There’s no doubt vintage watches are pretty cool these days. The warmth of a 1960s diver’s watch with nicely patinated gilt dial leaves nobody cold. Patina is something you either love or hate; there’s nothing in between. Vintage watches can be something very personal. As a child, I first discovered vintage Panerai watches through Italian comic book stories about WW2 frogman agents without even knowing their significance. The Italians pioneered underwater warfare and they used Rolex-made Panerai watches to time their missions. Later in 1998, when I saw the first modern Panerai watches on the web and learned about their history, I became immediately hooked.
Vintage watches, as per definition, were made in a time when there was no other way to measure time other than with a mechanical instrument. These sophisticated little machines are not very accurate compared to smart watches but they have something a digital smart watch will never have—a soul. And a vintage watch has a history to tell, with all its wear and tear. Just like a human being.
Mechanical watches are anachronistic. Yet in my opinion modern mechanical watches cannot deliver the same level of emotions. The advance of modern technology has allowed watchmaking companies to make perfect watches even if they are products of a bygone era.
In November 2013, a rather common wristwatch with a generic Valjoux 72 chronograph movement broke through the 1 million USD barrier at Christie’s “Daytona Lesson One” auction. The watch in question was a Rolex Reference 6263 Paul Newman “Oyster Sotto”.
The name “Sotto” is Italian for below or underneath. “Oyster Sotto” refers to the word “Oyster” which was added underneath the “Rolex Cosmograph” print on existing black three-colour Paul Newman dials aka exotic dials, when Rolex decided to market the Daytona “Oyster” with screw-down pushers on a larger scale. It is the tiny details that count in the vintage watch world.
Contrary to popular belief, the Rolex Daytona did not only become an Oyster with the introduction of the screw-down pushers. The 6239 was a waterproof Oyster all along, as were earlier Rolex Chronographs. Screw-down pushers did not improve the depth rate of the Daytona. They were merely a safety feature (mechanical lock) to prevent accidental manipulation of the chronograph.
However, the million-dollar sale made one thing very clear. The vintage watch world was divided into the few who could afford these watches and the many who could not. People who sold too early or never entered the game, as the stakes were already too high, were not always happy about this development. As a matter of fact, the world of vintage watches resembles a bit of Dante’s Inferno, where grudging and envy are ever present.
The world of vintage watches resembles a bit of Dante’s Inferno, where grudging and envy are ever present.
On October 26, 2017, a special Daytona opened up a new chapter. The very watch which gave all Paul Newman Daytonas their name was finally found. The record-breaking sale of Paul Newman’s very own Rolex Paul Newman Daytona for a mind blowing USD 17.75 million catapulted vintage watches into mainstream. Almost every newspaper across the globe broke the news about the sale.
Vintage watch enthusiasts need to be extremely careful though, as where there is light there is also a lot of shadow. Counterfeits and forgeries are omnipresent. I am not talking about the cheap Chinese stuff, but the high end counterfeits that can fool almost everyone.
Since 2015, I have been analysing watches at auctions and what I have discovered, specifically in the world of vintage and pre-Vendôme (1993-1997) Panerais, has been amazing and shocking at the same time. Italian-made fakes and Frankenstein watches (watches reassembled from original parts) have been in the market since the early 1990s and the worst part is that even brands like Panerai show these fakes at their own exhibitions. This goes to show even the brands themselves are unable to identify high level counterfeits. Isn’t this simply extraordinary?