A guy next to you on the airplane, in a coffee shop or at the bank is wearing a vintage wristwatch. “Nice watch,” you say and offer a nod of approval. Chances are good the guy responds, “Thanks, it was my father’s.”
The admired watch might have the robust look of Rolex, the artistry and design of Patek Philippe or the octagonal shape and bold block lettering of Audemars Piguet. Wearing timeless timepieces is increasingly a thing, collectors to beneficiaries to celebrities with a flair for touting their status.
“I think what’s happened is for vintage watches is that the market has gone up so strongly that the only way a majority of people, the layperson, can get into them is by inheritance,” says Ace Gordon, proprietor of the longtime Naples business Lovejoy Antiques Jewelry & Watches. “It’s how you associate a lot of vintage things.”
According to Gordon, the golden era of vintage watches was 1965-1979. Some of the most sought-after watches today cost as little as $200 new at the time.
Beyond Rolex, top vintage watches are often categorized as The Holy Trinity or Big Three. It’s the unofficial industry-wide name given to the most prevalent luxurious brands: Audemars Piguet, Patek Philippe and Vacheron Constantin.
“It’s not the same grand investment we had; the same watches are now $10,000 or a lot more at retail cost,” Gordon says. “That’s really what it comes down to for most people, the inheritance aspect.”
For discriminating collectors with money in their pockets and a yen for a watch on their wrists, here are the four most popular vintage manufacturers.
Audemars Piguet (pictured above)
Jules Louis Audemars and Edward Auguste Piguet were childhood friends in Switzerland and employed as youngsters by different watchmakers. They decided to collaborate when they were in their 20s.
Their new brand’s debut effort was unveiled in 1875 from the company farm in Le Brassus, Switzerland. Audemars Piguet continues to be family-owned, its headquarters remain in the original location and the two families worked together through several generations.
The Royal Oak Jumbo is among the most sought-after watches produced by the Swiss timepiece industry. It features an octagonal screwed bezel, inspired by a ship’s porthole. The case, large for the time frame from its original manufacturing dates, is how it received part of its name, “Jumbo.”
Exquisite Timepieces in Naples, which specializes in Audemars Piguet among other brands, recently sold a Royal Oak Off Shore Alinghi for $53,000.
After a few different partnerships beginning in 1839, Polish watchmaker Antoni Patek and Adrien Philippe, a French watchmaker who invented the keyless winding mechanism, began the exclusive company. It’s known for its limited edition and one-of-a-kind timepieces. Understated elegance is the company’s signature style, and its craftsmanship has provided Patek Philippe’s reputation as arguably the industry’s best watch for investors.
Despite its legacy, a company marketing campaign in 1996 pushed the manufacturer to another level with its bold slogan: “You never actually own a Patek Philippe. You merely look after it for the next generation.”
Vintage Patek Philippe editions are rare and Yamron Jewelers in Naples is the manufacturer’s only authorized dealer in Southwest Florida. Its collection of the brand’s new models includes the Grand Complications Perpetual Calendar 7140R-001, a self-winding automatic with a rose gold case and a silvery-white opaline dial. It’s priced at $102,900.
Founded in 1905 by Hans Wilsdorf, a German-British businessman, Rolex is the most widely known, best marketed and best-selling luxury watch. Headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland, Rolex has set precedent in several areas. It sold the first waterproof watch (1926) and the first self-winding watch with perpetual movement (1931).
Available in more than 100 countries, Rolex sold about 1 million watches in 2021, 29% of the Swiss manufacturing market.
The Rolex Daytona Paul Newman is many a collector’s dream timepiece. Joanna Woodward, the actor’s wife, gave him the specially designed, exotic dial watch in 1972 when he began racing automobiles. An estimated 3,000 were made featuring block markers instead of plain lines, acrylic dome crystals, a four-digit reference number and a few additional changes.
Twenty years ago, a Rolex Daytona Paul Newman cost about $30,000; it’s now valued nearly 10 times higher.
The Watchbox in Fort Myers has a strong set of Rolex vintage offerings, including a Daytona Cosmograph “Rainbow” made in 2013 and priced at $549,950.
As the world’s oldest continuously operated watchmaker, Vacheron Costantin began in 1755 via Jean-Marc Vacheron, an independent Swiss watchmaker. François Constantin, a globe-trotting craftsman, joined Vacheron in 1819.
The royal-sounding brand is known for its bespoke craftsmanship, as well as a varied timepiece lineup emphasizing simple elegance and horology extremes.
The brand’s one-off or bespoke service is referred to as Les Cabinotiers. More traditional styles were an ever-changing mix of case metals, dials, markers and second-hand positioning until the 1970s. Vacheron’s Historiques lineup started in 1990 as the company’s retro-focused collection was part of a mechanical revival, pushing the watchmaker to further popularity.
A vintage Vacheron Constantin dual-time stainless steel automatic is among the varied pre-owned watch collection offered at Tourneau Bucharer in Naples. It’s priced at $30,000.