There are many reasons to buy or collect vintage watches. Perhaps you are looking for an investment, an object that will appreciate in value over time. In that case, you are most likely looking for rare, expensive and well-kept examples from well-known brands, such as Rolex or Omega. Another reason might be purely aesthetic. The scratched up, faded patina of a well-worn watch has a distinct appeal, one that is certainly fashionable right now. Yet another reason might simply be options. As you look through watches from decades past you will find a gigantic pool of designs that might interest you much more than what is currently available. Furthermore, as I mentioned in my 40mm and under guide, the standard diameter of a watch used to be in the mid 30’s, not low 40’s, which can be much more appealing to certain people.
For us at w&w, what makes vintage watches so appealing is the vast amount of options, and the fact that unless you are pursuing something well known and rare, you might be able to get a great deal on a very unique watch. This series is going to look at affordable vintage watches that we find on forums, ebay, wherever… as examples of what’s out there, mostly illustrated through photography. It’s important to note that buying vintage is a risk, and we cannot endorse certain makes, models, years, vendors, etc… since there are way too many variables. So, should you decided to buy a vintage watch, it’s really up to you to examine it and decide for yourself if the condition it is in warrants the money they are asking, and if you are willing to end up with a watch that needs repairs/is dead as a door nail.
To start this off we are going to take a look at a 60’s (apprx) Vulcain Diver I bought off of eBay. Vulcain is an interesting brand with a long history in watch making. They are mostly known for 2 things, their Cricket mechanical alarm movement and for presenting a watch to every new president for the last 50 years. Their current line, which has only recently become available in the US, are on the expensive side, starting at around 5k. However, if you run a quick search on eBay for “vintage Vulcain” you will get many hits for watches under 500. I ended up getting the diver for $140. Was this a good deal? I don’t really know in terms of the market for vintage Vulcains, but as a great looking mechanical diver (well, dive-inspired) I think it is well within reason. Like I said in the intro, I am not buying this as an investment, so my credentials are more looks, and whether it works or not.
On to the watch… The 35mm case is in fairly good condition. There are plenty of little dings and scratches, but they are superficial and add character. The bi-directional, non-ratcheting bezel still has much of the original black paint, but has been eroded around the very edge. Once again, this bit of patina adds a lot to the attitude of the watch. The dial is in superb condition, so much so that it could have been retouched (no way for me to really check). Stylistically, the dial is very similar to early Eterna Kontikis, which is exemplified by large inward facing triangles at 12, 3, 6 and 9 with applied numerals, surrounded by lume. The other hours are indicated by applied steel rectangles with small lume triangles by their points, towards the outer edge of the dial.
The dial surface is gloss black, with no sign of color variation or aging. The overall look is very bold and has a lot of texture. The use of applied markers breaks up the surface of the dial, creating a face that is both sporty and somewhat elegant. Much like the dial on the Helson Skindiver, which is based on early Blancpain Fifty Fathoms models, the look is both functional and stylized, making a more wearable watch. Though the lume is dead, I could image this dial design would have excellent legibility in the dark. Currently, Eterna uses this style on their Kontiki range, but it is not nearly as prevalent in the category as other often-used design vocabularies, such as that of the Submariner, which is unfortunate as it provides a very different overall look.
For a 35mm watch, this diver really commands a presence. The lugs on this are exceptionally aggressive and thick, in fact, they are larger than on most of the watches I own. On the small case, this adds a lot of metal that while not adding too much to the overall size, does make the watch seem larger. The dial is also proportionally large at 28.8mm, the same as on the Helson, which contrasts nicely with the 2.5mm bezel. The overall effect is a watch that feels small, but wears large, which is a great mix. I’ve been wearing it on 20mm NATOs, though the lug width is actually 19mm, which simply look fantastic. A tropical rubber strap would be another option that would be appropriate for a diver of this time period.
The movement is hand-wound with 17 jewels, incabloc shock protection that beats at 18,000 bph. The seller provided shots of the movement, which showed no visible damage or corrosion. It winds well, sets smoothly and keeps time, which is as much as I could hope for. I’m not sure of the make, but ETA did make plenty of 17-jewel hand-winds in the time period I assume this watch is from.
Overall, I think this was a great find in terms of looks and build. There isn’t a 35mm diver on the market that has similar looks, the closest being the Aquadive NOS, which really has a different aesthetic. One interesting lesson learned that could potentially effect my wearing of this watch is that on the dial, under 6, is the marking “RA SWISS MADE RA”, which indicates the presence, or supposed presence of Radium on the dial, which was used until the 70’s… So, I might have to find a Geiger counter before I go about putting this one on again.