Prices on some of the most popular vintage models — think Rolex Submariners, Omega Speedmasters and the like — have absolutely exploded over the past ten years or so. What could once be had for $500 now costs $1,000; what once cost $1,000 now costs $3,000, and what once cost $5,000 now requires you to sell a kidney in order to afford. But fear not, as that doesn't mean there isn't good value to be had from many lesser known models.
We're fortunate enough to know some of the best vintage watch dealers in the world through our work at Gear Patrol, a few of whom have weighed in here on what they believe are some of the best buys in vintage timepieces. Each has a different set of parameters for what constitutes "value," and to that end, you'll see those that range in price between $50 and $5,000. But we've largely capped the range around $5k, and given the variety present, it should be evident that there's myriad options in vintage watches for several hundred to a few thousand dollars.
Note that while we've linked to places like eBay, WatchRecon or Chrono24 under many of these listings (as there will invariably be at least one watch of the type in question available there at any given time for perusal and research), you should first check the dealer's own website to see if there happen to be any for sale. This is where you have the best chance of securing a watch that's been thoroughly vetted, serviced, and looked after. Or, if you don't see what you're looking for, reach out to the dealer directly, and that person may be able to source you one.
Seth Roberts, Owner, Hub City Vintage
"As the vintage watch market continues to see unprecedented growth, Seiko has remained an accessible option,” said Seth Roberts, the watchsmith owner of Hub City Vintage, an online source of select vintage Seiko watches. “While many of Seiko’s historic chronographs and divers reach deep into four-figure territory, there are plenty of options still available for under $1000." Visit Hub City Vintage here.
1960s Seiko 6106-8100 70m Sport Diver
"Introduced in 1968, the 6106-8100 is an early Seiko great that helped the brand gain traction in the light diver market. As minimalist tool watches go, it’s one of my favorites. The dial is a rich charcoal sunburst, against which the polished hands are easily legible. The coin edge bezel is easy to maneuver, and the insert is a striking contrast of matte silver and black. The case is a contoured tonneau that comfortably hugs the wrist."
1960s Seiko 5740-8000 Hi-Beat 36000
"The smooth sweep of a second hand gliding around the dial at 36,000 bph is irresistible," said Roberts. "Modern hi-beat movements can be costly, with few affordable vintage options, but exceptions can be found in the Lord Marvel line. “Introduced in 1959 [as] a merger of the ‘Crown’ and ‘Marvel’ subsets, its third iteration became Seiko’s first true hi-beat in 1967. The 5740C is a beautifully finished hand-wound calibre neatly packaged in a mid-century masterpiece of design."
1970s Seiko 6139-6022 “Pulsations” Automatic Chronograph
"This model was designed to appeal to those in medical settings, by including a 60 sec./30 min. timer, and a 'Base 10 Pulsations' inner bezel that can be rotated via the crown, used to measure a patient’s heart rate). And like the cool 70’s doctors who wore it, this chrono can be dressed up or down, as “the slimmer case architecture allows it to slide easily under a shirtsleeve cuff and gives it great versatility for regular wear."
Eric Wind, Founder, Wind Vintage
Following a stint at Christie's and several years of writing for Hodinkee, Wind opened up his own vintage watch operation in Florida that concentrates on superlative timepieces, mostly in the $10,000+ category. However, he's a huge fan of more affordable pieces, and can source just about anything. He's worth a follow on Instagram, too — many of the pieces he posts sell here before ever hitting his website. Visit Wind Vintage here.
Certina Argonaut 280
"I feel the Certina Argonaut 280 is one of the best deals in vintage watches. I have bought cool ones for under $50 on eBay and have never spent more than $400 on an amazing one! The Argonaut 280 has a really funky shape and there are a wide variety of dial colors including different shades of blue, silver, and even red. Some of the variations have cool orange hands and an orange Certina logo on the dial. Some have automatic movements while others are manual wind and some have date windows and others do not. My friend Fred Savage is also a big fan of these! I gave one to my wife and she also loves it."
"The Vulcain Cricket was one of the most successful watch launches ever and quickly was adopted by many successful businessmen and even Presidents of the United States as must-have wristwear after the 1947 watch launch at the Waldorf Astoria in New York. The Cricket is recognized as the first wristwatch with an alarm complication appropriately loud enough to wake up a sleeping person, so they replaced the travel clocks people sometimes needed to bring with them. Many Crickets can be found under $1,000, while some of the larger “Jumbo” ones can be north of $3,000, but are worth every penny in my book."
Benrus Type 2
"The Benrus Type 1 and Type 2 series has become an iconic shape and design. Made in the United States for the US military with Swiss movements, part of what is cool about these is that they were not available for retail sale and later ended up in Army surplus stores and passed down in families. The dials are no-nonsense without any superfluous Benrus branding and they are true tool watches. A good Type 2 may cost up to just under $5,000 now while a Type 1 can be double that. They have appreciated a lot over the last year, but I think they still have room to appreciate given how few are on the market and how many collectors now want them."
James Lamdin, Founder, Analog/Shift
"I’ve been collecting vintage watches for nearly 20 years and dealing for nearly 10 – and in that time I’ve watched some astounding value jumps for some of the most popular iconic timepieces of the moment. But as any true enthusiast will tell you, its not just about the 'hot stuff' and great enjoyment can be derived from seeking out the lesser-known gems – not to mention great savings for your wallet!" Visit Analog/Shift here.
Art Deco American Watches
"Speaking categorically, pre-war and mid-century American wristwatches are one of the last great frontiers of undervalued vintage watches. Whether your tastes run to the Art Deco styles of the 20s-30s or the jet-age designs of the 1950s, these are masterfully-designed timepieces that focus more on the artistic and aesthetic elements of horology. You won’t find too many 'tool watches' here – just absolutely mind-blowing designs that harken back to an era where the world was a whole lot smaller and the future a whole lot brighter. A few of my favorites include the Hamilton Meteor, Piping Rock and Ventura, and the Elgin Skyscraper."
"Bulova has a very, very long history of American watchmaking. But in the 1960s they began buying private label Swiss-made chronographs to keep up with the popularity of brands like Heuer and Universal Geneve. The result are incredibly well-built sporty watches with quality mechanical movements at a fraction of the price of their Swiss-brand siblings. Models such as the Chronograph “D” offers a very Heuer Autavia-esque experience and the Chronograph “C”, better known as the “Stars And Stripes” is nothing short of an irreverently fun and colorful masterpiece."
"Omega may be better known amongst collectors today for their Professional line offerings – Speedmasters and Seamasters and the lot; but their mid-century dress watches offered as part of collections named “Geneve”, “Seamaster”, “DeVille”, and “Constellation” are quite simply timeless beauties. They also have some of the highest quality movements available at the time, and are robust as all get out. So if Datejusts aren’t your thing but you’re into something a little more svelte and luxurious, you’d do well to look closely at Omega’s offerings from the 1940s-1970s."
Craig Moore, Co-Founder, Those Watch Guys
Craig Moore and his partner, Sam Gardiner, bonded over a mutual love of funky vintage watches and began their website, Those Watch Guys, when both were still students. After being featured by Hodinkee and exhibiting at Worn & Wound's Wind Up Watch Fair, they steadily grew in popularity, and today they consistently provide some of the best values in vintage watches via Those Watch Guys. From little-known, oddball American watches to heavy hitters from the likes of Rolex, these guys sell it all. Visit Those Watch Guys here.
"For years we’ve been selling quality examples of the Smiths W10, and for good reason. The W10 has classic military design aspects like the Arabic numerals, healthy amounts of lume, black dials, sturdy steel screw-down cases, and some rich history. With a case coming in at 35mm by 40mm tall with long lugs, the W10 wears much larger than the size suggests. A true 'tool watch,' the W10s were built for a purpose — to survive the harsh realities of war."
Wittnauer and Elgin Skin Divers
"Much of the appeal of dive watches is the sheer functionality. Like military watches, these are purpose-built and used as tools. Skin Divers are the featherweights of the diver category, they tend to be smaller, a slimmer fit to the wrist and less water resistant than other dive watches. Skin Divers are recognizable by their fat, straight angled lugs that move swiftly along one's wrist. Two of my favorite Skin Divers came from Elgin and Wittnaur. The fantastic luminescent handset and the perfectly proportioned dial work beautifully with the Wittnauer 4000. Same goes for the Elgin, but with a more polished case and stunning Holiday bezel. Skin Divers were made for skin diving but these are just as desirable on land."
Wittnauer 7004A and 235T Chronographs
"So many great companies manufactured chronographs during the 1950s, 60s, and 70s but in terms of great value and overall 'bang for your buck,' Wittnauer is tough to beat. The 7004a has been one of the most popular in vintage Wittnauer's modern renaissance with the 40mm steel case more typical for modern wrists and the fantastic burgundy bezels. The 235t has become a very sought after model in the last 2-3 years because of the recently discovered connection to NASA. The 235t was tested alongside the Omega Speedmaster to be used on Apollo 11 but ultimately lost out. Still a part of a very cool piece of space history and they pack a punch with a thick 36mm case, classically designed dial, and the famous Valjoux 72 movement."