iW Magazine

How to Start a Watch Collection

The key to buying (and selling) pre-owned watches at auction or online is condition and make. “Make” is not just about who made it, which is crucial, but how it is made and how it is finished. The classic brands are still tops at auction: Patek Philippe, Rolex, Audemars Piguet, Vacheron Constantin. But there are many other brands with great watches, beautifully finished. Some bricks-and-mortar retailers carry pre-owned watches; some have a website for their pre-owned inventory. Buying online, with some caveats, is becoming more popular. Here are 10 tips for building a great watch collection.

Vacheron Constantin Métiers d'Art Timepiece (Ann Ruthmann)

1. Peruse catalogues from auction houses that sell pre-owned watches, such as Antiquorum, Phillips, Christie’s and Sotheby’s. They will help you track what kinds of timepieces come onto the resale market and what they sell for. They will also allow you to scout for good deals on more minor pieces that collectors are selling off in order to trade up. “Auction darlings” – complicated pieces from Patek Philippe, Vacheron Constantin, Audemars Piguet and the like – can run into the hundreds of thousands, but you can also get deals at auction or online, starting at under $1,000.

Hublot MP-05 LaFerrari All Black (Ann Ruthmann)

2. Build a relationship with an authorized dealer.
This will pay off when your favorite brand releases a limited edition of which there are only 12 pieces in the world – and you want one. It will also ensure an ongoing insider education about watches.

Patek Philippe reference 1504 (recently sold at Sotheby's auction)

3. Know your seller.
Seasoned collectors are adept at buying online, but until you become an experienced buyer, start by visiting authorized dealers to find out more about brands and models. Take a look at the “buyer beware” sections of websites that sell pre-owned watches; collectors tend to warn each other about bad dealers.

4. Before buying a pre-owned watch, find out if it can be repaired or restored.
Some brands, including Patek Philippe, Blancpain, Glashütte Original and Breguet, will authenticate and restore their watches, but others do not repair or provide components for vintage pieces, particularly if the piece has been altered.

5. Go for a transitional piece.
When a brand refreshes an iconic collection, improving the movement, changing the metal or upping the case size, for example, the watches made last in the series before the model was changed are considered “transitional,” and often become collectors’ items every bit as much as the first editions of the new series.

Jaeger-LeCoultre is one of many watchmakers that make their own movements. (Ann Ruthmann)

6. Look for an in-house movement, made by the brand.
It’s always good to get a watch with a movement and case that were made for each other; and good to know that service and repairs will be undertaken by the original manufacturer.

The Audemars Piguet Royal Oak model has been popular since its debut in 1972.

7. Beware of fads.
This is harder to gauge than it seems. Large watches, for example, were deemed as the ultimate must-have five years ago. Today, slim vintage-style watches are hot. Size alone should not constitute the reason for buying a watch any more than, say, a carbon fiber dial, tourbillon escapement or a rubber strap. These elements alone will not ensure value retention.

8. Get insurance, or an in-home safe for your watch collection.
You will sleep better.

9. Don’t engrave the back of the watch, or alter it in any significant way, by setting gems into it, for example.
It could adversely affect the resale value and affect whether or not a manufacturer will service the watch.

Who wouldn't want the A.Lange & Söhne Lange 1 Time Zone? (Ann Ruthmann)

10. Don’t buy as an investment.
Some watches will retain value, but most do not The watch that actually appreciates in value is unique, and chances are it will be your grandchildren who benefit, not you. Buy a watch because you love it, and remember that a collection of four exceptional watches is better than a collection of 10 mediocre ones.

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