Some of the Mistakes We’ve Made in Buying Watches
Sourcing good watches is a complicated and delicate endeavour at the best of times. For collectors and professionals alike, there are many different things to look-out for, such as originality, condition, completeness or provenance. Because of all the intricacies involved in the process, occasionally, things don’t go as smoothly as you might have hoped. Over the past seven years, we’ve also had our share of negative, but ultimately beneficial, experiences. Thankfully, these have been reasonably rare, but the memories and lessons, have certainly stayed with us. Fool me once...
A classic Universal Genève Tri-Compax.
As this topic doesn't often get discussed openly, we wanted to delve back into our own past archive and look back over the times where things didn’t go as planned. From spotting flaws on vintage watch dials, after we have them in hand, to unforeseeable servicing costs, regularly finding good watches, can be challenging. Beyond the impact they’ve had on us, many of these lessons also happen to track the evolution of the watch world itself. Greater information has become available to collectors along the way and different corners of the market have shaped and reshaped themselves.
The Unforeseen Flaws
Whenever we’re offered a watch, or happen to come across one, we always ask ourselves a similar set of questions, in order to assess its quality. Does it appear to be in original condition? What does its servicing history look like? Do we know anything about the previous owner(s)? The list of questions goes on and, in an ideal world, we would have complete visibility over the condition, completeness and history of a specific piece.
In some cases, however, we can’t get answers to all of our questions. At auction, for example, collectors and professionals alike are often unable to closely inspect the movement of a specific lot or trace back its various owners. As such, we often have to take calculated risks with the information at hand, in the hope that once we’re able to handle the watch in person, we can answer any outstanding questions.
A Jaeger-LeCoultre Geophysic Luxe, fitted with a new old stock dial by the manufacture.
However, there have certainly been instances where things haven’t gone quite to plan. In the early days of A Collected Man, when we had a different name and were much more focused on certain types of vintage pieces, we came across a rather intriguing Jaeger-LeCoultre Geophysic Luxe. The model was made in tandem with the very first Geophysic, with the aim of providing a more refined aesthetic. Back then, this was a hard watch to find and even more excitingly, the auction house clearly didn’t know it was special. It was only combing through, what felt like thousands of auction listings, that we were able to spot the unusual dial and index markers.
The issue was that the images available were very low quality, and it was impossible for us to see it in the metal before it sold. From what we could tell, the dial seemed in relatively good condition, but due to a severely scratched crystal, we couldn’t know for sure without handling the watch in person. Often, it can be an exciting opportunity to find a vintage watch in this condition, with plenty of marks on the crystal and case, from wear and tear over the years. It can be a sign that it was never or rarely serviced, and that it retains all of its original parts and features. To then also be mislabelled in the auction, felt like a chance worth taking.
The restoration department at Jaeger-LeCoultre, courtesy of Jaeger-LeCoultre.
Bearing this in mind, we went for the Geophysic Luxe. However, once received and we were able to take the crystal off, we noticed that the dial had been restored, and poorly so. Our calculated risk hadn’t quite gone as planned. In a situation like this, we chose to send it off to Jaeger-LeCoultre themselves, in the hope that they could restore the dial using traditional techniques and archival photos. Unexpectedly, and fortunately for us, they had a new-old-stock dial for this exact model, which they were able to fit to the watch, sending it back with their manufacture guarantee attached. This meant that we could now offer the watch for sale, in the knowledge that everything was period correct and covered by Jaeger-LeCoultre. This was fully disclosed in the original listing, which can still be found here.
Examples such as this are luckily rare, and have diminished over the years, but the memories certainly stay with us. It’s a good reminder that meticulous due diligence is always important when considering a specific watch, whichever one it may be.
When the Market Turns Against You
One fascinating aspect of the vintage and pre-owned watch world is how the desirability of certain pieces evolves over time. Some things can remain ignored for years, then instantly catch the attention of collectors. The reverse can also happen, when certain brands or models lose their desirability, after a short or prolonged burst of enthusiasm. These fluctuations are an essential part of the watch world. Predicting trends and trying to stay ahead of them is something we to do on a daily basis (with varying degrees of success), in our attempt to understand collective taste and its direction of travel. However, there are times where we don’t quite anticipate how things will evolve, and this can come at a cost.
A few years ago, the market for certain variants of the Omega Speedmaster seemed to be climbing at a fairly rapid rate. In particular, the Ed White Speedmasters – which gained their nickname after the astronaut Edward White became the first American to perform a spacewalk with one on the wrist – were becoming particularly sought-after from collectors. According to Sacha Davidoff, a Geneva-based vintage dealer who is particularly involved in the market for Omega Speedmasters, “between 2015 and 2017, we started to see a lot of pieces coming fresh to the market. New variants were being discovered as a result, which helped the market evolve.” Davidoff points out that the growing appreciation for Speedmasters “was also partly driven by things such as the Moonwatch Only book being released.”
When greater information is shared, this can often lead to the growth of a market which previously lacked momentum. Having noticed this rise in interest, we also wanted to take part in what seemed like an increasingly interesting area of collecting. As such, we purchased a selection of Ed White Speedmasters from various sources, which represented the best on offer, at the time.
Two examples of the Ed White Speedmaster, including one that we still have at the back of our safe.
Unfortunately, though most markets are relatively stable, some can be volatile. The risk that often comes when the interest in certain watches rises so rapidly, as Davidoff points out, that “the prices of these pieces can auto-correct pretty quickly.” In this case, we couldn’t anticipate just how quickly the market would soften. As the few pieces we sourced needed servicing prior to being listed on the website, we ended-up holding onto them for longer than expected. Even though it was a few years ago, until recently, we still had some of these Ed White Speedmasters in the back of the safe.
A similar thing happened, several years earlier, with Universal Genève. Like with the Omega Speedmaster, the interest in complicated Universal Genève watches, especially the chronographs, appeared to surge very quickly, in no small part due to the renewed attention given to these pieces by members of the wider collecting community, such as Ben Clymer from HODINKEE. Once again, we wanted to explore what seemed like an interesting area of collecting.
A widely popular brand, Universal Genève was even stocked by the Henri Stern Watch Agecy at one point.
As such, we began our search for interesting and well-preserved Universal Genève pieces. However, by virtue of having rarely handled pieces from Universal Genève, we didn’t foresee just how many of them would need extensive (ok, very extensive) servicing. Early chronographs were rarely ever resistant to moisture, and offered little protection against the elements. Despite this, they were often worn rather frequently by their owners, subjecting them to extensive wear and tear.
Many of the earlier Universal Genève pieces we had the opportunity to handle, required entire movement overhauls and, in some cases, specialised parts to be made for them, before we could comfortably stand behind their mechanical functionality. At times, the cost involved in restoring these movements could be equivalent to half the value of the piece, which complicated things for us. Whilst this cost might make sense for a Rolex Daytona powered by a similar movement, due to its much higher price point, it’s harder to justify with these more accessible Universal Genève chronographs.
The dial and movement of a Universal Genève, showing the wear and tear they can experience over the years.
On top of the challenges posed by servicing these watches, the market also seemed to stabilise whilst we were still in the process of having the movements looked-over by our watchmaker, making it less appealing than when we had acquired the pieces. This combination of factors meant that we began gravitating towards watches made in the ‘80s, ‘90s and early ‘00s, where servicing concerns were less dramatic. Thankfully, these lessons stay with us today, making us particularly sensitive to the difficulties related to servicing. Having seen how different markets behave and evolve over time has also been tremendously helpful, as it puts us in a better position to anticipate how things will evolve in the future.
Trusting the Seemingly Perfect Story
There are a few signs, whenever they come up, that give you confidence that the watch you’re looking to source is of a high standard. Whether it comes directly from the original owner, is a complete set or was discovered in a drawer, these rarer contexts, often give you an immediate confidence when looking to purchase a watch. Of course, these always require further examination, but when similar elements are at play, the experience often ends-up being a positive one. However, in some cases, appearances can be deceiving.
About six years ago, we were offered an Audemars Piguet Royal Oak 5402 from the original owner. It was an early A Series, putting it amongst the first Royal Oaks ever made. It was also the first example that we had come across in the metal. As you might expect, the provenance and significance of the piece certainly caught our interest. At the time, the knowledge and information available on the reference wasn’t quite where it is today, where collectors and experts have researched and documented the various details of these early pieces. With what we knew back then, and the original owner’s belief that none of the parts had been replaced, we felt confident in purchasing this Royal Oak.
An Audemars Piguet Royal 5402, from the original owner, which turned out to have a service dial.
For a while, this Royal Oak was kept in a private collection, but as the research on these watches evolved, it became apparent that it was actually fitted with an earlier service dial, distinguished by its more modern “Audemars Piguet” signature and “Swiss Made” at six o’clock. Given that the watch came directly to us from the original owner, who was confident no parts had ever been replaced, how could this have happened?
When we first bought the piece, he mentioned that it had been back to Audemars Piguet a few times, for routine servicing of the movement. However, he never requested for the dial to be changed, and the brand never flagged this either. Unfortunately, some brands can sometimes replace components, such as crowns, hands or even dials, without notifying the owner. In most cases, these changes go unnoticed, as owners don’t closely examine the fonts on their dials or the thickness of their hands. This was especially prevalent a few years ago, when there was less sensitivity around the originality of watches such as the Royal Oak or the Nautilus, which had yet to achieve the collectable status they enjoy today. In the end, we sold the Royal Oak through the website, fully disclosing the service dial, but it was an important lesson that has since paid numerous dividends, over the years.
Up close with the service dial on this Royal Oak 5402.
Another time where we might’ve placed too much faith in the background story of a watch was when a son found his father’s IWC Ingénieur in a desk drawer and approached us. When we were first presented with the piece, it had the usual signs of wear you might expect to see, such as markings on the case and scratches on the glass. These gave us confidence that it had been worn over the years, but never had any of the components replaced. It looked like what collectors often describe as a "barn find", which is a watch that is rediscovered after being stored for a long time, unusually, in completely original condition.
The IWC Ingénieur, with an incorrect iron dome.
Placing trust in the provenance and signs of wear, we made a calculated decision to waive our normal inspection period and purchase the watch on the spot. We sold the watch through the website, offering a complimentary service with and archive extract with IWC. It wasn’t until the watch was eventually sent to IWC that it was discovered that the iron dome faraday cage, which protects the movement from magnetic fields, was not original. With hindsight, we could’ve been more meticulous up front, but we made the mistake of vesting too much trust in the history and apparent condition of the watch. Thankfully, we were able to get a period correct replacement installed by IWC, returning the watch to as close to its original specification as possible.
Though the circumstances were different, we took a similar calculated risk whilst purchasing a Rolex Submariner 5513. It came as complete set and, from the few images we were provided with, it displayed consistent signs of wear throughout, on the case, bracelet and crystal. Once again, the fact that uniform marks appeared throughout the watch, including on the crystal, suggested that it may been worn on a daily basis and unlikely to have had any of its original parts replaced. What lay beneath the heavily scratched crystal was a potentially original, unrestored dial.
What seemed like an original, unrestored watch.
We took this combination of factors into account, and decided to purchase the watch, sight unseen. Once we had the watch in hand however, we discovered, to our regret, that the dial was poorly repaired and possibly painted over. In fact, the central portion of the dial showed quite visible damage and even some of the “Oyster Perpetual” text below the Rolex signature had been scratched away. Having been unable to do anything with this piece since we purchased it a number of years ago, it remains in our safe to this day.
A closer look at the dial of this Rolex 5513, which was badly restored.
These examples act as cautionary tales and remind us to always be as thoughtful and vigilant as possible. With some watches, making assumptions about the life they’ve lived and what they’ve been through is important, because it allows you to take calculated risks. However, it’s not always an ideal outcome. A scratched-up crystal doesn’t always hide an original, untouched dial and the story of an original owner, however trustworthy they may be, can sometimes only tell part of the story. Caveat emptor.
Relying on Unknown Sources
Though we often rely on a small circle of trusted collectors and sources to find watches, there are times that we are offered pieces from people we’ve never, or rarely interacted with before. As you can expect, we are especially cautious in these situations, to make sure that the watches being offered are of a high standard. However, there have been a few, rare occasions when unforeseen obstacles have come up, as a result of relying on new sources.
Inside the Audemars Piguet archives in Le Brassus.
Quite a long time ago, we purchased a vintage Audemars Piguet from a collector we had never dealt with before, but who had been vouched for by someone we knew well and trusted. From careful examination we were able to carry out remotely, the piece seemed to be in excellent condition and there were no areas of concern. However, once we acquired the piece and sent it to Audemars Piguet for an in-depth assessment and service, we discovered that scratches had been left on the underside of the dial, likely resulting from a previous intervention. Though we’re always careful in expanding the circle we source pieces from, this experience goes to show the risk that can sometimes occur when interacting with strangers. It’s not that there was any attempt at deception on the seller’s behalf, simply that we didn’t know how attentive to small details, they were. In essence, it’s easy to assume others have the same level of caution you might have, or even the person who introduced you to them, but it’s risky to make assumptions.
On another occasion, when we looked to source an F.P. Journe Chronomètre Bleu from a forum, we almost fell victim to fraud. In the early days of wristwatch collecting and the Internet, forums were the first place where collectors gathered to discuss, and sometimes even trade, watches. Especially for independent watchmakers, such as François-Paul Journe or Daniel Roth, much of the knowledge and discussion around these pieces was concentrated on forums.
This legacy has continued to the present day, such that interesting information still gets shared on forums and trustworthy collectors do still choose to sell their watches there, rather than through other platforms. Bearing this in mind, about three years ago, we came across a Chronomètre Bleu for sale on a forum dedicated to independents. Back then, the market wasn’t quite as dynamic as it is today, so it didn’t instantly occur to us that this could be a scam.
What we thought we would receive from this seller.
The pricing of the piece was good enough for us to consider purchasing it, whilst not so attractive that we were instantly suspicious. The scam was quite subtle and clearly well thought out.
Without having any prior interaction with this seller, we decided to go ahead, on the basis that he appeared to have posted multiple times over the previous year and there were no negative posts associated with his username. We began the process of wiring funds and, as it was happening, we saw a new post appear on the forum claiming that the seller was potentially fraudulent. Luckily, we were able to stop the transfer just in time.
It goes to show that even though relying on new sources is needed to expand the pieces you have access to, things can sometimes go wrong. Thankfully, as it has grown exponentially, the marketplace for trading pre-owned watches has now become far more regulated. We’re also lucky that, due to the types of watches we focus on, we’re usually already familiar with many of the people who reach out to us, or have been able to establish their reputation, through existing intermediaries.
Over the years, we’ve experienced our share of challenges and mistakes. From unforeseen restorations, to volatile markets turning against us, all of these experiences have taught us valuable lessons. Meticulous examination of certain watches is important to assess whether they’re worth sourcing or not, and knowing what to look out for mostly comes from experience over time. Having seen various markets evolve, we also feel better equipped to understand why they behave the way they do, and how they’re likely to develop. It’s also become clear to us how important it is to look beyond a compelling backstory and to be as thoughtful as possible with regards to who we deal with.
At times, these difficulties don’t get discussed openly, though we feel that they can provide useful cautionary tales for those looking to track down a vintage or pre-owned watch. In certain situations, when we’ve only been able to gather a limited amount of information, what we do, requires us to take calculated risks. Of course, we aim to be as diligent and as well informed as possible, but occasionally, things still slip through the cracks. In some cases, these decisions can result in an outcome that’s far from ideal, but at least there are always valuable lessons to be learnt.