Browsing around influential independent fashion boutiques these days, you might be forgiven for mistaking them for jewellers. There are the clothes on racks and shelves, of course, but increasingly a cabinet is called for. And one with a sturdy lock because it will be packed with valuable, vintage watches, from classic Omegas to old Breitlings, hard-to-find Tag Heuers to Rolex Oysters. You are now as likely to find these timepieces in Ralph Lauren, Paul & Joe, Bamford & Sons and Microzine as you are in some dusty antiques store. Indeed, these are often the most expensive items in the shop. And they sell.
"Why? Because old watches are in vogue and are increasingly regarded not as collectibles but as fashion accessories," argues George Somlo, watch dealer and managing director of Somlo Antiques. The clean-lined, retro look of these watches is something many of the major brands, from TAG Heuer to Longines, Blancpain to Corum and Glashütte, are now recognising. They are raiding their archives and re-issuing new versions of their old models. Tag Heuer were one of the first brands to pick up on the trend by reissuing different takes on the Monaco, famously worn by Steve McQueen and now a collector's item.
But such is the demand for the genuinely vintage that earlier this year one of the major watch brands became the first to officially get in on the act. Omega, official timer to the Beijing and London Olympics, opened a London boutique, in co-operation with Somlo, dedicated to selling its vintage pieces.
"Lots of brands prefer you to buy a new watch and some have made restoration of old pieces as hard as possible. Deep down many resent the competition," Somlo says. "But others are aware that the vintage watch market is coming up as part of fashion, and is now running in parallel to the new watch market."
Indeed, the Brits are catching up, and doing so with gusto. The vintage-watch-as-fashion-accessory trend began life some 20 years ago in Italy – where multiple watch ownership is the norm rather than the exception – before being picked up by the Japanese and American markets; now it is booming in the UK. According to David Duggan, of David Duggan Watches in London, while condition and provenance are a huge influence in determining price, increases of 1,000 per cent over the past five years are not uncommon. A "James Bond" Rolex Submariner, as it is often known in the watch industry after Sean Connery wore one as Bond, could be bought at the start of this decade for £6,000. Now it may set you back £60,000. Few people are paying that kind of money, of course, but examine the wrist of a fashion or creative-industries worker and the chances are that they will be sporting a vintage timepiece.
"The media has played a part in shaping this by identifying the iconic designs in watches and hyping their desirability," says Chris Lee, owner of Microzine, a boutique with outlets in London and Liverpool. Microzine sells vintage watches by Tag Heuer, among others, at up to £2,000 a pop. "And in some instances the consumer buying the vintage watch is the same one that wants the right jeans or the right jacket. They see it as part of fashion. But there are also those who see a purity and honesty in vintage pieces. It can be compared with the explosion in old-school training shoes. Going back to the roots was a recognition that brands had lost the way with the design ethic they later espoused."
In part, the demand echoes the rise in popularity of vintage clothing, but with a twist. Both markets may be consequences of the demand for the one-off or "craft" item in the face of rampant consumerism. But if, initially, the vintage clothing market was in part driven by the desire to spend less money, the vintage watch market is in part driven by good, old-fashioned flash. With designer fashion, once the preserve of a wealthy elite, increasingly accessible, the watch has become a totem of individuality. "You used to judge someone by their clothes, or their car. Now it's more about what's on their wrist," Duggan says. "It's easier to identify a watch, and a vintage watch says that bit more – superficially, it's tough to tell a Brioni and a Canali suit apart."
"The vintage watch is an expression of sophistication," says watch-industry commentator Alex Doak. "A new watch may show an appreciation of craftsmanship, but, aside from the patina of age lending a certain charm, the vintage watch is also a mark of a higher level of connoisseurship for quality and luxury. It exudes insider knowledge."
But that knowledge is sometimes limited. On the one hand, vintage watches offer good investment value – the long-term returns can be high (whereas you lose out on your typical new watch the second you leave the store), and collections are free of capital-gains tax. On the other hand, argues vintage watch dealer Tom Bolt of Watchguru.com, the new demand is creating a two-tier market. There are genuinely rare vintage watches in their original condition – the fact of which can boost their market value perhaps six-fold. And then there are the vast bulk of vintage watches, some 80 per cent, that have flooded the market in response to the new demand. Many of these are the result of what might be called "watch ringing" – vintage pieces with repainted or replacement dials, for example, or cases or movements culled from other less sellable pieces.
"The vintage watch market is expanding. And certainly it helps that vintage watches have been deemed cool, the trendy thing to wear, and the apparent rarity of the pieces is part of their appeal – you can't just go into a shop and buy what you've seen on somebody else's wrist," Bolt says. "But that means there often isn't a lot of knowledge behind the purchases. Only the true connoisseur recognises a lot of the more accessibly priced pieces for what they are."
Most vintage watch fans may lack the trainspotter passion, expertise, or, for that matter, the big bucks that allowed one of Bolt's customers to recently spend £200,000 on a Patek Philippe chronograph, ref T463, with Breguet numbers (yes, the vintage watch world can really be that obsessive) knowing that, in about a decade, it is likely to be worth close to £1m. For many others, however, the brisk business being done at the Vintage Watch Company in London's West End is testament to the allure of vintage pieces closer to the £2,000-£4,000 mark, and especially of Rolex. Indeed, that is all the store sells, with what it says is the biggest display of Rolex watches in the world.
"People come off of Bond Street having bought a coat in Prada and see a watch and think, 'this will look cool with this'," says the store's director, David Silver. "They want a vintage piece because it's individualistic, characterful and because, I think, there's dissatisfaction with the new. With vintage as an idea generally – in fashion, in cars – the demand for vintage watches has only grown."
Watch out: where to buy
The Vintage Watch Company
The Georgian splendour of Burlington Arcade is home to several of London's leading watch shops. Dedicated to Rolexes, this quaint boutique has the largest collection of their vintage models in the world . Princes start at about £1, 950 and go up to more than £50,000 for very rare models.
24 Burlington Arcade, W1; www.vintagewatchcompany.com; 0207-499 2032
David Duggan Watches
Find pre-owned pieces from Cartier, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Rolex and Patek Philippe, among others, as well as watch accessories such as boxes and straps. The boutique also offers on-site servicing and repairs.
63 Burlington Arcade, London W1; www.daviddugganwatches.co.uk; 020-7491 1675
In business for almost 40 years, this atmospheric shop stocks watches by Patek Philippe, Rolex, Cartier and has the first Omega vintage concession. They offer repairs to watches by major brands and have a large selection of watch straps.
35-36 Burlington Arcade, London, W1; www.somloantiques.com; 0207-499 6526
J E Allnutt & Son ltd
The shop first opened around 1890, and still has many of the original fittings. They stock 1950s Omegas, a wide range of unusual Movado watches, Rolex and Longines, and often have very rare styles. Prices start from £300, and they offer on-site restoration by Swiss-trained watchmakers.
West Street, Midhurst, West Sussex; www.littlecogs.com, 01730 813 495
The antiques centre has about six specialist watch dealers and many of the jewellers carry vintage watches as well. Mens' watches start at about £200, and include models by Omega, Rolex and Tag Heuer. Styles include wrist and pocket watches from Victorian times up until the late 20th century.
58 Davies Street, W1; www.graysantiques.com; 020-7629 7034
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