With demand for vintage timepieces steadily on the rise, it might be tempting go out and spend thousands on a classic Rolex Submariner or Omega Speedmaster. While they’re great timepieces, there’s something to be said about dipping your toes into vintage collecting with something a bit more … accessible.
Fortunately, the vintage marketplace is teeming with undervalued timepieces, from big names and forgotten brands alike. The problem is picking something from that expansive lot. Here, three vintage watch specialists — Eric Wind of Wind Vintage, Nick Pardo, previously of Analog/Shift and Hamilton Powell of Crown & Caliber — opine on the best timepieces that can be realistically acquired for less than a grand.
Both Wind and Powell recommend Vulcain Crickets. Pioneers of the mechanical alarm complication, they were relatively ubiquitous — multiple U.S. presidents even wore them. “They were extremely popular when they were introduced as people loved having an alarm they could carry with them. It was sort of the iPhone of its day in terms of demand and usefulness,” Wind says. Modern mechanical alarm watches are fairly rare and decidedly more expensive than their vintage counterparts.
Wind, Pardo and Powell all agree that vintage three-hand Omegas — especially the early Seamasters — are incredibly undervalued and, as such, serve as gateways into vintage collecting. “They offer handsome, timeless designs, high-grade in-house movements and a recognizable name at an affordable price point,” says Pardo, while Wind notes that, “I have seen many of people that started with Seamasters quickly get the vintage watch bug.” All three note that they’re especially great as dress watches, with their charismatic designs and slim cases sliding easily under a shirt cuff. “They’re smart, sophisticated and very Don Draper-esque,” Powell says.
Throughout the ’60s and ’70s, Bulova made loads of unique watches that are picking up steam within the collecting community because they can be acquired on the cheap. Pardo personally recommends the 666 Diver, which came in a smattering of different configurations. “This is a great line of dive watches from the 60s and early 70s that range in size from slim 35mm time-only models to larger Valjoux-powered chronographs. And who doesn’t love the ‘Devil Diver’ nickname?” Wind’s personal preference is for the more obscure Spinnaker, emblematic of some of the brand’s bolder design directions: “Bulova has made a number of daring and interesting designs over the years...the Spinnaker is an automatic watch that came in some very funky colors and with a strap painted to match the dial. It’s a really cool and well-made watch,” he says.
Seiko Sports Watches
Pardo says, “I can’t not recommend Seiko at this price point.” He’s right — few watches back as much history, innovation and design at their low, low price. “They’re funky, colorful, diverse, have bulletproof movements and are horologically significant,” he says. Pardo specifically likes the 6139 “Pogue,” 6309 “Turtle,” 6138 “John Player Special” and “Bellmatic Alarm.” Though recommends buying through a trusted dealer rather than eBay, as the latter is rife with frankenwatches.
US Military GI Watches
While many companies are making vintage reissues of old general issue military watches, Pardo says you can get the real deal — specifically old Hamilton and Benrus watches — for just a few hundred bucks. “They’re simple, clean, have legible dials, reliable ETA-based movements with hacking, and a history of being used by American servicemen for decades,” he says. “These hold a special place in my heart as one was my first vintage piece.” Pardo also notes that the Benrus 3061, a civilian variant made popular by Steve McQueen, who wore it in Bulitt, is harder to find but still realistically attainable for under $1,000. (See image above.)
Today, Tissot is known for making some solid-value mechanical watches, but the brand’s commitment to value for money extends to its vintage pieces, too. Models like the Seastar divers, dressy Angtimagnetique and can be found well under $1,000. However, Powell likes funkier, more colorful models from the brand’s past. “I love the colors on some of these old vintage Tissots — lots of blues and orange,” he says. “They’re totally undervalued in my opinion.”
Zodiac Sea Wolf
Despite debuting alongside the Rolex Submariner and Blancpain Fifty-Fathoms in 1953, the Zodiac Sea-Wolf doesn’t get quite as much credit it deserves for being one of the earliest dedicated dive watches ever made. As such, they’re relative bargains on the vintage market, especially considering its horological pedigree. “It’s such a cool model,” says Pardo. “It has a slim 35mm case, great looks and is easy to obtain under $1,000.” (Editor's Note: It's actually getting pretty tough to find these under $1,000 nowadays, but it can be done on sites like eBay.)
Generic Skin Divers
Following the growing success of dedicated dive watches like the Zodiac, many watchmakers built “skin divers,” generic lightweight divers that were dressier and had shallower depth ratings. All of them looked remarkably similar. “Any number of who-knows brands made these funky dive watches with a chunky stainless steel straight lug 37mm contract case and usually an ETA movement,” Pardo says. “They’re lots of fun, and usually well under $1,000.”
“Most people have come to connote Timex with a crappy quartz watch but there are some really cool old mechanical Timex watches out there,” Powell says. While Timex has been producing primarily quartz watches for the last few decades, it made tons of mechanical pieces during the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, including the iconic Marlin dress watch (recently reissued) and the sportier Sprite. Given their ubiquity, most can be found easily for under $100, making them great gateways into vintage collecting.
While they’re hard to find, Heuer did make some time-only watches — many of them automatic — back in the 1950s. Since they’re not as well known, they can be found relatively cheaply, Wind says. “Most people overlook them since they are focused on vintage Heuer chronographs, but I really think their time-only watches were beautiful,” he says.