A Pro-Level Guide to Buying Pre-Owned and Vintage Watches

So, you’ve been bitten by the watch bug and you absolutely need one on your wrist. Now what?

Have you homed in on a specific brand or model? Do you want something new or secondhand? Should you care if it’s a quartz or a mechanical movement? Are you going cross-eyed just reading this? Well, you’ve come to the right place. I’ve tapped some of the best minds in the watch industry for their tips to help you become a smarter and more decisive watch consumer.

Buy What You Love

Every conversation I’ve ever had about watch buying starts with the same piece of advice: Buy something because you love it. Pay no mind to trends or what other people think is cool. At the end of the day, this is going to live on your wrist.

Leigh Zagoory, assistant vice president and specialist at the Sotheby’s Watches Department, likens it to any other fashion decision you might make. “Pick something that you love and don’t settle for something because it’s in style now.” But unlike an everyday fashion purchase, she continues, “buying a $10K watch is obviously different from buying a $200 shirt or a $500 pair of sneakers. You might not feel bad about ditching those shoes after a year of wear, but you definitely want to be more intentional with your watch purchase.” You should want to wear your watch for years and years; after all, a luxury timepiece is built to last.

When it comes to narrowing down your search, Isabella Proia, a watch specialist at Phillips, suggests staying true to your own personal preferences and aesthetic. “What you love about a watch should complement the other things you love in life,” she says. “Do you wear a lot of color? Go for something with a colorful dial. Are you a little eccentric? Find a funky, unique piece from the ’70s. If you’re into the mechanics of a watch, find a piece that’s technically precise. If you’re like me—someone who loves history—you may want to find something with an amazing backstory.” It’s all about choosing a piece that meshes with your overall lifestyle and fashion sense.

Once you’ve evaluated your taste and found some specific timepieces to match that, other considerations might come into play. Though you may be looking for something that retains or appreciates in value, Rebecca Ross, a watch specialist at Christie’s, always advises people to buy what they love, no matter what they’re going to do with it later. What you land on may or may not turn a profit should you decide to sell it in 10 years, but Ross stands by the fact that “this is a luxury item, and it should be enjoyed.”

Zagoory echoes this sentiment and furthermore prioritizes nostalgia and emotional value over monetary value. “Some of my favorite pieces aren’t the most expensive, but they have a story,” she explains. “A watch is a great way to commemorate a milestone in your life. Whether it’s a birthday or you’ve just had an amazing year at work, I suggest buying something that’s representative of you in that particular life moment.” That way, this piece will always be special for you, no matter what value the capitalist overlords may assign to it later.

Get a Watch Buddy

The world of luxury timepieces can be insanely daunting, and if you’re a newbie, it’s best not to go it alone. Even veterans like Ross, whose passion for watches started early—growing up around her dad’s watch collection—admits that she’s still learning. “There’s so much to take in, but I encourage any new collectors not to be put off. Take it one day at a time.” But where to even start? “If you’re interested in making your first watch purchase, talk to an adviser who can help you. It can be a big, wide world out there … especially on the Internet. There are so many dealers selling secondhand. Find someone you trust,” she says.

Buying online? It’s especially important to do your research and read the reviews of dealers. If you’re looking on eBay, for example, the dealer is always named, and a simple Google search or chat with a watch expert (like any of the lovely ladies quoted in this piece) can typically reveal if the dealer is trustworthy or not.

Proia encourages anyone interested in watches to walk in (or email her) and pick her brain. “I want people to talk to me about watches! Ask us questions … it’s literally our job.” And if you’re not ready to just waltz into an auction house, phone a friend. “You only need one watch person to introduce you to a hundred more watch people,” Proia continues.

Understand Condition

You may think that this is pretty straightforward, but read the condition report on any watch listing and you might find yourself tripped up over jargon and specifics. Is the dial original? Has the watch been polished? These things can impact a watch’s value.

The “Is it polished?” question, for example: On its surface, having a polished watch might seem like a great thing; it makes for a shiner, newer-looking pre-owned watch. But all that glitters is not gold! Well, it may be gold, but every time a watch is polished, a layer of that gold is stripped away. This leads to a softening of edges and dulling of hallmarks that may tamper with the watch’s design and lessen its value. One little polish won’t ruin a watch—and in fact, major companies like Rolex will typically polish your timepiece if you take it in to get serviced—but just beware of anything that’s over-polished.

Oh, and a rule of thumb: “If you find a deal that’s too good to be true, it probably is” says Zagoory. Don’t be tempted by an unusually low price tag. Odds are this isn’t the steal of a lifetime; it’s just a dealer trying to rip you off.

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Stick Within Your Budget but Keep an Open Mind

Daniella Rosa, business development manager with the Phillips Watches Department, urges friends and first-time watch buyers to plan around a price range. “Don’t be influenced to go outside your budget, because you’ll probably regret it,” she says. “But within that budget, don’t skimp on quality.”

What does quality really even look like? Rosa encourages people to consider smaller brands when seeking affordable quality. “Don’t just look at the big dogs,” she says. “Everyone knows what a Rolex or Patek is, but people sometimes forget the TAG Heuers or the Movados, or even something like a cool vintage Audemars Piguet Quartz from the ’70s.”

Speaking of quartz: I asked Rosa what she thinks about the quartz (movement that is battery powered) versus mechanical (energy from the motion of a wearer’s wrist or via manual winding). A lot of the snobby, hard-core watch collectors will scoff at a quartz watch, like, it diminishes the integrity of the timepiece, because it doesn’t have this incredibly technical mechanism within it. But keep an open mind here. Rosa says that despite all the strong opinions, she loves her quartz watches (and opting for quartz may help you stay within that pesky budget). “I have a Chanel J12 that I wear all the time. I service it every three years to change the battery. It’s reliable and fashionable,” she says. And remember the It girl watch? That’s quartz too. Your pretty Panthère might not have the resale value that is inherent in a complicated Rolex Daytona, but it’s something you’ll wear and love every day.

Try It On!

Okay, so you’ve done your research and you (think) you know which watch you want to buy. Now it’s time to try it on. You may love the way a watch looks online or on a model, but once you try it on, you could experience a complete 180. Even if you’re buying online, it’s important to at least get an idea of how it will look on your wrist. Go into an authorized dealer, boutique, or auction preview (which are always open to the public, by the way, so don’t be shy) and try on a watch similar in size and model to the one you want. If it doesn’t feel right, it’s probably not the one for you. Back to the drawing board!

Have Fun

If you’re buying the watch in person, “Grab a friend, get dressed up, and make an occasion out of it,” Zagoory says. I recently went watch shopping with my friend and former BAZAAR editor Chrissy Rutherford; we decked ourselves in our Fifth Avenue best and treated ourselves to an afternoon of princess-like treatment. The customer service at any high-end retailer or dealer is usually prettyyyyy, pretty good (*uses Larry David voice*), and odds are, you’ll walk out of there with a lil’ buzz from their complimentary champagne. We didn’t wind up buying anything, but we tried on a lot of watches, and now we both definitely know what we want when the time comes.

“At the end of the day, this should be fun,” Proia asserts with a smile. “Having a watch does require a lot of money, but it doesn’t have to be so serious. These are beautiful objects; wearable pieces of art. You should enjoy them and not get so bogged down in the details, because it does a disservice to the actual joy of collecting.”

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