Note: J.W. Sotak, Gear Patrol’s Content Director, Gear Patrol Store, was previously the C.O.O. of Analog/Shift, a vintage watch retailer based in New York City.
It took twelve minutes for Paul Newman’s personal Rolex Daytona to rewrite the horological history books. Hammering at Phillips Auction House in October 2017 for a record-shattering $15.5 million ($17.75 million after buyer premiums), the steel Rolex chronograph has become the most widely celebrated watch sale in recent history.
It would be easy to disregard the sale of Paul Newman’s Rolex Daytona as inflated, fueled purely by the man’s fame as an actor, race car driver and celebrated philanthropist (regular exotic dial Rolex Reference 6239 Daytonas in similar condition trade for roughly $200,000).
There’s evidence to suggest it’s actually part of a larger picture. In May of 2017, a solid gold Rolex Reference 6062 belonging to Bao Dai, to the last emperor of Vietnam, sold at Phillips Geneva Watch Auction for over $5 million, simultaneously smashing the previous records for most expensive wristwatch and most expensive Rolex ever sold. In July of 2018, a stainless steel Reference 6538 “Big Crown” Submariner sold at Christie’s, fetching over $1 million and becoming the most expensive Rolex Submariner ever sold.
Surrounding each of these watches was a significant amount of lore. Paul Newman’s Daytona bore an engraving from his wife and famous actor Joanne Woodward and was gifted to the boyfriend of Newman’s daughter, in the 1980s. Bao Dai’s Reference 6062 is the only known example of the reference that features a black dial with inset diamonds at the even hour markers and was known to be worn by the dethroned playboy monarch during escapades on the French Riviera. The rare Explorer-dial Reference 6538 Submariner had a single owner who bought it new and wore it for over five decades before bequeathing to his son.
Despite the variance in case material, condition and relative celebrity, all three watches shared a single characteristic: uniqueness.
Every vintage watch is a product of its life on the Earth. The materials used in watch dials react differently to varying levels of sunlight and moisture over time. Cases and bracelets will take on differing degrees of wear from the passage of years depending on who’s owned them and how and where they were worn. It’s similar to how a single malt whisky resting in the Scottish Highlands ages differently from one nestled in a storehouse on Islay. It took twelve minutes for Paul Newman’s Rolex Daytona to make history, but it was the watch’s unique history that made it worth millions.
Six years ago, if you wanted to purchase a vintage watch, you were generally confined to the shops and dealers in your area. In the last five years, buying and selling vintage watches online has progressed light years. “No longer do we need to be at our desk with our desktop computers, or even our laptops,” said Ken Jacobs, owner of WannaBuyaWatch, a watch retailer in Los Angeles. “Now with our smart phones and pads, we can all connect to the marketplace via Instagram, when we have as little as fifteen seconds downtime.”
“The tens of thousands of Instagram accounts focusing on watches in general and vintage watches in particular attest to the increasing interest and appetite for watches,” he added.
Condition, Condition, Condition
The increased appetite translates into steady appreciation for vintage watches, but as with any collectible, condition is paramount. The attention paid to the condition of vintage watches is another area that has evolved. “We have noticed a shift towards overall quality across all components of a watch,” said Phillips Auction House’s Senior Vice President and Head of Watches, America, Paul Boutros. “Case condition now matters as much as dial condition, where unpolished, factory-original cases command top dollar — a significant change over the past five years.”
Strong, unpolished cases, agreed Jacobs, “have taken on rock star status.” But enthusiasts are now paying more attention to what accompanies the watch. “No matter how detailed a description of the attributes of a given watch,” continued Jacobs, “the potential buyer still must ask whether or not it comes with box and papers.”
Buying Vintage as an Investment
The past five years have seen an overall increase in the value of vintage watches. The rise of prices has elevated the purchasing of some models from hobbyism to investment-level transactions. “It would be difficult to suggest that the vintage watch market is in anything but the midst of a significant bull run,” remarked Geoff Hess, CEO of New York City-based vintage watch retailer Analog/Shift. “Prices are strong, and more and more new buyers are beginning to recognize watches not only as a passion, but also as a viable place in which to invest.”
And while enthusiasts may wince at the effects of increased demand, steadily increasing interest of blue-chip brands like Rolex and Omega, and powerhouse vintage marques like Heuer (Pre-TAG), Breitling and Universal Genève, mean a more stable marketplace.
“It’s not unreasonable to question whether the escalating price trends of recent years are sustainable, or whether we may see a pause in that regard,” added Hess. “Nevertheless, certain brands and references remain ‘safer bets’ than others, and as always, watches in the best condition will typically attract the most interest and justify the highest price tags.”
Iconic models from the most well-known brands continue to lap at the high water mark of the vintage market. “The Daytona and Speedmaster are enjoying a big ‘moment in the sun,’” said Hess. “Other models, like the Rolex GMT and Submariner are not far behind and remain hugely coveted.”
1965 Omega Speedmaster ‘Ed White’ Reference 105.003
These Speedmasters earned their moniker from American astronaut Ed White who wore this model on the first American space walk in 1965. This example has a desirable ‘Dot-over-90’ bezel, excellent dial and strong case.
1979 Rolex Daytona Reference 6265 ‘Big Red’
Photo: Wanna Buy A Watch
This example of of the screw pusher ‘Big Red’ Daytona has an extremely clean dial with intact lume plots and the original tachymeter bezel.
The Rolex Day-Date, once the iconic CEO dress watch, a sign of corporate success, wealth, and conservatism is fast becoming a sought-after style accoutrement for men and women. “More and more collectors are seeking vintage gold sports watches from Patek Philippe, Rolex, and Audemars Piguet,” said Boutros. “Factory gem-set sports watches by these same brands are also seeing more demand, as collectors recognize not only their beauty, but also their unmistakable quality in terms of stones and settings.”
1975 Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Reference 5402A ‘Jumbo’
Photo: Material Good
Few watches made a larger impact on the watch world than Gerad Genta’s design masterpiece, the Royal Oak. This 18K gold version has honest wear and archive paperwork from the manufacture.
1972 Rolex Rose Gold Day-Date Reference 1803 with Factory Diamond Dial
Photo: HQ Milton
Rose gold Day-Dates are very hard to find, especially so in good condition. This lovely example has a very sharp case and immaculate dial. The matching rose gold President bracelet with 19 links is a huge added bonus.
Smaller case dimensions are now en vogue. “Size has certainly peaked. Bigger is no longer better,” said Jacobs. “Where massive size once commanded attention, now some large models seem like caricatures.”
1960s Girard Perregaux Sea Hawk Reference 7201
Featuring a case in very good condition and a extremely pleasing dial, this infrequently-seen model from Girard Perregaux has a classic look. The manually-wound movement is a nice feature.
1960s Omega Constellation ‘Grand Luxe’ Reference 168.002
A Chronometer-certified Constellation is a wonderful watch in and of itself, but this particular example is made more special by including a brick-link bracelet in matchign 18K yellow gold.