When you account for our base-level fascination with all things retro tech, it was probably a given that curiosity would eventually push us into the world of vintage timekeeping. The whirl of a flip clock, the impeccably crafted workings of a vintage mechanical watch, or even the 90s nostalgia of a radio alarm clock, there's a lot to pique your interest.
The world of vintage watches can be vast and complex, which is why we rely on our friend Justin Vrakas, founder of Watchsteez. While our selection of vintage mechanical watches have been chosen (with Justin's help) for their blend of vintage quality and value, some of the watches Justin has handled may put the value of an average car to shame. We've asked Justin a lot of question over the years, but here are a few basics that get right to the heart of the vintage watch experience:
1. How did you get into vintage watches? What do you like most about them?
My family is in the jewelry business and my great grandfather was a highly-skilled watchmaker, so I've always been fascinated with watches. I owned several novelty watches as a young child and I even saved most of them after all these years (my digital G.I. Joe watch being my absolute favorite).
I remember buying my first "real" watch when I was 14 years old - It was a two-tone Casio Quartz model for $51.15 and I still have it complete with its original boxes, paperwork, and receipt. My collection was focused entirely on new/modern watches going forward until I inherited a beautiful 1950s Universal Genève Polerouter Automatic that was owned by my great grandfather. I wondered how he came to own that particular watch, what he did while wearing it, and what it meant to him. I was immediately hooked on the concept of vintage and sourcing/selling rare vintage watches would eventually become my full-time career. Ironically his UG Polerouter needed repair, but that got me interested in the mechanics behind these old time machines and ultimately led to two semesters of watchmaking courses at Milwaukee Area Technical College. Each vintage watch comes with its own story and while most stories are lost with time, some stories can live on through these watches. There is also something really charming and aesthetically pleasing about the way each individual watch ages uniquely with time. It is very easy to get addicted.
2. Can you explain how a mechanical watch works? It feels like magic.
It may seem like magic, but mechanical watches are already hundreds of years in the making. To simplify it as much as possible, a mechanical watch runs on stored energy inside of a mainspring that must be wound periodically by hand or by automatic movement on the wrist. Stored energy within the mainspring is released through a series of gears that power the balance wheel, which oscillates back and forth at a constant rate. As the balance wheel swings back and forth, an escapement device releases wheels within the watch to move forward at a constant rate. These wheels advance the watch's hands to measure the passage of time.
3. What's the most interesting watch you've ever owned?
That is a very difficult question to answer as I've owned so many interesting pieces with incredible stories over the years. If I had to pick the most interesting watch in my collection right now, it would be my 1960s Mido Powerwind Diver. As a child growing up in the early 1990s, I absolutely loved reading Dr. Seuss books (sometimes just for the illustrations). The exotic "rainbow" dial on this watch reminds me of the cover from Oh, The Places You'll Go. The first time I saw a photo of this watch, I knew I had to have it! It was easier said than done though because it is an extremely rare watch...
Originally developed by Mido in cooperation with world-famous skin diving authority D. L. Jayet, it was self-winding and waterproof to 1,000 feet. More importantly, it featured decompression tables printed in pastel colors on the dial. Before the invention of digital dive computers, deep-water divers needed to manually time their decompression stops while returning to the surface. This useful tool watch would help them avoid decompression sickness as a result of returning to the surface too quickly. As a side note, Mido just released a limited edition re-issue of this watch that is available to purchase brand new today. It's a fun alternative for collectors that cannot find or afford the original.
4. We've often talked about how patina or aging can preserve or even enhance the value of a vintage watch. Can you explain some examples of this?
In my business, condition and originality are king. These two factors pretty much solely drive the value of a given vintage watch along with its general desirability in the marketplace. Over-restoration is a big problem today and truly exceptional vintage watches are becoming exceedingly more difficult to find. For example, the vast majority of top collectors DO NOT want their vintage watches to be polished up and artificially made to look new again. Preserving the watch in its original state is paramount to retaining its overall value. I am constantly looking for honest, original watches that have preferably never been restored in any way aside from maybe prior movement servicing. For this reason, I much prefer purchasing vintage watches directly from original owners whenever possible. That way I can control watches from the source as well as learn the specific history of each piece.
In some instances, patina or aging can drastically enhance the value of a vintage watch. For example, some original black dials had a tendency to turn brown over time due to unstable paint mixtures used in the dial production process and intense UV exposure after the fact. We call these "tropical" dials in the collecting world and they can worth twice as much as standard black dials in the same watch. As I mentioned previously, each watch ages in its own unique way based on a variety of environmental factors. For instance, a vintage Rolex GMT-Master ref. 1675 with a blue/red bezel insert that has naturally changed to a blue/fuchsia color can bring thousands of dollars more. Also, collectors typically pay a premium for watches with yellow aged luminous material on the dial (as opposed to white). It can get a little tricky because two watches that look nearly identical to the untrained eye can be worth drastically different amounts. The subtle details matter in a big way and that's where I come in.
5. Why should someone buy a vintage watch over a new watch?
I believe there is a place in every watch collection for both new and old watches. However, it is truly special to look down on your wrist and see a rare vintage watch with real age and history. The "been-there, done-that" look is hard to replicate on a new watch. Just like vintage clothing, each piece is different. You won't run into anyone else wearing the exact same vintage watch, which is quite appealing to me. On the flip side, if you walk down Wall Street in New York City, you'll probably see a brand new Rolex Submariner on the wrist of at least one stockbroker per city block. While a brand new Rolex Submariner is a fantastic watch, it will not age in the same way as a vintage Submariner because of the modern materials used in the current production process. It's just not quite as exciting to me personally. Also, anyone with money can buy a new watch. It takes more patience and skill to hunt down a proper vintage piece in top condition, and I enjoy the thrill of the hunt. Exceptional vintage watches have continued to increase in value in recent years, so they can also be a good place to park extra money. However, I always tell my clients to buy what they love and to enjoy what they own. And if they can make a little extra money on the side while doing so, that's great too.
Thanks Justin for once again taking the time to answer our questions. For those of you who want to dive a bit deeper, you can follow Justin on Instagram @justinvrakas.
Then, feel free to check out or very own collection of vintage mechanical watches.