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On Watch: Vintage Time

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On Watch: Vintage Time

Know the best old watch brands (and those to avoid).

Published in the July 2014 issue

Vintage watches can be a lucrative source of income, but you need to decide which brands of watches to carry and, perhaps just as important, those you should steer clear of.

Brands that will keep your customers happy are Hamilton and Elgin on the American side, and Omega, Longines, Bulova (pre-Accutron) and Gruen on the Swiss side. Bulova and Gruen were both American-based corporations, but their movements were almost entirely imported from Switzerland, and they are generally regarded by collectors as Swiss watches. There are other vintage Swiss brands that are very good (Eterna, Girard Perregaux and Universal Geneve, to name a few), but the first six brands I mentioned above carry good name recognition with your target audience. They are also affordable and, with few exceptions, easily repairable by your watchmaker.

On the American side, I would avoid Waltham. Starting in the Great Depression and moving on through World War II and the 1950s, the company was always one or two steps behind Elgin and Hamilton in both styling and technical quality. It not surprising that of the “Big Three” American watchmakers, Waltham was the first to go out of business, in 1957.

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On the Swiss side, I would avoid Benrus and Helbros. Many people recognize the brands, but that is because both companies flooded the market with inexpensive watches during their heyday from the 1930s to the 1960s. As a result, there are a ton of vintage Benrus and Helbros watches out there, and they are considered “bottom of the barrel” by most collectors.

Whether American or Swiss, I would avoid the very earliest wristwatches from what is commonly referred to as the “transitional period” (1910 to about 1919), when both Swiss and American manufacturers were switching the watch from the pocket to the wrist. Most manufacturers during this time were using movements intended for small pocket watches and fitting them into cases to be worn on the wrist. Millions of these watches were manufactured for World War I, and thus many collectors lump all of these watches from the 1910s into a category called “trench watches.” Thousands survive, and because they are delicate timepieces without shock-protected movements, their timekeeping ability can be erratic at best. Unless you have a customer who specifically requests a “trench watch,” I would not stock them as a regular item.

In general, you should offer only men’s vintage watches. The ladies who buy vintage watches will buy a man’s vintage watch because larger watches for ladies are the fashion now (and have been for quite some time). The one exception I would make is some of the beautiful art deco ladies’ watches of the 1920s and early 1930s manufactured by Elgin and Gruen (and others). Their beautiful cases, often adorned with colorful enameling, are easy sales. But the more plain, common, button-size ladies’ watches of the 1940s and 1950s will sit in your display cases forever.

Try to carry a variety of case styles. Art deco, streamlined, and retro-modern are the big three delineations in watch design. Period-wise, they correspond to the 1920s and early 1930s, middle 1930s to late 1940s, and 1950s to early 1960s, respectively. (There is some crossover: Watches from the 1940s and even 1950s can be art deco-inspired in their design.) Devote your inventory mostly to basic timepieces that tell hour, minute, and seconds. Such basic watches represent the vintage watch in its purest form.

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