If you are attracted to the idea of collecting vintage watches, you may wonder how viable they are.
Will you need to leave them always safely in their display cases at home, or can you wear them out and about?
Will they offer you the shock resistance and overall durability that they need to stand up to daily use, or will they be too fragile? What if your watch is exposed to water? And how accurate and reliable can an old watch be?
In this article, we will set out to answer each of these questions as thoroughly as we can. Let’s start out by talking about the overall durability of vintage watches and how well they stand up to shock.
How Sturdy and Well Made Are Vintage Watches?
Intuitively, you might be uncertain as to whether vintage watches are durable. If a watch has lasted for decades, it stands to reason it can continue to do so. But on the other hand, surely all that passage of time will have taken its toll.
In truth, there is quite a range in terms of quality, durability, and impact resistance for vintage watches. Here are some factors to consider:
The overall condition of a watch will depend a great deal upon the durability of its case. The material of the case is a vital consideration. Gold, for example, is a soft metal. The higher the carat, the softer the gold, and the more likely it is to have scratches or get scratched in the future. The same is true for gold plating or other soft metal plating. If, on the other hand, you have a watch with a steel case, it will probably be a lot tougher and more resistant to damage.
While lume is a nice feature, as it ages, it can flake off. So, be careful with vintage watches that feature lume on hands or hour markers. Eventually, you might have to re-lume your watch, and any modifications you make will impact its value.
Like the case, the crystal helps to protect your watch. If the crystal is damaged, the dial and the movement may also be compromised. Plus, scratches on the crystal are unsightly and may make it harder to read your watch. Some materials are more prone to scratches than others; sapphire, for example, does better at resisting scratches than many other materials. But it is more likely to shatter than acrylic, and scratches are easier to remove from acrylic than sapphire.
A good sign that a vintage watch’s movement will survive an impact is if the watch is labeled “shock-resistant.” Shock resistance systems have been around since as long ago as the 1930s, when the Incabloc system was introduced. Starting in the 1950s, shock-resistant balance pivots went into production as well. So, how shock-resistant your vintage watch movement is will depend on the era that it was manufactured and the technology which was available at that time. There are also differences in quality when it comes to different brands and models. Pocket watches, and marriage watches using movements from pocket watches, usually do not have any shock resistance and should be worn carefully.
Bracelet / Strap
The wristband on your watch also can be subject to wear and tear. Obviously if you have a soft material like leather, it is more likely to degrade over time. But if the watch band is a robust material like steel, it may still be in pristine condition.
Some buying advice
When you are looking at a vintage watch for sale, you should try to find out as much as you can about the materials and technology which went into making that particular model. This will give you a basic idea of how durable that model watch is overall. Research is key.
You also should look closely at the fine print regarding the individual watch you are considering purchasing. Look carefully at the photos of the watch, and make sure that you can view it from every angle.
The seller should list any and all wear and tear and damage explicitly. If you have any questions or doubts, you should ask the seller directly. If the seller is not upfront with you, you cannot be sure what your money is buying. If in doubt, you can create a thread on a watch forum and ask for opinions about the watch you’re considering. Make sure you create the thread before you hit the purchase button.
But if the seller is responsive, thorough, and transparent, and especially if they already have solid ratings or reviews from other buyers, what you see should be what you get.
Depending on the type of vintage watch you buy and its condition, it might need to stay in a display case for protection or you might be able to wear it in your daily life with no worries.
The Bottom Line: Vintage watches can range between fragile or robust depending on the type of watch, the technology in the movement, and the materials and construction. The age of the watch and what it has been through also can impact its present condition and long-term durability.
A Word on Parts Replacements
It is pretty common for wristbands or crystals on vintage watches to require repair or replacement. So, it is not uncommon to find authentic vintage watches with non-original crystals or bands.
But when other parts are replaced such as the case, watch hands, or even the movement, the identity of a watch is lost in the process. You will also encounter totally fake watches, made to deceive and sold as original timepieces by unscrupulous sellers.
Vintage watches which consist of assorted non-original parts that have been cobbled together are known as “frankens.”
How far this process needs to go before a watch is no longer considered an intact “original” and becomes a “franken” varies by the type of watch as well as some degree of subjective opinion.
The reason I mention it is because vintage watches which have been damaged extensively may go on the market with enough replacement parts in order to be considered “frankens.” This is something that you should be aware of while you’re shopping.
It is also something that you should keep in mind if you purchase a damaged vintage watch at a discount with plans to replace a number of the parts with sturdier components yourself.
The Bottom Line: Replacing fragile or damaged parts is an option for making a vintage watch more durable. But if enough components are replaced, it may be regarded as a franken or an outright fake rather than an original.
Are Vintage Watches Waterproof?
Now that we have discussed general durability and shock-resistance, let’s talk about whether or not vintage watches are waterproof.
The answer to that question is “it depends.” What does it depend on?
- The crown and case back. If a watch has a non-hermetic crown and press-in back, it is not usually going to be waterproof or water-resistant. Are there exceptions? Yes. You’ll find some old Omega watches with press-in backs which featured gaskets to waterproof them.
- A waterproof watch always will have a washer or gasket which acts as a seal. Without this, a watch is not going to keep out water even if the crown and case back are designed for water-resistance. Note that if there is a back gasket but a watch is missing a crown gasket, it cannot be submerged without water getting inside, but it might survive a light splash.
- The condition of the crown/stem tube. If it is worn down from too much screwing and unscrewing, the water-resistance of the watch will be compromised until that component is replaced.
- If the watch you are looking at is a chronograph, chances are good it will not be waterproof now even if it was when it was new. Why? Because the wear on the pushers from decades of use compromises the waterproofing.
If you really want a functional waterproof vintage watch, consider a dive watch such as the Vostok Amphibia with recently replaced gaskets.
But with most vintage watches, you can expect the waterproofing to be unreliable or incomplete both because of the original technology and because of the wear and tear that old watches have been subjected to.
In some cases, you might be able to replace some parts if they are worn down or missing, and restore some of the water-resistance that a vintage watch has lost.
In other cases, this may be difficult or impossible because certain components went out of production long ago and are now hard to come by or nonexistent.
You can do some research on a watch before you purchase it to see if you might find yourself in that type of predicament.
The Bottom Line: Some vintage watches boast some degree of water-resistance. But in terms of real-life performance, the vast majority are not effectively waterproof, with the exception of some dive watches. Repairs may be possible in some cases, but your best practice is to avoid submerging your vintage watch altogether if you can.
Are Vintage Watches Reliable?
We have now talked about the durability, shock-resistance and water-resistance of vintage watches. Let’s talk about one more consideration. How accurate and reliable is a vintage watch likely to be?
That depends on a couple of factors: the original quality of the watch design and the condition that the watch is in today.
Some vintage watches featured a higher degree of accuracy and reliability when they were originally released compared to others.
Ideally, you will purchase a watch which presumably ran reliably when it was first introduced to the market.
Also ideally, it will be in excellent working condition now. In a best case scenario, a vintage watch will run as well today as it did when it was first made, or can be restored to run optimally.
Some vintage watches can be restored into reasonable working order, but might never run as well as they originally did.
Still others might never function as they once did because there is simply no way to make sufficient repairs to a damaged movement.
The Bottom Line: A vintage watch potentially can be accurate and reliable, often at a level which is more or less in line with what you might expect with a modern timepiece.
But it all depends on how well-designed the watch was to begin with and its condition when you receive it.
Conclusion: The Right Vintage Watch Can Be a Reliable and Robust Timekeeper
So, is a vintage watch a good purchase from the standpoint of durability and reliability?
You now know that it all comes down to how selective you are when you’re shopping.
If you purchase a high-quality vintage watch made of sturdy materials which is in excellent condition or which can be readily restored, it can be accurate and robust enough to become your everyday companion.