Watch History


By Olivier Müller
Apr 21, 2023

Vintage or modern? It’s a simple question with many different answers. It’s hard to settle the matter, but the intention behind the purchase should give several pointers. Let’s take a closer look! 

What are the criteria for deciding which watch to buy? Some are rational; others are much less so and thus defy analysis. They include emotion, love at first sight, family events and special occasions such as a wedding, a birth, and so on. So much the better: watches are (and must remain!) a highly emotional object. 

But when it comes to actually making a purchase, nobody can follow their every whim all the time (unless of course they are of unlimited means, and let’s face it, that rules out most of us). In many if not most cases, it’s likely that buyers will seek to weigh prospective purchases in the light of more practical considerations, too. That involves asking the right questions: who is the watch for? What makes it an interesting addition to their collection? What use will be made of it? Will it increase or decrease in value? Can the brand still service it properly? Is it a buyer’s market right now? 

Making a decision doesn’t necessarily mean carrying out detailed market research each time a purchase opportunity arises, but it does involve asking yourself the right questions – ones that will lead to the right answers. 

Vintage classics

Reliability above all else 

The first criterion is reliability. The reason for this is simple: there’s no point buying a watch that doesn’t work (or doesn’t work properly). Consider the Monaco by Heuer, now TAG Heuer. The timepiece was created in 1969 and fitted with the Caliber 11, the first automatic chronograph movement. Historically speaking this was a marvel, but it was also a technical disaster: the Caliber 11 was anything but reliable. The original version was soon withdrawn from the market and its teething troubles sorted before being rebadged as the Caliber 12 (and then being once again referred to as the Caliber 11, despite bearing little resemblance to the original by this stage). This means it’s not a good idea to purchase a 1969 Monaco Caliber 11 for any reason other than to keep it in a safe as a rare timepiece. If you want to wear a Monaco every day, you’d do better to opt for a later version.

Vintage Tag Heuer Monaco «Steve McQueen” 1969 vs. the new Monaco Caliber 11 reissued in 2015

Not all original movements share the same misfortune, though. Brands that already boasted integrated manufactures at that time had better control of their technology (even though some of them did rely on third party movement bases): Jaeger-LeCoultre is one example. Should you buy a 1968 Memovox Polaris or the much more recent 2021 version? The watch will be suitable for everyday use in either case, provided it’s been properly serviced. The deciding factors here are price and aesthetics. Both are very personal, and depend on your taste (and budget). The 1968 Memovox Polaris has been reissued, and the manufacture’s approach is clear: using the original as a starting-point from which to explore modernity. Doing so has involved a great many changes. Unlike the 1968 model, the dial now sports three levels of finishing; the lugs, meanwhile, are now brushed rather than polished. The hands are steel as opposed to the gold-colored originals. An hour marker has been added at 3 o’clock and the strap has been altered, as have the crowns. The caseback, originally solid, is now transparent, revealing a fully overhauled movement. It’s quite a different timepiece. So in the end it’s all a matter of taste! 

Jaeger Le-Coultre Memovox Polaris 2022

The evolving world of sports models

The question of sports watches (predominantly dive watches) must be approached with caution – although here at least, the modern versus vintage playoff can be easily decided if you stick to considering the use of these watches, simply because period watches are now obsolete.

Acquiring a 1953 Blancpain  Fifty Fathoms may be a feast for the eyes, but diving with one on your wrist is most definitely not recommended. Reissues, on the other hand, retain the look and feel of the original despite having undergone major technical modifications that also allow them to live up to their underwater vocation. The bezel, crown, case, movement, strap and crystal on the Fifty Fathoms have all been thoroughly redesigned to ensure the timepiece remains what it always has been: an operational dive watch. In short, you can still buy an original, but if you do, it will be as a collector’s item rather than something to wear while diving.

Blancpain Fifty Fathoms – A legacy in diving watches

The Omega exception

The fourth-generation Speedmaster (reference ST 105.012) has become legendary for having been one of the watches worn on the Moon. As such it constitutes a special case in watchmaking. For one thing, the timepiece has remained in the collection ever since, having been first listed in the catalogue in 1957. Moreover, despite many variations the model is still available in the original style, featuring a black dial, a tricompax layout and a steel bracelet – and the hand-wound Cal. 1861 is still going strong too (even if it has recently been updated in its Master Chronometer version). 

Omega Speedmaster worn during the moon landing of Apollo 17 in 1972

The ‘Speed’ is thus a timepiece that’s both old and new... and a watch of the future, embodying continuity. The Master Chronometer version doesn’t mark a break with the past: it’s a natural evolution, just as the move to the coaxial escapement was before it, or the transition from the ‘Reduced’ version to the contemporary 42mm diameter. 

At the end of the day, the decision here is a highly personal one that may take one of two forms. The first category of choice would be between the strictly original version and subsequent variations (such as the gold version, Snoopy versions, those with meteorite dials, and so on) providing only that it’s still connected with the original theme of space (basically ruling out Casino and Racing versions). Alternatively, the choice could be between a collector’s timepiece and a modern watch. The former are rarer and more expensive – and also more fragile. The latter are more plentiful, less valuable, and more reliable. In this case the deciding factor will be the intended use of the piece. The former are preferable for an investment, the latter for everyday use. 

In the shadow of the crown

Things are different when it comes to Rolex. The original timepieces are still available, but at astronomical prices, whereas the brand’s contemporary models are more affordable – but unfindable. What’s more, Rolex never produces new versions of its old models, but instead has successive new generations following on from one another. 

Oyster Perpetual Master-GMT II 2022

The Oyster Perpetual GMT-Master is a typical example. The timepiece was created in 1955. Its legendary ‘Pepsi’ bezel was made from aluminum from 1959 onwards. As of 1982, an additional hand could be adjusted independently of local time: this was known as the GMT-II feature. From 2005, ceramic was used for the bezel. In 2018, a third generation of movement came into being: the Cal. 3285, featuring a new escapement, a new hairspring, and a new barrel. Here, the choice is straightforward: you can either purchase the original as a piece of history at a sky-high price, or acquire a blue-chip investment that you can wear every day, at a tenth of the cost.