Try to imagine the current watch boom without the reinforcing ecologies of eBay, the enthusiast boards, and the blogs. Imagine buying watches from strangers without secure credit card software or Paypal.
Match today’s mania for vintage pieces with the commercial technologies of, say, 1983. I don’t know about you, but I didn’t have the passport, liquidity, and capacity to trade millions of dollars in corporate equity via my car phone that (I imagine) was required to do these sorts of transactions during the Reagan presidency. I had a paper route, and that was about it.
Tonight a kid with a paper route is going to outbid you for a birth-year pre-Moon Speedmaster. He’s going to know more about the movement than the platform techs back in La Chaux-de-Fonds, and probably how many brooms hung in the well-organized closet of the Omega factory on the day the watch was made. Tomorrow he’s going to flip the watch to someone in Hong Kong for a 40% profit and brag about it on Instagram. Truly, we live in an age of wonders.
When it comes to buying watches, the Internet is a dangerous, magical place. But if you insist on turning away from your tried-and-true friends down here in the brick and mortar, there are a few things to keep in mind. I can’t speak to particulars of value when it comes to the more popular collectible pieces, but I can advise you with regard to some of the technical questions you should think about asking. And also the questions you might want to avoid.
BAD: “Has the watch been serviced?”
Sadly, this is an invitation to deception. Every watch has been serviced at some point, by someone – but when? By whom? Is “my personal watchmaker” just an anagram for a kid brother in the garage?
GOOD: “Are you able to provide documentation of the watch’s most recent service?”
Try to ask specific questions about the service history of the watch, and if you need your purchase to be fully functional upon receipt, request proof that the watch has been seen by a certified technician. Ask for a timing tape and some concrete indication of recent pressure testing, or at least the date of the last battery change. If the watch has been factory-serviced, this is a wonderful opportunity to discover whether your new purchase will be covered by a factory warranty.
If the seller is unable to provide this documentation, your assumption must be that you yourself will be the one to have the watch serviced. This by itself shouldn’t be a barrier to purchase, but it also shouldn’t be a surprise.
BAD: “Does the watch run well?”
This question is too subjective to be of any use. For some people, a watch runs well if it works long enough to get it to the post office and ship it to the buyer. Most internet sellers lack diagnostic equipment, let alone the training to properly use it or interpret test results.
GOOD: “After you wind the watch all the way up, how long does it run?”
The technical term for this is autonomy – how long can the watch get along all by itself? The beauty of this question is that it requests a simple test that anyone can perform, and can then be duplicated on the buyer’s end without special equipment. It’s relatively simple to determine the minimum acceptable power reserve of most watches, even the more vintage pieces, and this can serve as a means of filtering compromised watches before purchase.
Subsidiary functions like a chronograph or calendar will play hob with autonomy if they are broken or out of adjustment, so this simple test can indicate a number of potential problems that the seller might not even be aware of.
BAD: “Does the watch keep good time?”
The answer to this question communicates almost nothing, other than that the watch actually runs. What constitutes “good time” and how was it measured? The seller will most likely take the opportunity to tell you that it runs “great” and leave it at that.
GOOD: “If you wind it all the way up, after 24 hours how much time does the watch gain or lose against your phone?”
Asking the question this way introduces the idea of a reference, a comparison timepiece both parties can accept as accurate. Should you both be subjects of the Crown, feel free to rely on Big Ben, but I suggest referencing the watch’s timekeeping against the satellite-controlled clock in your cell phones.
Like the autonomy test, while imperfect this is easy to perform and repeat. It also generates a number for comparison, so that it is simple to verify the veracity of the seller’s claims. If you yourself are not sure (or can’t determine) whether that number falls into the watch’s functional range, at least it gives you a data point to present to more experienced technicians. Your friends at JB Hudson can tell you a fair amount about a watch if we know the model, its autonomy, and how much time it gains or loses in a day. Please keep in mind that these tests don’t apply to quartz watches.
BAD: “What kind of shape is the watch in?”
Again, a question this vague is meaningless, and almost requires the seller to refer a prospective buyer back to the photographs that accompany the listing. But the idea is to acquire information that the pictures don’t show.
GOOD: “Is the anti-reflective coating on the crystal scratched? May I see a better picture of the crown and pushers? May I see a picture of the springbar holes on the inside of the lugs? May I see a picture of the back of the bracelet and clasp?”
The idea is to identify areas that typically experience more wear or damage but to do this before the watch is physically in your hands. I can’t tell you the number of times that a client of mine has received a watch from internet purchase, only to find a giant gouge in the case that none of the pictures revealed.
Most sellers are reluctant to perform tests or supply pictures and information beyond their original listing. A lack of more clues shouldn’t necessarily prevent you from purchasing a desirable piece from an online seller who has previously earned your trust, and it’s true that many sellers keep their prices low by investing nothing in the repair or testing of the watches they sell. But if – like me – you have a low appetite for risk, every additional datum helps.