Imagine that there are two watches in front of you. Both of them are dive watches with stainless steel cases, black dials, black bezels and date windows. Both have automatic movements that are made “in-house.” Watch One is water resistant up to 200 meters; Watch Two to 300. Watch One’s movement is guaranteed accurate to +25/–15 seconds per day; Watch Two is accurate to +2/-2. Watch One costs $450 on Amazon. Watch Two costs $8,550 at a boutique on 5th Avenue.
Watch One is my Seiko Sumo. Watch Two is a Rolex Submariner. Both are phenomenal watches — I’d highly recommend either — but there are two very good reasons why I own the Sumo, not the Submariner. For one, I can’t afford the Submariner on a writer’s salary. Further, while I’ll readily admit that regarding finishing and performance the Rolex is the superior product, is it really nineteen times better than my Seiko?
A watch doesn’t need to cost thousands to be worthy of love. It barely even needs to cost hundreds.
Of all the reasons why the Rolex is worth more, perhaps the most significant is that the Rolex appears to be the more emotional purchase. There’s history behind it. It was worn by Connery’s James Bond, and while that specific argument is trite, that doesn’t mean there’s no weight behind it. Then there’s the simple fact that buying something expensive brings with it its own sort of satisfaction.
Back in the ’80s, an ailing Swiss watch industry realized it could revamp itself by selling watches with nicer materials, added finishings and a little marketing magic. And while that strategy has worked, it perpetuated a myth that a good watch is always a pricey purchase. To those new to the realization that a watch can be more than just a watch, it makes collecting intimidating.
A good product can and should be emotional but a watch doesn’t need to cost thousands to be worthy of love. It barely even needs to cost hundreds. Not only is my Sumo an excellent piece of engineering, it’s also a great piece of functional art. It’s case, for instance, was machined and polished to a beautiful, multifaceted finish, while its 120-click bezel is exceedingly satisfying to fidget with. There’s also the fact that this particular model is a Japan-only model — its supposedly forbidden existence on our shores is part of what makes it such an appealing buy.
I’ve certainly extolled the value of various Seikos on the new market, but the market is awash with plenty of other interesting watches at low prices. There’s my Seagull 1963, a sub-$400 mechanical chronograph with ’60s-era design details like a domed crystal and mid-century numerals. These alone make the watch worthy of its price but the fact that its a recreation of an obscure (to Americans at least) watch used by Chinese fighter pilots decades ago makes it too cool to pass up.
There are other options, too, but in my years of collecting, variety really increases on the vintage market. Vintage watches have become increasingly in vogue with young men and women, partially due to the Instagram-driven community, partially due to increased interest in heritage goods, but also because vintage watches just offer so much value. There are certainly some rare, sought-after pieces that command insane amounts of money, and some dealers will charge a premium for their vetting, but the vast majority of wrist watches made during the 20th century means there’s so much to be discovered.
Consider my latest acquisition: a late-’60s Omega Chronostop. It was a mass-produced timepiece but a misguided attempt at a chronograph (it can only measure times up to a minute long), which means you can often find them in fine shape around $1,000. I found it not on eBay, not from a vintage watch shop, but on Facebook Marketplace. After agreeing on a public meeting place, I met the seller who turned out to be a collector who held on to the watch for over 20 years. We spoke for a couple of hours, talked about our mutual love for timepieces and cars, and eventually agreed on a price: $500.
And then there’s the watch that started it all, my so-called “first real watch,” as many enthusiasts describe them. It was a Seiko 6139, a contender in the greatly contested race for the first automatic chronograph when it first debuted in 1969. Despite its historical provenance, however, I won it on eBay for about $130. If I wanted one of the other contenders for first automatic chronograph — the Zenith El Primero — I’d be spending a few thousand dollars at the very least.
This brings me back to the same rhetorical question I pondered about the Seiko Sumo and the Rolex Submariner: Is one watch really worth so much more money? The answer I keep coming back to is no. As nice as pricier watches can be, I’ve found little reason to save and splurge on one. That may change someday, but for now, the new and vintage watches I have found for just a couple hundred dollars are captivating enough to convince me otherwise.
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