Friday, November 15, 2013

Antique wristwatches

The very first wristwatches were developed during the First World war as a more convenient method for soldiers to tell the time than by trying to consult a pocket watch on a chain while out in the field. Just after the war, small fob watches were converted to wristwatches by having strap fittings attached to them. It was during the 1920s, after the pocket watch became redundant, that the manufacture of wristwatches really got underway.

Elgin antique wristwatch
It was also during that period that the British watch-making industry, reluctant to modernize its outdated working practices, went into a steep decline, leaving the Swiss companies to lead the way in Europe. They were able to produce wristwatches of every quality in numbers large enough to satisfy the public clamouring for this latest method of timekeeping.

Art Deco Gent’s Gothic 20’s vintage wristwatch
Many new Swiss firms started up during this period but older organizations such as Movado and patek Philippe adapted readily to the new methods. In the 1930s, Rolex led the way by producing one of the first fully automatic and waterproof wristwatches. Many names have since gone out of business, but have recently been revived under new ownership as the interest in mechanical (as opposed to quartz) wristwatches has blossomed over the last couple of decades.

Deco lady octagonal wristwatch on original bracelet 1920s

Swiss companies produce high-quality wristwatches to satisfy the demand of collectors, who very often buy brand new examples. At the top end of the market, these can cost up to 400,000 GBP. It is one area of collecting where old does not necessarily mean more valuable and where collectors like to wear and enjoy their pieces. It also tends to be an area dominated by men for whom the wristwatch is an acceptable form of jewellery.

MovadoTriple Date Calendar, 1940s, estimated price 795 USD
Women's watches do not excite the same degree of interest. A woman's 9 carat gold Rolex of 1920 might fetch 100 - 200 GBP whereas the male equivalent is worth 600 - 800 GBP.

Collector's notes
  • Look for pieces by the well-known names rather than the more obscure companies;
  • Buy solid gold, 18 carat gold-cased examples if you are serious about collecting wristwatches. Gold-plated and silver examples are not as collectable, although, oddly enough, steel is as it is a durable material which does not tarnish, is more discreet than gold and can be repolished to look like new;
Rodania Men's Manual Wind, 1950s, estimated price 295 USD
  • Rectangular cases are more popular than circular ones as they are more unusual, as are those with curved backs made to fit snugly around the wrist;
  • It is almost always the case that an old wristwatch will have to be refurbished, as the dials, glass and case become tired and marked with age. This is quite acceptable but must be carried out to the highest standards;
  • Buy a good watch strap to bring out the full potential of your wristwatch. Serious collectors are always prepared to spend 200 - 300 GBP on a really good leather strap;

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