How To Buy Vintage Watches Online [2024]

Disclaimer: I've got no affiliation to any of the websites or brands referenced in this article. I'm just giving a guide based on my own experiences.

SMP 300 Horizontal 1 16.9

So you just re-watched Jaws, and you noticed Chief Brody's Hamilton wristwatch on his arm near the end of the film. You've decided that you want to find something vintage, that looks similar, but you also want it to work. Well, you start looking on eBay and Chrono24, and are finding a lot of similar looking watches. However, you ask yourself "what should I look for when buying?"

Well, I'm hoping to answer that today. I've personally bought a handful of vintage watches online, and have had good and bad experiences. While the focus is on older, vintage watches, this will apply to used, newer watches too. This guide is mostly universal, but one of the latter sections really only applies to the US market.

How can we avoid fumbles when buying old watches?

What is a Vintage Watch Anyway?

Well, that depends on who you ask. For many watch nerds, most watches over 30 years old are considered vintage. Generally, vintage watches are older models, and have been discontinued by the manufacturer. There are always exceptions to this rule (a lot of the 1980s Casio models come to mind), but generally, they are out of production.

As such, vintage watches are not ones that we will generally see in a manufacturer's boutique. Again, there are exceptions (vintage Omega's in an Omega store on Bond St. in London), but we're generally going through the secondary market to purchase an older watch.

Caravelle 1
If it's old, it's likely vintage. This Caravelle dates back to the 1960s.

So what aren't we getting when we buy a vintage or used watch? Well, we're generally not getting a manufacturer's warranty. We're also not getting the manufacturer's guarantee of timekeeping (plus or minus X seconds per day). Even if a watch looks great on the exterior, we may be getting one that is running poorly, or possibly not running at all. It may require a service before you even want to wear it.

Now, this comes part and parcel with buying anything used. However, I'll point out what you need to look for when buying a vintage watch.

Doing the Research

I'm a big advocate for researching your next watch. For vintage pieces, this can be hard, but can still be done. We'd like to find specific reference numbers, and see what those watches are supposed to look like. From there, we can start looking online for the watch.

Tracking down a specific vintage watch can be very hard. Much like today, many vintage watches had a distinct design, and then colorway differences between versions of the same model. In many cases, the movement, case, and crystal were the same, but with a slightly different numeral/indices on the dial. As such, we need to take that into account.

Swank Skin Diver 2
This vintage Swank was hard to research, since the company had been out of business for the last 4 decades.

I mention variations, as it plays into your purchase. Sure, we want to get the right looking watch that we want, but we also want to avoid buying a fake watch. For me, fake watches fall under two categories; counterfeit, and "franken watch". A counterfeit is simply a fake watch. It may say Omega or Rolex, but it's not made by those companies, and is not a legitimate product. Sure, it may still be a watch, but it isn't a real version of what it pretends to be. Franken watches are little more unique. These are watches that have been assembled using parts from a myriad of watches, forming into a strange amalgamation. You might think that you are buying a Seiko from the 1970s, but it's actually a Chinese movement, with a Seiko case and aftermarket dial.

We want to avoid buying a fake or franken watch, and we can do that via research. Research, however, is only half of the equation.

Buy the Seller

The most important thing that I can impart upon you is this. You need to "buy the seller". What does this mean? Well, it means that you need to trust the seller that you are buying your watch from.

What should you look for? Well, reviews are paramount. We want to give our hard-earned money to sellers with a lot of positive feedback, and a degree of sales history. When going on eBay or Chrono24, we can see both of those, and make an informed purchase. On top of that, we can do an internet search to see how well other folks did when buying from those vendors. How good is their feedback? How well do they communicate with buyers? Are they open to questions about the timepiece before making a purchase? These are all elements to consider.

SMP300 Vertical 4.3
The older Seamaster Pro 300 that I bought came from a well-vetted seller based out of Japan.

On top of those elements above, we need to look at location. There are tons of countries that specialize in either fake watches, or franken-watches. Well, these tend to come from a specific subset of countries. Now, this is not meant to sound biased at all, and is only in regards to buying watches. For me, I avoid buying watches when the seller is in India, (most of) the Middle East, or parts of Eastern Europe. Now, that doesn't mean that you are guaranteed to get a phony or franken watch from those places, but the chance of it happening are much higher.

Let's say that we've found a good seller, and on an initial look, the watch is legitimate. What should we look for, in regards to the watch itself?

Taking a Closer Look

Condition, condition, condition. Condition is everything when looking at vintage and used watches. It's what determines the price that the watch sells for. Now, elements like rarity and heritage play a part too, but when comparing two identical watches, condition is what determines which one is worth more.

Is the case dinged up? How about the crystal and dial? How faded are the hands and indices? Does it come with the original bracelet or strap? These are all parts fall into forming the sale price. Now, there are some elements that I value less than others (don't generally care if I get a factory bracelet or strap), but a lot of that is personal preference.

Glycine Vacuum 1
When buying this Glycine, I was able to see the condition quite well via the seller's photographs.

A massive part of condition is internal. Is the watch actually running, and running well? You can get on eBay and buy a broken Rolex OP for a bargain, but how much money will go into fixing it? Buying a watch that is running well is something that I try to do every time. Very good sellers will tell you how well it's running, and may even have information when the watch was last serviced. Servicing a watch is not a cheap endeavor, but be prepared to need to do it when buying an older timepiece.

The biggest take away is to understand what condition the watch is in. Maybe you're okay with a few dings, but with a significant price drop as such. Maybe you want a pristine example, and are willing to pay more for it. That's all up to you.

Making the Vintage Watch Purchase

You've found the watch that you want, and the seller seems solid too. The condition is something that you find acceptable, and you decide to pull the trigger and buy. Well, this is generally very simple. You fork over the dough, and they send you the watch. However, it can be a bit different if you are buying from a country outside of the US.

If you are buying from outside of the US, your watch will likely need to pass through Customs. This process generally goes quickly, but it may add 2-5 days onto your wait for the watch. I recently purchased a watch from Japan, and it sat in Customs for 5 days. Now, I still had it in less than a week from making the purchase, but the point stands that Customs is a process that you cannot avoid.

Well, what do you do once the watch is delivered?

Wear It!

It's obvious to say, but wear the damn thing! Part of the fun of buying vintage watches is wearing them! I've found that I really enjoy wearing a watch that is twice my age and fairly unknown. Weird, old, and unknown watches lead to a lot of fun conversations, especially if the watch is unique looking.

SMP300 Wrist Shot
The Seamaster 300 Pro on the WCWC SOE NATO.

Part of the attraction to vintage watches is that you can often get unique looking, well made timepieces for a reasonable price. That Hamilton CLD that I mentioned at the start of the article runs about $250-$350, which is pretty reasonable for a historic, classic watch. Plus, when you get a Model 15, you can really LARP as Chief Brody.

The Verdict

Many watch nerds fear buying vintage. It can easily be a nightmare if you end up with a moneypit of a watch, but if you do your research, you can often end up with something that you'll be extremely happy with. I really enjoy my newer watches, but the vintage ones are the ones that I can see holding onto for the longest time. Hey, maybe you'll do the same!

Additional Reading & Patreon Link

If you don't wanna dig into vintage watches, maybe something newer would be the pick! Below are a handful of watches that I've reviewed:

If you'd like to support me on Patreon, I've got the link for that here. Nearly everything that I do on Primer Peak is paid for out of my own pocket, and my content is not shilled or driven by manufacturers or companies. If you decide to donate, I'd really appreciate it, as it would allow for me to continue to bring you quality work.

Islander Port Jefferson GMT
A sneak peak for my next watch review...
About Paul Whaley 192 Articles
Paul Whaley is a guy with an interest in practical and defensive pistol shooting techniques with an eye for quality gear. He has received training from Holistic Solutions Group, John Johnston of Citizens Defense Research, Darryl Bolke, Cecil Birch, and Chuck Haggard. When not trying to become a better shooter, he can be found enjoying a Resident Evil game or listening to Warren Zevon. If you want to follow his wristwatch content, you can find him on https://www.watchcrunch.com/PaulWhaley

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