Watch Out

Watch Out

Martin Wilson, a leading independent wrist watch collection consultant, sets out some of the risks involved with investment in the second hand watch market


Collecting watches has grown in popularity over the last few years. The lull in the production of mechanical timepieces in the 1970s and 80s, primarily caused by the introduction of quartz movements, has slowly been followed by a resurgence of fine timepiece manufacturing. The industry is not just back on track but some of the watches made now are better than ever before.

High end manufacturers are producing cases in precious metals with fine hand engraving, jewelled movements and pieces with a level of technical complication not seen before. For this reason there is a significant collectors market with the better watches ranging from the thousands, to the hundreds of thousands of pounds.

Buying new from an authorised dealer is the best way to buy. Top manufacturers ensure that retail staff are highly trained to offer the very best advice on your investment and in using such a dealer you have that direct connection with the brand, their guarantee and access to their service centres. Buying a second hand watch is also a great way to get your first watch or to add to a collection and the fact that so many of the finer watches, like Patek Philippe, represent a great financial investment is underpinned by a strong used market in retail and at auction.

The challenge here is to know what you are looking for and to have a real understanding of the potential pitfalls. Similar risks and rules apply when buying a used car. Could it be stolen? Has it got all the right paperwork? Has it been serviced by an approved dealer? Are all the parts genuine? If we’d apply that sort of rigour to the purchase of a used car or a fine art work then it follows that it may well be needed at the higher end of the watch market.


The market in watches is no different from many other investment classes in this regard. Within the market here are stolen pieces and fakes. Just like a car there is paperwork that will come with a fine timepiece and this usually includes the serial numbers of the movement, the case and sometimes even the strap. An original box and papers are a must. If you’re buying a used watch here are my top five things to look for:

A good watch from makers like Patek Philippe, Rolex, Vacheron Constantin, Audemars Piguet, Cartier etc will come with a presentation box and a certificate. Some makers authenticate and quality assure their own watches to a very high standard and others use third party standards like the COSC chronometer certificate or the Geneva Seal. You should know what the box should look like for your piece and it should come with the right type of certificate with matching numbers.

Really good watches have highly complex movements and can be expensive to service or repair. A better dealer will be able to show you the movement, point out that the serial numbers match the paperwork and offer up a service history. Fake watches will often use movements made in the Far East. Look at it if you can and watch for signs of rust or scratches on engraving that may indicate poor quality servicing in the past.

Older watches can be expected to have some fair wear and tear. Re-polishing is generally frowned upon unless it has been done by the original manufacturer or it has been applied with a very light touch. Beware of highly polished used watches as in some cases that can actually reduce the value.

Dial configuration or colour can make a huge difference to a watch. A simple Rolex submariner with an indication that it was made for the French diving firm COMEX can be worth ten times as much but they’re often faked. Look for the very subtle signs of repair or retouching as dials are prone to damage and poor restoration ruins value.

Many of the watch manufacturers will put out limited edition and commemorative pieces. Usually rarity will add to value but not in all cases. If you think you are buying a limited edition then go online and do some research. Is that particular model really sought after or not?