Vintage Watches

Frequently asked questions about vintage watches.  Please Note - We offer the following information as a free source of help.  Although we have been in business for many years we do not believe we always have the best answer.  If you come up with better answers, please share them with us.   If you have a pertinent question which is not answered below please contact us and we'll do our best to help you.

1.Q: Just what does "vintage" mean?  A:   I guess it is another way of saying "old" but if you call it vintage you can get more money.  We are interested in watches that are "used" (i. e. second hand), but for one or a variety of reasons have some sort of appeal to collectors and to people who like the character associated with some of these interesting items.

2. Q: Can you repair my vintage wrist watch?  A: Most likely.  We specialize in old watches and have an inventory of parts and suppliers of parts that can usually take care of getting any needed repair items.  We also have in our store a complete watch repair shop.

3. Q: Are vintage watches more accurate than my modern quartz one?  A: No way!  Old mechanical watches couldn't begin to compare in accuracy with modern watches - even when they were new.  Now that they are several years old and some of the parts are worn they are even less accurate.  If you need to know time right down to the second, stick with quartz.  My good friend Peter Amis who is a lot smarter and busier than I am told me there wasn't anywhere he ever needed to be that it really mattered if he was five minutes early or late.  I agree.

4. Q: Are vintage watches good investments?   A: Some certainly have been, but we do not know the future.  We used to buy what are commonly called Rolex bubble backs for $75 to $100, fix them up, and sell them for $125-$150.   I'm talking about 15 years ago.  Those same watches are now selling for $1000 and up!  People used to bring them in to us and were happy to get the $75.  Now that we would be willing to pay $750 no one seems to have any - except for dealers and collectors.  But will they keep going up in value?  We simply don't know.   We do try to sell watches at reasonable prices and to pay fair prices when we buy them, but we prefer that our customers buy them to wear and to show them off to their friends.  If they go up in value, so much the better!

5.  Q:   What brand is best?  A: This is pretty much a matter of opinion.  The world generally considers Patek Philippe to be the number one brand.  I personally like the Rolex Oyster models because of their superior cases and their ready resell market. 

One well known dealer, Jim Krause from Huntington Beach, CA told me that a master watch maker he knew insisted Hamilton was better than Patek Philippe!  His reasoning was that Hamilton had a better reputation for interchangeability of parts.  He said you could take several Pateks of the same model, disassemble them, scramble the parts together, reassemble the watches, and only wind up with a few that would work right.  If you did the same with Hamilton watches you could reassemble the whole lot and wind up with every one of the watches running just fine.  We have never tried this so we don't know if it is true or not.  We have heard pretty much the same story from jewelers who have sold and repaired Bulova watches.   There are many highly regarded brands.  Just buy what you like.  I currently am wearing a Wittnauer, which certainly isn't my favorite brand, but it has an unusual shaped case that gets me a lot of nice compliments.

6.  Q: The back of my gold filled watch case is badly worn.  Can it be repaired?   A:  We have had good luck with this.  It seems that some goldsmiths either have a secret method of making this type of repair or they are just better at it than others.  They use a gold solder close in color to the original metal and heat the watch case to a point where the solder will liquefy and bond to the base metal of the case, but great care must be taken to not heat the watch case to too high a temperature as the base metal will melt at a lower degree than the gold plating.   This can be a real mess.  It is not cheap to have this repair done and we do not recommend you having someone attempt it unless they can show you some examples of their work.  We also must say that even when the job is done well a close examination will reveal that it is not quite as good as new.

7. Q: I have several old watches that have been around the house for years.  Will you buy them from me?   A: It depends pretty much on what you have.  At this time there is very little market for most common ladies models other than the few dollars of gold contained in some of the cases.  Most cheap wristwatches also are of no interest, with the exception of comic character pieces.  Many men's models are valuable.  I guess the best rule is to let us look at them or at least talk to you about them. 

I recall years ago a very attractive and well-dressed lady came into our store, showed us a few watches, and asked if we wanted them.  I examined them, told her we would pay $450 for the lot, and got the immediate impression that she was going to come over the counter and beat the tar out of me.  I possibly was intimidated partly because she seemed so aristocratic.   "You'll pay that much for these?!"  Her voice was pretty loud, and I stepped back, trying to think of some soothing things to say to her.  "I almost threw them in the trash but decided to see if you wanted them free for parts and such!  Here, give me the money!"   Needless to say, I was pretty relieved.

8.  Q: What makes a vintage watch valuable?   A: There are many factors, and what is valuable to one person can be pretty much junk to another.   Years ago my sister owned a store adjacent to our shop and we could walk between the two stores without going outside.  A young couple came into the coin shop looking for a vintage watch for the wife (this was back when people were more interested in ladies watches than they are now).  I showed them everything we had available, which at the time was pretty extensive.  Nothing was just right, and frankly I was losing interest in the sale.  I felt by the way things were going that nothing we had was going to make them happy.  They would pause and smile at a watch once in awhile but then would shake their heads and ask what else we could show them.  I felt they were just going to waste my whole day!  Finally I figured how to draw matters to a close. 

I knew my sister had this really ugly gold and diamond watch that had an $800 price tag on it.  "Well, I've shown you everything we have available here in the coin shop, but if you'll wait I'll step next door to see if my sister has anything today."   Now I knew that watch was still over there.  It was too ugly for anyone to buy it.   While the couple waited I hurried over and brought the watch back, just knowing that it would repulse them so badly they would leave the store and never come back again.   "Here is all she had."  As I held the watch out, they both seemed to take a step back, then in unison they said, gasping in admiration, "That's the most beautiful watch I have ever seen!"  They paid full price and left the store happy.  Here was a watch that no one in the world seemed to like, but yet both the husband and wife thought it was just beautiful.  Redd Foxx once said "Beauty is only skin deep, but ugly goes clear to the bone!"  I don't know just how that fits in here, but I always thought it was funny.

9.  Q: What if I buy a watch from you and decide to sell it back at a later date.  Will you buy it, and how much of a beating will I take?   A: As long as there is a market for it we'll buy it back.  If market conditions remain stable for your watch we will pay you about 75% of your purchase price.   Sometimes watches go up in value and sometimes they go down.  If you bought nice clean high grade wristwatches from us ten years ago it is likely we'll be willing to give you more back than you paid.  But don't take this as a guarantee of future conditions.  The bottom line is we attempt to make a profit of about 25% on a sale.   We feel if that profit figure is consistently more than 25% then we aren't being fair to our supplier (usually the walk-in customer) and if it is consistently lower than 25% we won't make enough money to pay all the bills.

10.    Q: I want to sell my old watch.  Can I get more money for it if I have it fixed first?   Yes, almost always a watch is worth more if it is running than if it is not running.  We must caution you, though, that often times the repair cost will exceed the market value of the watch.  Watch repair businesses naturally want to make money fixing your watch and they are likely to tell you that you should pay some figure - say $65 to overhaul the watch.  You do this, but then find out that the most you can get for it is $40.  A sad state of affairs.  It is best to check first with a dealer who actually buys and sells watches to see if you should invest the money.

11. Q: I have inherited my grandfather's old pocket watch.  It needs to be repaired.  It is a pretty cheap watch and the repair bill will be more than the watch is worth.    What do you recommend?   A: The market value of the watch in this situation has little bearing on whether or not you should get it fixed.  I personally do not have my grandfather's watch.  If I did have it, and it was a piece of junk I would be willing to pay a lot of money to make it work.  Now if you simply want to keep the watch as a remembrance then it isn't even necessary that it be made to operate.  I think people should be respectful of heirlooms that are handed down to them.   We often have young people bring things to us they have inherited, and we try to discourage them from selling these items.   They are family jewels, so to speak, and should be honored. 

I was touched by a story told a few years ago by a member of Chapter 59 NAWCC.  This man brought his grandfather's watch in for show and tell.  It was a cheap seven jewel Elgin watch.  According to the story the grandfather had come over from Ireland in steerage on a passenger ship, stone broke, and had managed to get a job digging ditches in New York.  The watch was one of his few worldly possessions and he wore it around his neck on a string so he could check it from time to time to see how much longer he had to work that day.  Before long the poor fellow developed pneumonia and died shortly after that.  He didn't leave behind anything of real value - not even the watch was really worth much money.  I can tell you if that watch were for sale on the open market probably no one would even make an offer on it.  But don't try to offer the owner a thousand dollars for it.  He would turn you down.

12.  Q: What should I collect?   A: Suit yourself.    Many people try to collect only one brand.  Others try to collect watches of 23 jewels or greater.  Still others try to get the oldest one of each make they can find.  The possibilities are endless.  I do recommend this, though.   Try to know the market value of a wide range of watches.  Get a reliable watch price guide and keep it handy.  What if you only collect Hamilton railroad grade watches but come across a nice looking Rockford at a flea market.  If the watch is cheap enough you should buy it, even if you have no intention of keeping it.  There is someone who wants that Rockford, and you can use it as "currency" to make a deal to get a watch you actually want to keep.  If nothing else you can bring it (or send it) to us and we'll make you a cash offer.

13.  Q: I don't want to pay "dealer prices."  Is it wise to buy at flea markets and garage sales? A:  Absolutely.  We know of many terrific bargains from these places.  We will say, though, that often it takes a lot of looking before you actually find any wonderful deal.  We have tried this method of shopping ourselves and have come to the conclusion that if it is done as a business it doesn't pay very well on an hourly basis.  Therefore we recommend you count your "search time" as entertainment.  It is not unusual for a good customer to come in with a "real find" and we are always happy for them.    We like our customers. 

We do have one or two guys, though, that never ever buy anything from us, never sell us anything, but insist on coming in on a regular basis and bragging about what they "stole" at an antique store, garage sale, swap meet, etc.  Now we are a pretty small operation in the grand scope of the economy but we do have expenses to meet.  We simply cannot afford to stand around all afternoon and listen to someone tell how sharp a watch trader they are.  Be kind to your dealer.  If you want to be greeted warmly and made to feel truly welcome, at least make a courtesy purchase from time to time.

14.  Q: I want to buy an old watch to actually carry.  What is a good brand for this? A:  Avoid the smaller manufacturers.  Parts are often hard to find and are usually more expensive.  By the way, we are pretty sure your    watch will eventually need some sort of new part.  The balance jewels on vintage pocket watches are not shock resistant, so it only takes a slight sideways bump to crack a jewel or bend a balance staff.  Even if that doesn't happen a mainspring can break for no apparent reason.  

Mainsprings often break during periods of weather change.  I guess if anyone ever had a job of selling and installing mainsprings they would be busy in the spring and fall and would take long vacations in the summer and winter. 

Hamilton, Elgin, Illinois, and Waltham are brands that have replacement parts readily available for most common models.  If you are prone to dropping your watch and thereby breaking the balance staff you should consider a Hamilton Model 992B.  This watch has a two piece balance staff that is about the easiest to replace of all models.

15.  Q: I want to carry a pocket watch but they are big and clunky.  Can you help? A: You are among the blessed.  Two of the least popular sizes of US made pocket watches are the 12 and 6, which are both rather small.  The 6 size was originally sold as a ladies pendant watch and was popular from about 1875 until about 1905.  It is usually found in hunting case models which often have very attractive engraving.  Now if you are a "macho" guy and can't bring yourself to carry a ladies watch, then this isn't for you.  However if you are willing to overlook this matter (and if you think the other US sizes are too clunky you probably aren't all that macho anyhow) then you can probably get a pretty good deal on a watch that will make you happy. 

As for the 12 size, this is a watch that became common around WWI  Unfortunately for its popularity the wrist watch also was coming into vogue at the same time.  A lot of people received 12 size pocket watches for graduation presents, retirement gifts, wedding gifts, etc., but opted to put them away in a drawer and actually use a wrist watch.   For that reason there are many, many very fine 12 size watches available for reasonable prices.  On the infrequent occasions that I actually carry a pocket watch I almost always choose a 12 or 16 size.

16. Q: I am in a unit that does Civil War re-enactments and I want a watch that fits that time period.  What is available? Practically speaking you are limited to two US brands - Waltham and Howard.  Especially in the case of Waltham a simple check of the serial number list will tell you when the watch was made.  By the end of 1864 Waltham had completed movement #110,000.  Therefore if you can get something with a serial number that is lower you will be in pretty good shape.   You could go up to #180,000 and still be in the year 1865, but the war was pretty much over by then.  If you can find one that is #20,000 or less then you have a watch that was made before the war even started.  That would be Jim-Dandy indeed.    Expect to pay a premium price for a Waltham made during or before the Civil War.  There are other guys like you looking for these watches. 

With Howard watches it is a little harder to tell the exact year of manufacture, but you are on pretty safe ground with a number that is 9,000 or less.   By the way, the number you are looking for is the one engraved into the movement.   The serial number of the case will not help you date the watch any more than putting two dabs of Brylcreem in your hair instead of one helped you date Mary Lou back in high school. 

There is always the option of getting a European watch for a lot less money than a US made one.  A lot of people in the US had Swiss made pocket watches during the time of the Civil War and since it is much more difficult to pin a date of manufacture to a European make, just buy one that has the same style as was being made before and prior to the Civil War and you are okay. 

By the way, I don't think most of the guys who actually did the fighting had watches.  Maybe the officers did.  My great, great grandfather was a second sergeant in Company H, 28th Regiment North Carolina (known as the Cleveland Regulators) and in his letters which I have been reading lately he never mentions what time it is.  Most of the time he was pretty happy just to have a little something to eat.  He was issued some new clothes in September, 1863, and I bet he was still wearing those same clothes on May 6th, 1864 when he was killed in The Battle Of The Wilderness.

17.  Q: We have had an antique watch stored in our safe for many years.  We took it out a few days ago and found that the movement is starting to rust.  What should we do?  A:  Right away you should take it to a repair shop and have as much of the rust removed as possible.  If you cannot afford to have a complete cleaning done at this time, at least get the rust off.  Several years ago at the San Diego regional I saw a minute repeating hunting case pocket watch  cased in solid 18K gold that had been stored like your watch.  The case was beautiful, but the movement was so badly rusted it almost looked like one solid mass of metal.  Peter Iles, a master machinist and well known watch man was examining the watch, shaking his head.  According to him even if much of the rust could be removed the metal levers were in such a weakened state that they would just snap apart.  The watch was a total loss save for the value of the case.  What a sad situation.  Don't let this happen to your watch.  If you do have one stored in a home safe, please take it out once in awhile and make sure it looks all right.

18.  Q: If a watch is not working and the repair bill will exceed the market value, what can be done? A: Often times nothing at all is done.    These watches lie around waiting for the market conditions to change to the point where fixing them makes sense.  In our case we get the work done wholesale so we often have Ken fix up a few of these when he is caught up on his other work.   Often we sell such watches "as is" to repairmen who use them as repair parts, and sometime hobbyists buy them from us to fix them up themselves.  We have seen quite a few watches that we have sold to hobbyists who actually made them into very attractive pieces.

19. Q: My pocket watch is in a 14K gold case, but it looks like there is some other type of metal showing through.  How can this be?  A: For many years it was not illegal for a watch case manufacturer to mark an item with a gold mark although it was just gold plated or gold filled.  This has confused many people.    There are trademark reference books available which can help you tell the solid gold cases from the filled and plated ones.  With a bit of practice you can almost always tell by the "feel" of the metal, especially if the watch is a hunting model with a curette (dust cover).  Open the outer back cover and the curette.   Place your thumb in the inside center of the curette, your index and middle fingers on the outside it, near the edges, and squeeze gently.  A solid gold case should flex much like a spring and then return to its original shape.  A gold filled or gold plated case will be very stiff, and if it does bend it will not automatically return to its previous shape.  In cases of very heavy, high quality cases, this method doesn't work as well.

As long as we are on the subject of case metals, we should tell you that people are often fooled by marks like "Silverine", "Silveroid", and similar sounding names.  These cases are made primarily of an alloy of nickel and do not contain any silver at all.  US made silver cases generally will be marked as "coin" or "sterling".  Cases from Europe will have a three digit number preceded by a decimal point to indicate the purity of the silver.  .800, .900, .925, and .950 are marks that are often seen.  These are almost always correct identifiers of a case that is made of silver.  Please note: If the number only contains two digits it is not silver.

20.  Q: You haven't answered all my questions.  Can you help me some more? A: If your answer isn't found above, then please contact us and we'll try to help.

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Copyright 2004 Escondido Coin & Loan, Inc. All rights reserved.
Revised:
January 13, 2006