Saunter through Burlington Arcade. Resist the LaDurée macaroons. You probably don’t need any more luggage from GlobeTrotter. Instead, look in the windows of David Duggan, Somlo Antiques or any of the other shops providing the finest – and possibly largest – selection of vintage watches under one roof. A street away, at the Royal Arcade (try not to stop at Charbonnel et Walker, despite the arch deliciousness of their dark chocolate mint bar or the champagne truffles), the Watch Club has a selection of sought-after gems from Rolex, Hublot and the like. Further up New Bond Street there’s even more….

What has changed of late is that the noses pressed up against the glass no longer belong solely to men. Women, who have always harboured a love for vintage jewellery, are expanding their appreciation for ‘pre-owned’ watches, and not merely to save a few pounds by purchasing a two-year-old Rolex or Chopard that might have depreciated slightly. Like their spear-side counterparts, women with a taste for watches have learned that there is more of a statement to be made by a watch from the past than one that can simply be purchased at a number of global outlets.

Like their spear-side counterparts, women with a taste for watches have learned that there is more of a statement to be made by a watch from the past than one that can simply be purchased

It has, admittedly, taken women a few years to catch up with men when it comes to watch-lust. Until recently, women were content to have one or two watches – something cheap and cheerful for daily abuse, like a classless, populist Swatch, and something sophisticated, a timepiece that suits a Little Black Dress. A third watch in the bidding collection might be something appropriate to one’s career. That’s it.

Van-Cleef-&-Arpels-Montre-small-dial-gold-intricate-bracelet-strap

Vintage Van Cleef & Arpels Montre

Men, on the other hand, buy multiple watches because they are the only form of jewellery, other than wedding rings, that they can wear with aplomb. Women? You possess freedom when choosing attire that men, short of celebrities and peacock personality types, can only covet. (If you do not believe this, just look at the guests at a ‘black tie affair’. The women dress as individuals, the men still dress as penguins.)

For at least 25 years, watches have enjoyed the kind of prestige previously reserved for a fine sports car parked in front of one’s favourite haunt. Men have used them the way a woman regards another’s choice of handbag or shoes. It is a shorthand previously denied men: unless you’re in the fashion industry, two different pin-stripe suits of similar cut do not advertise their origins, whether off the peg or custom-tailored. Watches? An executive wearing his grandfather’s Audemars Piguet will signal taste of a different level to that of the arriviste or aggressive social climber wearing a Rolex so new that it still has the green sticker on its back.

For some women, watches are rarely personal purchases, more often received as gifts. At their most extreme, watches are baubles that are cast at the arm-candy beloved of Russian mafia types or hedge fund bonus spenders. To see what’s hot among those who wear, but cannot pronounce Louboutin, saunter along either of the two Bond Streets and watch them tumbling out of their boyfriends’ Lamborghinis. Bling rules.Avoiding this is the reason why vintage watches hold so much appeal for women of taste. Think about it in terms of a personal statement: it’s about individualism. Anyone with £1,000 or more in her pocket can walk into any shop and buy a current watch with a desirable name on its dial. Vintage watches can only be purchased if you happen upon a shop with that particular watch.

Think about it in terms of a personal statement: it’s about individualism

However much vendors of new timepieces will hate this, vintage watches present a tempting alternative to that which is readily available from any official ‘agent’. We’re discussing watches that are – preferably – at least 20-25 years old, the stuff that makes collectors’ eyes mist up. And which fashionistas would kill for because they’re as cool as Don Draper. Or in your case, the estimable Joan Harris.

Unlike new watches, there are two major downsides to buying vintage. The first is that you are buying something old, and gauging its condition requires knowledge and experience. If, however, you stick with reputable dealers or auction houses, the risks are minimised. The other ‘negative’ is availability, both of the watches and spare parts.Finding the specific models requires being in the right place at the right time. However much your heart may be set upon owning a something from, say, the year you were born, you simply cannot go to your nearest watch shop and order it. You could leave your name with a bunch of specialist dealers, or pore over auction catalogues, but that might take months or even years before your dream watch comes up for sale. It makes the eventual acquisition all that much more satisfying. (Try this: think of a watch from the year of your birth, say, a 1985 Chopard Happy Diamonds. Google it. See how many turn up.)

Chopard-Happy-Diamonds

Vintage Chopard Happy Diamonds

Finding the specific models requires being in the right place at the right time. It makes the eventual acquisition all that much more satisfying

And the spares and servicing? Eliminate all the risk by buying a watch from an established specialist. The reason why retailers charge more for their pieces is simple: they have serviced the watches and provide a warrantee. Do not accept any warrantee that is less than six months.

Buying at auction differs from buying from a specialist in two ways. The first is that price is only known when the bidding ends. The second is that auction houses are liable only for what is described, and proving that the watch is not a fake – they do not offer warrantees, nor the promise that the watch has been serviced.

When bidding, know your financial limits. If you have a bit of knowledge and self-control, and you’ve checked out the watch and seen a condition report before the auction, you might find yourself bidding for a watch with little competition. There are bargains to be had, but don’t count on it. Antiquorum’s auctions are particularly attractive because of the comprehensive grading system the house applies to its lots.

There are no substitutes for knowledge and experience, so seek out the services of an expert. A watchmaker, an enthusiast, an honest retailer – any of these will minimise the risks of buying a vintage watch. Expect to pay more for the obvious brands, and to find bargains among the less familiar. But whatever you do, only buy a vintage watch that you absolutely, positively love to bits. Otherwise, it will end up like the 38 pairs of shoes that you never wear….

A male chauvinist pig’s list of 10 vintage classics for ladies’ wrists

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1) Cartier Tank

Still the ultimate in feminine wristwatches, now a century-old but beyond ageing. For some reason, Tanks are currently undergoing increased demand and prices are shooting up for clean, used examples. Just go for the classic Tank, unless you love a specific period for retro effect, like a 1970s/80s must. If the Tank was good enough for Audrey Hepburn…

2) Patek Philippe Twenty-4

It hasn’t been out that long, but Patek Philippe’s rectangular offering has been recognised as an instant icon, and it enjoys the status of being the perfect gift from one’s paramour. Equally, it’s the ultimate purchase for the self-made career woman. Even Alan Sugar would grunt his approval.

3) Chanel J12 1999

The watch that redefined bling, but this masterpiece of design is as comfortable on the wrist of a respected TV newsreader as it is on an edgy, tattooed Towie type tumbling out of Boujis. The black is marginally less overt than the white.

4) Chopard Happy Diamonds

Hard to believe this has been around for nearly 40 years. The Happy Diamonds is perfect wrist-wear for the woman who believes the adage about diamonds’ platonic supremacy for the distaff side. A design genius placed the stones between the outer glass and the dial, so they perform a ballet every time you move your wrist. Beloved of women in Europe with old money, rather than arrivistes.

5) Rolex Ladies’ DateJust

Or, if you’re Italian or French, any man’s sized Rolex. Ignore anyone who bad-mouths Rolexes: the company makes incredible timepieces, they hold their value and they have only one downside: crack addicts and other lowlife mugger-types recognise them instantly. If you’re paranoid, at least avoid the yellow gold and the diamond bezels.

6) Van Cleef & Arpels

Any watch from this esteemed house will mark you as a woman of refinement. They don’t turn up very often in vintage circles because most women leave their VC&A’s to their daughters. For a woman’s timekeeping, it just doesn’t get any more refined, tasteful or elegant. Period.

7) Hermès

If you’re a horse lover, or simply addicted to this brand’s sublime luxury products, you can’t go wrong with any of their classics as inspired by equestrian designs. And should a (male) watch snob act a bit sniffy about a name he feels should only belong on a scarf, remind the dolt that Hermès offered its first wristwatch 100 years ago.

8) Piaget

As adept at jewellery-making as it is at producing watches, Piaget has its own icon in the form of the Polo. Named for the sport – not the car – this watch is not unfamiliar to those who attend Ascot, assorted salons-privées, and, of course, polo matches. Chic.

9) Bulgari

Like Van Cleef & Arpels, Bulgari a name that commands respect, and the iconic Bvlgari-Bvlgari designed by Gerald Genta is a watch that should be remembered for its genuinely innovative styling. Also a true unisex design, it suits all occasions, but if you want something more distinctive from this legendary Italian house, there’s always the Serpent, as adored by Liz Taylor.

10) Jaeger-LeCoultre 101

Actually the name of a movement rather than a watch, this is the smallest mechanical movement ever made. The size of a match-head, it was designed in the 1920s and has yet to be beaten for sheer miniaturisation. Jaeger-LeCoultre houses the 101 in fabulous jewellery watches, and one model is worn by no less that Queen Elizabeth II. Since watches containing the 101 are extremely rare, you can always opt instead for the sublime Reverso, the flip-over Art Deco watch that recently celebrated its 80th birthday.

Contact Information:

Auction Houses

Antiquorum                             www.antiquorum.com

Bonhams                                   www.bonhams.com

Christies                                     www.christies.com

Vintage Watch Specialists

David Duggan                           www.daviddugganwatches.co.uk

Somlo Antiques                       www.somlo.com

The Watch Club                       www.watchclub.com

By Ken Kessler

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