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The Life of a Collector Pre-Owned vs. Vintage Watches

When comparing pre-owned watches to vintage watches, a measure semantic trailblazing is required.

The definition of each term is a relatively amorphous, but thanks to the development of the wristwatch secondary market, certain clear lines can be drawn in the sand; the difference between a vintage watch and a pre-owned watch is a function of the seller’s terms of sale and the watch’s distinguishing features.

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Differences Between Pre-Owned and Vintage

Terms of sale are the easiest part of the comparison to define. In general, most goods – cars, audio equipment, computers, and watches – that are advertised as “pre-owned” or “reconditioned” will carry a measure of buyer protections. When this isn’t the case in late-model watches, buyers should discount the seller and move on.

Pre-Owned Terms

For the most part, these pre-owned buyer protections include assurances that the seller 1) authenticated the watch, 2) inspected it for function and condition, and 3) offers an after-sale warranty that protects the buyer from near-term defects in function, condition, and all forms of inauthenticity (i.e., both individual parts and claimed brand/model identity).

Unless explicitly represented otherwise, a pre-owned watch should look and perform very near to the way it did when delivered from the factory. Moreover, a secondary market consensus has developed around the notion that pre-owned watches should include as much original factory packaging, documentation, and set accessories as possible.

Vintage Terms

In contrast, most vintage sellers will vouch for little more than authenticity of the watch in question. Consider that even many blue-chip vintage watch auctions describe the lots in the terms, “service recommended at the buyer’s expense.” This is standard practice in the vintage realm. Due to age, authenticity is the primary concern; functionality, warranty thereof, and any pretense of reconditioning to factory specifications are not considered essential by vintage sellers.

Moreover, condition and accessories are not considered critical to the vintage watch seller. Vintage watches featuring obvious signs of wear and age are advertised as boasting “patina.” The same qualities in a late-model pre-owned watch would be regarded as clear-cut damage. Even the in case of dive watches, the water resistance of a vintage watch is considered to be “zero” unless explicitly noted otherwise; this is by convention within the vintage marketplace.

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Considerations Before You Purchase

None of the above should disqualify a vintage watch from a buyer’s consideration, but the terms of sales should be understood prior to a transaction. In the world of vintage, authenticity is paramount. Pre-owned watches, in contrast, should offer a close approximation of factory condition, function, and a measure of after-sales warranty from the seller.

The second area of distinction between vintage and pre-owned watches depends not on the terms of sale but the characteristics of the watches in question.

While not standardized, there are three areas of consideration when determining whether a watch should be defined as “vintage.” First, is the watch still serviceable with its original manufacturer? Second, does the watch pre-date the Swiss “Quartz Crisis,” (a watershed economic tumult in the mechanical watch industry)? Third and finally, is the watch materially different from its manufacturer’s current production?

Servicing Needs of a Watch

First, consider the problem of service for a vintage watch. Not all manufacturers are unable or unwilling to service their decades-old watches, but when this is the case, the watch must be regarded as firmly in the vintage realm. Sometimes, a manufacturer simply doesn’t exist. Cortébert and Elgin fall into this category. Other times, as with Bulova with its original tuning fork watches or Rolex with watches over 25 years old, the manufacturer is unable or unwilling to service its older watches. That is a sure sign that a watch should be regarded as vintage timepiece; handle with care.

In general, late-model pre-owned watches are the recent output of manufacturers that remain extant and/or willing to service their watches through factory channels.

Vintage Omega Seamaster

Date of Production

The Quartz Crisis – roughly 1973-1983 – is considered to be a watershed moment and an existential trauma for the Swiss watch industry. Cheap quartz watches from East Asia supplanted mechanical watches as timekeepers to the masses. Hundreds of Swiss brands and component manufacturers folded during this period. In other cases, mass consolidation created new entities like SMH – predecessor of the Swatch Group – and forced other brands into the arms of holding companies.

If for no reason other than how dramatically the watch world changed, this period is a good demarcation between the era of the practical mechanical watch (also known as a “watch”), and the era of mechanical watches marketed explicitly as “luxury goods.” The arrival of umbrella brands, mass-production of luxury watches, and the subsequent revival of dead brands (e.g., Blancpain, Breitling, Jaquet-Droz, Breguet) means that the types of products and sources of these products differed dramatically from what was built in the prior epoch.

In many cases, the revived brands, brands emerging from near-death, and consolidated firms lacked the personnel, parts, and machinery to re-create the watches produced before the crisis. When this is the case for a watch in question, it should be considered vintage beyond a shadow of a doubt.

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Is it Still Produced?

A third and final yardstick for assigning vintage status to a watch is the measure of how well it represents its manufacturer’s current production. Sometimes, the character of an older watch is so distinct from current offerings leads it to be regarded as vintage even when the timepiece is not antiquated. Consider late 1990s Roger Dubuis Sympathie and Hommage watches; they could be offered under terms that are consistent with the definitions of “pre-owned,” but they would stand out dramatically in a case alongside the recent Excalibur, Velvet, Pulsion, La Monegasque, and even the current Hommage collection.

These older models often appeal to very different buyer demographics than those who purchase the current production. The same fact is true of the many Rolex “transitional references” from the still recent 1980s. Collectors begin targeting the older watches on the basis of size, design, specifications, and scarcity that simply don’t apply to a given brand’s new production. When these parallel market forces develop around watches of a “vintage” character, the pricing and sale dynamics can split with the pre-owned marketplace of conventional late-model watches.

In summary, the distinction between pre-owned and vintage is amorphous, but recent maturation of the wristwatch secondary market offers emerging forms of clarity.  The terms of sale make a serious difference; pre-owned should offer more buyer protections and a product that closely approximates recent factory output. In the vintage world, “as is” offerings still dominate. Finally, lines in the sand can be drawn by comparing the era, character, and serviceability of a watch in order to determine whether it is best described as “pre-owned” or “vintage.”

About Tim Mosso
Tim Mosso is a lifelong watch enthusiast and historian. He is an active member of the online watch community and his passion for watches is second to none. As a self-proclaimed watch nut, he loves to bring his knowledge of horology across all different platforms.

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