A fantastic thread was started over on The Rolex Forums recently by user PSV entitled "RIP vintage Rolex hobby", positing that at this point, most popular vintage Rolex models were being priced out of collector's budgets.
This is a topic I've been wrestling with lately as well, having moved most of my watch budget out of newer models and into the 60's and 70's vintage models that I fear may be too expensive to justify soon. Even during the past ten years, most of the classic vintage models in good condition have gone from thousands of dollars to 10's of thousands of dollars. Models like the 1655 Explorer II from the 1970s [pictured below] has gone from something hard to sell for $5k fifteen years ago, to prices near $20k today.
I wasn't around to see the heyday of vintage Rolex, when collectors in the thread spoke about the fun of trading these still recent but out of fashion models in the 1980s. How for a few thousand you could pick up a 5513, 1680, 1655 or a DRSD, all models mostly into five-figure territory today.
This isn't only about Rolex. Heuer, Tudor, Omega, Audemars Piguet, Patek Phillipe and most of the other top watch brands have seen the skyrocketing of some of their iconic models from the middle of the last century. Many have been capitalizing on this trend by creating homage pieces, re-releases of their own classics to try and meet the demand for the style, while updating the quality. Tag Heuer's Monaco [below left], a re-release of their classic Heuer Monaco [below right] now fetch sums double that of the new release:
In the TRF thread, I tried to explain my viewpoint, and how I'm approaching this problem today, a relatively new collector of vintage timepieces. Here is what I said:
I feel this is the most important debate in vintage Rolex today.
I've always loved watches since I was very young, and I arguably still am having recently turned 30. In the last handful of years I have be fortunate enough to have some disposable income to spend on this hobby, so I began to buy, and sell, and buy again. I was mostly interested in newish watches as I didn't know much about vintage and wanted to make sure I was wearing something I could truly rely on.
However the vintage stuff began to captivate me: the plexiglass crystals, the different shades of patina, silver date wheels, open 6's and 9's and all the different types of history of the buyers and the time they were made. So recently I totally changed my collecting strategy, selling anything I had that was new and I didn't have significant attachment to, in order to focus on vintage.
Simply put, I know I can buy any of the new models for the next few decades, but I feel we are in the last stages of being able to ever own the classic models from the 60s and 70s without the kind of investment I know I won't be comfortable with, especially for something so easily broken, stolen or damaged through the years.
That said, I wouldn't buy them if I didn't truly love them and want to WEAR them every day. Do I consider them a form of an investment? Well, I guess you could ask my savings account that. But one of the great things about any Rolex is that it is a way to park money while enjoying it every day.
Would I cash out my 401k in order to pick up a some serious vintage pieces? Even if it might be a much better investment in the long run, I absolutely would not. Part of this hobby is understanding the opportunity cost, the fact that each time you add a new timepiece, it means all the others will have to wait. It's part of the fun and the chase. This is especially pertinent in vintage watches where there is a real possibility they will be much more expensive by the next time you have saved up again. But there is another part of this hobby I've begun to understand which I find to be important. ThomasPP once said to me,
"Don’t be too aggressive with your budget. If you overspend and worry too much about the money, you won’t enjoy it as much as you should."
He's absolutely right. Enjoy what you have while you have the time to. I bet art collectors in the mid-20th century were annoyed that they could no longer afford decent Picasso's for their own collection. Now it seems incredible anyone could have these hanging on their dining room walls.
Fine watches are becoming no different, except you can enjoy them during every part of your day. The older ones are of course more rare, and to some more beautiful, but at the end of the day most of us get enjoy some of each, old and new. For how much longer who knows, I'm not looking to find out, which is why I'm placing emphasis on them now.
Many theories are offered as to why these vintage pieces are rising in price so quickly. Some thought it was the fault of the ultra rich, buying them up like any other precious asset, to save in their safe as another investment instrument. Others felt it is simply the march of inflation and rarity of something special.
There are many factors that can move a small, niche market like this. I'm sure a big auction house could put together a big watch sale (they already do all the time) with outrageous prices and the tide would immediately rise again. I'm sure that once the Asian continent begins to focus on vintage they will go up even more still. But whatever the cause, the effect is fairly predictable.
Most of all, I don't recommend buying a watch unless you love it and truly intend to wear it. If not for yourself, then so the rest of the collectors can see them alive and well in the wild. A vintage timepiece with a great story is the ultimate conversation starter, and the friends I've met in this hobby are some of the most interesting people I've known. So if you have the means to buy that Paul Newman Daytona, that's great, but wear it around so we can all admire and talk about it.