How To Buy A ‘Grail Watch,’ From Someone Who’s Done It Plenty Of Times

Except for the rich kids mentioned in Patek Phillipe advertisements, almost no one’s first wristwatch could be called something like a ‘grail.’ (Usually it’s called something like Timex, or Swatch, or Seiko.) But for certain people, once they learn about timepieces, some sort of fire gets lit. It becomes a sort of journey.

Stories abound.

We’ve heard about guys who sold houses to buy watches. People who drive high-mileage Civics but wear minty Rolex. In almost every collector’s mind lies a ‘holy grail,’ the watch you’d wear if money was no object. While Submariners and GMTs are nice (and trust, we’ll get to those soon enough) but the real high-end of watch collecting is dominated by brands like Vacheron Constantin and Patek Phillipe. In fact, the list of ‘most expensive watches ever sold at auction’ is full of Pateks.

But how do you buy one? What would you want to look for in a good one? How were they made? And what should we look out for to avoid making a bad purchase?

To answer some of these questions, we had to ask someone who knows. Enter Paul a.k.a. @aircooltime on Instagram, a veteran of these types of decisions and all-around good guy. So we’ll turn the Curated Classics microphone over to him now!

My personal experience comes from owning several vintage Patek Philippe and Vacheron Constantin watches during my collecting journey. I became interested in them and collecting them back in the early ‘90’s. This was before the internet and the craze in vintage watches or collecting watches in general really took off. There were a few annually printed price guides, but there really was not much material for reference or opportunities for connection to other collectors.

One resource I also used and continue to rely upon for reference are auction catalogues. These are very helpful to both get a feel for ‘correct’ versus less quality examples concerning appearance, and also of course to track pricing. During that time, you could get on mailing lists for a few prominent dealers in Texas and Florida, who mailed color pamphlets or black and white pictures (seriously!) of watches they had available to sell.

Rectangular and round classic watches by Patek, Vacheron, Audemars, LeCoultre, and of course Rolex Princes and bubblebacks were the rage. The scrutiny of original condition was not as high then as it is now, and redone dials on a piece sold for not that much less than a comparable version with an original dial. Since that time, I’ve had the pleasure to own a few very nice watches from Patek and Vacheron that were manufactured from the ‘40’s to early ‘70’s. These include a rose gold square Vacheron with tear drop lugs, oversized round Vacheron with tear drop lugs, a guilloche dial Vacheron, a Patek 2451 Calatrava, Patek 1450 “tophat” and a Patek 3537 Calatrava style.

I’ve also studied and held many more in the past when these pieces were my primary focus and interest as a collector.

I’ll limit my comments to vintage Patek and Vacheron, as those are the brands with which I have direct ownership experience. The dials manufactured in the ‘40’s — ‘50’s for these dress models often had silvered bases with applied gold or even diamond indices on some platinum models.

Many of these dials had the maker’s signature and sub-seconds track engraved into the silvered dial and filled with black enamel paint. After filling the engraving with the enamel paint, the dials were fired in a kiln to harden the print and this process also imparted a glistening appearance to the print when viewed under bright light.

When examining a Patek or Vacheron watch from the ‘40’s- ‘60’s that has a silvered dial and enamel signature, I would recommend looking closely at these attributes to determine authenticity, originality and general overall condition. One disclaimer, I am not a professional photographer and have attempted to capture details using my iPhone with no filters.

Figure 1
  1. Oxidation — It’s common to see some sign of oxidation or tarnish on the dial. It may be near the edges, or even slight pitting on the dial surface. These cases were usually a pressure fit snap back, with an occasionally screwback reference such as the Patek 2451 I previously owned. On a snap back or even screwback case with a plunger crown, the dial is not completely protected from the elements due to the absence of gaskets. The likelihood of a dial remaining in 100% pristine condition with little to no signs of aging if original is very low. If I see a perfect dial from this era, it makes me suspicious. See Fig. 1 Vacheron Constantin from ’55 with guilloche dial. In excellent, original condition with minimal signs of aging on dial surface, but if you look closely you will see some aging marks.
Figure 2
Figure 3
  1. Enamel print — If you turn the watch at a 45-degree angle and loupe it under bright light, the print should look complete and stand up in relief against the silvered dial background. If it’s flat, or appears printed on a pre-70’s example, then it’s been re-printed or at least had some dial work done in the past. See Fig. 2 and Fig. 3 where the Patek Phillipe and Vacheron & Constantin signatures are complete and standing off the dial surface.
  2. Imperfect silvering — If the dial surface is too smooth, slick and even in appearance and there is an absence of age or tarnish on the indices, it’s possible that it’s been cleaned, which was commonly done to these pieces. Re-silvering was also undertaken, and these procedures can make the dial surface look almost new. However, they often remove a portion of the enamel print on the dial signature, and that is why examination of the dial signature is important.
Figure 4
  1. Hallmarks — These were typically on the side, caseback, or under a lug. The hallmark should be identifiable under a loupe if the case has not been over polished. The Helvetia head hallmark was used per the Precious Metals Control Act of 1933 on cases containing the highest percentage of gold alloy. See Figures. 4 and 5, hallmarks on Patek 1450 case side and VC lug underside respectively.
Figure 6
  1. Case — Look at the case in all angles and observe the lug tips and case sides. I look for general symmetry and consistent wear of original finish. A case that is not symmetrical, has overly softened lines or finish looking too new for the watch has likely had some work done on it in the past. Note the sharp lines on Fig. 6 of the Vacheron lug.
Figure 7 (Sigma dial)

I’ll add a comment on sigma dials. These dials were produced by some swiss manufacturers such as Rolex and Patek from the early ‘70’s and continued during that decade. The Greek sigma was seen flanking both sides of the swiss mark at the bottom of the dial. The sigma’s signified gold content in the hands and markers on high quality swiss timepieces and was meant as a means of differentiation during the quartz crises.

I’ve seen vintage Pateks from the ‘40’s or ‘50’s for sale with a very clean and authentic sigma dial. It’s also seen occasionally on pieces that have an extract from the archives from the manufacturer. While the extract is certainly desired as provenance for the watch, it doesn’t guarantee period correctness. The presence of a sigma dial on a piece from the ‘40’s to at least late ‘60’s (before the use of the sigma) is evidence of an original dial being replaced with a service dial. In such cases the dial may indeed be authentic, but it is not a period correct or original dial.

Originality and what level of restoration is acceptable or not is up to the individual. I’m not saying some cleaning or restoration is unacceptable, but you should know what you are getting and what you are willing to accept if restoration work has been performed. I learned a valuable lesson when I bought a vintage Patek a few decades ago from a prominent dealer at the time. I asked if the dial was original and was told it was indeed original. What I failed to ask was if there had been any restoration work done to the dial.

Figure 8 (Restored dial)

The seller steadfastly refused to admit it had been restored despite confirmatory evidence otherwise. In this case the dial may have been original, but it had been completely restored and I was inexperienced to challenge my gut feeling about it with the dealer at the time. Fortunately, I was able to source a period correct and original dial a few years later and enjoy the watch by swapping out the restored dial. The lesson learned for me was never be afraid to ask questions and listen to your gut.

When buying these expensive items, much diligence is required. Not taking the time to study and learn from other knowledgeable collectors can be perilous when the profit on many “rare” pieces is so high. If a seller is offended by asking questions, then move on is my motto. It’s not worth making a decision on a piece if you have doubts. Inevitably for me it’s resulted in not enjoying a piece and eventually moving it out of the collection.

Many professional dealers offer very nice pieces. Unfortunately, there are still some who are not as straightforward or honest when it comes to describing in detail the actual condition of a piece. Given the escalation of pricing on vintage pieces recently, there is a need more than ever for the vintage collector to be cautious and even a bit paranoid…especially on a whole different topic related to expensive and desired gilt Rolex.

I share a little of my experience on the topic above in hopes it’s helpful to other collectors. The above represent my views and opinions only, based on years of collecting, reading, participating on forums and interacting with other collectors and some dealers who I consider experts and friends. I always welcome other views and opinions, as it seems this passion we share is always evolving with newly discovered information.

Design + Media