Opinion: The Case For Future Vintage Watches

There’s an adage that goes something like “buy fewer, but better things” which I like to keep in mind around this time of year. The idea being, if you invest in higher quality goods, you’ll need to replace them less often, if ever. While this can certainly be applied to all manner of things we go out of our way to consume, it’s best illustrated when it comes to heirloom grade items, watches chief among them. This is likely no small factor when it comes to justifying some of the pricier watches we add to our collections. However, when looking at vintage watches through this lens, it forces the question, are we buying to use or to collect?

Many of us are pulled into this world through the romantic, larger than life stories and lifestyles associated with vintage timepieces. From big Hollywood types like Steve McQueen and Paul Newman, to explorers and adventurers like Bob Barth, Jim Lovell, and Sir Edmond Hillary. As collector Sandra Silva put it to Time Curated recently: “Modern watches are soulless, cold, shiny bling to me, whereas vintage watches have a soul, and the charm of imperfections.

Vintage 1680, Sinn U50, modern 114060

Now, I love the experience of vintage watches. I love their stories, and I love how age sets into their dials and cases… and I even love the idea of their cool factor somehow rubbing off on me, as a wearer. However, buying into all that after the fact comes with something of a hollow feeling, in my experience. It’s appreciated, but ultimately unearned. As much as I enjoy the idea of a Paul Newman Daytona, I have no illusions that owning one would impart any of his swagger onto me (sigh). There is no shortage of cool, beautiful, interesting, and meaningful watches from the ‘60s and ‘70s, but I’m curious about how we’ll look at the modern watches of today, in 50 or 60 years from now

I’m generally inclined to agree with Silva (see her lovely collection and impeccable eye @_passion66_), however the quote above has me thinking about the future of vintage watches. I’d argue that modern watches simply lack the time and experiences required to imbue them with soul and the charm of imperfections. That responsibility falls to us, and depends on our ability to put them to proper use. 

Three generations of the GMT

You’ve no doubt noticed that the world is a very different place today than it was in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and how we put our watches to use has changed just as considerably. Without widespread computers, cell phones and video games all that was left to occupy free time was, presumably, the rest of the world. Further, without a hundred different devices to tell us the time, a watch played a broadly more practical role than we’re faced with today. That said, I firmly believe that watches are what we make of them (tool, jewelry, investment…), and I happen to know that there are still plenty of us putting them to good practical use today.

And that’s a good thing, because those are the stewards of the next generation of vintage watches. 

Of course, that doesn’t take living at the bottom of the sea, traveling to the moon and back, or summiting Everest; a life well lived doesn’t have to mean full-tilt drama all the time, and it’s the same with watches. These are ultimately personal objects to some of us. So what it really means is simply wearing your watch. Create the stories (high on drama, or not), and the soul, the charm, will follow.

None of this to say that vintage watches don’t have their place. Owning, maintaining, and wearing them is hugely motivating to the enthusiasm many of us share. Doing so provides a roadmap of sorts as to how we foster our modern watches for another generation. On the flip side, modern watches are manufactured very differently today, than they used to be. How they will age, if at all, is still largely unknown. Additionally, the volumes at which they are made vastly outpaces what we saw 50 years ago. These two factors alone mean we likely won’t see the same scarcity or unique aging that drives much of the vintage market today. 

And that’s okay in my book. I wish there were enough great 5512s or 321 Speedmasters to go around at a reasonable price for all who want one. Owning something because it’s rare and desirable should not be the sole motivating factor that drives our collecting and enthusiasm. Further, while watches and their constituent parts are made to a higher standard today, I suspect that age will find a way to make itself known over the span of 5 or 6 decades.

I’ll pause here to acknowledge the thriving small independent and micro-brand scene we embrace around here. There are plenty of great watches that aren’t made in enormous quantities and their fate over the coming decades is largely in our (yours and mine) hands. From where I sit, their future looks safe, but there are certainly watches and brands on Kickstarter at this moment for whom there will not be a seat at the proverbial table. 

Finally, Is the current cultural zeitgeist around watches conducive to creating the same stories, personalities, and soul that provide the foundation of the vintage watches we enjoy today? Let us consider, for a moment, the recently announced Tiffany Blue Patek Philippe Nautilus ref. 5711/1A-018.

Surely, this watch will still be quite collectible in 50 years time, but its story will be notably different from the vintage watches we collect now. Not because of what it literally is (special watches built for retailers and their clients are nothing new, especially for Patek Philippe), but because of its outsized impact on the culture we’re experiencing right now. That will be its story. Whatever it fetches at auction will be its story. IG flexing wrist shots will be its story. Probably. I hope not, as the relationship between the two brands over the course of their 170 year partnership is legitimately interesting, but who has time for that?

Where does this leave us? Buying to own and use. Whether you call yourself a collector or not, watches can only have an impact on us and future generations when they’re on our wrists, going through life with us, step for step, aging right alongside us. Score one of those Tiffany 5711s? Great, rock it to your kid’s soccer practice and the shitty pizza place after. Now that’s a story, and more importantly, allows it to be there for those experiences you can’t plan for but have a lasting effect. 

At the end of the day, whether you succeed in actually buying fewer, but nicer things or not, is perhaps less important than your ability to use those nicer things to their potential (what’s the point, otherwise?), and modern watches are nothing if not up for the task. There is plenty of space left for vintage watches and I’d advocate for their use as well, but I’d caution against writing off modern watches altogether as cold and soulless without first being allowed to stretch their legs a bit. 

There is plenty of room to play devil’s advocate here, and I’d love to hear your take on embracing modern watches vs vintage watches. Leave us your thoughts in the comments below and we’ll incorporate them into an upcoming podcast about this subject.

Hat tip to TRF user RKNY for creating the thread that prompted this editorial. 

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Blake is a Wisconsin native who’s spent his professional life covering the people, products, and brands that make the watch world a little more interesting. Blake enjoys the practical elements that watches bring to everyday life, from modern Seiko to vintage Rolex. He is an avid writer and photographer with a penchant for cars, non-fiction literature, and home-built mechanical keyboards.