A collector’s guide to watches and pocket watches


By Tai Sione

Oince considered a niche of interest for collectors, the watch has become a very successful collector’s item. With a new generation of collectors and investors viewing them as reliable stores of value as prime assets, wristwatches and pocket watches have reached world record prices at auction in recent years. A recent notable artist: Paul Newman’s personal Rolex Daytona, which sold for $17.8 million in 2017.

Today’s watch collectors also come from more diverse backgrounds than ever before, and what they collect is just as varied. Whether it’s a recent college grad collecting vintage watches with obscure case designs, a newly minted crypto millionaire buying popular sports models, or a young woman wearing indie brands, they’ve all one thing in common: their love of beautiful watches. Whichever subcategory of watches you go for, however, there are a few basic rules to remember when collecting.

The condition is the key

Whether a watch is modern or vintage, one of the most important factors to consider is its condition. When we say state, we mean the current state of three main components: the case, the dial and the movement. Jewelers often try to restore a watch by polishing the case to a shiny new finish or perhaps refinishing the dial to present it more clearly, but collectors should look for pieces that are as close to their original condition as possible, because these watches retain their best value over time.


Notice how this yellow gold Rolex Daytona offered in Heritage Auctions’ November 16 watch and fine watch sale still retains strong features on the back of its lugs and has its factory brushed finish on the back of the lugs and at the bottom of the case.

Look at object

Inspect the case

When assessing the condition of a watch case, what you are looking for depends on the metal of the case. If the watch is in a yellow gold case, look for gold import hallmarks. These small symbols indicate whether the yellow gold used for the case was 9, 14 or 18 carat gold (typical). These carat denominations were also used for other metals, such as rose gold and white gold. For stainless steel cases, look for the original finish or pattern that the brand applied to the case when it left the factory. Generally, with stainless steel watches, you’ll want to look for a brushed finish, which is usually found on the sides or back of the lugs, as well as the bottom of the case.


Very beautiful and rare 18k professional Omega Apollo XI Speedmaster wristwatch.  No. 167. Ref -145.022.  Around 1969

Although it is over 50 years old, the dial of this Omega Speedmaster offered at the November 16 Heritage auction looks like new.

Look at object

Scan the dial

Dials can be tricky. When they become dirty or worn, jewelers or watchmakers will often want to “refinish” them, making them appear like new. You want to find watches with original dials, if possible. To tell if a dial is in its original condition, take a magnifying glass (essentially a small, very powerful magnifying glass) and examine every detail of the dial. Does the minute track feel even and consistent throughout? Check the text, which should be just below 12 o’clock or just above 6 o’clock. Look for any irregularities, such as inconsistent font size, as well as any serifs or strokes that seem out of place.

Examine the movement

Finally, with the help of a watchmaker, confirm that the movement is in good working order. It is common for movement parts to be replaced over time, in the same way that a car owner may change air filters, batteries or brake pads over the years, and does not seriously affect the value or integrity of the watch. It’s also best to confirm that the caliber of the movement is correct for your watch by cross-referencing examples online. For example, if you have a vintage Rolex Daytona, it should have a caliber 72 from Valjoux, the manufacturer that supplied Rolex with chronograph movements during that time.


Rolex Cosmograph Daytona rare stainless steel watch with Paul Newman dial.  Ref - 6241. Circa 1969

A Rolex Daytona with an elusive ‘Paul Newman’ dial is one of the highlights of Heritage’s Watches and Fine Watches sale on November 16.

Look at object

Rarity Matters

Another crucial factor to keep in mind is rarity. Watches produced in limited quantities will generally perform better than mass-produced ones because they are empirically rarer, which, in the eyes of a collector, makes them more desirable. There are different levels of rarity in different categories. At Rolex, the rare variants of the sports models are the most popular. Take Paul Newman’s Daytona, for example. These watches were produced in the 60s and into the 70s, but were poorly received at the time. Because they were unpopular, they were produced in very limited quantities. After being seen on the wrist of the actor and car enthusiast, however, they rose to popularity in the 90s and 2000s. Now Rolex Daytonas with the so-called “Paul Newman” dials command extreme premiums over the models with standard dial configurations.


Patek Philippe & Co., Rare and Important Gold Minute Repeater Pocket Watch With Chronograph, Perpetual Calendar And Moon Phases, Circa 1889

This massive 58mm Patek Philippe pocket watch is one of the highlights of the November 16 Heritage auction and the crown jewel of the Dr. Paul Pierce collection. It has many desirable complications, such as perpetual calendar, moon phase indicator, chronograph function and minute repeater function.

Look at object

For pocket watches, consider complications

When it comes to collecting, the same rules that apply to wristwatches generally apply to pocket watches, although one criterion stands out: complications. When collecting pocket watches, you want to collect examples with complications, such as a moon phase indicator, annual or perpetual calendar, chronograph function, or tourbillon, to name a few. Pocket watches with complications tend to retain their value better and attract the most astute and discerning collectors.

Collect what you like

At the end of the day, it’s important to collect what you love. This can be determined by a multitude of factors, such as the size of your wrist, your lifestyle or even your profession, but where your passion as a collector tends to gravitate is where you should focus your collection. However, whatever subcategory appeals to you, you should try to collect the best examples available. Whether you collect Seiko wristwatches for a few hundred dollars each or one-of-a-kind Patek Philippe watches with valuations in the hundreds of thousands, as long as you follow the guidelines above, you can amass a world-class collection.

author's pictureTAI SIONE is Associate Specialist, Watches and Fine Watches, at Heritage Auctions.

The next heritage auctions Signature Watches & Jewelry® Auctionfeaturing the collection of Dr. Paul Williamson Pierce III, will take place on November 16. For more information, contact Tai Sione at [email protected] or 214-409-1539.

About Robert L. Thomas

Check Also

The watches we recommend to our non-watch friends

Hey now! So you finally want to buy a nice watch, huh? I’ve been waiting …