Vintage watches sell for $50 to $50,000; Many of the lower cost watches are excellent quality, but made by lesser known makers. That could lead to a real bargain...if you know what to look for!
Vintage watch collectors know that there are hundreds of vintage watch brands, most using the same Swiss movements, but the average collector only knows a handful. Most of the best known watches are on my Top 10 list of the fine watch brands:
1) Patek Phillipe
5) Jaeger Lecoultre
9) Longines / Wittenauer
The last five on the list present the best value per dollar in my opinion. You will get a lot more for your money from a $1,500 Omega than a $1,500 Cartier for instance.
I think the first five on the list have managed to elevate themselves into a status symbol role. So from a watchmaking perspective the mechanics don't justify the inflated price tag.
Just as some of these watches are overrated, some really good watches are underrated. I laugh to myself when I see a tray of watches and they have a 1960's Timex and Caravelle or Helbros priced the same. It is because of brand name awareness. Everyone knows Timex. They have great staying power in the market. When it comes to vintage watches though the quality of a Timex pales in comparison to the quality of a lesser known American / Swiss brand. I think this advertisement from the 60's sums it up.
So what are the most undervalued watches and why?
Westfield - You can pick them up for under a hundred dollars and get a really nice watch from the 1930's or 40's. Westfields were made by Bulova and look the same many times as the Bulova counterpart with a few less jewels inside. The fascinating thing about Westies' is that Bulova used shock-protection in Westfields before it incorporated it into the Bulova lineup. That means many times the 1930's Westfields outlast the same era Bulova's.
Helbros - A lesser known brand. Helbros stood for Helvetic Brothers. They were very popular in the day, and made great quality watches. The thing I love about the Helbros is the way the kept current on trends. You can find wrist-alarm, triple calendar, and automatic watches for a fraction of the cost of a comparable Movado, Bulova, or Benrus.
Caravelle - Also a Bulova subsidiary. In the 1960's Caravelle replaced Westfield as Bulova's entry level offering. As you see in the ad above. The Quality of a Caravelle far surpassed the Quality of a Timex for the same price.
Gruen - Originally a German Company. For a while Gruen and Rolex used the same movements. The company name was eventually sold off due to financial mismanagement, but they always made great quality watches. You can find them for real bargains.
Benrus / Belforte - Benrus is the highest priced maker on this list. They were larger than Bulova in their day, and made really great watches. You can find them for really great prices. What is less known is that Belforte was an off shoot of Benrus. Belforte watches are also of great quality, but sell cheap because the name is less known.
Bucherer - In 1888 Bucherer opened Lucerne, Switzerland's first watch and jewelry store and partnered with a then little known watchmaker Hans Wilsdorf that was just starting his watch company called ROLEX. The two companies have been inseparable ever since. Bucherer, also a watchmaker, offered quality watches rebranded under the Bucherer name.
Winton / Nassua - Made by the Didisheim family that went on to create the still popular Martin watch brand. Winton and Nassua watches were one of the names imported by the Didisheim family. The Didisheims went on to create Marvin Watches, a brand that is still in operation today. The history of their company dates back to the 1800's. They were based in New York City.
Jubilee - Made by Wittnauer / Longines. Quality watch for low investment.
Buren - A very popular watch in the day. They were owned by the Hamilton Watch Company. I have seen them in vintage Montgomery Ward's Catalogs. You don't see as many as some of the others on the list, but they are a good quality watch that sells for reasonable prices.
Other High Grade Swiss Makers - Some honorable mentions are: Clinton, Croton, Cimier, Gotham, Mimo / Girard-Perregaux, Waltham (for early watches, lower quality later). I don't have enough room to list all of the names of all the smaller watch firms. Some were in business only a handful of years but made great quality watches. The thing to remember is that a high jewel count Swiss movement from a no name company is probably the same movement used in well known watches.
Bonus Tip - Complications usually mean money. Any windup chronograph is going to be worth at least $50+ more than its "time only" counterpart. Date pointers, moon phase, self-winding movements all add dollars.
Also, early innovations. For Instance, center sweep second hands were developed in the 1940/50's. Early sweep second hand watches are usually called doctor or nurse watches since doctors used them to measure the patients pulse. The rarest date back to the 1930s.
Other innovations to look for in the early 1940s are shock-protection, waterproof cases, self-winding, and date windows (this is common today but before the late 40's everything used date pointers with four hands).
Watches were like computers in the sense that today you can have ten different manufactures putting their name on laptops all with the same motherboard inside. You might pay more for a Lenovo Thinkpad than an Acer but it could be the exact same on the inside.
Thank You, and Happy Hunting!