Evaluating and Valuing Wristwatches

What to Look for in a Valuable Antique and Vintage Watches

Rolex Datejust Oyster Perpetual Men's Watch
Rolex Datejust Oyster Perpetual Men's Watch. Photo courtesy of Morphy Auctions

In her book Vintage Wristwatches (Krause Publications), former Antiques Roadshow appraiser Reyne Haynes (who now goes by the name Reyne Hirsch) shares some great tips for evaluating and pricing watches, specifically wristwatches. While the book is out of print now (although available in Kindle editions and through used booksellers), the information gleaned from this book is, well, timeless.

“There are a few key factors that play a role in identifying and evaluating wristwatches.

These seemingly small factors can make a large difference in value and desirability among collectors,” Haynes wrote. The company that made the watch, the condition, and where you sell can all impact the value so evaluating what you have carefully before proceeding.

Who Made the Watch?

This is probably a no-brainer in most instances, since the name is usually right on the dial. But it’s true that some watches might just say “Swiss” on the face. In those cases you’ll have to open the back to look for more clues to determine who made the movement, remembering that the maker of the movement doesn’t always indicate the brand of the timepiece. Also check the inside of the case for the brand name.

Keep in mind as well that sometimes stores or other entities will contract with a watchmaker to produce a watch with their name on the face. Haynes notes that Tiffany & Co. is an example in this instance.

So, when you open the back the movement will have a different name than that on the dial.

There are also brands that made lines under different names. Rolex is a well known luxury watch brand. But did you know, according to Haynes, they also marketed lines of watches under other brand names like Tudor, Unicorn, Marconi, Rolco, and Genex?

What are the Key Factors in Determining Value?

As with so many other types of antiques and collectibles, looking at the condition of a watch is one of the most important factors. “A mint-condition watch can be worth $500, and the same watch in good condition can be worth $100,” Haynes shared. Be sure you don’t fall into the trap of thinking a watch you saw sell for big money is “just like mine” before taking a close look at the condition.

A mint condition watch would have virtually no signs of use, and the best examples come with their original box and documentation. Most watches have been worn which leads to scratching, scuffing and general overall war, and won’t fall into that category. That’s what makes the ones that do, particularly with rarities or high end brands, so valuable.

Make sure that the dial is clean and the crystal is not scratched. Examine the band to see if it’s original to the watch. It also needs to be in working order and keep time accurately, so be sure to test it. And is your watch monogrammed? If so, that can decrease the value unless it was previously owned by a well-known individual and that provenance can be further verified. In other words, just because a watch bears the initials “E.P.” doesn’t mean that it belonged to Elvis Presley.

If you can prove that it did though, the value would increase exponentially even for a common brand and model.

Other things to keep in mind are rarity, as in was this a watch sold in mass quantities when it was new, or something a bit more special like a limited edition or small run. And also keep in mind that watches models were, and are, produced in the same style in differing materials. Make sure that you’re not trying to value a stainless steel version of a watch the same as you would if the model had karat gold accents.

You also need to make sure you're not dealing with a replica watch. Many fake watches look very similar to the real deal, especially when it comes to Rolex replicas. Have a  qualified appraiser assess the watch you're evaluating if you're not sure that it was originally purchased from an authorized dealer.

Where Should You Sell a Watch?

It really depends on what type of watch you have. More common wristwatches sell well online, and it’s easy to do completed auction searches or look around online to see what else is out there similar to your watch. You can also sell to a dealer who resells watches, but you might end up getting less money that way. 

With watches made by luxury brands such as Patek Philippe and Rolex, working with an auction house might be the way to go. With extensive mailing lists and networks, they can often help you get targeted attention for your timepiece that will bring in the most money. They usually stand behind what they sell as well, which gives bidders confidence in buying from them. Some individuals are hesitant about buying luxury goods from sellers they don't know for fear of buying a counterfeit. 

To learn more about antique pocket watches read: Antique Pocket Watches and Their Accessories.