A Beginner’s Guide to Buying & Collecting Vintage Watches

What to look for, and where to look—along with some of the most stunning Patek Philippe watches ever made.

By: Laurel Pantin
Photography: Maggie Shannon

Remember what we said about being able to waltz into an auction house and fondle exquisite jewels and decorative objects at Sotheby’s? Well, it applies to Christie’s too, and from now through Sunday in New York, their doors are open to anyone who wants to come in and touch or try on the unbelievable watches from their Patek Philippe sale. Some of the items on display are not, in fact, for sale—but you can still get a closer look at most of them.

And for those who are either watch collectors, or looking to get into that space, there’s no better place to go than this exhibition to get a feel for what you like and what makes a collectible watch. We got a personal tour from Rebecca Ross, an associate specialist in the watch division at Christie’s, who gave us the basics of watch collecting along with the behind-the-scenes info on some of the most special pieces from the exhibition. Keep scrolling for her tips for entry-level collectors, as well as to see some of the most beautiful pieces from the exhibition.

 

“The exhibition-only pieces are really quite exquisite. James Ward Packard... Read More

How to educate yourself:

Christie’s is a great place to educate yourself because we have watches for all different price points, and if you’re an entry-level collector, you’re probably on the lower side, and our online auctions are great for that. On our online auctions (we have about five a year), you have watches ranging from $2,000 all the way up to sometimes $200,000, and that’s a great place to start. You can access that anywhere around the world on the Internet.”

Good entry-level brands for collectors:

“If you’re an entry-level collector, Patek does have some really accessible price points. Longines is definitely rising, and Universal Geneve. These aren’t typical names that a lot of people have heard of, but I think they are ones that are fast appreciating, and I think if you are buying for love and investment, then those would be good choices.”

 

Red flags to look out for:

“In the watch world, just as location is important for real estate, condition is important for watches. It’s all about condition, so you want to look for a watch that hasn’t been over-polished. You want the watch to have nice, crisp, and sharp definition. If you look at the case, you’ll look for a watch that has crisp edges, which means it hasn’t been over-polished in its lifetime and it still has the same definition as it did when it first left the factory. You also want to look at the dial condition. You want to make sure that, if you can, that it hasn’t been refinished, that it’s all original. It’s really the details of the dial that you need to be aware of.”

Where to have a special piece cleaned and cared for:

“I always say go to the manufacturer. It sometimes can be a little bit more costly than going to 47th Street, but then you’ll get a service invoice and service guarantee, which can certainly help when you’re trying to resell down the road, if that’s something that you’re interested in doing.”

“One of my personal favorites is the Ellipse. We have this chocolate-colored Ellipse, which makes a difference between the kind of more traditional blue that people see a lot more. We've got a skeletonized Patek, which is quite decorative and quite nice for women, frankly, but originally, then, it was made for a man.”

“This one's extra special because the style came out in '76, and this is from the first year of its production. And that's really rare to find one from the first year of its production; even rarer is to find one with the original box and the original certificate.”

“The chronograph is kind of like a stopwatch. You can notice that it's a chronograph with the two buttons to the side of the case. The top button will start the chronograph, and that will be the long white hand that you see there, and it'll start ticking around like a stopwatch. And then you stop it with the second one, and you reset it with the first. So you can time events; Chronograph was really popular for horse races initially. People like to know that their watches are complicated, because it makes them more special and it means that the watchmaker who made the watch was such a good craftsman that he could put so many things in such a small space. So then they made these sapphire crystal case backs so that the wearer or his friends can all gaze in awe of how beautiful it is. And you can really see that.”

“Patek realized that men travel. And when they travel, they need to know what the time is in different countries, so here you have around the dial many different cities, so you can set your watch to the time in the city that you're in—this is the World Time. The outer chapter ring moves around, so you can set the city. But then Patek came up with a more elaborate design, and the central part here is enamel. You know what enamel is, but this is Cloisonné enamel, and Cloisonné enamel is a technique where they put very thin gold wire and they lay it down, and then they put the enamel inside the wire and that's how they fill it.”

“You'll see the enamel lid closes, and then you press a slide on the side and it opens and the bird pops up and she jumps. It's a bird box. To find a bird box by Patek is very, very rare indeed. They're really collector’s pieces, as you can imagine. But for people that do collect them, they're very special and usually they don't have a watch on the front, it's just a bird that sings.”

“This is a crystal ball watch with a pin that you would pin to your jacket, I'm presuming, from 1872. I've never seen one of these ball-form watches before, and I just think it's so unusual, and you can see how they've magnified in the ball shape, so the movement is really accentuated through the magnification. I think it's sapphire crystal, and it's the only known crystal ball watch in silver.”

“This pocketwatch began in 1850, and it finished production a whole year later because the movement has something quite special. When you wind a watch, you wind it one way. This, you'll notice as you hold it in your hand, you can wind it both ways. This was a system that was developed in 1850, and we believe this is probably the first watch to have this system. It's called a coasting winding system, and it was patented eleven years later, but we found this watch eleven years prior to the patent with the same coasting system, which means that this is likely the first one that they ever had with that system. As we open the case back of the pocket watch, [it] reveals a beautifully painted portrait of a lady, and it's still in remarkable condition. She, upon further research, passed away and it's likely that her husband commissioned Patek to paint this portrait as a mourning. So we call it a mourning watch because he probably would've held it with her portrait to the inside, and he would've carried it around with him in mourning.”

“These are three beautiful examples of ladies' art deco bracelet watches. They are platinum and white gold and diamonds and emeralds, and they are exquisite. To have this condition from the art deco period is really amazing. Just like Patek Philippe watches for men that we've discussed previously, this also shows the status of a woman, and perhaps it was a present from husband to wife once upon a time, and what a beautiful present that is.”

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