There is one golden rule I follow with old watches, well actually there are two. First is the basic stuff; look at the watch closely under a magnifying glass, because the marks and scratches often tell a story of woe and neglect. How does it wind, cleanly, or like stirring a bag of rusty nails with an egg whisk? Even if the watch is running apparently perfectly, it probably has several problems lurking inside its case, so quiz the owner carefully about work that’s been done.
The second is more controversial; don’t be a slave to fashion, because guys trying to outdo each other on bragging rights down the pub with an `iconic’ watch often don’t really know much about the watches they own. You can apply the same rule to classic anything in fact; cars, guitars, motorbikes, Lambrettas etc.
Take for example the recent rapid rise in Tissot Seastar Visodate models from the 60s/70s. Once you could only get about £200 retail for a gold case one, as many enthusiasts thought they were `workhorse’ models, and poor relations to an extent within the Omega empire. A recent search online revealed people asking £300-£350 for the same watch…not they are guaranteed to get it of course.
In fact the Cal 784-2 Visodate is no better or worse than a similar era vintage Omega Geneve, Rotary, Vertex Revue, Bulova, Oriosa, Uno or a hundred and one other Swiss brands from that `golden age’ of Swiss watchmaking, before the Japanese kicked their ass with cheap quartz models. Another important thing to remember is that any watch that may have been used for half a century, could be physically wearing out, even if the dial and hands look nice.
We recently serviced a Tissot Visodate and a good thing too, as the owner insists on using it as an everyday watch. He places it by a radio and his smartphone at night, exposing it to magnetic fields, it’s also worn inside a modern car – again alive with magnetic fields, as that’s how the ECU sends/receives data to all parts of the car’s electrical system, monitors the brakes, lights, steering, fuel injection etc.
Bear in mind the Visodate, or a nice Omega Constellation, is a watch designed in an era when a radio or TV was perhaps the greatest source of magnetism that the owner could expose the timepiece too – unless he lived under an electricity pylon. So if you use a vintage Swiss watch, then expect the demands of modern life to take their toll on it, as well as the general wear and tear that anything 50 years old suffers from.
So long story short, the Visodate ran perfectly again, but the owner knocked the watch, and then brought it back saying it was gaining lots of time. Indeed it was, and we figured out the problem; The fault lay in the hairspring, which had moved from its perfect position where two tiny pins, that are actuated by the regulator, sort of clasp the spring. Having moved from its correct position, the coil had `jumped’ closer to its centre, off one pin. The coils were now touching, the beat was all over the shop, and the result was a gain of an hour a day. Now the solution was to remove the spring and delicately attempt to uncoil it, to a more concentric shape, then carefully re-fit the regulator and balance assembly. The ideal alternative would have been a complete new balance assembly; spring, wheel, staff, cap jewel etc – but it’s 50 years old, so where can you get new Tissot Cal 784 parts off the shelf?
You cannot. The answer is you end up using other old examples that appear to be running well and have been serviced, but buying another runner, just for parts, then paying a watchmaker to fit everything means spending more than the nominal £300 value of the watch.
This is what I mean about fashion trumping real value in classic watches. These are NOT everyday timekeepers, in the same way classic cars are not everyday motorway commuters. Only a fool would drive a 1960s Austin 1100 to work everyday, because it would go wrong, almost every week in winter. Then it would rust away, fail its MoT and off to the scrapyard – why do that? Use your Austin car, Triumph Tiger Cub or Tissot Visodate sparingly, save it for best, cherish its potentially finite lifespan.
If you find a nice example of an old Rotary, Longines, Hudson, Montine, Seiko, Citizen, Accurist, or heck – even a basic Timex – then enjoy looking at it far more than you enjoy winding it fully and checking its accuracy against your mobile phone. Have it serviced once every 5 years if you really love it, but don’t kid yourself that it’s some gold plated investment on par with an ex-Steve McQueen Heuer.
Most of us aren’t ever going to be collecting at that level, so accept that mainstream Swiss, US, British, German and Japanese mechanicals/automatics are decent old watches that were mass-produced, in their thousands, not hand-crafted by trained artisans wearing half-moon spectacles and calico aprons, slaving away in some fabled House of Horology.
Here’s a fact for you; I have a £20 Timex automatic in the shop that is more accurate, and runs for three hours longer on a full wind than that 9ct gold Visodate. Classic watches are, to an extent a lucky dip, because you don’t know the half a century of history that lies behind the face of that vintage watch. So buy assuming that you’ll have to spend money one day getting it fixed, because you will – it’s only a question of when. If you decide to walk away and throw the watch in a drawer then you’ve lost £20-£50 on a Timex, a Buler, Seiko 5, Ricoh, Citizen or many other cooking models, not the hundreds that a fashionable model like a Tissot or Omega will cost you.
That’s the true value of watch collecting; the fun-per-pound factor, not playing a game of oneupmanship down the club.
Keep ticking over.