Advice for Collectors: How to Buy Pre-Owned Watches
The market for pre-owned items is huge. The success of websites like Craigslist, AutoTrader and so on are a testimonial. And the wristwatch market is no exception. Although a wristwatch is often a very personal item, at some point people are willing to part with it and trade up for something more expensive, or more special to them. This week, we at Fratello Watches offer some guidance on where to look and what to look for.
Before we start, it is important to understand that the market for pre-owned watches can be divided into two categories, those being fairly recent watch models and vintage watches. For this discussion, we’ll stick with pre-owned watches from 1990 and later. Everything before 1990 could be considered “vintage,” although some define “vintage” as meaning prior to 1980 or even earlier. Why do we draw this line? Because buying vintage watches requires a bit more expertise and explanation. We will cover the topic of buying vintage watches separately in a future article for WatchTime.com. Why would you buy a pre-owned watch? Well, first there is the chance that a watch that you really like (or always have liked) is out of production and simply not available anymore. In this case, the only chance to obtain such a watch would be in the pre-owned market, unless you’re hoping to come across a never-used model at a dealer who never sold it in the first place, and chances of that happening are pretty slim.
Another reason might be the depreciation on a pre-owned watch. This depreciation is, for some watch brands and models, a bit more applicable than for others. The comparison with cars is not the best one, as those depreciate like almost no other ‘durable’ product, but even here, there is a difference in the depreciation of a BMW 328i and an Alfa Romeo (whatever model), for example. It’s the same with watches. The depreciation of a stainless-steel sports Rolex is far less than that on a quartz Chopard ladies’ watch. Almost any watch will acquire some depreciation; it is up to you to decide how much depreciation is acceptable when you’re considering the purchase of a pre-owned watch rather than a new one.
The aspects to take into account when shopping pre-owned are worth mentioning here as well. As with a pre-owned car, you’ll want to know a few important things. For watches, you should focus on:
This isn’t so important if the watch is just one or two years old, but always ask about the service history of the watch and for the invoice. Since servicing a mechanical watch will cost you quite a bit these days, chances are small that the seller discarded this important document. If no invoice exists, assume that the watch hasn’t had a service overhaul. Calculate the cost of paying for this service yourself and add it to the watch’s price and decide whether it is still worth going forward. Ask for the official service cost at an authorized dealer, or ask your local watchmaker. Also, ask whether he (or she) is capable of servicing the watch you are about to purchase.
Box and papers
If a watch is 30 to 40 years old, it is very likely that its original box and manuals are gone. For some reason, the owners didn’t care about these things (and sometimes still don’t). My father, for example, received a beautiful Omega in the late 1960s without a box or papers. These were just left at the dealer as he saw no reason to bring them home. With today’s packaging, in which a lot of effort has been put into a nice wooden or leather box, detailed manuals, warranty cards and so on, you should really look for an all-complete set. Of course, if the watch is very special and you’re relatively sure you’ll never to never part with it, and the price is right, you might decide to pull the trigger on it without these accessories anyway. Also, make sure you’re getting the correct box for your specific watch. It should at least be period-correct. Throughout the years, some watch brands used several different boxes for their watches.
Scratches and dents
A watch should be worn. We have little use for people who put their new watch in a safe and never look at it again. Even if it costs $100,000, a wristwatch is meant for the wrist. Not every watch is suited for daily wear, but is a pity to see some of these beautiful watches disappear in collections that never see daylight. Of course, a watch that has been worn will get some tiny hairline scratches, a few deep scratches, and even an occasional dent. Always ask yourself what kind of shock or bump a watch must have received if a scratch is very deep or if the case has multiple dents. Remember, it is not only the case that has been knocked around, but also the mechanical movement inside. If a watch case has a dent in one of its lugs, it was probably dropped on the floor and landed on just the wrong spot. You may still decide to buy it, especially if you’ve checked to see that all its functions still work, but keep in mind that damages may go deeper than what’s visible on the surface. Also, when there is corrosion on the hands or applied hour markers, for example, ask yourself whether the movement is free of corrosion. If possible, and if the watch doesn’t have a display back, ask the seller if you can see the watch’s movement. Look for signs of corrosion and while you’re at it, also look for scratches and other signs of abuse.
We could go on and on about the things you need to look for, but in general, make sure you don’t ever consider buying a pre-owned watch without some knowledge of it. On Fratello Watches, we started with an Omega Speedmaster Buyer’s Guide to assist people who are looking for a new, pre-owned or vintage Speedmaster watches. There are other initiatives like this on other platforms as well for other brands and models. Last but not least, where does one go to find a nice pre-owned watch, anyway? As mentioned above, just as there is a Craigslist and an AutoTrader website, there are also on-line market platforms for pre-owned watches. Chrono24.com is definitely the world’s largest platform for watches and has more than 150,000 offers on watches from both professional sellers/dealers as well as private sellers. Another interesting initiative is watchrecon.com, a website that curates the offers on pre-owned watches from various watch forums and communities. This will save you the time you might take to search these forums one by one.
Some of these online sellers also have a brick-and-mortar shop as an extension to their online offerings, which means that you can visit the shop and see in person the watch you’ve seen online. It is always recommended that you see a pre-owned watch with your own eyes, and fiddle around with it a bit, instead of just buying it online without the opportunity to do a little inspection.
Some authorized watch dealers also carry a selection of pre-owned watches. These are mainly watches from clients who traded up to a more expensive model. Ask your local watch dealer about pre-owned watches. Most of them have a good relationship with their clients and might know someone who is willing to part with their watch. Then there are these watch auctions (both off- and online) carried out by several companies, including Auctionata, Bonham’s, Christie’s, Sotheby’s and so on. Be aware of the fact that, in most cases, you will be able to see the watches before the auction takes place, but also that there will be other bidders, so there is uncertainty regarding the final price, not to mention that you’ll have to pay a 20% fee to the auction house. Last but not least, always ask about warranty. In the case of a young, pre-owned watch, there might still be a factory warranty. If you buy the watch from a professional watch seller, a 6-to-12-month warranty is common.
This article was originally posted on April 20, 2015, and has been updated.