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There are many types of vintage watches, from wristwatches to pocket watches to small decorative timepieces. The term vintage covers a broad range of years — anything that is 25 years old and older. The line between antique and vintage is vague, but vintage usually describes an item that is several decades old while an antique item can be several centuries old. With that in mind, identifying authentic vintage watches can be difficult, but learning to spot excellent craftsmanship and to identify manufacturers will be helpful in your search.
To recognize a vintage watch, first consider the overall appearance of the timepiece. Often, vintage watches will show signs of wear, like scratched and yellowed faceplates or damage to the clasp and band. Vintage watches do not usually have plastic parts. Most are made from metal.
You can also look for markings that indicate whether the watch is gold or silver. Silver is typically marked with "925" or "sterling silver," indicating the purity of the metal. Gold usually has tiny letters that read "10k," "14k," "18k," or "24k." American made watches typically use 14 karat gold, while European watches use 18 or 24 karat gold.
Another simple way to test the authenticity of gold or silver is to place a magnet close to the band. Do not place the magnet near the watch itself as this can damage the inner workings. If the metal is attracted to the magnet, it is not gold or silver.
The name of the manufacturer of the watch also helps in recognizing vintage watches. Although there are hundreds of watch companies, some famous companies went out of business decades ago, and by that name alone, you can tell the watch is vintage. Some popular collectible brands are Omega, Hamilton, Gruen, Bulova, Longines, Elgin, and, of course, Rolex.
Since there are dozens and even hundreds of brand names, a lot of research is required to have a working knowledge of vintage watch brands. There are numerous websites, forums, and books on the topic of collectible vintage brands. Counterfeiting is a serious problem in the watchmaking industry, so there are many other characteristics you will need to check, in addition to manufacturer name, to ensure that the watch is genuine.
For instance, a genuine Rolex has a smooth back. It will not have any engravings or logos. Many counterfeits have transparent backing, to show the inner workings of the watch, or logos and other engravings on the back. A general rule is that if a deal seems too good to be true, it usually is. If a watch is very expensive, it is best to have it inspected by a third-party professional to ascertain the value before buying.
Workmanship is everything. Watches were just better made years ago, in general. Anything that looks even vaguely plastic isn't a vintage watch, unless it was a "mod" watch made in the 1960s.
I wouldn't even talk to someone who said they had a genuine vintage Rolex for sale. People keep Rolexes, since they increase in value. They don't sell them, unless it's a private sale to a collector. I've seen one Rolex in the jewelry store. They're just not that common, and never have been.
A good place to pick up a vintage watch would probably be an estate sale, I'd imagine. You'd have some idea of the age, probably, and might be able to get a decent price on it.
Your neighborhood jeweler can probably give you a pretty good idea about whether a particular watch is actually vintage or not. If you're talking about a watch that a grandparent or someone in the family wore many years ago, it's probably vintage. Whether it's valuable is something else again. "Vintage" and "valuable" are not necessarily synonymous.
I have a watch that belonged to my mom. It was a gift when she graduated from high school in 1947, so I know it's vintage. It's a gold Bulova Miss America watch. I don't know if it's worth much, but I do intend to have it appraised at some point.
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