Ask the Watch Guy: How to Make Money on Vintage Watches

WatchesMar 07, 2017

Ask the Watch Guy: How to Make Money on Vintage Watches

National Jeweler’s “Watch Guy,” Jess Gendron, tells jewelers how to profit from older timepieces.

Jess Gendron is a seventh generation watchmaker, having learned by his father Dan Gendron’s side since childhood. He can be reached at

From time to time, I get calls from jewelers wanting to know something about a vintage watch. Many times it’s either for an appraisal or something in an estate. Vintage watches are an easy sale for most jewelers but to do it profitably, you must have information.

First, let me say that I do not have any stock or interest in the publishers of the book I’m going to explain to you. Jewelers have books on many subjects, but seldom have what we in the watch trade consider a “must-have.”

The book is “The Complete Price Guide to Watches. This book gives you everything at your fingertips: watch company histories, illustrations of watch karat and silver markings dating back to the 1600s, and buying market prices for virtually every mechanical watch ever made (and a few quartz watches as well).

In every town and city in America, there are people who call themselves “pickers,” “bird dogs” and the now-ubiquitous “storage unit buyers,” like those you see on TV. Most know nothing about watches, but they know enough to go see someone who really knows. These people can be an endless stream of profits, and you can become their go-to place.

I have had pickers come into my store with some very unusual finds. Last year someone came in with a box of broken watches. Most were the kind of stuff that we remove backs and buckles from for parts and throw away everything else, but in among the usual broken fashion watches was a gem. The gem was a Zenith “El Primo” triple register chrono. The watch needed repairs and had a few missing parts.

I paid her what she insisted on before making this find. She wanted $50 for the approximately 10 pounds of junk. With the way we use that kind of stuff, it wasn’t a bad deal, even without the El Primo.

Upon inspecting the load I found the Zenith, looked it up on eBay and found that the watch sells for $3,000. Getting parts for a Zenith El Primo is nearly impossible, so I sold it on eBay as a “for parts or repair” watch. A buyer in Germany snapped it up at $1,300 and was thrilled. So was I.

I could go on and on about the finds I have made using this way. Suffice it to say, it’s a thrill a minute.

Pawn brokers,

as a general rule, only buy watches they are familiar with, e.g., Rolex, Omega, etc., but pass on most everything else they are offered. Now, what might they be turning down?

Here are a few ideas:
--Antique Pocket Watches
--Vintage Omegas
--Vintage Bulovas
--Vintage Hamiltons
--Vintage Longines

Buying gold and diamonds is a crowded field. With an inventory of these type of watches, you can become the vintage watch place to go to in your area.

So now the question is, how do you get these people into your store?

It’s very simple: Craigslist. Once you put up some “We buy watches, running or not” ads on Craigslist (or in a small classified ad), you might be amazed at who comes through your door to buy, as well as at the collectors who come in looking for what you are selling.

You don’t want to buy at the retail price or even at the book prices. If you are going to buy off the street, you’re going to have to know how to rate a watch.

For example, let’s say someone brings you an Omega Seamaster from the 1960s-1970s, and the book value is $700. Now, take a close look at the watch, including the following factors:
--Condition of the case;
--Condition of the crystal;
--If the watch is running;
--Condition of the band (check that it is original; otherwise, it’s like the band is not there); and
--If the original box is available (Most brands become much more salable with the original box. In fact, some boxes are worth as much as the watch.)

As a general rule, it’s a good idea to presume the watch needs service--clean, oil and adjust at minimum. If you know what the typical charge for this is, remove it from your offer. Basically, we just do a balance sheet. If the watch needs a crystal, remove the cost of a crystal from the offer. If it needs a band, deduct that, etc.

Some original bands are worth more than the watch. If you see a price in the “Complete Price Guide” book that shows “with original band,” pay attention. My everyday watch is an Omega Seamaster, for which the original band costs $800 at wholesale. Without it, my watch would be worth about $800 instead of $1,600.

Also, Ebay prices can be used as a quick sale retail price reference. But make sure you are looking at “Sold” or “Completed Auctions,” rather than just the listing price (you can do this in eBay’s Advanced Search. Don’t think that just because someone is asking $8,000 for a Rolex, it will actually sell at that price.

Now, deduct the shortcomings before setting your buy price.

In setting my sale price, I use a straight keystone markup on these items. For example, if you bought the aforementioned Omega for $200 off the street and paid someone to service the watch at a cost of $150, now your total cost is $350. If you sell at keystone, price the watch for sale at $700. Of course, if you can repair your own watches, your profit becomes that much higher--more on this in future articles.

For making the sale, the more you know about a watch and the company that made the watch, the better. “The Complete Price Guide to Watches” is a wealth of information for that, and it’s also interesting reading.

Jess Gendron is a seventh generation watchmaker, having learned by his father Dan Gendron’s side since childhood. Jess Gendron is now the owner of Colorado Timeworks, a watch repair service center in Colorado Springs. He can be reached at
Jess Gendronis a seventh-generation watchmaker and is the owner of Colorado Timeworks, a watch repair service center in Colorado Springs.

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