Style / World of Watches (WOW)

What You Need To Know While Looking For Preowned Watches

Finding a desirable watch like a Rolex or Patek Philippe at a fair market price is hardly a simple matter for all.

Jun 10, 2022 | By Ashok Soman
Tudor Black Bay Pro
Image: Tudor

The business of pre-owned watches is nothing new, no pun intended. In fact, this section might be punctuated by puns but none are intentional, unless otherwise indicated. There is a lot to get through so we will try to play it straight.

The advance in the pre-owned watch business has transformed the watch collecting in unforeseen ways. It has done this primarily by changing the perceived value of watches. Now the idea behind buying a watch that’s got some wrist time on it is the same as buying a used or secondhand car. Everyone accepts that when you buy a car, what you have is an object with depreciating capital value. In fact, you will lose value on your purchase the moment you drive it off the lot, as they say in the movies. This is also true of watches, by and large. Of course there are exceptions, and those typically prove their worth at public auctions over the years. This has been true for so long that only these few lines were necessary to explain buying a watch pre-owned. Things are quite different in 2022.

Image: Omega

There are new fair market prices for many watch models, totally divorced from the recommended retail price, and you might buy a current production watch several years old that has never been worn, from a third or fourth owner. It would have been unimaginable, just five or six years ago, to buy a current core collection watch from a second-hand dealer at anything even close to the recommended retail price. Try getting a new Rolex Submariner with that mindset and see how far it gets you. Welcome to a world where the now-discontinued Patek Philippe Ref. 5711/1A might cost you more at a secondhand dealer than, say, Ref. 3711 (a watch in white gold mind you). For collectors, which Patek Philippe Nautilus reference to acquire is a serious question, to which there could be many answers. There is a simple problem here that we can use our previous automobile example to elaborate on.

Sticking with the Patek Philippe Ref. 5711A, let us fast-forward to 2026, which happens to be the 50th anniversary of the Nautilus watch. For this exercise, let us also imagine that Ref. 5711A is your grail watch, and you have come to this decision — or realisation as it may be — after years of consideration. While Patek Philippe itself is inviting you to celebrate the anniversary with a specific reference that marks the occasion, you decide to pull the trigger on Ref. 5711A instead. By chance, in the swirling eddies of the deepest reaches of the Internet, you have found a dealer with the reference you want. It is unworn and still in its box — LNIB or like-new-in-box with factory seals intact. By this time, the premium on this model has achieved stratospheric heights that owners of the Ref. 5711/1A can only smile ruefully at. Would you buy this watch, unseen in the metal, take delivery and actually wear it? If so, take a moment to consider the state of the watch you are buying.

Patek Philippe factory warranties are good for two years so you have passed that mark — as noted previously, time starts ticking on the warranty from the moment it is sold by the authorised dealer. The manufacture recommends service intervals of between three to five years, and this is a standard advice from most watchmakers. Given all this, buying a watch that has been sitting in a safe or something for beyond this period, never having been checked even once by its owner, seems suspect. Would you buy a car that you intend to drive in this way?

Of course, this is an extreme example, and traders certainly do not intend to hold onto their inventory for extended periods (as noted earlier). They are not enjoying their watches, after all. Standard fare such as the Rolex Oyster Perpetual, Tudor Black Bay or Omega Speedmaster must all be turned around as quickly as possible, while the market is hot. Even something that might be a little special, such as the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak reference 15202ST will be treated the same. Traders are, as’s Adrian Hailwood said, only buying watches because a market exists for them; to them, the watches may have no value beyond the market price.

It is for this reason, if no other, that we prefer to buy from people who actually wear their watches. They will at least know the state of any watches they are selling, and spend a little time taking care of their pieces. They might even be a little sad to sell certain watches, and we can relate to that. To be perfectly clear, we support the idea of collectors selling their own watches, especially if they have stopped wearing them, or any given watch stops being interesting to them. It happens that one falls out of love with a watch, even if that watch is the Patek Philippe Sky Moon Tourbillon, or the Rolex Daytona. Such a watch will certainly be sought-after by plenty of people, and they ought to have a shot at it. And this brings us to a sustainability issue…

Although it is mainly fashion brands that get the bad press about destroying their own unsold inventory, watch and jewellery brands certainly do the same. Just as Burberry continues to be mentioned for a 2018 decision to destroy US$38 million of unsold goods, Richemont admitted — also in 2018 — to buying back and destroying US$560 million worth of watches from Cartier, Piaget and Vacheron Constantin (according to Forbes). In watches and jewellery, brand executives tell us that they always attempt to recycle their raw materials, and that is the approach they prefer to take with unsold inventory.

Nevertheless, we are gratified to see older watches get their due at Cartier, which now sells restored pieces in their own boutiques. These are limited to watches from the 1970s to the 2010s so it is broad enough to include pieces that have passed their prime. Such services are really quite useful because entire collections have been known to come into their own long after their debuts. This includes the now mighty Cosmograph Daytona of course — in watchmaking, it takes time to build an iconic reputation.

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