W&W Round-Table #12: What Vintage Watch Would you Buy If Money Was no Concern?


Our last w&w round-table went after the following question:
“if money were no question, what currently available watch would you love to own?”

This week, we’re sticking with that theme, but instead of currently available it can be any watch from history.

Enjoy, and let us know your answer in the comments!

Mark McArthur Christie

Imagine. It’s the 1780s, you’re a French watchmaker and your work is not only being bought by Marie Antoinette but the titled and wealthy glitterati of the day. Even better, the French Queen is – in modern parlance – your brand ambassador, telling anyone who’ll listen that you’re the finest watchmaker in France, if not the world.

Cut to May 5 1789 and the start of the French Revolution. Proof, if ever it was needed, that celebrity endorsement can end up being rather more of a burden than a boost.

Welcome to Abraham Louis Breguet’s turbulent life. As watchmaker to the rich, royal and famous, hanging around in revolutionary France was likely to cut Breguet’s career short in more ways than one. Being both smart and commercial, he packed his tools and headed for Switzerland.breguet-447_adj_lr

And that’s where he conceived the idea of his single-handed Souscription watch. It was a perfect idea commercially, horologically and democratically. Anyone could make a down-payment (a souscription) for their watch which allowed Breguet to keep his cashflow running and start making it.

The watches were simple (by Breguet’s standards), and were designed to be repaired by any watchmaker. You’d set the single hand with your finger or a sliver of wood and wind it through the hand’s centre. That’s because the barrel is in the middle of the watch with the balance and second wheel engineered symmetrically around it. No need for friction-generating motion work either. Genius.

62mm of simple, classical gorgeousness with so much history inside the case there’s barely room for that beautiful movement. The only thing better than owning one would be the chance to have met the man whose workshop made it.

Ilya Ryvin

I’m a big fan of military watches, and when it comes to vintage military timekeepers there is perhaps no greater grail than the Tornek Rayville TR900. Not only because it fetches a pretty penny–nearly $60,000 the last time I checked–but also because it may very well be one of the rarest military watches in existence.

Needing a mil-spec watch for their divers, the U.S. Navy in the 1960s tapped Allen Tornek, who was at the time the US importer for Blancpain (a brand under Switzerland’s Rayville Watch Company). Blancpain had already been producing military-grade dive watches in the form of the Fifty Fathoms. The U.S Navy, however, couldn’t purchase them directly from the Swiss as a result of the “Buy American Act,” so the partnership between Tornek and Rayville was essentially a loophole to get the Fifty Fathoms on the wrists of American divers, albeit under a different banner.

image credit WUS feed

The U.S commissioned approximately 1000 units of the Tornek Rayville dive watch. Unfortunately, many of them were eventually destroyed or buried underground with other low-level atomic waste due to the Navy’s rules regarding atomic waste and the Radium used on the dials. It’s estimated that there are around 100 of these watches floating about–most of them likely in the safes of private collectors–making it the white whale of military watches. If funds were no issue, the Tornek Rayville would be money well spent.

James Enloe

If money were no object; that leaves a lot of possibilities. But, the one I keep coming back to isn’t that expensive when considering what’s out there. I have long been enamored with the Rolex GMT Master, specifically the 1675 and adding to the specificity the Pepsi bezel. What I would really want is a nice example from my birth year of 1970. I don’t know exactly why this watch so captures my attention but it has for years. I love dual time zone watches,  so I am sure that is part of it. There’s also the appeal of owning a vintage watch that looks good and is running strong. Another piece is probably the history behind the watch having stemmed from a collaboration with Pan Am Airlines. If money were no object I would not hesitate to seek out and buy the best Rolex GMT Master 1675 from 1970.

image credit: analogshift.com

Christoph McNeill

Ooh, now here’s a topic made for me if ever there was one! As a fan and collector of vintage watches, there’s no end to the possibilities of which vintage watch I would choose if money were no object. When I set about to write my answer, I had a few notions go through my head: Rolex 5517 Milsub, blue Tudor Snowflake Marine Nationale, Tornek-Rayville TR900, Omega Speedmaster CK2915, Jaeger LeCoultre Polaris. Any one of those would be an absolute dream to own and could easily be “the one”. However, since we’re dreaming here, I’m going big. I would choose the 1957 Bulova prototype military UDT diver reference Mil-Ships-W-2181. This was developed by Bulova for the military at the same time as Blancpain and Tornek-Rayville were making the Fifty Fathoms and TR900 respectively, and looks very similar. Sadly, Bulova did not win the contract and only a very small number were made. To my knowledge, only six are known to exist at this time. Now that’s a rare beast!


More info at mybulova.com

Sean Lorentzen

Ohhh boy. This is a hard one. The question of questions. Not just money no object, but completely no-holds-barred, straight-up, “what watch, out of any in the world, would you have if you could?” After a long and nerve wracking deliberation, I finally have an answer. Or two answers, at least. Right off the bat, I know it would have to be a Heuer Carrera Dato 45, specifically the two-subdial variant. What I don’t know, however, is whether I would go for the Shelby dial or the white-dial Indy 500. Both are stunning examples of what might be the high water mark of Heuer design, and both have unbelievably cool history behind them. Only 24 Shelby Carreras were ever made, ordered by an East Coast Ford marketing manager as VIP giveaways for the 1969 New York Auto Show, and the giveaways were overseen personally by Carroll Shelby himself. On the other hand, the Indy 500 dial was a limited edition collectors piece available only at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway gift shop at the same time the Indy 500 nearly changed the face of motorsports forever with the near victory of the turbine-powered Lotus 56. How could you choose just one? You can’t go wrong with either.

image credit: watchonista.com
image credit: watchonista.com

More on these special “logo” dial Heuers here: On The Dash

Ed Estlow

OK… this one’s actually pretty easy for me. Yes, it’d be nice to have a LeCoultre Reverso from the original batch produced in 1931. Or a pre-Daytona Rolex chronograph. Or even a Paul Newman Daytona, or a Speedmaster owned by one of the Apollo astronauts.

But no. For me, the vintage watch of my dreams is a nice James Bond Sub. The 6538 Big Crown. Like the one seen on the superspy’s wrist in Dr. No. Original examples of the 6538 are still around. And a quick internet search shows they broke into six figures at the major auction houses a few years ago. That’s nose-bleed territory, but when money is no object, well…

Image Credit: HQ Milton
Image Credit: HQ Milton

And here’s an interesting note. The watch has such a mystique that a new company, Tempus Machina, recently sprung up whose product is the current no-date Submariner ref. 116040 modified (irreversibly, of course) into a modern homage of the 6538. Predictably, the piece sells for $25,000, about triple what the 114060 goes for at your local jeweler. But even at that price, its pennies on the dollar compared to an original.

And it’s an indicator of the enduring popularity of what I believe is THE classic Submariner.

The Watch Curmudgeon

Own any vintage watch regardless of price? A lot of thought went into my selection process, but I finally gave in to an old, nagging desire. At first, and with great difficulty, I narrowed the field to just a few obvious brands: Patek, Breguet, and George Daniels. But then I realized I wasn’t being honest with myself. There’s a watch I fantasize about owning – a watch I’d love to discover in a shoe box at some junky flea market. The watch I’m going to reveal is a common grail that’s almost a cliché.

As you may well have guessed, it’s the Rolex MilSub. Why do I want one of these when I could have had a $3,000,000 Patek? Well, I’m a Submariner owner/lover and have always admired vintage Subs. “Admired” is putting it very mildly. My favorite is a ’69 5513; however, they’re readily obtainable in decent condition. Not so the MilSub.

Image Credit: HQ Milton
Image Credit: HQ Milton

In the ’70s, Rolex produced roughly 1200 MilSubs exclusively for the Royal Navy, so they were never sold to the public. Today, if you’re ridiculously lucky, you can find a well-worn one at auction in the $140,000 range. I’ll settle for either a model 5513 or 5517 in decent condition with the original sword hands.

Unlike a $3,000,000 Patek or other astronomically priced collector’s piece, I’ll wear my MilSub on a regular basis. I mean why own some drop-dead gorgeous watch if you’ve got to keep it under lock and key? MilSubs were meant to be lovingly nicked and scratched….and adoringly stared at on your wrist.

Image Credit: HQ Milton

There’s another far less obvious reason why I’d sell my soul for a MilSub. In my opinion, they mark an important turning point for the Rolex company. Prior to the MilSub, Rolex made loads of cool, innovative, relatively affordable watches that shaped their incredible reputation and ignited a fanatical following. But after the MilSub, they primarily went the status symbol route and evolved their basic styles in boring increments. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe there’s a new secret MilSub for the Dubai Navy, a platinum beast with a diamond, ruby, and emerald encrusted bezel.

Getting back to reality, if reality was ever the point of this forum, I may have to opt for a Steinhart homage. From 10 feet away, it at least looks like a MilSub!

Brandon Cripps

With all the money in the world to buy any vintage watch, I feel like I would actually be a little boring.  Or cheap, at least.  These days, you can easily spend well over a million bucks on an old perpetual calendar, minute repeater, or chronograph with dial text in the “wrong” order.  But most or all of those million-dollar-plus don’t meet my number one requirement in a watch: daily wearability.  Sure, it would be amazing to own a 2499, but where am I going to wear it??  So with my riches, I’m going military, and probably not the one you’re thinking. British milsubs are beautiful things, but I’m staying on this side of the pond and spending my riches on a Tornek-Rayville TR-900.  It’s arguably the most kickass watch the U.S. military ever issued, looks fantastic, could be worn daily, and is relatively common enough that I could probably actually find one to buy if I were in the position to do so. I’m sure pristine examples are out there, but I’d take one with some character and never feel concerned about bumping, scratching, or submerging it.  Keep your gold, I’ll take steel with my money.


Zach Weiss

Naturally, I have like 10 answers for this. Some super rare, some super expensive, some just vintage watches I really love. But, if I could pluck one out of the ether this very moment, it would be a Speedmaster ref 376.0822 “Holy Grail” (nicknamed by Chronomaddox), which combines the Speedmaster Professional moonwatch (read our series on Speedies) case with the Omega 1045 movement. Not the most valuable of vintage watches in the world, far from cheap either, but obscure and combines two things I love. First of all, I just love Speedmasters. I love their cases, their dials, how they fit… every time I get to put one on, it just clicks. I also love that many models are quite affordable, teetering in the $2500-$3500 range.

image credit: Watches and Art

Considering they are a true icon, that’s not a hell of a lot. And though they are very popular, one of the watches you’ll regularly see on people’s wrists on the street, I find they are endlessly attractive and stylish. While I don’t own one, a nice ’67 145.012 might be my first “big” watch purchase some day down the road. The fact that such a famous watch can be had for relatively little money in the scheme of famous vintage watches is remarkable, and their value will only go one way.

The other element is the movement, which is what makes this watch so strange. The Omega 1045 is a renamed and copper-coated Lemania 5100 automatic chronograph. A personal favorite, the 5100 is the Wrangler of movements. Tough, robust, and utilitarian, it’s not pretty to look at, it contains some nylon parts and is thick as a stack of quarters, but it’s awesome. The movement of choice for German military pilots and NATO forces for many years due to its high shock resistance, ability to take 7G’s of acceleration and sheer functionality. The 5100 features 7-hands for hours, minutes, active seconds, chronograph seconds, chrono-hours, 24-hrs and most importantly, a central axis minute counter (not to forget day and date windows). This last detail really makes it stand apart from most contemporary chronographs as it not only counts 60-minutes, it does so about the main dial, which makes it perhaps the most legible chronograph designed.

image credit: rafiki
image credit: rafiki

So yeah, I’m kind of obsessed with it and the watches that utilize it. I have owned 3 so far, though I am down to 2. I had a military issue Tutima 760 “NATO” chronograph, which I sold several months ago. Now I have a Sinn 156b and an… Omega Speedmaster “MK 4.5” ref 176.0012, which is a barrel cased Speedmaster Automatic, neither a Speedy Pro or Mark series if you were to get fussy, with the 1045/5100. So, you might be saying, if you have a Speedmaster with this movement already, then why seek another? And the answer is just, well, the 365.0822 is the “holy grail”. It’s rare, it’s cool, it’s odd, it was made for only a short amount of time (mid to late 80’s), and it mashes together one of the greatest cases with one of the greatest movements. It would just be a pleasure to wear. They do pop-up from time to time, usually in the $8-$10k range.

more on the Lemania 5100 here: Watch Legends: The Calibre Lemania 5100

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