A great vintage watch can impart a unique and very personal style that a brand new model could never achieve. You can also find a good vintage watch where your dollar has the ability to go farther than it would if you purchased new. A worthy vintage timepiece is by no means a flawless one because it has experienced wear and tear both inside and out. But, if you’re prepared to invest in its repair and upkeep, it can also last for years. It takes a certain amount of watch-shopping savvy to do it right, however, and you have to be willing to put in some research homework and also exercise patience in the process in order to get a solid buy.
Be Cautious When Buying Vintage Watches
Don’t be so naive as to think you’ll find one that’s cosmetically near-perfect with the original box, tags, and papers because those fetch serious money, way above the $1,000 price point. in actuality, the $1k vintage watch will be the victim of nicks and scratches on the case, aged dials, worn movements, etc. In terms of water-resistance, that will likely have been compromised, and timekeeping accuracy will have suffered, as well. These, in and of themselves, should not be deal-breakers. But you should know what you’re getting into before taking the plunge. A grand isn’t a ton of money to spend on a watch, but the buyer should still beware of what’s known as the dreaded “Frankenwatch” that’s exactly what it sounds like.
Sellers unscrupulously take an amalgam of different watch parts to make it look and work like the real deal. While it’s not an horological crime to buy a vintage watch with a refinished dial, re-lumed hands, or a new acrylic crystal, do your research first so you know what to look for. If you can find archival information, manufacturer photos and specs, etc. to help you know what an original looks like and consists of, you’ll be better armed to shop.
Where to Buy the Best Vintage Watches
All vintage watches for sale online are not created equal. Stay away from places like Facebook and Craiglist, as there’s no guarantee of the real thing, and you have little to no recourse should you get hosed. eBay used to be a minefield for Frankensteined watches, and it can still be risky, but they now use a third party to inspect watches via the Authenticity Guarantee, a free service for buyers and sellers that verifies the watches sold are the real deal. Keep in mind this applies to watches selling above the $2k price point only. eBay still has some of the best selection for vintage watches, so always consider it, but perform that all-important research first. Chrono24 is also a great place to search, but you need to take a careful look at modifications, as well as seller feedback just like eBay. Watch site Hodinkee now has a vintage shop, which is one of the best around. They meticulously inspect each vintage timepiece for legitimacy, and they stand behind their products. While there aren’t many selections at the $1k price point, the ones that show up are typically excellent and worth your hard-earned dollars.
Caring For Your Vintage Watch
In terms of caring for your “new” vintage timepiece, expect that you may have to spend money to bring it to proper operating condition if it already isn’t. It might already have received touch-ups and replacement parts, which could be a good thing. If original, it will have significant wear if it’s more than a couple of decades old. That patina could be what you want, but it’s all about personal preference. You should also consider the fact that very few of these sub-$1,000 timepieces will ever appreciate in value, so choose what’s more important to you, an original watch or one that looks better than it did in un-retouched condition. You can pay to have your vintage watches properly restored if you want to spend the money, but our recommendation is that you only do so when it comes to regulating/repairing a movement or replacing/refurbishing a crystal. Whatever you do, exercise caution and try not to be in a rush to purchase unless the site/seller’s reputation is pristine.
The Best Budget Vintage Watches
We’ve selected a handful of our favorite sub-$1k timepieces based on style and reputation, if not by actual collectible value. Some of these, we’ve owned ourselves, while others still beckon to us for future consideration. Any one of these watches will impart great vintage style, and they’re definitely out there to be found on the web. Again, do your homework before buying, research archival information, and don’t be afraid to ask the seller questions.
Seiko 6138-0040 “Bullhead”
The Seiko 6138 “Bullhead” dates back to the ’70s and is one of the best affordable and collectible automatic chronographs around. It is so termed because its two pushers were located at the top of the case, versus the right side, preventing their accidental actuation. Flanking the top-mounted crown, the pushers gave the watch figurative horns, a distinctive look in a world of conventional chronos. The thick and wide 45mm case has great wrist presence, and the watch can be found in two attractive colorways: brown dial/gold subdials and black dial/blue subdial versions. A ton of these vintage watches were made, and many of them can be found in good condition.
The venerable Seamaster is never a wrong choice for a vintage watch, but you have to back a few decades to come in under the $1k mark. You won’t find a Seamaster “Bond Watch” for even close to this price, and you have to dig for ’60-’70s era water-resistant (versus waterproof and dive-ready) dressy versions. Expect a steel case, a domed acrylic crystal, and some fading on the dial, but what you’ll get is a timepiece that gets respect and will likely not drop in value.
Zodiac Sea Wolf
The Sea Wolf is a legend among vintage watches, and they date all the way back to 1953. Zodiac makes modern versions for around a grand that sell incredibly well, but there’s just something about a vintage Sea Wolf with some wear and patina that evokes a special level of style. Versions from the ’60s have a modestly sized 35mm case, automatic movements, and those iconic triangular tritium lumed markers we love so much. They’re topped with domed acrylic crystals and leather straps or steel bracelets (the stretch oyster version, if you’re lucky). Stick with the more reliable non-date versions in white or black dials.
Accutron Deep Sea 666 “Devil Diver”
So named for its number of the beast depth rating nomenclature, the Devil Diver is more of a skin diver than a true dive watch. The steel case measures 40mm in diameter, and the simple hands and markers have tritium lume (which has lost its power by now). There’s an acrylic “Coke” bezel and a plexiglass crystal. Most importantly, however, is its tuning fork electric movement that was an innovative technology in watches at the time. Add this beauty to your collection of vintage watches.
Hamilton Military Field Watch
Hamilton is nearly synonymous with quality vintage watches thanks to their durability and inherent retro stylings. There are a couple of versions of this venerable military field watch that age particularly well, not because they hold up in near-perfect condition but because they simply have a great battle-tested look that’s classic today. The Type 1 was produced by Hamilton based on military spec, and it was powered by a very accurate ETA 2801-2 automatic movement. The crown and the case are parkerized for corrosion resistance, and the Arabic numerals and triangular markers are clean easy to read.
Omega Geneve Dynamic ST 166.0039
Yes, there’s another Omega on this list, and while it might be a bit obscure, it’s no less stylish and worth pursuing as an affordable vintage watch. This reference was born in 1969, and it showed off a bit more of a playful style for the Swiss brand. The unique “uni-shell” case measured 41.5mm x 36.4mm in diameter and 10.5mm thick. The automatic 565 Calibre movement was smooth and easy to repair, so good finds might still keep time well if they’ve been cleaned regularly. Made with either a rally-style leather strap or a three-link steel bracelet, the Dynamic is retro-sporty goodness. And will be one of the coolest vintage watches you can own.
Rado NCC 101
If it’s a truly radical vintage automatic watch you’re looking for, then the ’70s Rado NCC 101 fits the bill with high style and a bold rectangular TV-style case. The 36x41mm case has hidden lugs, a two-tone dial (rectangular or octagonal), a Rado signed crown, and a domed acrylic crystal. Current examples on the web might still have the original H-link steel bracelet, which is something you should look for in prices approaching $1k. This is a conversation starter, for sure, and it has ’70s vintage style written all over it.