What self-respecting watch nerd hasn’t spent countless hours trolling eBay for that elusive vintage treasure that no one has discovered? The Pre-Moon Omega Speedmaster, the MilSub, the Cosmonaute — the names alone are enough to get palms sweating and the heart racing. While the thrill of watch collecting is in the hunt, enough foiled plans and missed auctions will make anyone gun shy. We feel your pain. The best salve is this guide to vintage watches on eBay, featuring a strong mix of underdogs — those timepieces that fly under a lot of collectors’ radars. Not only do you stand a better chance of scoring one of these collectible tickers, once you do make the final bid, you’ll end up with a legitimate piece of horological history.
Please note, our selections are not guarantees of authenticity, nor do they endorse any sellers. They are presented merely as examples of searches and watches we like. As always, do your due diligence: read up on how to spot fakes, consult experts and check backgrounds and feedback of sellers. In addition, Gear Patrol assumes no responsibility for the hours of productivity lost, marriages ended or thousands of dollars spent as a result of this article. Happy hunting.
British Military Watches
Military watches are some of the most collectible and desirable, not only out of horological interest but also for their history of use in world conflicts. They also tend to age well, given their robust builds and no-nonsense styling, though many have been ridden hard and put away wet. If you like patina, this is your category.
The British Ministry of Defense procured perhaps the most interesting list of watches over the years for its fliers, sailors, soldiers and divers. These watches are characterized by fixed strap bars, worn nylon straps and the broad arrow symbol of the MOD. The UK tapped not only British brands like CWC, Smiths and Precista but also the best from Switzerland, like IWC, Jaeger-LeCoultre and of course Rolex. If you can find a bona fide issued piece, you’re lucky. But beware: the propensity for fakes and shady sellers make buying British military watches quite a minefield.
Watch collectors in the know speak with reverence of the chronographs made by Minerva. Though the brand is now owned (and lovingly cared for) by Montblanc, the vintage examples are the real treasures. Dating back to the early 20th century, Minerva built some of the most storied stopwatches and pocket and wrist chronographs and is considered a pioneer of split seconds timing. It was also the official timekeeper of the 1936 Winter Olympics and made dash timers for countless mid-century race cars. The movements are easy to identify thanks to the presence of a telltale arrowhead bridge that tells you it was made in Villeret. The calibre 13/20 is our favorite.
Hamilton Marine Chronometers
The watch company that timed America’s railroads also helped the country navigate the high seas through two World Wars. Hamilton, the pride of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, built thousands of robust precision marine chronometers for the U.S. Navy. Due to their prevalence and sturdy build these chronometers are still plentiful on eBay. While not as portable as a wristwatch, a marine chronometer is a much better conversation starter ticking away on your desk or bookshelf in its solid wood case with brass gimbals. They are also a steal for a vintage piece of militaria, often coming in at only a couple grand.
1960s Calibre 321 Omega Seamaster Chronograph
While many collectors diligently hunt for so-called “pre-Moon” Speedmasters, an equally impressive timepiece can be found more easily and often for thousands less: the Seamaster chronographs of the same era. These elegant watches made use of the same Lemania-derived handwound calibre 321 that was in the old Speedmasters, an exceptional movement chosen by NASA for its robustness and accuracy. Seamaster chronographs may not have the same “Right Stuff” cachet as Speedies, but they’re arguably better looking, free of the heavy tachymeter bezel and available with white dials.
Seiko Dive Watches
Seiko divers win the award for the best value in vintage watch collecting. The overbuilt, downright modern cases are still wearable today and are durable enough for everyday use. Their use by soldiers and divers from the Vietnam era lend an element of “tacti-cool” so popular these days, and the movements are easily serviced and parts readily available anywhere in the world. And then there’s the price. While the earlier 6105 commands a bit more, you can still find examples for less than $2,000, and the ubiquitous 6309 that was sold through the 1970s can often be had for a couple hundred bucks. Every watch nerd should own one.
Supercompressor Dive Watches
Some of the coolest dive watches around are the Supercompressor-cased version of the 1960s. Built by the Ervin Piquerez company for brands from IWC to Fortis to Hamilton, their cases are easily recognizable by their two offset crowns, one of which controlled the internal rotating timing ring. The lack of a bold outer rotating bezel combined with their smaller vintage size makes these great dressy sports watches today. These watches generally come in one of two sizes: 36 or 42 millimeters. The latter tend to be more desirable and command more money, but the smaller ones still wear well due to the expansive dials and can be had for a song, especially those from lesser-known brands like Baylor.
Breitling Top Time
While Breitling is best known for its Navitimer pilot’s watch with the distinctive slide rule bezel, the watch to get is their more elegant Top Time chronograph from the 1960s. Its handwound Valjoux 72 movement was the same used by Rolex, Heuer and others for their tickers in the ‘60s, and its three-register dial, broad dial, pump pushers and domed crystal are timeless, so much so that Breitling emulated the design for its recent Transocean chronograph. But why not get the original? Top Times have gotten more popular in the past couple of years and prices have gone up, but they are plentiful and still a steal when you compare them to vintage Speedmasters, Carreras and Daytonas of the same era.
Wakmann Triple Calendar Chronograph
Most of the great deals in vintage watches tend to be simpler pieces like time only watches or, at best, chronographs. But if you want something a bit more complicated, you’ll have a hard time finding a better deal than a Wakmann triple calendar chronograph. Wakmann was an American importer that sold watches from Swiss marques, most famously Breitling, and often double branded its timepieces. One of its best-known references was the triple calendar chronograph, which housed a handwound Valjoux 730 motor that displayed day, date and month as well as a triple-register chronograph. These watches are handsome and well-sized at 39 millimeters; they’re also well respected by watch nerds, and they swing far above their horological weight.
Zodiac Sea Wolf
Along with Seiko, Zodiac was the brand of choice for soldiers and divers in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. The Sea Wolf was a rugged and capable dive watch that delivered more bang for its buck, even back in its heyday. Its distinctive dial with cursive script and triangular markers and an engraved rotating timing bezel have a funky ‘60s vibe that sets it apart from so many Submariner copycats. The size is a touch small for a dive watch at 38 millimeters — if you want bigger, you’ll have to opt for the Sea Wolf’s successor, the chunkier Super Sea Wolf.
American Pocket Watches
There’s no better entry point to vintage watches than an old pocketwatch. While less versatile than a wristwatch unless you’re a regular wearer of waistcoats, pocketwatches are dirt cheap and undeniably gorgeous. As opposed to the more complicated and elegant timepieces from Europe, the pocketwatches turned out by the millions by long lost American brands like Elgin, Ingersoll and Waltham are more robustly made and affordable; they can almost be bought by the bucket. They are also easy to fix, making them a great intro to mechanical watches for the aspiring tinkerer.
Citizen Original Aqualand
Want a dive watch with historical significance? Look no further than the original Citizen Aqualand from the mid-1980s, which was the first dive watch to integrate an electronic depth gauge. This is the watch that arguably killed off the traditional dive watch and ushered in an era of dive computers. Don’t let its quartz movement scare you away. The Aqualand has looks that are now considered classic, with its thin rotating bezel, bulging depth sensor, bright dial markers and hands and the small digital display at 12:00. The original version came with a caseback held tight with tiny screws and two batteries, making it more finicky to own. The later JP2000 re-issue was improved with a screw-in caseback and a single battery but kept the same dimensions and killer design. Make sure to get the vented rubber strap with the no-deco times printed on it.
The vintage Rolex Submariner is arguably the most popular collector’s watch of all time, and for good reason. It’s got classic looks, unassailable pedigree and a build quality suitable for daily wear. But then, vintage Subs, while common, don’t come cheap. Enter Tudor, Rolex’s more affordable offshoot. Hans Wilsdorf’s original vision of a Rolex for the masses still holds true with vintage examples. The Tudor Submariner uses the identical case, bracelet, bezel and crown as the Rolex but ticks thanks to an ETA movement that kept the price down back in the day and still does today. There are several iterations of Tudor Subs, from the original 1950s version with Tudor rose logo and Mercedes hand set to the more rare “Snowflake” variety of the early ‘70s with its distinctive blocky hands. You can even hunt for a Tudor “MilSub”, the version procured for France’s elite Marine Nationale divers. Tudor Submariner prices have ballooned lately thanks in no small part to the brand’s successful return to the U.S. market. You’ll have to look harder for a bargain.