What determines the “condition” of a vintage watch?

Last Updated on July 7, 2024 by Jason

When buying a vintage watch, you are also buying a piece of history. Your new timepiece may have had a sheltered life, sitting in a box at the back of a drawer for fifty years and it will be in pristine condition. Alternatively, your latest acquisition may have been the daily wearer for its previous owner and will show fifty years’ worth of patina accumulated from day-to-day life. The dents and scratches will reflect the trials and tribulations of the previous owner. Either way, the condition of every vintage watch will be slightly different and will appeal to different collectors.

For those collecting dress watches, the expectation will be of a near-mint condition watch reflecting a sheltered life. A collector of tool or sports watches will consider a degree of wear and tear as par for the course. In any case, the condition is subjective, but in general the better the condition, the higher the value of a vintage watch.

The dial

Undoubtedly, the most important feature in determining a vintage watch’s price is the condition of the dial. The overall appearance of the dial, including the print quality, branding and the hands can have a huge impact on the price of a pre-owned watch. This all makes sense, because the dial is what the owner will be looking at most of the time. For the most part, vintage watches that have had an active life on their owner’s wrist will show signs of age on the dial. This is known as patina and could manifest itself as discolouration, a fading of the print or as minor marking on the dial. On the other hand, a watch that has spent its life hidden in a darkened drawer, may be in pristine condition. Irrespective of the patina, a dial must remain readable for it to be a functioning timepiece.

One dial of particular interest to collectors are “Tropical Dials”, which have a very distinct patina. A tropical dial watch is a vintage watch that has undergone a colour change on its dial. This colour change is typically caused by exposure to sunlight, humidity, and other environmental factors. These are conditions that are typically found in the tropics, hence the name. Tropical dial watches are most valuable when the discolouration is uniform, such as when a black dial changes to brown. These collector’s pieces typically garner a higher price tag as authentic and even-wear is a rare find. However, uneven wear on the dial (spotty or non-uniform brown colouring) is an indicator of water damage. This can create rust, and functionality issues, and effectively lower the price.

Tropical dial.
Tropical dial.

The crystal lens

After the dial, the state of the crystal (lens) is the next most important factor in determining the price of a pre-owned vintage watch. The crystal is the mineral glass or acrylic that protects the dial and watch hands. Chips and cracks in mineral glass crystals are not unusual. These generally indicate the watch has experienced some form of impact in the past. Any noticeable damage to the crystal will lower the price. If the damage is enough to obscure the dial, then a replacement is required and this needs to be factored into the pricing.

Note that some collectors might consider that a replacement crystal reduces the originality of the timepiece. Acrylic crystals are much more shock-resistant and are unlikely to chip or crack, but they are susceptible to scratches. If a replacement is required, it will affect the price of the vintage watch. Note, that light scratching can be “polished” out of an acrylic crystal lens.

The case

The condition of the case will partly be determined by the case material in question. Vintage watch cases can be made from a number of materials, including single metal (gold, silver, steel, nickel), and plated base metal.

Plated cases

Plated cases are where the base metal, typically brass, is plated with a precious metal, most likely gold, although it could include chrome. Gold plating is typically a gold layer 2.5 microns thick, which is 0.0025 millimetres. A small amount of wear is inevitable in a vintage watch that is 60-70 years old. After all, the previous owner has been wearing it and bumps and scrapes are considered normal wear and tear. However, “brassing”, where the underlying metal is exposed, indicates heavy wear and is not desirable. Brassing will definitely detract from the value of the watch. Typically, the most vulnerable spots of a plated case are the lugs, which are in constant contact with the strap or bracelet. However, the wear is generally hidden from view. Of course, plated cases can be re-plated, but this takes away from the originality and the value of a vintage watch.

Solid cases

Solid steel and gold cases are treated differently from plated cases as solid cases are often polished to remove scratches and dents. Scratches are typically fine lines that are visible, but not deep enough to be felt under the fingertips. Scratches are inevitable when a watch is worn frequently. Some scratching is considered patina and shouldn’t detract from the value of a vintage watch. However, dents, which are visible and deep enough to be felt under the fingertips, are considered damage and are very much undesirable. Frequently polishing is applied to solid cases to reduce or remove scratches and dents. If polished lightly and professionally, polishing can enhance the appearance of a watch. However, if the polishing has been overdone to the extent that edges on the case, particularly the lugs, become rounded and uneven.

Keep in mind, that the deterioration of a watch case with some wear to it will continue as long as you continue to wear it. This applies to both plated and solid watch cases.

Lugs, bracelets and straps

Wire lugs on vintage watches are rare unless you are looking at a trench watch. They are fragile and easily broken. However, they can be repaired by a jeweller to the point where the luga look original. Solid lugs on standard cases can theoretically be fixed by a case restorer if they are broken or dented. However, unless you’re dealing with a very collectable vintage watch, it’s not worth it in terms of effort or cost.

Vintage metal bracelets are usually subject to the same wear and tear as watches cases. They can be scratched and dented, which can detract from the value. Additionally, they can be “over polished” just like cases. Vintage bracelets can also be stretched and poorly fitting, they simply aren’t as solid as modern watch bracelets. Few jewellers are able to restore a stretched bracelet.

Leather straps on vintage watches are very rarely going to be original. Even if the strap was original, it would hardly be in a condition to wear daily. A typical leather strap, modern or vintage, only has a couple of years of regular daily use before needing a replacement. However, an original buckle on a vintage watch, is something of a rarity. It is an added bonus if your vintage watch has an original buckle. Genuine replacement buckles of an appropriate vintage can cost 10 – 20% of the overall value of the watch.

Functional condition

Functionally, a vintage watch needs to perform its task as any modern watch would be expected to do daily. It should keep time consistently otherwise it is useless as a timepiece. That is not to say that it should be as accurate as a modern watch, but it should be reliable. For example, it is perfectly acceptable for a vintage watch to be 30 seconds fast a day, but it should be consistent. If it’s 30 seconds fast one day, and 60 seconds the next, it isn’t reliable enough to wear as a daily timepiece.

The hands of the watch should advance over time and the date should jump at or as close to midnight as possible. If equipped with a rotating bezel, it should move as designed. Likewise, the crown should rotate smoothly and click-in to all of the expected positions. All of the complications of a vintage watch should also be fully functional. The one function that shouldn’t be expected to work as new, is the water resistance. Unless it has been tested by a professional, all vintage watches should be treated as if they are not waterproof.

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