One of the most interesting evolutions in vintage watch collecting has been the desire to move away from watches that have been restored and polished to look “like new” in favour of watches in original condition with honest “patina” showing nicks, scratches and fading that may have developed over the course of decades of wear.
As with many trends, it is hard to track the exact origin of this desire, but certainly one of the places it originated was in Japan where the “wabi-sabi” aesthetic approach values imperfection developed over time. In Japan, this has affected their watch collecting for many years, particularly in regard to vintage Rolex sports watches. Japanese collectors have long liked seeing original cases with the beauty of scratches and fading on original parts such as bezel inserts on Submariners and GMT-Masters after years of wear, compared with vintage watches that were made to look like new. And of particular interest and desirability was a black dial that turned brown or “tropical” due to fading over time.
This trend of seeking honest patina has extended worldwide, particularly over the past five years, associated with a massive growth in the number of vintage watch collectors. Many people are drawn to vintage watches for the beauty of having something that looks old. As one younger vintage watch collector told me, “If I wanted something that looked new, I would just go into the boutique and buy it, but I wanted something different; a watch that has been made unique from the ageing process. The way vintage radium and tritium lume on dials and in hands can look, from a warm orange to bright yellow, is so much cooler than the stark and sterile bright white look of LumiNova and Super-LumiNova found on new watches today.”
Part of the issue around this desire for collecting vintage watches with honest patina is that it is extremely difficult to find them. Well-known names like Rolex Submariner and Omega Speedmaster are especially rare to find in original condition because of their famous affiliations over the years. Those that owned one were likely to wear it and have it serviced, during which parts were frequently replaced (such as bezel inserts and crowns) and perhaps the luminous material was refreshed on the dial and in the hands for better night visibility, all with the goal of making the watch a more effective tool and with no mind toward future value to collectors. Furthermore, the cases were polished to remove scratches and make them look like new, making the lugs a bit thinner in the process through the removal of metal.
It is not at all intuitive for non-collectors that they should not have their fathers’ and grandfathers’ watches restored to look like new after they inherit them. In fact, when I present to groups about vintage watches, the concept that collectors prize originality over restoration is one of the things that laypeople find most surprising about collecting vintage watches.
However, there is something that is very appealing, even to a non-collector, when they see something that has aged in a unique way. A great example of that is a Rolex ref. 8171 in steel that we sold at Christie’s New York in June 2017. A pilot purchased the watch in the early 1950s and seemingly wore it a few years until it stopped working. The ref. 8171 is one of the most complicated watches ever made by Rolex and featured a moon phase indicator as well as a complete calendar display. Perhaps due to the complexity of the movement and the associated cost of servicing it, the gentleman put it away and it passed down within the family unused for decades.
Remarkably, this Rolex retained what appeared to be its original grey leather strap and also the original Rolex buckle. Furthermore, the large steel case that earned the model the nickname “Padellone” or “large frying pan” in Italian had remained unpolished with its striking case and edges retained.
The dial had developed an unusual and striking patina, perhaps from heat and moisture that had gotten in the non-water-resistant case over the decades. Like finding an amazing vintage motor car that had somehow survived the decades with its original upholstery and all original parts, finding this reference in this original condition was spectacular and it was a watch people could not keep their eyes off during our preview. On auction day, there was a fierce battle for the watch and it sold for $161,000.
In our Important Watches auction in Dubai (19 October 2016) we sold a Jaeger-LeCoultre (signed “LeCoultre” on the dial for the American market) Polaris dive watch with alarm from 1968 that is one of the most desirable vintage watches made by the venerable brand. The watch was in remarkable condition and had had its outer dial turn “tropical” brown over time, which provided a strikingly beautiful contrast to the grey-black internal bezel and the dark brown-black central alarm disc. The watch was a dream for a collector and sold for $21,250 against the $12,000-$18,000 estimate.
In our New York auction on 6 December 2016, there were many honest “fresh-to-market” watches that excited our clients. One notable watch was a Patek Philippe ref. 565 in steel on an original bracelet that was originally retailed by Freccero and has retained its original water-resistant case in remarkable unpolished condition with a dial that has also undergone a unique aging process. The vast majority of these 1940s ref. 565 watches have had their cases polished at some point during their 70+ year lives and lose the strong definition of the case shape. It reached an impressive $77,500.
Additionally, we had an Omega “Ed White” Speedmaster ref. 105.003 with a dial that had turned a tropical brown matching the original bezel that had also faded in a unique way. The watch had an unpolished case, which is an extreme rarity in the world of early vintage Speedmasters from the 1950s and 1960s. It sold for $30,000.
While, in general, the hierarchy of vintage watch collecting would place a true “new old stock” vintage watch that has never been worn as the Platonic ideal of what is wanted in a collection, second place is now strongly held by the idea of holding that same watch in original condition with honest patina and wear rather than a watch that has been restored to look like new. And in some cases, a watch with a beautiful “tropical” brown dial can be worth far more than what the watch would be worth in “new old stock” condition. This desire for honest patina seems so strong with collectors across the spectrum today that I think it will continue to shape the vintage watch market for years and decades to come.