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Vintage Watches

Find information on popular vintage watches, watch history and celebrity watches.

Vintage watches represent a part of history. [©Jupiter Images, 2009]
©Jupiter Images, 2009
Vintage watches represent a part of history.

Vintage watches are watches that were produced prior to the 1970s, when quartz movements and digital displays were first introduced. Vintage wristwatches may include battery-powered watches, which were first introduced by Hamilton in 1957, or bumper-style automatic (self-winding) watches. However, most vintage watches are mechanical wristwatches that require winding.

Vintage watches are often handed down as family heirlooms from one generation to the next, and they are also sought by watch collectors. Vintage watches represent not only the history and reputation of the company that made them, but also the years of faithful service to their original owners. They serve as a reminder of the craftsmanship that existed before the convenience of mass production, as well as the intricacies of design and a lost sense of style.

Vintage Watch History

Developed from the Italian table clock of the late 15th century, the first watch is credited to Peter Henlein (1479-1542). The first watches were pendant watches worn around the neck, and they were worn more for decoration than for their ability to tell time. Some pendant watches were occasionally adapted for the wrist; Queen Elizabeth I allegedly received such a watch as a gift.

Watchmaking spread throughout Europe, with London, Paris and Geneva becoming centers of the watchmaker's art in the 17th and 18th centuries. Watchmakers were also present in colonial America, although most were watch sellers and watch repairers who affixed their names to imported European watches. The first true American watchmaker may have been Thomas Harland (1735-1807). His successor, Luther Goddard (1762-1842), bought Harland's tools after his death and made watches for seven years before turning to importing them himself.

By the late 1800s, women had come to favor wearing wristwatches, while men considered them "effeminate." This began to change when British officers took to wearing wristwatches during the Boer War (1899-1902). In 1906, aviator Alberto Santos Dumont sported a watch made by his friend Louis Cartier, who named the "Santos" line of watches in Dumont's honor. During World War I, wristwatches proved more practical for reading the time quickly during ground and aerial combat. Luminous hands and markers were developed for night campaigns, as was the first chronograph, which is a watch with a stopwatch function.

Vintage Watch Popularity

Many of the most collectible vintage wristwatches are associated with celebrities. The first watch named for a celebrity was Cartier's Santos, introduced in 1911. Aviator Charles Lindbergh wore a wristwatch on his transatlantic flight of 1927, which the brand Longines capitalized on by collaborating with Lindbergh on the design of a 1932 aviator's watch named in his honor.

Later in 1927, Mercedes Gleitze wore a Rolex Oyster when she successfully swam the English Channel; the watch withstood 14 hours of saltwater immersion and remained in perfect condition. Sir Edmund Hillary wore the same model 26 years later when he ascended Mount Everest, and Jacques Piccard wore one when he descended in the bathysphere "Trieste" to a depth of 10,916 meters off the coast of Guam.

Jean-Claude Killy's three-gold-medal performance at the 1968 Winter Olympics in Grenoble led to his favorite Rolex 6036 being named after him, and Jacqueline Kennedy lent her own cachet to the Cartier Tank watch.

The celebrity who may have done the most for the wristwatch was a fictional character known as Bond - James Bond. Bond's creator, Ian Fleming, gave 007 a preference for Rolexes in his novels, and the Rolex Submariner worn by Sean Connery in "Dr. No" became known as the "James Bond Submariner."

Watches associated with celebrities remain popular. According to Watch in Demand, an Omega watch given to John F. Kennedy prior to the 1960 election fetched $350,000 at auction in 2005, while the gold Rolex he received from Marilyn Monroe for his 45th birthday fetched $120,000.

Vintage Watch Market Value

According to HH Magazine, watches accounted for $83 million in U.S. auction proceeds in 2008. A Petek Philippe watch known as the Perpetual Calendar, originally designed in 1925, sold for $4 million.

Other vintage watch brands that do particularly well at auction include Vacheron Constantin and Audemars Piguet. Some of the rarest vintage watches were made by the Angelus Watch Company, which faded out after the introduction of the quartz watch . The magazine attributes the success of watches at auction, even during the current economic downturn, to recent collectors and to the value of handcrafted vintage items, as opposed to today's newer and mass-produced models.

Caring for Vintage Watches

The best way to ensure that a vintage wristwatch holds its value and continues to work is to care for it properly. Vintage watches are not as shockproof or water resistant as their modern counterparts and should not be worn while working out, swimming or doing yard work. They should also be cleaned and oiled by a professional at least every two years, and more often for watches that are not waterproof or dustproof. Vintage watches that are dropped or exposed to water should be taken to a qualified repairer as soon as possible, as broken parts can lead to internal damage and excess humidity can cause wheels and gears to rust if not checked within a few days.

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