The Downside of Cheap Vintage Watches

Low prices are tempting, but the cost of service and repair can exceed the acquisition.

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Hunter D. Kelley

Four years ago I bought the watch that would kickstart an obsession with old timepieces: a 1970s Seiko 6139 chronograph, acquired on eBay for a cool $130. Was it rough around the edges? Sure, but for the money, it felt like a hell of a deal. About a year later, the seconds hand fell off, putting it out of commission until I found a watchmaker who took it apart, showed me how remarkably dirty it was inside, and popped it back on — this had it going again until a few months ago. Now, my 6139 only wants to run when laying on its side. Not great.

While I haven’t gone to the pains to get the watch fixed, some cursory skulking on forums suggest I’ll be paying at least the price I paid of the watch in the first place for some basic service, and that’s assuming nothing catastrophic has happened inside. Admittedly, the 6139 is a bit of an outlier in that it’s a particularly complex watch that can be had at a particularly low price, but it underscores the point that old watches can be an expensive headache.

It’s certainly a lesson I’ve learned quickly. The majority of the watches that I own are accessibly-priced vintage timepieces acquired from the depths of eBay. Love them though I may, they almost all have their mechanical quibbles. The rotating bezel on my Old Seiko word timer doesn’t, you know, actually rotate anymore. My Omega Chronostop runs slower than the MTA. My Seamaster decided to simultaneously stop running while shedding itself of its crown and stem which are lost, somewhere, in Portland, Maine.

The Seamaster I have sent to be serviced by a watchmaker I know well and trust, rather than send it to another watch repair center that could be completely hit-or-miss. The price of replacements parts hasn’t exceeded the price of the watch, but the process to get all the parts together has taken weeks. And I should consider myself lucky: some vintage watch owners have to relinquish their watches for months, some even for years before they finally get them back.

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So watch service is, in a word, difficult. For many watch owners who have vintage Rolexes and other watches rapidly accruing in value, it’s difficult but worth it. But for an old watch you paid a couple of hundred bucks for on eBay, the justification of the time and money isn’t always there. That’s the reason I’ve heard more than a few vintage dealers and enthusiasts say that if you do buy a cheap watch, consider selling it off for parts when it stops ticking. That is, unless you truly love the watch.

It’s a hard truth, but this is the bargain we make when we buy cheap vintage watches. They’re fun, and they’re great for getting into the hobby, but they do come at a hidden cost. Should it deter you from buying one? That’s certainly up to you and the amount of frustration you’re willing to put up with. But when I think of the long run I had with my Seiko chronograph and the meager price I paid, I know I don’t have any regrets.

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