Historical Horology

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How to buy a vintage watch

I buy old cars, cameras and watches. I buy these things for the aesthetics, often for the value, and occasionally for the story behind them. Sometimes all three criteria converge like the time I bought Faith Hill’s 1995 Toyota Land Cruiser for a good price. At least I was told it was Faith’s.

Those who read about recent watch auctions and still don’t wear a watch, will not understand this story. That’s because buying vintage watches is not a spectator sport. You have to wear one. You have to love its age, its imperfections and you occasionally you have to get fooled.

Because of this, I will try to give you some of my general guidelines I use to browse and buy.

Know what you like.

This really is the most important point when you first start looking at old watches.  Don’t let someone tell you what you should buy or like. Don’t be the person who buys a watch because you think you should have that brand and model.

I couldn’t stop looking at WW2 military watches when I first discovered the world of vintage. The military watches had incredible stories that were partially revealed by the engravings from previous owners.

What do you like? Consider the dial color, the case size, the case material and color or even the functions. Know what you like and your search becomes more productive.

Narrow your hunt to a specific area.

I’m not saying collect only one watch, but consider categories of interest to help you deepen your knowledge of watches.  For instance, some enthusiasts only buy Seiko’s like the founder of WatchRecon.

Another approach would be to collect only watches with specific movements.  Chronographs offer this options. The Valjoux movements are prolific and can be found in many brands, cases and dial designs. This collector has an incredible collection of jump hour watches from the 70s. Narrowing your approach allows your knowledge to grown deeper and not as wide.  This will give you some anchor points to build onto your own research and shopping skills.

Know the market for what you like.

So, what is the market for vintage watches anyway and when does a watch become vintage?  This is the fun part. Looking at the sold watches on eBay is a good place to start. Auction houses can also show you the very high end of what the market can tolerate. I can learn a lot about the retail prices of vintage watches by finding online retailers too.  When you see what an online retailer is asking for a watch, just know that they didn’t pay that much for it.  Use this information to help you know how to approach private sellers.

Know who will fix it when you need it repaired.

If you are trying to buy vintage watches, then consider knowing where you’ll take it to be repaired. A way to get a little more time out of your watch before a service is to buy one in the very best condition you can find and afford.

I remember taking two vintage watches into a jewelry store and wanting them fixed. One was a yard-sale-find and the other one was my dad’s watch he wore when I was a kid.  Both watches could be repaired for more than they were both worth.

So, here’s a story I did a story about watchmakers. If you don’t want to use a certified watchmaker, consider sending a watch back to the manufacturer for a repair estimate.  Swatch has a repair facility in the States for its brands like Hamilton, Longines, Omega, Rado, etc.  Ultimately, one of the best resources would be a trusted friend referral based on their experience.

Learn, look, buy, sell and repeat.

Some of us have trusted retailers and friends who have vintage watches.  This is great.  Learn as much as you can from your friends by putting your hands on as many watches as you can.  This tactile understanding will give you more confidence to buy online where case condition, weight and quality are only as good as the photograph.

eBay is the obvious place to look, but be cautious. Consider only buying from those you’ve interacted with and don’t be afraid to scrutinize their feedback.  My kids have made fun of me and my early eBay watch buys.  I’ve had the watches fall apart as I unwrap the package. This is the less desirable way to learn.

Here are some places to look and learn.  Buy at your own risk and make sure you understand the return policy.

There’s no perfect way to buy vintage watches. Let us know what you learn and please be willing to add other ideas in the comment section below.

Historical Horology – Bell & Ross


Often in our Historical Horology posts, we go delving back in to the history of a brand, or even of a specific model/lineup from a brand.  In today’s look at Bell & Ross, however, we’re going to stick a little closer to current day.

Historical Horology – Audemars Piguet

Jules Louis Audemars and Edward Auguste Piguet

When it comes to brands with long and storied history, we do generally head on over to Switzerland, as it’s been the cradle of some very high-end horology.  Not too many brands are still in the hands of their founding families as is Audemars Piguet.

Founded in 1875, AP resides in Vallée de Joux, a valley tucked away in the Jura mountain range.  What is it about this region that we find so many watch companies?  For that, you’ve got to go back to when it was first settled, in the 13th century.

The inhabitants started out farming the land, and would change over to iron and glass work to make it through the harsh winters in the region.  Huguenot immigration in the 17th century is when watchmaking arrived in the area.  By the time we arrive at the 19th century, Vallée de Joux was known as the center of complicated watch movement creation.

It was into this climate that Jules Louis Audemars and Edward Auguste Piguet combined forces in  1875, with Audemars Piguet & Cie officially founded in 1881.  The partners specialized some within their work, with Audemars focusing on innovation in the movements, while Piguet expanded the business with sales subsidiaries in Europe and the States.

From their first Grande Complication pocket watch in 1881, Audemars Piguet has been producing some amazing luxury time pieces.  For more of their history and milestones, check out this article on MasterHorologer.com, and of course AP’s own history pages.


Vallée de Joux

Historical Horology: The Atmos Clock


When it comes to watches, we’re used to the concept of an automatic movement, once that keeps itself running just by virtue of being on our wrists as we go about our day. Clocks, on the other hand, don’t enjoy that same luxury. As they’re not really being moved around, they’re dependent on electricity, manual winding, or resetting of weights that provide kinetic energy to the movement. As we’ve written before, there is one line of clocks that works without any visible external inputs.

That clock is, of course, the Atmos from Jaeger-LeCoultre. With these sort of creations, you’re not going to find it as springing fully formed from a monolithic company. No, when you dig into the history, you find that the Atmos was the creation of one Jean-Léon Reutter, who made the first prototype somewhere around 1927 or 1928.


Interestingly enough, he wasn’t even working at JLC (at that time, known as LeCoultre), or any watch or clock company. He was employed as a radiological engineer at Company Generale de Radiologie (CGR). When he presented his idea to the directors of the company, they liked what they saw, creating a special workshop in 1929 for Reutter to head up and create these clocks.

It wasn’t until 1932 when LeCoultre entered the picture. They were originally brought in to manufacture movements for CGR, but they knew the Atmos was something special, and were interested in integrating into their own lineup. They worked towards that end, and in 1935 everything was transferred over to them.


It took a few more years until JLC worked out things to their liking, but then the clock was on the market – and it was a popular one. By 1952, they had already managed to produce 50,000 of the atmospherically-driven clocks. Given that long and storied history, it’s no surprise to find a series of articles on the clocks, which is exactly what I ran across at Revolution Online. For more on this, head on over and check out part onetwo, and three of the series.

All images courtesy of Revolution Online

Historical Horology – A Brief Treatise on the History of Clocks And Watches


Our Historical Horology post of two weeks back inspired our friends over at Offshore Limited (link to review) to reach out, as they had some more information for us. In the article, we covered why we say “o’ clock” when stating the time. Lorne Giffords, the guy behind the brand, had some additional light to shed on the subject – specifically, where the word clock even came from.

Historical Horology: Some More Maintenance Videos


Somehow, I’ve managed to run into a lack of ideas to cover in Historical Horology, so I’m going run a few videos for you here of how Breitling maintains and polishes their watches, should you decide to send yours in for service.  Not 100% in line with what we’ve covered in this series before, but they interesting (and easy) viewing.

Historical Horology: Why Do We Say “O’ Clock”?


Frankly, this is a question I hadn’t ever given much thought about it – until I ran across an article that raised the question, and then answered it. Now, making a quick jump to say that the phrase likely comes from “of clock” or “of the clock” isn’t too much of a stretch. But why would that even be of a concern? Where else would you be telling the time from?

Historical Horology: America’s Watch-Making Past And Future


Being an American, and a (safe to say) “watch guy”, I can’t help but to take notice of writings that I come across that discuss the history of watchmaking in America, or the upswell of new American brands that we’re seeing these days. Once upon a time, America was on top of the watchmaking heap – could they get there again?As I’m guessing most of our readers are familiar, the American watch industry grew directly out of the the need for accurate timekeeping by the railroad industry. There were many other circumstances, and larger events (like the World Wars) certainly helped to shape the industry. That said, the beginnings were with the railroads.

Historical Horology: A Little Bit about Frédéric Piguet


Frédéric Piguet has as their claim to fame (well, at least one of their claims) for having produced what was, at the time, the thinnest hand-wound chronograph movement in their Calibre 1180. First introduced in 1987, the 1180 measured in at only 3.95 mm. This was a risky move at the time, as quartz watches were still all the rage at this point.
The move, as it turns out, was quite a prescient one. Not only have mechanical watches had a comeback, the 1180 has become the basis for many other brands’ chronographs, especially once the automatic version (the calibre 1185) was introduced.

Historical Horology: Hidden Messages In A President’s Watch


Not too long ago, we had a Historical Horology piece covering the watches that various presidents have had, drawing from an excellent article put together by the crew over at Hodinkee. When I was working on that one, I was reminded of another article I had tucked away intending to write about, and it slipped into the recesses of my catalog, almost forgotten – much like the hidden messages that were uncovered in the pocket watch that was once carried by Abraham Lincoln.