The best watches don’t just tell time, they encapsulate it.
Like any collectable item, they capture something about the time, place, and culture that produces them and preserves it for future generations.
The worlds of Victorian London, Belle Epoque Paris or Jazz Age New York are long gone, but pull out a timepiece made in those eras and you’re transported back to another time and place.
Collecting watches can be hugely cathartic, so let’s take a look at what to look for in collectable vintage timepieces as well as some of the best options with which beginners can start their collection.
Watch Collecting guide
First, for those new to the field, let’s consider a few do’s and don’ts of watch collecting:
- Be Careful About Comparisons: People in any collecting field love to compare and contrast. That said, while watches go through different movements and many of the watches below evoke a certain era, they aren’t limited to that time period. The best watches are timeless, regardless of era-specific comparisons.
- Price Versus Prestige: A simple truism, but worth repeating – the priciest watch isn’t necessarily the best. There are plenty of collectible watches available that are “just” a few hundred dollars. While that isn’t inexpensive, that’s pretty accessible for most watch collectors, and a great place to start before you start shelling out four or even five figures for timepieces.
- Beware the Annual Calendar: If you’re looking for classic vintage wristwatches, they almost certainly should not have an annual calendar, which wasn’t invented until 1996. Before that, watch calendars were limited to a couple months as perpetual or manual calendars that had to be manually advanced. If you see a “classic” watch made before 1996 claiming to boast an “annual” calendar, it’s a fake.
1968 Seiko 5740-8000 Hi-Beat 36000
First made in 1968, this was one of the first brands to make it big among divers.
If you love the pool life and want to start looking for swimmer-friendly vintage watches, this is a great place to start.
The dial is a beautiful charcoal color, and the polished hands are still clear to read more than 50 years later.
What’s more, this is one of the most affordable options on this list, costing “only” a few hundred dollars.
You shouldn’t have to pay more than $500 for one of these.
1972 Seiko 6139-6022
Another Seiko offering, this watch was a staple of early 70s style.
It was especially popular in the medical field, and features a special “Base 10 Pulsations” feature with which to measure patients’ heart rates.
It has a classic black and white minimalist look, is quite slim, and is very versatile, making this a vintage watch you won’t have to worry about wearing out.
What’s more, it shouldn’t wear out too big a hole in your wallet at less than $550 per model today.
You can find Presidential Vulcains ranging from the 1940s onward, making this one of the most historic options on our list.
It has been worn by several past Presidents and Vice-Presidents, including Truman, Eisenhower, LBJ, Obama, and Biden. In fact, with the exception of Bush 43 and Trump, most Presidents since Truman have been gifted a Vulcain Cricket.
It comes with a Presidential price tag of around $1,000.
As for the watch itself, it pairs a basic white background with elegant gold rimming and numerals. This gives it a sense of understated yet potent power and a class – just the thing for the most powerful man (or woman) in the world.
Cartier Ballon Bleu
Cartier is a name synonymous with elegance and class among royals and the elite. A watch that exudes all that and more, the Cartier Ballon Bleu has been worn by modeling royalty such as Sofia Vergara as well as real-life royals, including the Duchess of Cambridge, Kate Middleton.
The royal associations don’t stop there. No less a royal than Edward VII once referred to Cartier as “the jeweller of kings and the king of jewellers.”
In short, if you’re looking for a collectible watch fit for a queen, you can’t go wrong with a Cartier Ballon Bleu. They typically run in the few thousand dollars range, with stainless steel variants with silver settings and quartz movement typically costing around $4,00 to $5,000.
If that sounds a little steep, consider that for the true queenly experience of solid gold, you’re looking at a royally expensive price tag of at least $38,000.
Omega Speedmaster Automatic
One of the true all-time classics among modern collectible wristwatches, the Omega Speedmaster is a picture of mid-century sleek chicness. Its classic look features a combination of sapphire crystal and stainless steel.
This is one of the priciest entries on this list, generally running around $1,800. That said, for that price you not only get a high-quality watch, but one torn from the pages of interstellar history. The Omega Speedmaster was worn by Buzz Aldrin when he and Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon in 1969, and the brand has been closely associated with NASA ever since.
Isn’t it time you got your vintage watch game started? Look into one of these or other historic elegant collectible watches for men and women today.