Expert Insights: Collecting Antique Watches

When considering a fine antique watch purchase, it is important to select pieces that resonate with your own particular tastes. Watch designs and complications have evolved over the centuries, migrating from the pocket to the wrist and accommodating new technologies and trends. Although these items may have changed over time, the most classic, beautifully crafted pieces have endured, and they will maintain their timelessness for generations.


 Vacheron Constantin Spur Men's Watch

Vacheron Constantin Spur Men's Watch



With any antique watch purchase, it pays to be knowledgeable about what makes these timepieces unique and how to determine their quality. We have drawn on our own experience along with insights from our resident watch collector and enthusiast, Chris Drake, to guide you through the history and collectibility of these timeless creations.


The Lasting Allure of Watches

Watches carry a wide popular appeal. When they first arrived on the scene, they were a powerful symbol of wealth and class. This would largely remain the case until the Industrial Revolution, when they became essential tools for conducting business in a number of emerging industries, from sailing to railroading. By the 20th century, with the invention of the wristwatch, practically everyone wore one on a daily basis. Today, however, the finest examples still serve as symbols of luxury. So, to what do they owe their enduring attraction?

The inner workings of a Patek Philippe chronograph pocket watch

The inner workings of a Patek Philippe chronograph pocket watch



“The allure of antique watches is their beauty and craftsmanship combined with their mechanics,” says Drake. “For someone who might be a tinkerer with small engines or other mechanical things but also has an interest in the arts, they are the perfect combination of the two. So you've got that scientific, mechanical interest combined with the beauty, and the history and the things that we all love about art. For me, it's like a piece of art on the wall except that I can wear it on my wrist.”


Antique vs. Contemporary

There are, of course, a plethora of contemporary watches to choose from on the market, so what sets antique examples apart? It might surprise many that watches have an over 500-year-old history, with the first portable clock created in Nuremberg in 1505. It was invented by locksmith Peter Heinlein, and he was successfully producing these devices regularly by 1524. These first watches, known as pomanders, were improved upon throughout the 16th century, and they were often turned into pendants or attached to clothing, making them the first clocks to be worn.


“With antique watches, because there is such a wide variety of them available, I’m looking for artistic expression,” explains Drake. He also says you can get really creative with your antique watch collection, considering all of the notable makers, design styles and time periods these objects span.


As far as technical specs, Drake admits that due to the advances in modern watchmaking, there really isn’t anything an antique watch has that a contemporary watch doesn’t. However, he says there are some major upsides to antique watches from a craftsmanship and quality perspective. He says, “There is a ubiquity of quality in antique watches that you have to really look hard for in modern watches. It was not at all unusual to have hand-decorated movements; that was the norm, and now that's the exception. It was not at all unusual to have enamel dials; now that's the exception.”

Audemars Piguet pocket watch retailed by Gübelin, circa 1920

Audemars Piguet pocket watch retailed by Gübelin, circa 1920



Another important factor to consider when collecting antique watches is seeking out quality brands. “With antique watches, the holy trinity consists of the Swiss firms of Patek Philippe, Vacheron Constantin and Audemars Piguet,” says Drake. However, there are numerous other quality makers to look out for, such as Breguet, Montandon, Picard & Cie. and Cartier.



The most basic watches only tell the time, but more advanced examples can boast a wide range of what are known as
“complications” — any function on a watch that does more than tell the time. There are a few essential categories of complications in antique watches: perpetual calendars, chronographs and repeaters.
The term “perpetual calendar” is used in watchmaking to describe a calendar mechanism in a watch that displays the date correctly 'perpetually,' taking into account the different lengths of the months as well as leap year's day. English horologist Thomas Mudge invented the earliest known perpetual calendar watch complication in 1762.
A “chronograph” refers to a stopwatch combined with a standard time display. The first-ever “commercialized” chronograph came about in 1821 at the request of King Louis XVIII, who wanted to be able to time the horse races he enjoyed attending.

Minute repeating chronograph pocket watch by A. Lugrin, circa 1890

Minute repeating chronograph pocket watch by A. Lugrin, circa 1890

“Repeaters” chime the hours, and in more complicated versions, quarter hours and minutes, with the push of a button. The minute repeater, which chimes out the hours, quarter hours and minutes at the push of a button, is regarded by many as the apex of horological complications. For Drake, the repeater is one of the most interesting complications in the context of antique watches because of their antique necessity. “They were designed when there were no electric lights, and you might be in a dark room and want to know what time it is,” he explains. “Now you always have light, so it's rare that you see that complication.”

Interesting Periods in Watchmaking

Apart from their invention in the 16th century, one of the most exciting times in watchmaking was the late 18th century. “Improvements in metallurgy and in going trains in pocket watches of that time allowed for many innovations, and they put in motion basically every modern complication seen in today’s watches," explains Drake. "You've got the invention of the tourbillon at that time, you've got invention of the perpetual calendar at that time, and you've got the invention of essentially what we would call today the grand complication — marrying the perpetual calendar and minute repeater."

Louis XVI-period French gold pocket watch and snuff box, 1752

Louis XVI-period French gold pocket watch and snuff box, 1752



In the 20th century, WWI necessitated a different kind of watch. The telephone and signal service began to play an important role in the war effort, making the ability to tell time at a glance a necessity for soldiers; thus, the wristwatch became standard issue. The trend then trickled into civilian life and became the preferred mechanical watch accessory over the previously fashionable pocket watch.


A Final Word of Advice

When asked what advice he would give to a new collector of antique watches, Drake says the most important thing is buying from a source that you trust. “As a new watch collector, it can be easy to get fooled,” Drake warns. “For instance, the condition of the outside of a watch is no clear indicator of the condition of the movement. It could be the original case with a secondary market movement that ruins the value of the watch. It’s impossible to overstate the need to acquire through a trustworthy source early on.”
To view M.S. Rau's entire collection of watches, browse our website featuring a selection of antique pocket watches, designer watches and more.


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