When it comes to luxury watches, buying a pre-owned piece makes a lot of sense, if you go about it the right way. Especially with classic and iconic designs that haven’t changed much over the years, there is not only no stigma attached to older pieces, they may even be more desirable – besides saving you loads of money. However it’s not something you want to go into unprepared as pitfalls are numerous.
To help crack the code we consulted two top experts: Paul Altieri, founder of online luxury watch boutique Bob’s Watches, which was the first to offer transparent pricing, and who’s also one of the world’s top Rolex collectors; and Reginald Brack, GM of Watches at StockX, the live "bid/ask" marketplace backed by Eminem and Mark Wahlberg, who’s also the former International Head of Retail for auction house Christie’s Watches department.
Here are the 10 things you need to know before buying a pre-owned luxury watch, along with Altieri and Brack’s top picks for high-end timepieces you can actually score a deal on:
1. Know what you're buying
Pre-owned watches can be either vintage, contemporary or discontinued. “Vintage refers to timepieces that are usually at least 30 years old,” Altieri notes. “Contemporary watches, on the other hand, are the current watch models that are available at authorized retailers. And everything in between—those watches that aren’t quite 30 years old and are no longer offered by the brand—are discontinued models.” No matter which you end up choosing, ““Buying a pre-owned watch is a greater value proposition than buying at retail, Brack adds, “and your watch may even climb in value over time” [see #9 below].
2. Vintage watches can be complicated
They’re not as durable, reliable or worry-free as contemporary or discontinued models. “Vintage pieces, even rugged sports watches, are more fragile,” Altieri notes, “and this is more applicable the older the watch is. For most people the appeal of a vintage piece outweighs these negative concerns, but you need to keep in mind that you shouldn't go swimming with it on and that accidentally banging it against the wall might do serious damage. And typically they don’t keep time as well.”
3. You must maintain it properly
Like a pricey imported sports car, a high-end luxury watch needs to be looked after and, yes, serviced regularly. “Any mechanical watch, whether vintage or modern, requires occasional maintenance and service by a certified watchmaker to insure proper functionality and a long life,” Brack says. “But with proper care your watch can last for generations.” Altieri says that a classic Rolex Submariner should ideally be serviced every five years, at a cost of about $500 a pop. Add 50% to that price for more complicated watches like the iconic Rolex Daytona chronograph. “Expensive but worth it,” he declares. “And if you’re spending several thousand on a watch of this caliber you shouldn’t sweat the small stuff.”
4. Beware of "superfakes"
This is a growing problem as replicas get better and better and only highly trained watchmakers and experts can tell the difference. What’s inside the watch counts too, as even if the case is genuine the movement can be dodgy. “With Rolex in particular, so many watches have had parts replaced with non-authentic parts over the years,” Brack notes, “or even movement parts that are not correct to the watch. A good watchmaker can ensure authenticity.” “With some of the really well-made replicas coming out of Asia today even so-called experts can be fooled,” Altieri adds. “If the authenticity of the piece isn’t guaranteed and backed by a full refund from a reputable dealer it’s just not worth the risk.” Both Bob’s Watches and StockX Watches pieces come with iron-clad guarantees.
5. The actual watch is just part of the equation
Consider paying more for a watch with its original box and papers, though a piece that comes with a certificate of authenticity from a reputable dealer doesn’t necessarily need them. “Typically watches with their original boxes and papers will be worth more and hold their value better,” Altieri says. “But if it’s a piece you just plan on wearing and not reselling the difference in price may not be worth it.” “At StockX we always make the buyer aware if the watch has its box and papers or not”,” Brack adds.”You might be able to find a better deal for one without them, just make sure the watch is in excellent condition.”
6. You can always finance it
If you have good credit you could qualify for a low interest rate, which means it may not cost much more to pay for the watch you want over time. “This can be a great way to get the more expensive piece you really want but can’t afford to pay for all at once,” Altieri says. Both Bob’s Watches and StockX Watches use Affirm, a personal finance company specializing in online purchases, which advertises up to 0% APR for customers with the very best credit rating, though expect a higher interest rate if your credit is less than stellar.
7. Ask the right questions
"Does it retain its original manufacturer finish?" Brack asks. "Has it not been over polished? Does it retain all of its original and correct manufacturer parts such as bezel, crown, clasp, etc.?" "Pieces that check all these boxes are a much better investment and are less likely to let you in for a nasty surprise down the line,” Altieri notes. “But again you need to decide what matters most to you and what you’re willing to pay extra for.” Master watchmakers inspect all pieces inside and out at both StockX Watches and Bob’s Watches.
8. Depreciation can be your friend
Check retail prices for new pieces (even Rolex now lists them online) to see how much your saving by not just handing your credit card over at a retail boutique. “Like a brand new car, a brand new watch depreciates the second you take it home,” Altieri says. “But a pre-owned Rolex has already depreciated to the near maximum by the time you buy it.” “Being aware of correct market value is of course important,” Brack adds, “that way you can be sure you’re not overpaying and are getting a good deal.”
9. Your watch might actually increase in value
“The value of most pre-owned Rolexes for example will actually go up,” Altieri points out. “This depends on trends in the market, auction results, and what the brand is currently producing. For example, ever since Rolex unveiled the a magnified date lens on the new version of the Sea-Dweller, there’s been an uptick in demand for discontinued Sea-Dweller models without the lens.” Brack notes other highly coveted luxury watch brands can experience the same effect.
10. Watches can be better investments than IRAs
“One study showed that luxury watches have actually performed better than IRAs in terms of value,” Altieri says. “Retirement account interest rates have stayed flat or showed a decline in contrast to certain luxury watch models, chief among them the Rolex Daytona, an excellent investment in addition to being one of the most desirable watches ever made. There’s a reason for the waiting list to buy a new one.”