Advice For Buying Pre-Owned Watches - Top Tips

Advice For Buying Pre-Owned Watches - Top Tips

11 min read
Richard Brown
Richard Brown

Buying your first luxury watches can be an overwhelming experience, find out some top tips and must know pieces of info here to make sure you end up with a watch on your wrist you're...

There comes a time in every watch enthusiast’s life where you take the first giant leap and buy a serious watch, which generally comes with at a serious price. To many of us, it seems a natural step when we feel we have gravitated beyond the perfectly good and desire to enter the world of elite Swiss timepieces. I can vividly recall the expression on my parents face when I appeared with my first Rolex Air King.

It was not a huge surprise to them that I bought a Rolex, my face had been pressed against the dealership window for months, it was just at the time I don’t think they really understood how a watch could be worth over £1000 when a £50 Casio was a solid reliable chronograph.

The Rolex windows at Baselworld 2019 - Image Credit: Baselworld

Not having anything like the technical knowledge I now possess, I concede at the time, it was not an entirely invalid argument, but I was swung by the kudos of the brand and great marketing so the desire to own my own Rolex was completely overwhelming. Equally, I recall the angst that accompanied parting with a significant amount of money, at a time in my life when the Air King cost more than a month’s salary. As the manager of the dealership in Northampton took me through the joys of owning a Rolex my mind was torn between unparalleled excitement and a sinking feeling similar to when I committed to my first mortgage.

Eventually, my Air King multiplied into further Rolex’s and then subsequent other high-end brands and ever since I have been trading up and buying new watches and now, I am lucky to be able to base procurement decisions on detailed homework, technical understanding and a love of the craftsmanship of a fine watch. When you find yourself looking at a special edition Omega Speedmaster, even though you own a perfectly good Speedmaster, you know you have passed the point of no return…

The Omega Speedmaster on our Iridescent Herringbone in Blue - Image Credit: WatchGecko Online Magazine

During a recent discussion with the guys at WatchGecko, we decided it would be fun and prudent to recount the wealth of our accumulated purchasing advice, all the facts we wish we had known back in the day, and hopefully help steer the new buyer around the pitfalls of acquiring that first high-end watch.

What pre-owned watch should I buy?

If you make the decision that you MUST own, for example, a Rolex Sea Dweller, then save hard and make the extra effort to get it. It’s a common mistake to set your heart on a particular brand or model and then be seduced by a cheaper and more readily available watch. I freely confess I fell into this trap. I remember the pang of disappointment when I first saw the cost of a new Rolex and I began a long saving exercise which required much discipline to make a purchase a reality.

But in the words of my future wife (whom I dearly wish I had known then) “penny wise, pound foolish”.

The Rolex Air King 14000 - Image Credit: BobsWatches

So desperate was I to own a new Rolex that I bought the cheapest, entry-level model which only satisfied my minimum specifications - stainless steel, black face with the famous name. I came away with a beautiful Air King reference 14000; a fine watch, but the problem was that I really wanted a Submariner which was double the price.

Although I loved the Air King, and really wish I still had it, it never quite lived up to expectations and it was only a matter of time before it had to go. If I could now talk to the 20-year-old me I would say loudly to hold off buying that Air King. Don’t waste that hard-saved money and compromise too much. Be patient, as the only thing that will fill the Submariner desire – is a Submariner!

The Rolex Submariner on the Geckota Vintage Bond Swiss Style - Image Credit: WatchGecko Online Magazine

I recall when my closest friend entered the world of expensive watches and he began with an altogether more sensible approach. First, there was much discussion regarding broad technical specifications and styling options. He had always aspired to own a high-end watch, which was quite a jump from his venerable G-Shock, and the brand he had fallen for was Breitling.

The first immovable element of the process was price. He had around £1,500 and he was determined to stick to that. Immediately this eliminated new watches (this was well before the advent of the Colt Skyracer) so we had to explore the pre-owned market. An aesthetic decision was made to avoid chronographs and possibly any dual analogue/digital screens, so we had some clear Breitling models in mind when we came to the final search. Quickly he was taken with the fine lines of the 1999-2000 issue Superocean and it fulfilled all his requirements. Subdued steel finish case, excellent ETA movement which has been tweaked in-house, outstanding elements resistance, strong lume, looks which would not date and a highly legible face.

The Breitling Superocean on ZULUDIVER NDL Strap - Image Credit: WatchGecko Online Magazine

But £1,500 was a heck of a lot of money and, to be sure, we conducted a detailed assessment of all Breitlings which fell within the price bracket and tech spec. With the patience born of wiser years, we scrutinised suitable models such as the Colt, Shark, Wings, Sirius and even the Aerospace.

Eventually, the Superocean won the day so, when the right model appeared on a trusted dealer website at £1,400 it was an easy decision. Ten years later and this stunning Superocean still accompanies my friend on adventures and shares a watch box with some fine models such as a GMT Master II and a Moonwatch. The moral of the story is not letting emotion run away, which resulted in my friend buying a real gem of a watch which will probably never be sold.

The very Superocean referred to above sporting a new ZULUDIVER NDL rubber strap available here.

New or Pre-Owned?

A vintage 1603 Datejust vs a 116200 modern Datejust - Image Credit: WatchGecko Online Magazine

When buying that first watch consider looking at the large UK pre-owned market. If you have the spare cash to buy new, fantastic – go for it. I would be the first to concede that there is something very special about walking into a Rolex Boutique and buying a brand-new watch. I guarantee for that 30 minutes you will be treated very well. However, personally, I would not necessarily buy new again as I have been able to source some amazing quality, pre-owned, watches over the years. Therefore, the next section of our advice will work from the premise that a fine used model makes for the most sensible choice.

There are some very well-established UK dealers who display their vast catalogues online and you can buy from them with complete confidence. There are also some excellent foreign dealers who have outstanding reputations if you are brave enough to shop at a distance. I have bought two high-end models from a wonderful company in Hong Kong who supply A1 quality pre-owned watches at roughly £1000 less than you would pay for the same watch in the UK. It is a small Aladdin’s Cave of a shop stacked with every imaginable watch, but you can spend hours in it! Equally, you may find a great deal out there from a private buyer. There are many tell-tale signs which offer good evidence as to the age of a second-hand watch. Here are a few golden rules to make your purchase a safe one...

Has the watch any paperwork?

The Rolex Datejust 116200 - Image Credit: WatchGecko Online Magazine

Sure, paperwork can be faked but it is unlikely, and the counterfeit papers that I have seen never looked that convincing. If the Certified Chronometer certificate is present and you can cross-reference the serial number with the watch, it’s a good start. The watch is most likely genuine (more about that possible pitfall later). If a certified chronometer watch is not accompanied by a matching certificate then I would think very carefully or avoid it altogether. Think of it like a car without a logbook! Anyone who previously owned such a watch and lost the chronometer certificate has probably not looked after it.

The 1016 Rolex Explorer from Rolex - Image Credit: BobsWatches

How scratched is the metalwork? No matter how high the quality of stainless steel a watch will scratch. Rolex is known to use an exceptionally high quality of steel which buffs up amazingly even after years of ownership. But a watch that shows many battle scars will certainly have been abused in other ways. The same rule applies to the lens. Is it chipped or scratched badly? Or, is there a pristine lens on a scratched watch. This means that something has needed to be replaced. Sounds obvious but I have seen people buy used watches in truly terrible condition and the mind boggles as to “why”?

Are there service papers? These do NOT necessarily need to be from a dealer but any evidence of them from a reputable source is a very good sign. As a Rolex service costs anything from £500 anyone who has documentary evidence that one has been carried out has been a careful owner and their watch for sale should be a good buy.

The Rolex Explorer II on Geckota Simple Handmade Leather - Image Credit: WatchGecko Online Magazine

Signs of age?

To once again use an automobile analogy, a car that claims to be only one year old will have plenty of tread on the rubber of the pedals. If this rubber is worn out, then the evidence suggests that the car is much older. Some valuable advice from my grandfather! Watches are the same. There are many tell-tale signs that a watch may be older than the seller claims. For example, the luminescence may have a patina on it showing signs of age.

Take my Rolex Explorer II which is a 2003 model. In daylight and on close inspection the lume still looks perfect but at night I can see some minor blemishes. But no material change has taken place yet, so it is not too hard to date the watch. Lume such as Superlumoniva is easy to activate, use the bright light on a mobile phone, so check this in a dark area before you buy.

The Breitling Crosswind "Blackbird" Special Edition on Geckota Vintage Soft Top Grain - Image Credit: WatchGecko Online Magazine

My Breitling with tritium lume, however, has now gone a very attractive yellowish colour in daylight. It still works but the patina on the dial indices is a clear indicator that the watch is well over 20 years old.

Another good indicator is a loose feeling in metal straps. Even Rolex Oyster straps get loose and there is not much you can do about this. It is not a problem in itself but it is a clear indicator that the watch is quite old – in the case of an Oyster probably as much as 30-40 years.

The Omega Seamaster Titanium - Image Credit: WatchGecko Online Magazine

Now there is always an exception to the rule. The last higher end watch I bought was a titanium Omega Seamaster. A particular model I had long wanted to own. Titanium scratches very easily so even a relatively new model can look a bit worn. All the more reason to make sure that you carry out the other checks before you buy...

Is the watch real?

The Rolex Explorer fitted to Geckota Vintage Highley Leather - Image Credit: WatchGecko Online Magazine

This is a potential problem you can immediately discount if you buy from a well-known and trusted source. However, many fabulous pre-owned watches are available on the private market and it is well worth exploring if you follow some golden rules. Sadly, counterfeit watches are also sold to unsuspecting buyers all the time and when you come to make that first purchase it may well be something that crosses your mind.

Could I spot a fake?

First, be suspicious if there is no paperwork with a watch. Most high-end watches come with a plethora of paperwork such as company history, COSC certificate and a handbook for correct use. Swing tags and holograms do not provide proof of legitimacy and these are very easily faked.

The Rolex Submariner fitted to Geckota Vintage Bond Military Nylon - Image Credit: WatchGecko Online Magazine

The “quality” of fakes is exceptional now. Having spent some time with law enforcement teams I have had hands-on with such material and trust me, anyone could be fooled. This can be best illustrated by a tale from my past.

Many years ago, I had an unfortunate accident with my non-date Rolex Submariner. It fell from a desk onto a tile floor and the sapphire crystal completely shattered. I was overseas at the time and I called the dealership in the UK where I had bought the watch to inquire about repairs. The UK price was eye watering and they suggested that I visited the local service HQ as it happened to be in the very city, I was currently stationed. I drove to a skyscraper building with the word ROLEX on the roof and found myself in a manufacturing zone akin to NASA. Clinically sterile bays and technicians in white coats. The staff immediately agreed to replace the lens (oddly at far less cost than the UK dealer) but asked me a strange question.

Can we first check that your watch is real Sir?” I protested, “Yes you may, but of course my watch is real! Can’t you tell?” “No Sir, I suspect you have not seen the fakes currently in this city.”

And with that, I had learned a valuable lesson. Superficially even the authorised Rolex service centre could not tell if my Submariner was the real article without looking inside it. I have subsequently learned that as soon as Rolex adopted a laser etched crown into the lens the counterfeit shops did the same. When the word Rolex was etched on the inner dial that too was copied. Holograms were perfectly replicated, and boxes were copied. Excellent automatic movements where procured and fitted. Even the rubber O-rings visible on Twin-Lock and Trip-Lock crown threads were cunningly put into place on the copies.

The Rolex Explorer II on Geckota Simple Handmade Leather - Image Credit: WatchGecko Online Magazine

Counterfeit watches are quite hard to spot today but the good news is that in my experience, the fakers tend to stick to the classic and most popular models such as the Submariner and Daytona or Planet Ocean and Navitimer. If your chosen product is a Speedmaster X-33, then you are far less likely to be conned. Nevertheless, do not be afraid to check the provenance of a watch. Manufacturers are generally responsive to such requests, but this drastic step should only be necessary if you are intent on buying from a private source whose provenance you cannot verify.

In summary…

The NOMOS Club Date 731 - Image Credit: WatchGecko Online Magazine

If you do your homework and try not to let your heart totally rule your head, your first high-end watch purchase should be hassle-free. Indeed, it will be a fabulous experience which will no doubt cast you onto a long road that some of us are a considerable way down. Many of us have made questionable choices so learn from our experience and follow the basic rules which are fundamentally common sense.

Do not be afraid to ask questions and if either the watch or the seller does not feel right then walk away, as a friend once said to me, "buy the seller, not the watch". Consider the old adage; if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Try not to deviate from the plan (too much) and most important enjoy this first step. If you buy smart, you absolutely will not regret it.

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Richard Brown

About the Author: Richard Brown

I truly believe one of the best partners in exploration and adventure is a fine watch. Over 30 years of collecting, my fascination with the technical capabilities of both vintage and modern timepieces has never abated and it is a privilege to be able to share this passion through writing.

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