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Why Buying a “Frankenwatch” Is Part of Every True Watch Collector’s Journey

Getting duped — or at least taking a low-risk gamble — is part of the fun of becoming a collector.

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How does one break into the confusing, esoteric world of watch nerdery? Our new column, “How to Be a Watch Guy,” aims to answer all your new watch guy questions, and help you navigate the always exciting — but sometimes intimidating, complicated, and pricey — world of watches.

About six years ago, when I was just getting into watches, I started hankering for a new watch. I’d just bought my two first watches, a Seiko 5 “Sea Urchin” SNZF dive watch, and a Seagull 1963 Chronograph. Each was new and cost me upwards of $150. I was still a lowly editorial assistant living in New York City, and there was rent to pay and food to buy. These were significant purchases; I felt as much guilt buying them as I did pleasure. I surely couldn’t afford even the cheapest new mechanical watch. The solution, as it is for many young, new watch seekers, was to buy vintage.

The watch I found on eBay purported to be an HMT Jawan, made by Hindustani Machine Tools, a machinery company nationalized by the Indian government in 1953. It cost almost $40. I knew I was ostensibly taking a risk — my coworkers told me it might be a fake. But c’mon, I thought. Forty bucks! I spend that on coffee every two weeks. Its picture on eBay showed a black dial with bright green lume, sword hands, and a dark leather strap. I clicked “Buy It Now.”

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HMT once made all sorts of things: tractors, bearings, watches, die casts. They did not make my Jawan. I knew I’d been rooked the second I opened the box. The dial looked like paper. Its “Jawan” font, calligraphic online, actually looked pixelated. I took it to a friend who sold vintage watches — legit ones — and, when he popped the case back off and looked inside, he said simply, “Frankenwatch.” My vintage watch wasn’t a find. It was a monster.

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Spotting a fake dial takes experience and an attention to detail. Photo: Rolex Patek Market

Nowadays, it comforts me that I’m not alone. “It’s a complete wild west,” says Eric Wind, founder of Wind Vintage. Wind made his name as a vintage watch expert, sourcing watches for Christie’s watch auctions, where lots sometimes sell for millions of dollars. His work has made him wary. “Especially when you’re not an expert, the odds are very high you will buy something that’s fake or not correct,” he says. (He also notes that it’s far, far easier to tell a fake vintage watch from a fake new watch. Rolex fakers have gotten incredibly good at their craft, and they seem to have infiltrated the world of legit secondhand sellers. See this recent controversy in Australia.)

“If you buy from private sellers, sometimes you’re gonna get ripped off,” says Craig Moore, cofounder of Those Watch Guys. Moore and his partner, Samuel Gardner, are young bucks in the vintage watch world, but they’ve been sourcing and selling interesting, reasonably affordable vintage watches since 2015.

“Especially when you’re not an expert, the odds are very high you will buy something that’s fake or not correct.”

Moore’s entirely right — getting had comes with the territory. But what’s the alternative for a cash-strapped, early watch collector who’s bought a Seiko, a Timex, a Hamilton, a sub-$500 microbrand or two? You can stick with the status quo, which doesn’t allow you to grow; you can save up and buy a vintage watch from an expert. But Wind doesn’t even look at watches under $10k, and even Those Watch Guys focus on watches that cost around a grand. Both are fantastic options, once you hit their price points.

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Sometimes you just have to take the leap and click that “Buy It Now” button. (Just do your homework first.)

Until then, there’s an alternative — do what I did. Take a reasonable risk, and do what you do in Vegas: gamble with money you can afford to lose.

Wind and Moore do not necessarily agree with me. And they have great points. Why not lean on an expert when you’re vulnerable? They are shining examples of the upsides of doing just that. They are very good at what they do; their reputations rest on not selling bad watches. And the watches they collect are fascinating deep cuts that you or I might never find on our own.

And yet here I must respectfully disagree. They both got their start by doing precisely what I propose, which is a better version of simply buying a potentially fishy watch. Do what I did with my Jawan bamboozle, but better. Instead of just taking the risk, take your time, do your research. Dive into the archives of the brand you’re looking for to make sure the watch actually exists. Buy a Geiger counter to tell if that lume is actually radioactive. (Yes, you want it to be.) For God’s sake, read Wind’s incredibly exhaustive guide to buying vintage on eBay, which he wrote for HODINKEE in 2015 and which remains an absolutely benchmark of a how-to.

And then, gamble a little. Only what you can afford to lose. Look on eBay, but don’t just hunt online. I’ve learned to love a farmer’s market and an estate sale. There’s something delicious about running into that weird middling range of old watches, beat up ones you can haggle over. These sorts of places are where I have learned what it is I like about my watches. I’ve never bought a watch at these places. But I go in with intent, every time, and fifty bucks in my pocket.

“There’s something delicious about running into that weird middling range of old watches, beat up ones you can haggle over.”

Look — maybe my advice is not for you. I don’t blame you. Nobody wants to have a collection full of fakes. But I do think it’s worth asking yourself: would one risky watch purchase, or at least spending some time and energy looking around, having fun, and maybe taking a shot, really hurt?

It didn’t kill me. I still have my “HMT Jawan.” Its appeal has not gotten better with time. I don’t wear it, ever. It is ugly as sin. But it has a fun story to tell, and it taught me an important lesson in watch collecting.

That’s well worth forty bucks.

Some Tips

Do your research

Spend time on the forums looking up your potential purchase — chances are, given the proliferation of free information out there on just about every obscure watch under the sun, that you’ll find some helpful intel. Even perusing similar eBay listings is a helpful way to glean useful info.

Invest in a few inexpensive tools

Having a case back opener (both a ball-type and a wrench are helpful, as well as a case knife), some Polywatch to clean acrylic crystals, a strap-changing tool, and a few small jeweler’s screwdrivers will help you to diagnose basic problems, such as whether a watch has the correct movement or not.

Be prepared to take a risk

Y ou can’t learn or grow if you’re not willing to make a bad deal or two. Be willing to part with a bit of “fun” money on eBay or the forums on a watch that might not be perfectly “straight.” It’s the only way to delve deeper into the horological waters when you’re starting out without much cash.

Chris Wright, a former Gear Patrol editor, is a freelance writer based in L.A. Write him with your watch questions, comments and concerns at cwrighteditor@gmail.com.

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