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Is newer always better? Buy vintage or go homage?

A photo journal of iconic watches and the buyer's conundrum.
by Chester Lau on December 7, 2019
Watches

Homage or vintage? Retail or ceased production? At a certain stage in watch collecting, many may face this conundrum. Should I get a modern iteration of a watch, when the original vintage is potentially more desirable? If I could only have one Nautilus, and I can’t get it at retail prices today, should I get a 3700 or a 5711? Why is the 3712 worth 1.5 times a 5712? But a 3919 (Calatrava hobnail) less desirable than the newer 5919?

Patek 3700 with the original monobloc case – the new 5711 has a 3 piece construction. The first generation Nautilus uses a Jaeger LeCoultre ultra thin automatic movement while the contemporary uses an in-house 324SC caliber.
Size matters – the newest Hobnail Calatrava, the 5119 with the 36 mm case remains more desirable than the older model 3919 at 33.5 mm. What does that mean for 5120 at 35mm? What if next year’s release is an upsized 38 mm 5120? That would kill off the older model.

The vintage or original edition of an iconic watch is almost always more desirable in a collection, measured in terms of market value. This means that the contemporary model trails behind in market prices of the vintage (original) model. This trend mostly holds true for brands like Omega, Rolex and Patek Philippe. For instance, vintage Omega Speedmasters that house the 321 movement vs contemporary Speedmaster Professional.

Unfortunately, it does not hold true for this model, automatic Speedmasters don’t do as well. This or Hodinkee’s?
Left, the Lemania calibre CH27; Right, the modified Omega Cal. 321

Brands like Vacheron Constantin, Jaeger LeCoultre and IWC however, do not share as robust a pattern. This could be due to brand value, or product line development over the decades. VC and JLC’s product line branches for their iconic models can be very vast, producing very many similar models for each product line. Speedmaster is arguably the same, but NASA hoodwinking works wonders.

Lovely Vacheron Constantin Historiques Ultra Fine 1955. But there are very many vintage ultra thin iterations of the watch in the market with the same movement at a fraction of the price.

I have a bias towards IWC, but possibly due to their use of Valjoux calibers and a youngster target crowd, their vintage pieces are not as in demand – which is good for those who wish to pick up nice complications designed by famous watchmakers.

IW3751 OP module by Kurt Klaus, Rattrapante by Habring, cased in Platinum.
The IWC Da Vinci Perpetual Calendar Chronograph in red gold. It uses an in-house base caliber, and a larger case, 43 mm vs the 3751 at 38 mm.

While the wise mantra – just buy what you love remains true, sometimes collectors want to know what they should love more, and in which order. Assuming that most hobbyists are not billionaires, knowing whether to hold off a purchase on a 5270 to get a 3970 first can be important decisions to make.

Patek Philippe 5270 with salmon dial in Platinum, approximately $160-200,000 on the market.
Patek Philippe 1518 in steel (First Perpetual Calendar Chronograph by the brand). Approximately $11,000,000. That’s at least 50 times more than a modern 5270.

But things get more complex when there are several ‘generations’ of a watch and some generations fare better than others. Several factors affect collectibility and it is not a strict rule that older is always better. Namely, design – how iconic the model is, size – 36-38 mm watches tend to do the best, production rarity – case material and movement. As a rule of thumb, stainless steel is the best metal in the haute horlogerie watch world.

The Lange 1 shown here in a pink gold case, and champagne dial. This version was introduced circa 1998, and was an addition to the original series introduced in 1994 which comprise of the yellow gold, white gold and platinum watches.
The new Lange 1 movement. Caliber L121.1, now featuring the inhouse manufactured balance system with eccentric weights.
The first generation movement, with more theatrics in design and finishing, but lacks the 60 second stopping reset of the new movement. It uses Jaeger LeCoultre’s balance spring.
The Calibre L901.0 movement, used on the Lange 1.

In the case of the Lange 1, it remains to be seen which of the 2 will be more collectible in the future. Currently, the newer edition demands a higher price. I personally own the newer edition, because I wanted a new watch at the time of purchase, but over time, I question my decision and wonder if I should have gotten the older model instead. Newer – better movement in technicalities and design, older – nicer finishing and has the badge of the ‘original collection’.

Purchasing new watches at retail is less stressful, and much easier for watch buyers. But considering how it can be at times frustrating to be on long waiting lists, hunting down ceased production timepieces is now relatively less painful than waiting forever for a watch.

Factor in price differences, and variables including access to old watches, uncertainty in product maintenance or getting ripped off from getting an old watch; but the potential reward, both emotionally and financially can make collecting watches that are no longer in production more fun than simply buying homages.

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