Vintage watches: when time is luxury
Pre-loved watches are becoming increasingly fashionable thanks to their vintage charm and ability to rise in value. However, shifts in global markets and demographics are impacting who buys them and at what price.
"Vintage Cartier is the hottest thing at the moment,” says Toby Sutton, co-Founder and Director of Watches of Knightsbridge. “They are much rarer than most other vintages because Cartier didn’t make as many watches as Rolex, Omega, and all the other brands. They’re a lot rarer and the demand is really high which has pushed prices up.”
He recently sold a 1970s vintage Cartier in auction for about £110,000. The watch face was octagonal and one in an edition of about six made in their London workshop. “Collectors didn’t really take Cartier seriously for many years, but with more market trends being published, that’s changed,” says Toby, whose company trades in fine, rare and collectible timepieces at auctions and in retail.
The beauty of watches as an alternative investment is that they’re very low maintenance. Toby actively discourages overly servicing them. “Watches can honestly be thrown into a safe and then taken out in five to ten years with no issues,” he explains.
Growing old gracefully
Vintage wasn’t a concept that was even thought about in the In the 1930s-50s, says Raj Jain, owner of Watches and Jewellery of Bond Street. “Factories in Switzerland used to churn out watches without any thought.” However, today pre-owned is very appealing as you can buy a watch for about 50% less than a new version would be. As watches often last over ten years, people can buy a luxury second-hand watch and sell it for the same price or higher in a few years. Whereas if you buy something new, the price will usually initially dip before it starts to rise again, explains Raj.
The luxury watch market has gained a lot of publicity over the last several years. Companies like Rolex, Richard Mille and Vacheron Constantin are now beginning to buy their own pre-owned models back and retail them, explains Toby. “The same companies used to shun buying back their own pieces up until a few years ago. Today they actively and aggressively buy back and re-market,” says Raj. “The lines were previously well-defined. Pre-owned stuff used to be only sold by dealers like myself and auction houses, but we face a lot of stiff competition now,” he explains.
Even new watches are often just recreations of the older models, according to Toby. “Vintage is now very mainstream. When we started, vintage was still pretty niche.”
The booth of luxury Swiss watchmaker Ulysse Nardin, on the opening day of the luxury watch fair ‘Watches and Wonders Geneva’, in Geneva, March, 2023.
Vintage watches were not as popular or as mainstream when Toby’s father, Simon, first started Watches of Knightsbridge over 50 years ago. “Now we get people in their early 20s buying a vintage piece before they’ve even bought a new watch.
In the past, my dad was more often selling to people in their 60s - retired people. The demographic of vintage buyers has massively changed,” Toby explains.
Rachel Walsh, Marketing and Digital Director, TAG Heuer, says their average buyer is still a 47-year-old white male. However, a growing number of women are buying luxury watches, according to Barbara Hans, Chief Marketing Officer, A Lange & Söhne. There was a time in which women opted for small dainty designs and men went for larger watches. All that has changed now, with women often wanting a chunkier design. In a bid to be more inclusive, TAG now talks about wrist size rather than male or female watches.
Trading across time zones
London, New York and Hong Kong are currently the global centres of the watch market, according to Raj. “Probably Rome as well. Italians are some of the biggest collectors in the world,” he says. However, markets that you can trade watches in have undergone large shifts in the last decade.
India is a controlled economy. You can’t freely import luxury goods into India as there is a 100% duty system for foreign imports, such as jewellery, watches, cars, or TVs. But the demand is still there. India was a key market for classic vintage watches in recent history. In 1985, all the dealers in the world were camping there, from the US, Italy, Hong Kong and the UK. But as India was a one-way market, this dried up over the last 20 years, Raj explains. However, “Rolex has recently reopened Indian branches and people are beginning to buy in India again,” he adds.
Raj opened his first showroom in Mumbai in 1985. Today, his main business is in the UK, with a showroom in Bond Street, London. The UK is a market that has historically thrived from both buying and selling. However, before Brexit business was “much, much bigger business in the UK”, Raj explains. “Pre-Brexit, I could buy anywhere in Europe and freely bring watches back to London. Today, that’s all gone.” If watches are bought or sold in Italy, a UK business would have to pay 20% tax. “Brexit has really limited my business in terms of purchasing. Nowadays the margins are not even 10%,” says Raj.
Toby has also had to make changes to his business. “Sourcing watches solely from the UK is quite difficult because it’s quite a small market,” he explains. “We have had to diversify. We are doing less quantity, focusing more on quality and retail.” However, he says Brexit’s negative impact has been mitigated by the fact that the company exports to a lot of collectors worldwide, which has a 0% VAT tax. Watches of Knightsbridge has also seen an increase in UK buyers, who previously bought in Europe at a cheaper price, but now have to buy in the UK. “It’s not been all bad, but we’ve definitely had to change the way we do things,” he adds.
What should buyers consider?
Gone are the days when a watch just tells the time. Those looking to buy a luxury watch should consider what features they’d like it to have, from lunar calendars to chronographs. Sporty-looking watches, such as diver’s watches, tend to be more robust and longer-lasting than dress watches. The safest bet for a pre-owned purchase is a Rolex, according to Toby, as the price tends to be stable as it climbs.
“It’s a minefield because there are so many vintage Rolexes. You need to be really careful where you buy. Make sure it is from a reputable dealer,” says Toby. There is a risk of a watch being an outright fake. Vintage watches could also be put together with lots of different parts from different periods. For example, you might buy a 1960s watch but the dial is actually from the 1990s. Another risk is bad restoration. For example, an all-original 1960s Rolex Submariner might cost about £30,000, but one that’s been badly restored or put together could be below £10,000.
Raj recommends sticking with well-known brands as they “have always appreciated in value”. Many boutique brands are priced out of most people’s reach. They often don’t produce many watches which creates high demand and attracts clients looking for alternative investments rather than mainstream brands. “But you can buy a nice pre-owned Rolex for £7,000-8,000. That is in reach of most people and, within a few years, they are beginning to double, or more than double,” he argues.
Jörg Bucherer shocked the watch industry on August 24 when he announced that he was selling his company’s retail arm to Rolex. This means that Rolex now owns 100 boutique watch stores around the world. This is a big shift for a company that previously relied on third-party retailers to take its timepieces to market, giving the company more control over price. Some have said that the acquisition could fundamentally change the luxury watch industry. Its biggest competitor, Watches of Switzerland, saw its share price drop by 21% on the London Stock Exchange the day after the announcement.
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