I've the watch if you've the time

John Windsor penetrates the hidden workings of the second-hand wristwatch market

Michael Balfour picked out a stainless-steel Ingersoll wristwatch from Doreen King's stall at London's Camden canal's Saturday market. Mechanical movement, chunky, telly-shaped case, digital display. "Wonderful shape: a period piece," he said, "you hardly ever see them these days. You'll sell that, no trouble."

He estimated its date of manufacture as early Sixties. Mrs King said: "They're going for Sixties and Seventies. Fifties they're going mad for."

Her price was £32. And, yes, the watch started when wound. Well, would you buy a cheap secondhand watch at a market stall, "as seen" and with no guarantee?

I had first met Mr Balfour only minutes earlier at the Man in the Moon pub. Wearing a yellow scarf as identity and a tweed overcoat, he had beckoned from behind a glass of red wine in the back bar.

Mr Balfour was raised beside the Stones of Stenness in the Orkneys and has written books on Megalithic mysteries. His great-grandfather built a temperance hotel in Dundee. His grandfather was MP for Hampstead. He himself has published 300 books and dealt in antiquarian books.

I had asked him to guide me through the mysteries of the secondhand wristwatch market because he is also author of the first inexpensive guide to wristwatches: a pocket-sized Wristwatch Almanac, just published at £6.99. It lists 50 classic makers' names and prices their best-known designs.

We turned knurled knobs, pondered the aesthetics of chunkiness and "friendly faces". But I could not bear to part with even £30 for a knocked-about mechanical watch.

He surprised both Mrs King and me by paying her £38 for a pretty watch with cushion-shaped dial (square with rounded edges) - and no name. Mrs King said: "My people won't buy if there's no name." Mr Balfour said confidently: "There's bound to be a name inside."

By the following weekend when I met him again - same pub, same yellow scarf, same tweed overcoat, this time in search of Rolex on a Sunday - I had had words with auctioneers and other watch dealers. As a result, the mysteries of time, as worn on the wrist, had assumed megalithic proportions and I was clutching my tenners ever more tightly. Here are some of the I-told-you-sos I heard - guaranteed to put the wind up punters with thin wallets.

George Somlo, Britain's biggest watch dealer, Piccadilly Arcade, London: "The £30 watch is never going to work well. Even if it is still going when you get home you are going to have problems. Nothing under £1,000 is worthwhile."

And antiques of today? A new £2,000 watch could be worth as little as £500-£600 by the time you walk out of the shop, says Mr Somlo.

"I wouldn't like to guarantee today's watches in 60 years' time. They will not be around. Manufacturers cut corners".

Tina Millar, Sotheby's watch auctioneer: "It's pure fashion. I urge people to buy International Watch Company (IWC) watches, which take up to 18 months to make. But they don't."

Oliver Saunders, Bonhams auctioneer: "Rolex are hyped up. They are not value for money."

Back to the stamp collection? Not yet. To the persistent punter, such barbs are tips in disguise:

n Never buy new. Last month an 18ct gold Patek Philippe at Harrods, listed at £6,500 but reduced to half price - a seemingly indisputable bargain - attracted a paltry £900-£1,500 from a reputable London dealer offered it unseen. At auction, wristwatch prices are 30-35 per cent of the retail price.

n Whether buying at the top or bottom of the market, get to know a good, reasonably priced restorer.

n Look for names whose craftsmanship is likely to be revalued upwards in a maturing market.

And maturing it is. The fact that a £500 Gucci fashion wristwatch may not fetch even £50 secondhand indicates increasing discrimination. Flashy, expensive mechanical wristwatches were an Eighties phenomenon. The market bust in 1989. Now prices are rising again - by 10 per cent a year in the past three years, Mr Somlo estimates.

For the British, not yet feeling good enough to move house or change cars, watches have become a solace purchase. Another London dealer, David Duggan, says 25 per cent of his sales are to the British, compared with hardly any five years ago. Money once spent on "castles and cars", now goes on clothes and watches - "the same as the Italians".

As for quality names rising in an overhyped market, every trader and auctioneer has "a little list" in which well-made but under-promoted and under-valued watches such as Ms Millar's cherished IWCs are given the ranking they deserve. Mr Somlo's list rates as first class Patek Philippe, Vacheron Constantin, Audemars Piguet and pre-1960 Cartiers. Then Rolex in a category of its own. Third: Jaeger LeCoultre, Movado, IWC. Fourth: Omega, Longines. He reckons Jaeger LeCoultre, Omega and Longines of the late Twenties to Forties are undervalued: "You can't buy a good Patek Philippe for under £4,000 but you can still buy a good Jaeger LeCoultre for under £1,500."

Oliver Saunders's top names: Patek Philippe, Vacheron Constantin, Audemars Piguet, Piaget: then, one step down - Rolex, Ebel, Jaeger, IWC. He explains that while Rolex makes 200,000 watches a year, Patek Philippe makes only 10,000-15,000 - "closest to hand-made you can get".

Movado, a secret favourite of Mr Balfour and many dealers, is also tipped as undervalued by John Das. He has a stall, the Oyster Bar, in Camden's Sunday market where he specialises in Rolex, putting his trust in the company's astute extraction of endorsements from famous explorers and sportsmen. Mr Das's investment predictions for the Rolex Bubbleback: the 9ct gold model, £1,500-£1,600 three years ago, is approaching £2,000 and will be more than £2,300 in three years' time. The 18ct model was £2,200-£2,300 three years ago, has now topped £4,000 and could be at least £4,500 in three years' time - "but I wouldn't sell it here; I'd take it to Sotheby's. I've got a good name, but in a market people feel trepidation parting with anything over £700."

With a sharp blade, he prised open Mr Balfour's £38 cushion-shaped watch. "A fairly good movement," he said. By that time the watch was known to be gaining seven minutes a day.

"That means you must have the hair-spring cleaned," said Mr Das, prodding a time-keeping lever with tweezers, "when it's greasy it swings too quickly." And there, discernible only with an eye-glass, a name: Mudina. Not one in Mr Balfour's book.

"Never mind," said Mr Das, "you wanted it, you bought it. I buy watches all the time that people go Huh! at."

I recalled the different world of Mr Somlo. The Rolex Princes he sold for £250 each 10 years ago he now sells for £8,000-£10,000. Mr Das will not touch them: they are out of his league.

Mr Somlo said: "We did try to get involved in the inexpensive market but a £200-£300 watch can cost that much to restore and even then we might not be able to guarantee it. We do like everything to be in pristine condition." A watch, he said, should be serviced every couple of years, "or you might as well throw it away".

I did eventually penetrate the workings of the cheap watch trade. Ian Franklin, managing director of the leading dealer-repairers CR Frost, in Clerkenwell Road, centre of the London watch trade, showed me a series of cheap wristwatches supplied by fellow traders. A Fifties Accurist with rolled gold case and 21 jewels had cost £15 over the counter, would cost £10-12 to clean and overhaul and sell for £45 with a three-month guarantee.

Only £10-£12 for cleaning/ overhaul? Ah, that is the trade restorer's price to dealers who give them bagfuls of a couple of dozen watches. If you intend collecting you will accumulate your bagful soon enough. If you have only one much-loved watch to clean and overhaul and you live in London, go straight to a Clerkenwell repairer. A high street jeweller will send your watch to Clerkenwell Road and charge you twice the price he pays. A reasonable price for a complications-free clean and overhaul is £25-£30.

Mr Franklin buys watches at house sales and other non-specialist auctions. Big dealers pack Christie's and Sotheby's watch auctions - keeping prices low rather than competing among themselves. There will probably be 1,500 bargain seekers at the Midland Clock and Watch Fair, the country's biggest, at Solihull tomorrow (see below). Average price is less than £50 and most pieces await restoration.

`The Wristwatch Almanac' by Michael Balfour, £8.50 inc p&p from Eric Dobby Publishing, 12 Warnford Road, Orpington, Kent BR6 6LW.

Arts and Entertainment
Kathy (Sally Lindsay) in Ordinary Lies
tvReview: The seemingly dull Kathy proves her life is anything but a snoozefest
Arts and Entertainment

Listen to his collaboration with Naughty Boy

music
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig in a scene from ‘Spectre’, released in the UK on 23 October

film
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap

film
Arts and Entertainment

Poldark review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Katie Brayben is nominated for Best Actress in a Musical for her role as Carole King in Beautiful

film
Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
film
News
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
people
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
music
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
tv
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria's capital

    War with Isis

    Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria
    Scientists develop mechanical spring-loaded leg brace to improve walking

    A spring in your step?

    Scientists develop mechanical leg brace to help take a load off
    Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock: How London shaped the director's art and obsessions

    Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock

    Ackroyd has devoted his literary career to chronicling the capital and its characters. He tells John Walsh why he chose the master of suspense as his latest subject
    Ryan Reynolds interview: The actor is branching out with Nazi art-theft drama Woman in Gold

    Ryan Reynolds branches out in Woman in Gold

    For every box-office smash in Ryan Reynolds' Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. It's time for a rethink and a reboot, the actor tells James Mottram
    Why Robin Williams safeguarded himself against a morbid trend in advertising

    Stars safeguard against morbid advertising

    As film-makers and advertisers make increasing posthumous use of celebrities' images, some stars are finding new ways of ensuring that they rest in peace
    The UK horticulture industry is facing a skills crisis - but Great Dixter aims to change all that

    UK horticulture industry facing skills crisis

    Great Dixter manor house in East Sussex is encouraging people to work in the industry by offering three scholarships a year to students, as well as generous placements
    Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head

    Hack Circus: Technology, art and learning

    Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head. Rhodri Marsden meets mistress of ceremonies Leila Johnston
    Sevenoaks is split over much-delayed decision on controversial grammar school annexe

    Sevenoaks split over grammar school annexe

    If Weald of Kent Grammar School is given the go-ahead for an annexe in leafy Sevenoaks, it will be the first selective state school to open in 50 years
    10 best compact cameras

    A look through the lens: 10 best compact cameras

    If your smartphone won’t quite cut it, it’s time to invest in a new portable gadget
    Paul Scholes column: Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now

    Paul Scholes column

    Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now
    Why Michael Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

    Why Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

    Manchester United's talented midfielder has played international football for almost 14 years yet, frustratingly, has won only 32 caps, says Sam Wallace
    Tracey Neville: The netball coach who is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

    Tracey Neville is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

    The former player on how she is finding time to coach both Manchester Thunder in the Superleague and England in this year's World Cup
    General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

    The masterminds behind the election

    How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
    Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

    Machine Gun America

    The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
    The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

    The ethics of pet food

    Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?