch brands do not go by this table because of their collectability. The prices are an average. If you want to sell a watch, you will get less than the table says, if you want to buy, you are likely to pay a bit more. It is probably safe to assume that the going prices are +/- 25%.
Brands that do not go by this table are the high end brands like Rolex, Patek Philippe, IWC, Jaeger LeCoultre, Longinges, Omega, Movado and the likes. Also excluded are the very collectable brands as Breitling, Heuer, Girard Perregaux and such.

Other factors that need to be taken in account are the following:

  • Age increases value just slightly
  • Condition and originality  increase value
  • The less restorations and repairs, the higher the value
  • Don't forget the condition of the movement

For Further Reading
The question that most people have that seek my advise or valuation is, albeit never explicitly mentioned, How do I know whether this is a special and collectable watch? Tough one. This requires research and experience. There is a number of sources that can provide you with information about prices, collectability and desirability.

  1. The Internet. Take a look at the numerous sites that have watches for sale. Compare prices between the various dealers.
  2. Auctions. There is a number of auction houses that have speciallised auctions of clocks and watches. Research their catalogues and ask for a list of realized prices. This gives you an excellent clue of what's hot and what's not. Also look if the watch fetches more than the estimated price.
  3. Catalogues. There is a number of catalogues on the market that give an indication of the prices of a huge number of watches. Although the prices are often not too realistic, they give a good indication of what is collectable and what is not.
  4. Fairs. Go to watch fairs, and ask dealers what they think a watch is worth, without mentioning that you want to sell the watch. If a dealer instantly offers you a certain amount of money for a watch, it is most likely to be more valuable than he is willing to pay. Some dealers will say what it is worth AND what they are willing to pay for it. Don't be offended if they pay you less than the watch is worth; dealers have a business to run and need to earn a living.

In the past centuries, millions and millions of mechanical wrist watches have been produced and sold, and many are still around (nobody throws away a perfectly good watch). Only a small part of them is interesting for the watch collector, and thus have a value of any substance. If you have a watch that you think might be interesting, do some research on it, and in most cases you will find out that the emotional value it has for you is much higher than the monetary value.

Robert Keulen

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