Earlier this week I posted about the evolution of watch collecting, and talked about what might happen next in the watch collecting hobby, as collecting evolves, and collectors experience decision fatigue. Quite a few people followed up with me asking about vintage watches, and even suggesting that vintage watches might be the next big thing – so I thought I’d share some thoughts on the topic and see what others think.
What are vintage watches?
This is a topic of great debate, so lets cover some basics and then (inevitably) agree to disagree at the end!
The term vintage relates primarily to wine and is an altered form of the French word vendange, meaning “the grape harvest”. From Wikipedia: Vintage, in winemaking, is the process of picking grapes and creating the finished product. A vintage wine is one made from grapes that were all, or primarily, grown and harvested in a single specified year.
Other general definitions include “denoting something from the past of high quality, especially something representing the best of its kind” or “produced in the past, and typical of the period in which it was made“.
When it comes to watches, there is a cut off period where pieces older than 100 years old are considered antique – this is widely agreed upon, so the only point of debate is around the minimum age for a watch to be considered ‘vintage’. Most sources I have found agree this age falls between 20-30 years.
The obvious point here, is that as we get older, more watches become classified as vintage – so my personal definition is this: Any watches older than the global average median age should be classified as “vintage watches”. As of today, this is 29.43 years – take a look at the data here.
For a vintage watch collector, I suppose this is a topic which can fill a whole book… but for me, vintage watches have a romantic quality about them. They’re often quite charming and sometimes mysterious, and come with potentially storied pasts. Even the tool watches of the past which are worth 6 figures today, were probably used and abused for their intended purpose – compared with the equivalent watches of today which are babied and stored away. This speaks to my previous comments about watches no longer being tools, but jewellery – however, that’s a separate topic.
Vintage watches also serve as a kind of time portal into history; when you look at some of the old unusually shaped watches from the second half of the 20th century, they really do take you back to a different era. Perhaps for older collectors today, this serves as a tool of reminiscence in some ways. Often times, certain things were well made too, more so than they are today. Some of the ‘workhorse’ movements created back then are still regarded as bulletproof today – while technological advances have been made, there’s no denying some of the ingenuity seen in the past, and these watches remind us of these hallowed times.
Given that production numbers were much lower in the past, and also given that the watches more mostly used and abused, vintage watches in good or excellent condition are few and far between. As time passes, and the market dries up for any particular model, the laws of supply and demand kick in, and provided a model is desirable, the prices keep rising since supply is gone.
Having said all of that, looking ahead to the future of vintage watches seems to be a moving target. There is no single way to discuss ‘the future of vintage watches’ since the entire class has only one constant trait: change.
Speaking to another friend S (@arrested_time) he pointed out another interesting aspect about today’s vintage watches versus the vintage watches of tomorrow… the aesthetics. While we’ve thus far only discussed age, what is true today, is that the vintage watches actually have a certain look to them; Faded bezels, aged appearance on the old lume plots and so on. Today’s watches however, are manufactured not to show age at all, with ceramic bezels which don’t fade, and lume which does not fade – it probably won’t look 30 years old in 30 years from now. This means there might be an explosion in demand for people who want old watches which actually look old – I can see the logic.
I don’t think vintage watches will experience some “ultra pronounced” resurgence because I don’t think they were ever NOT a popular category of collecting. Long before we saw the values of vintage watches skyrocket, there were collectors who loved these old watches for what they were, and for what they represented. I do make an exception for the watches which are currently classified as ‘neo-vintage’ – i.e. ~20 years old so not quite vintage yet. I think these represent the best of both worlds for now, and demand is already rising for these – but after this window passes, there will no longer be a distinction since the modern watches of today will not show their age anyway. I am open to challenge on this point, as it was the subject of discussion with @watches_and_guinness, @arrested_time and @watchthislacey about 5 minutes before posting this! 🙂
Anyway, some people will enjoy collecting older watches, but I don’t believe the ratio of these people will substantially increase, in relation to other types of collectors. We should also remember that since production numbers are vastly larger today due to modern manufacturing scale etc, the likelihood of particular models skyrocketing to insane heights is significantly reduced as well. Sure, there might be exceptions to the rule, due to short production runs or production mistakes (which render something rarer than others) etc – but I am speaking generally here.
Of course, others beg to differ – Insta’s pun queen (@viranimansion) thinks vintage as a category will grow in popularity, in the same way fashion has – largely because of a lack of alternatives to feed the hunger for watch purchases (as hype watches are hard to buy, and indies sell out too quickly). The celeb (@watch.gringa) reckons a new generation of collectors will cause a swing back to vintage, particularly GenZ who she thinks will have more of an affinity with vintage watches.
Of course – as I’ve always said – I know nothing. Time will tell.