Before you take your inherited watch to a dealer to ask how to find out what my vintage watch is worth, it's important to do a little homework. The dealer may be interested in buying your vintage watch on the spot. Without the homework for leverage, you may end up with less cash for the timepiece. Condition and rarity are everything in determining worth, but keep in mind that a watch is worth only what someone else will pay for it, regardless of the book value.
- Manufacturer: Start with an identification of the watch manufacturer. Some collectors buy only one maker and others select a watch that "speaks to them." Most vintage watch fans look for the classics. A vintage Cartier, Rolex and Patek Philippe are the gold standards bringing in thousands of dollars depending on the watch model and the condition. The second tier in commercially manufactured classic timepieces include Gruen, Elgin and Hamilton. For some collectors, the hand-crafted pieces made from custom cases with early movements are priceless. Look for any markings on the outside and inside of the case to note the maker.
Works: The works is a term used to describe the interior mechanism of the vintage watch. Wind-up watches use a system of wheels and mechanisms to keep proper time. Typically a main spring or stem is the first to break and this means less value, even for a desirable vintage watch. Valuable wind-up watches have jewel movements. The more jewels, the more valuable the watch. Most high-end vintage watches have at least fifteen jewels. Early vintage collectibles need winding, some mid-century watches are self-winding and the new era of collectibles include early quartz, although these go for far less than the earlier models.
- Case: A vintage watch is worth more when the case and watch works are a match, unless it's a wristwatch that dates to before 1915 when cases and the works were made independently and married together by a watchmaker. Cases made of platinum are top dollar. Gold, 24 carat and 14 carat, is also a key find. Gold watches marked with 10 carat are next in value. Filled gold means just that—metal filled with gold. These are not high value. Cases and watch faces with diamonds mean higher worth, even in men's models.
- Condition: Watch face damage, case wear and crystal scratches reduce the worth of any vintage watch. Some buyers prefer the watch to be as pristine as possible and look for watches in the original cases and packaging. Most buyers don't care to have someone's else's initials on the back of the case, unless it is a noted personality. While watch faces can be sent out for restoration, purists won't go near anything restored. Engraved dates are less objectionable and some collectors, in fact, look for their own birth date, especially in the 1950s and 60s space-age designed watch category that includes the Hamilton watch lines.
- Alterations: Alterations that lower the value of the vintage watch include the condition of a metal watch strap that is integrated into the wristwatch design, substitution of an incorrect crystal and changing out the lug pins that hold the watchband in place. If you're wearing the watch for your own enjoyment, these things may not be that important. If you're marketing the watch or keeping it as an investment, the changes could mean a loss of hundreds of dollars.
- Men's Watches v. Female Watches: Prices for vintage watches run in cycles as popularity wanes for certain models. Men's wristwatches hold worth longer than women's models, unless it's a rare, highly valuable maker such as Cartier—and it's loaded with diamonds. The popularity of men's dress watches from the 1920s, also with a fair amount of bling, ebb and flow with the sale of dinner jackets and tuxedos.