Are Today’s Vintage Watch Buyers Killing Watchmaking?

by GaryG

A few months ago, I attended a watch event on the United States West Coast that, among other things, featured a “collectors’ panel” of folks talking about their watch assortments and interests.

The star of the show was a young enthusiast whose name I didn’t know, but who seemed to be very well known and admired by the audience made up largely of younger collectors (of course, at this point, the term “younger” applies to the majority of enthusiasts and collectors wherever I go!).

The author’s concept of a classic collector watch: Simplicity by Philippe Dufour

It was when the conversation turned to the contents of the panelists’ collections that I started to puzzle a bit. The featured collector was wearing a “Paul Newman” Daytona and a “Steve McQueen” Explorer II, both vintage pieces by Rolex.

And as he ticked through the top pieces in his collection, I didn’t hear him mention a single contemporary-production watch. And as the discussion unfolded, my sense was that this was seen by both the panelists and the audience members as somewhere between perfectly normal and highly desirable.

As I reflected on the session, I started thinking about the significant number of watch lovers I’ve met who are just starting out on their journeys and whose tastes center very much on decades-old pieces from brands including Rolex, Heuer, Universal Genève, Jaeger-LeCoultre, and Patek Philippe, sometimes to the exclusion of modern timepieces.

To the extent that these new enthusiasts represent the future of the watch market, is it possible that their enthusiasm for the past will prove highly damaging, or even lethal, to the industry’s future?

Classic vintage: the author’s Patek Philippe Reference 1526 perpetual calendar in pink gold

Looking to the past

Last December I had the opportunity to attend several of the panel discussions at Hodinkee’s tenth-anniversary event, which included sessions on both modern and vintage watches, an example of the latter being and a particularly intriguing session with design chiefs Guido Terreni of Bulgari, Christian Selmoni of Vacheron Constantin, and Christian Knoop of IWC.

During the latter discussion, moderator Stephen Pulvirent asked about the “trend” of re-issuing updated versions of brands’ vintage watches and what it might signify.

Selmoni suggested that he senses a “nostalgia for the analogue world,” which I found reasonable. But I thought that Knoop really hit the nail on the head when he suggested that, “The western world was looking at the future as a better place to be until a certain point in the past century.”

To the extent that the future is seen as the place to be, it makes perfect sense that the center of gravity for the design of everything from cars to furniture to airplanes and locomotives to watches is futuristic. When the present and future are seen as threatening, complex, and perhaps ultimately apocalyptic, I don’t think that it really shouldn’t surprise us that an emerging generation is eager both to idealize the past and seek to acquire objects from earlier times.

The future as seen from the past, made today: Vianney Halter Antiqua

Isn’t it good to value past achievements?

We’ve all heard enough times that a well-made watch is created to last for generations. And since generations pass, it is inevitable that watches made years ago do, and should, make their way back into the marketplace and into the collections of enthusiasts.

As regular readers know, I’ve bought for my own collection a few vintage pieces that I feel are particularly notable as well as a “fun” vintage piece or two whose look I enjoy and whose value doesn’t preclude routine daily wear – such as my Vacheron & Constantin Reference 4560 triple calendar.

Wearable vintage: Vacheron & Constantin Reference 4560 made in the 1950s

At the extreme, I can’t begrudge collectors who have deep interest in watches or makers from a particular era and major on them in their buying any more than I would send a nasty letter to a collector of Etruscan vases from the seventh century B.C.E. for overlooking the work of today’s Native American potters.

Where I get off the boat:

  • When a herd mentality emerges, in which a small subset of “cool” pieces is designated as must-haves by online sources, auction houses, dealers, or collectors who just happen to own them, and the swarm to buy them begins.
  • When we are at risk that a substantial portion of the next generation of those with the interest and the means to support to a healthy, ongoing watch industry will largely or entirely exclude the work of living watchmakers from their collections.
  • When the concept of patronage of watchmaking by collectors is replaced by the practice of collector-investors swapping money among themselves for a set of vintage pieces that they treat as an asset class.

I’ll come back to the topic of watches as an investment (or not) in a later article, and part of that will be a discussion of the perceived investment value of not only a select set of vintage watches but also modern pieces such as steel Rolex sport watches. But for now let’s focus on the risk of wounding or killing the watchmaking art by enthusiasts failing to allocate resources to sustaining it.

We’ll come back to this: are watches like the Rolex GMT Master II ‘Batman’ investments?

I’ve long held to my pal Terry’s portfolio view of collecting: that a certain portion of one’s watch spending should go to fun pieces, another to foundational pieces, and the third portion to patronage. And I periodically evaluate my collection to make sure I’m comfortable with the balance across these categories.

Others are under no obligation to act accordingly, but if we get into a situation in which a larger and larger proportion of buyers are focusing solely on what they believe to be “foundational” pieces because popular opinion tells them so, and within that they are devoted to a subset of watches made decades ago, there’s a real risk that the already-tenuous hold that today’s innovative watchmakers have on survival may slip away entirely.

Modern classic: Kari Voutilainen first-edition Masterpiece Chronograph

Do I believe that you can be a collector of a living art form without also to some extent being a patron of that art? I do not.

Do today’s makers bear any responsibility?

While we can’t really blame today’s manufacturers for going back into their vaults, pulling out appealing designs from their patrimonies, and re-issuing slightly modernized versions, it is also incumbent on existing brands to paint a vision of the future of watchmaking that is exciting, engaging, and truly new.

As Bulgari’s Terreni said at the Hodinkee session I attended, “A white piece of paper is a beautiful thing to attack!”

Mastering the blank sheet: Invention Piece 1 from Greubel Forsey

Among the many reasons that I am so devoted to independent watchmakers is that they meld the past and the future in an almost magical way.

Legends like Dufour ensure that the handcrafts of traditional watchmaking endure; the Voutilainens and Halters of the watch world do the same while developing fascinating variations on timekeeping themes; creators like Rexhepi, Gauthier, Greubel Forsey, and the Grönefelds mix deep respect for classical methods with innovative forms and techniques.

And at the extreme, Büsser and his Friends and the Urwerk team, among others, attack that figurative piece of white paper with gusto and success.

Past and future side by side: Rexhep Rexhepi Chronomètre Contemporain by Akrivia and 1930s vintage Rolex

Along with the finest efforts from major brands who seek to bring the best of the past into the future, it is these independent makers, in my view, who are creating tomorrow’s collectible watches today. And their work fully merits the attention of all generations of watch enthusiasts.

Is the new generation of vintage collectors killing watchmaking?

Having pondered it for a good while, my conclusion is: not yet.

Among other things, I’m heartened that many of my friends who are prominent dealers or auctioneers of vintage timepieces are also avid and publicly visible collectors and promoters of independent watches.

It’s also great to see houses like Phillips devote portions of their auction catalogs to modern independents as well as the emergence of specialized dealers like A Collected Man which are creating active and liquid markets for the best independent pieces.

Making a market: new outlets like A Collected Man focus on brands including Grönefeld

While I remain concerned about the 20- and 30-somethings I meet who seem to have tunnel vision limited to a select set of vintage brands, I am encouraged that these new members of our community are building a real enthusiasm for timepieces. And I hope that as their tastes evolve their interests will broaden to include an interest in the pieces being made today that will become tomorrow’s landmarks.

When reverence for the accomplishments of the past and a healthy willingness to learn from past failures goes away, we are all poorer.

But when the past becomes more important than the future, both the promise of the path ahead and the living legacy of the past can be lost.

Parting shot: Logical One by Romain Gauthier

You may also enjoy:

What Makes A Daily Wearer Wristwatch?

Code 11.59 By Audemars Piguet: How To Fail At Marketing, AKA To Break The Rules You Must First Master Them

Why I Bought It: Vacheron & Constantin Reference 4560 Triple Calendar

Vacheron Constantin’s New Historiques American 1921 Small: Transforming The Traditional Into The Modern

Why I Bought It: Patek Philippe Reference 3940P-027 Vintage Collection

13 replies
  1. Gil
    Gil says:

    I certainly don’t think there’s much danger posed to the larger conglomerate, or larger independent manufacturers (I don’t think you were really paying much heed to them anyway, despite the broad, inclusive article title).
    As far as the smaller independents are concerned: I’m going to be optimistic and guess that this sub-group of younger, wealthy vintage collectors are not large enough to cause a seminal shift, small as they are in the overall set of younger, wealthy collectors who – while perhaps similarly affected by this modern fatalism – are more interested in pieces that evoke designs from ‘better times’ BUT also contain the security of newer technology which can guarantee far greater reliability. The shift towards brands revisiting more traditional designs will continue though, for a while. It’s nice.

  2. DocJT
    DocJT says:

    I don’t think so Gary. I believe that vintage ones stimulate independent watchmakers by competing with them. Both markets are compatible in my opinion. Thanks for your reports.

  3. Richard Baptist
    Richard Baptist says:

    hmm trying to digest this article. I think the watch industry is too exclusive. I think this is an expensive hobby and to get to some of the pieces mentioned in this article as a twenty/thirty something is quite frankly, unobtainable. I think that you have to create interesting watches that are cheap as a gateway drug to watch collecting. No one is going to start collecting watches with a dufour simplicity. The only company creating cheap interesting watches for a beginner watch collector is Seiko. Now if you move up the food chain, collecting vintage is simply cheaper than requesting a watch from Akriva. I think this will always be the case because again modern watches from independents are out of the range of most – except for the small number of people that are interested in horology, and the even smaller subset of people that are interested in horology to the level of appreciating the finish of a dufour or Akriva. I would love a logical one but it ain’t gonna happen. So again the independents are chasing finite customers and it may not be a large enough group of customers to sustain the number of independent manufacturers out there. Just my 2 cents.

    • Judah Rosenthal
      Judah Rosenthal says:

      Habring and Ochs and Junior come to mind as two independent makers with more accessible pricing. And both are lauded as well.

  4. JM
    JM says:

    It’s all cyclical, well I think.

    While only just entered my forties, I have observed these patterns in the furniture (18th French, particularly) and jewellery markets – retro jewellery of the 1940s through to the 1960s.
    There is a market tendency to move in 15-20 year blocks, no coincidence I suspect.
    I recall, when first buying International wristwatch magazine in 1992/3, that auction fever existed – it seemed you weren’t a collector unless you participated in the vintage Patek mania of the time. Now we have Rolex mania. However, the 1990s was such a productive period for innovation and advancement of horology – a rebirth. This innovation has not simply ceased. There are sufficient number of collectors now, to keep the mantel (or SDB) warm to allow for maturation of today’s, and future, collectors.

  5. Regis
    Regis says:

    As someone who prefers old watches: 1. I’m a millennial (technically – born in 81) and people need to realize that there is a huge gulf between us and the boomers – they have so much more money than us (sometimes directly from our own paychecks in the form of social security that we will never see) that we simply cannot afford most new watches. All luxury goods are really increasing in price and they are just running away from my generation and following the boomers to the grave; 2. Let’s face it – like all art – there was a golden and silver age of watches. The examples of new watches the article uses look ridiculous to me – never ending “new and original” becomes repetitive cliche; 3. Watchmakers should have never gone down the path of reissuing previously used designs. Because it just reminds people like me that I can get the original for cheaper. Instead, they should return to more classical styles that are not a carbon copy of a previous model, and that doesn’t throw in a dash of modernism to ruin it.

  6. Colton
    Colton says:

    So much I wish I could say, but to try to articulate it succinctly… Suffice it to say, I agree.

    I had a Rolex 1016 in my hands recently, close to acquiring; but then was struck with a cringe-inducing question, ‘do I want this because I actually care about the reference, or is it some pseudo-desire to fit in with what’s popular?’ For the same price I could source an Ochs reference that continually makes my heart skip a beat. I left without the watch, and shut down my IG account shortly after. No need to be continually told my tastes aren’t in sync with what others are chasing.

    I think some ‘young’ collectors jump to vintage because it seemingly gives the impression that one is an insightful, well-read connoisseur, and thusly should be taken seriously – as opposed to someone wearing a contemporary piece who can be dismissed as one who just happened upon a watch boutique. Not to generalize all vintage enthusiasts, or that age is the only determining factor, but the herd mentality you described rings oh so true.

    Hope I didn’t miss the point you were making, but very much enjoyed the article.

    • Elizabeth Doerr
      Elizabeth Doerr says:

      I believe you got his point, Colton, and as someone who continuously buys watches against the grain I’m very glad you shared your story here.

    • Ian
      Ian says:

      The story about the 1016 couldn’t have rung truer to my own experience–it’s the perfect example of really losing oneself (as a collector) to the swirling world of popular taste. And I mean losing oneself in the most straightforward way: you can lose hold, sometimes, of the distinction between your own interests and somebody else’s, and find yourself about to pay twenty thousand dollars for what you know very well is a perfectly unremarkable watch.

  7. J. N. Miller
    J. N. Miller says:

    As a 30 something collector I think people are too interested in what they think they should or need to buy based on what is “popular” or a “must have” to be considered a serious collector. This has inflated the price on watches that simply don’t deserve the hype ie most rolexs, in my opinion. Since when is a steel tool watch with a basic movement so important there they selling for higher then retail? Maybe it’s just me but watch collecting should be about the love of watches that speak to you in some way not about what others are doing or what others tell you to buy. I buy what I love and don’t really care if anyone else feels the same because it’s MY watch, my money, my taste. If it goes up in value great, if it doesn’t that’s fine too since I have no plans on selling any of them. If you only buy what you love then how can it ever be a bad purchase? Some of my favorite watches have tanked in value but they still look great on my wrist! Vintage will always be in but what is considered vintage will constantly evolve. Without new watches today we wouldn’t have vintage watches for tomorrow.

  8. Dimitris
    Dimitris says:

    Can’t agree more especially with the last couple of comments. Personally I only buy what I like (and what I can afford) and while I am actually saving for an AK06 that I will gladly pay, I refuse to pay even 10% more for a submariner. I have never liked this one Don’t get me wrong: I love my 20 year old yacht master I wear almost daily and I like an air king. But where I leave 80% of rolex’s are submariners! Now where is the value in that? A reliable movement, yes; but they come with the thousands! And if it weren’t for HODINKEE and the likes I am sure nobody would have paid anything for the millionth limited edition speedmaster. And I will be even more provocative and ask: what on earth is the intrinsic value of all those Daytonas that sell (if found) more than a Gauthier and some vintage ones more than a simplicity? For me the sum paid for THE “Paul Newman” is absolutely absurd. My feeling is that a warning is the best advise to all those investing in steel Rolex’s and such: this is all a bubble and when the inevitable comes some people will get really hurt.

  9. Michael Paduano
    Michael Paduano says:

    How big is the Cult? And how dangerous are cults?
    There’s a cult building around someone you named who founded an online magazine you named- now a destination site. For whatever reason or reasons people his age are allowing him to choose what’s cool to own and wear. The majority of pieces he champions are old and traditional and mostly expensive. There goes the watch budget. I believe this is very bad for a lot of people. Indies, smaller trad brands, and me as well. I find these followers of the in-fashion incredibly opinionated and boring.
    More than 2 cents, perhaps.

  10. Tam o' Banter
    Tam o' Banter says:

    The problem with pieces like this and publications like this is they are only really interested in very expensive watches. This is a game for the rich and given the fact that massive numbers of people in The Developed World now can’t even afford a deposit on a mortgage, or healthcare, I think the current state of the Luxury Watch Industry is both irrelevant and surprisingly healthy. I’d even estimate that many expensive watches are bought BECAUSE more important and significant purchases are now beyond the reach of educated workers. Although, in Tech, where the real money is, a fancy watch is just lame. The paradigm is shifting. People no longer want to be “suit and Rolex guy”. They want to be “T-shirt billionaire”


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