There’s something about a watch you could actually buy with your current bank account, right now, that gets the heart thumping and the synapses firing. These watches — specifically, the ones that cost less than $1,000, many of them less than $500 — are the subject of our new series “Time Is Money“.
If you’re buying a gold watch today, says James Lamdin, a vintage watch collector and the founder and CEO of online vintage watch boutique analog/shift, it’s very likely to be rose gold. “For my own clients and myself, yellow gold — particularly two-toned yellow gold — conjures images of 1980s, dangling Datejusts, a sleazy uncle from Jersey, and retirees”, Lamdin told me in a recent phone interview. “For the current generation… it just seems old.”
Whether rose, yellow, white, pink or red, gold is part of a growing watch trend of a return to precious metals in the last three to five years, previously dominated by steel sports watches. Though rose gold (given its reddish tint through a small addition of silver to its blend of gold and copper) is on the modern tip of that trend, it’s been used in wristwatches and pocket watches just as long as those other golds have been, Lamdin said; its current boom is mostly due to a cyclical style paradigm that shifts based on what wearers perceive as “old” — i.e., what color gold your sleazy uncle wore at the Thanksgiving dinner table.
Gold being a soft metal, watch cases made of the stuff tend to “ding, dent, scratch and otherwise be damaged” very easily, Lamdin said. Oh, and with gold going for around $1,280 per ounce right now, a watch made solidly of the stuff costs about as much as a midsize sedan.
And indeed, lent to a dress watch or sleek chronograph, the auburn tint of rose gold elevates the air of luxury but isn’t gaudy. But there are a few problems. Because they’re made of solid gold, which at present goes for about $1,280 per ounce, rose gold watches inherently cost as much as a midsize sedan. Gold being a soft metal, those insanely pricey pieces also tend to “ding, dent, scratch and otherwise be damaged” very easily, Lamdin said. It’s a harrowing combination for a potential owner, and a prohibitive one for the bank accounts of most.
There are more affordable solutions, ones that’re far from perfect, little discussed among serious watch collectors and not covered in depth on the web: gold plating and PVD (physical vapor deposition), wherein thin layers of gold (measured in microns) are applied to a stainless steel case. The market for these methods feels a bit like the Wild West: the stakes are high, help and information are scarce, things all feel a bit under the table, and everyone’s trying to get a piece, however small, of the shiny bullion that’s locked away down at the town bank (or somewhere in the well-firewalled pages of Amazon).
As Lamdin put it, gold-plated watches aren’t looked down upon by serious collectors so much as they’re ignored; they’re not considered precious metals nor are they considered base metals. Buying one can, however, make sense for buyers on a budget: many vintage gold-plated watches actually sell for less than their steel counterparts, and plate and PVD rose gold watches go for fractions of the cost of their solid gold brethren. I asked Lamdin to lend his expertise on the subject for those who are looking to spend hundreds or thousands on a rose gold watch rather than tens of thousands, and searched for some of the best examples that cost less than $2,000.
How to Buy One
1 Understand plating and PVD, and what each entails. The two main processes used to coat watches in gold differ significantly, though both create a supremely thin layer of gold measured in microns atop the steel watch case. (“Generally speaking”, Lamdin said, “there is no gold value in a plated watch.”) Electrochemical plating showed up in watches around the 1960s and 1970s and uses a charge and chemicals to bond gold molecules to steel. The effectiveness of this technique varies greatly. “Depending on style of case, the chemical process used and the wear the watch sees after its lifetime, it can be utter shit or actually very, very good” said Lamdin. “There is no particular rule to value because the processes vary significantly, and each piece has a different life.” (Watches plated using “Rold gold” and “gold-filled” techniques can also be found on the vintage market with more rarity.)
PVD, or physical vapor deposition, is in essence one metal being blasted onto another metal in order to form a coating. Today PVD generally creates a harder rose gold surface that’s more resistant to wear-and-tear damage than a plated one, and it also tends to be more expensive than plating. (A Blog to Watch has a good explanation here.) That said, the quality of PVD varies just like modern plating. Furthermore, Lamdin noted that older PVD watches from the 1970s and 1980s (when the process was still young) are known for having very bad durability.
2 Consider use and longevity constraints. As you’d expect, gold plate or PVD holds up far better on a dress watch worn occasionally than it does on a watch worn every day, or used as a tool watch in any capacity where it might be banged or dinged. Though modern processes are far better than they were 50 years ago, “the plating on a watch does wear down. The more rubbing or scratching you get, the faster it’ll wear down.” Wear results in a lighter gold color and, eventually, the silver of the steel peeking through. Lamdin warns against plated watches with plated bracelets, which rub against each other and wear down quickly, and also noted that constant strap changes can accelerate damage to gold plating.
3 Know what you’re getting into. Even if you take good care of the watch, over 20 to 30 years of regular wear its gold plating will wear down. Unlike a steel watch, the fix isn’t straightforward. “If you ding or scratch a steel watch, it can be repaired by a good case guy”, Lamdin said. “You can’t do that with gold. You have to repair what’s underneath the gold — you can’t repair it without removing the gold plating.” Re-plating is prohibitively expensive; unless the watch is inherently valuable, Lamdin said, it can easily cost more than a watch’s worth.
4 Buy the very best watch you can. This is alway’s Lamdin’s advice to potential owners. Those interested in vintage gold-plate watches need to find what Lamdin calls a “survivor” — the rare piece that’s escaped major wear and tear despite its age — because there’s no way to restore a damaged piece without spending loads of money. (Lamdin’s suggestions for quality vintage gold-plated watches are Omegas, including the Seamaster DeVille, Speedmaster and Constellation, along with select pieces from Universal Geneve, many of which can be bought in decent condition for anywhere between $1,500 and $3,000.) The same rule applies to new watches: know your budget, do your research and buy from respected brands. We’ve outlined our suggestions below.
Daniel Wellington Classic Bristol, $229
Tissot Tradition Rose Gold PVD, $242+
Orient Bambino, $280
Avi-8 Flyboy, $640
Hamilton Jazzmaster Viewmatic, $764+
Shinola PVD Rose Gold, $1,000
Frederique Constant Classics Index Rose Gold, $1,475
Tissot Rose Dream Men’s Quartz, $1,900
Hamilton Jazzmaster Automatic, $1,965