A vintage watch is anything that’s at least 25 years old, so all watches made in or before 1992 would qualify, and it should be distinguished from an antique watch, which is typically at least 100 years old. Interestingly, it’s only in the last five to seven years that people started to pay them real attention.
The best examples are preserved in mint condition and have not had any parts replaced; ageing and discolouration of certain components like the dial and hands are an acceptable – in some cases, even desirable – feature.
Whether vintage or contemporary, luxury watches occupy a sweet spot that’s about midway between an investment good and a consumable good.
Whether vintage or contemporary, luxury watches occupy a sweet spot that’s about midway between an investment good and a consumable good. Some people collect watches as a matter of style but many buyers (especially in Asia) are into watches for the investment proposition, and as symbols of wealth. It’s not impossible for a pre-owned timepiece to sell for more than what it cost to buy although this is never a guarantee.
To acquire vintage watches, a buyer may consider going to a reputed auctioneer like Christie’s, Sotheby’s, Bonhams, or Phillips. One may also buy from the pre-owned market. The growing prominence and expanding sales catalogues of watch and jewellery auctions in Asia hint at an increasing segment of buyers interested in vintage or pre-owned timepieces.
Shopping for watches at auctions offer the added bonus of paying lower than list price for a watch that has gone out of production, hence rare and very desirable. They may have been pre-owned but one of the best things about luxury mechanical watches is their superb build quality; many are near indestructible and made to last generations. Barring serious abuse by the owner, a watch made as far back as the 1930s can look good as new today after some light maintenance. This is great for the buyer, but at the same time, constitutes a growing threat to the future of the watch industry.
A luxury watch is unlike a luxury car, for instance, which gets scrapped after 10 or 20 years on the road, to be replaced by new cars that come onto the market. New watches do not replace old watches because the latter are not going anywhere. They’ve been here, accumulating steadily since the mechanical watch renaissance in the 1990s.
There is a limit to how many watches a person can keep. With vintage watch fever raging, buyers’ disposable incomes are circulated among pre-owned timepieces, rather than being lavished on new watch launches, and the problem is further exacerbated. Unsold inventory occasionally streams into friends and family sales but the longer they sit on the showcases, the more buyers tend to avoid them.
Newcomers to watch collecting are seeing ever fewer tangible advantages in buying watches first-hand, so brands and retailers are counting on big collectors to move their inventory.
In Singapore, where avenues to buying pre-owned luxury goods are convenient and plenty, this bodes ill for the luxury watch business. Newcomers to watch collecting are seeing ever fewer tangible advantages in buying watches first-hand, so brands and retailers are counting on big collectors to move their inventory – yet collectors are also becoming more discerning and will not buy just anything. This has led many brands to take their business online, working with leading e-tailers like mrporter.com or setting up their own e-commerce websites, to drive sales.
But the problem is less about reaching the consumer and more about giving them real incentives to buy new. In the face of a rapidly evolving digital economy, watch companies have responded with new vintage-inspired models which will attract and have attracted a portion of the market but the supply overhang is a problem that persists, one that will not be easy to solve.