Long time vintage Rolex collectors have watched with some amusement (and bemusement) at the surge of new enthusiasts. Many arrive with hot cash looking at vintage Rolex as an investment asset. And being told that vintage watches of any brand are terrible investments, only seems to fuel their ambitions.
They've seen the auction price headlines. Their friends have them, and their GFs want one too. They liked an IG post and the algorithm has now convinced them they need one. The AD won't sell them a new one and influencers are telling them the "smart money is in vintage". All around them they see,
- Rising prices
- Surging demand
- Hot cash
- Cheap credit
- Mounting FOMO
- Life changing profit potential
There is no shame in knowing nothing as everyone starts there. Some will become happy one-watch owners, while others will evolve into collectors. An unlucky few will descend into the rabbit hole that is vintage Rolex, losing themselves in endless nuance and detail. Some will degenerate into obnoxious Rolex snobs. Seek help before becoming one of these.
Your money and your time is precious and sounding knowledgeable and credible is important to avoid wasting it. So here's the quick bluffers guide to some of the basic concepts and terminology you'll need to get comfortable with.
What are all the bits called?
Why should you care? Because these little bits are expensive. Like REALLY expensive. So expensive that even the little bits and bobs are counterfeited and sometimes swapped for cheap fake bits when you're not paying attention. Many of these bits are consumables and they get used up and worn out. And if you're serious enough to drop serious money you don't want to replace them with garbage, destroying the value of your prize. And if you don't know your nipple from your balance cock, you're going to mark yourself as a target to be exploited (and stand out like a bit of a knob).
So lets start with the external bits you'll be examining when shopping.
- Bezel Pearl & Ring
- Bezel Insert
- Bezel Ring
- Crown Guard
- Crown (Triplock or Twinlock)
- Cyclops Date Magnifier
- Date Window or Aperture
- Date Wheel
- Specification Text
- Bracelet End Link
- Outer Link
- Inner Link
- Oyster Case Lug
- Lug Chamfer
- Hour Marker & Lume Plot
- Gold Lume Plot Ring
- Rehaut Ring
- Minute Track
How old is Vintage anyway?
The general rule is 30 years or more, but things get blurry around the 30 year boundary. As time progresses more modern pieces will fall into this bracket but for now, seek out design features that are no longer in the modern Rolex watch. These might include,
- Classic slimline Oyster cases (40mm and less)
- Nipple, Gilt, matte, and textured dials
- Co-branded dials (e.g. Tiffany dials)
- Alpha and Dauphine hands
- Roulette date wheels (red & black)
- Open 6 and 9 date wheels
- Applied (not printed) coronet and "Rolex"
- Pie Pan dials
- Acrylic plexi crystals
- Tritium and Rhodium lume
- Folded links and riveted bracelets
Antique watches are different from vintage watches. These are generally considered 70+ years old. These would be war-era, and pre-war watches and are not for rookies. Antique chronographs in particular get very technical and expensive to maintain. These are precious antiques and nothing written here applies.
Look like you know what you're doing
It's always desirable to examine a watch in person before parting with money. Increasingly this is the exception not the norm, as more transactions move online. If you're going to engage a seller online you will need pictures. The ones used in sales posts on Ebay, jeweler websites, and forums are usually insufficient as they're usually low-res and optimized for web search and page speed. So asking for more or better pictures is expected.
You may not get what you ask for, but the act of asking shows you're serious. And remember, asking politely, courteously, and respectfully will go a long way.
- High res, macro pictures, clear and in focus
- Good picture of dial, hands, crown, and any gem settings
- Good pictures of hallmarks, stamps, engravings, and numbers
- Straight-on pictures of top, bottom, both sides, both ends
- Clear pictures of bracelet, end links, and clasp
- Clear pictures of accessories like boxes, warranty papers, etc.
- Pictures taken in natural (not studio) lighting
- Pictures without filters or enhancement
What's the deal with condition?
It is true that some signs of age add character to a watch but be wary of descriptions used by sellers. What is considered desirable, attractive patina in a steel sports watch, does not translate well to a gold or two-tone versions. A heavily distressed gold watch looks tatty, where equivalent patina on a stainless steel tool watch can look cool.
While unpolished watches are desirable, it is not egregious to polish one provided the work is of a high standard. The line between good and bad can be thin, but the goal is to maintain as much presence as it originally had.
Use of the term tropical is especially common with colored dials. Use of the word patina is more commonly used to describe the condition of tritium lume and therefore associated with later dials featuring more tritium lume. Both terms are euphemisms for corrosion, which we should remember is a constant ongoing process. And like rust, will continue unless treated. Corrosion that may be minor (or attractive) today, could be catastrophically ugly in a few years.
Corrosion is a natural phenomena and should not be confused with damage. Unscrupulous sellers may try to conflate the two. Attractive corrosion like tropical dials can command a price premium based on their aesthetic. Damage never does anything good for long term value.
What is too polished or too thin?
Spend any time on a watch forum and you'll find someone proclaim with absolute certainty that a vintage watch is over polished and worthless. Or recut and destroyed. Or refinished and ruined. Mostly this is just an opinion. There is nothing wrong with skillful restoration of an old, tatty case. Some like it, and some don't. It is an entirely personal preference.
For many, english is a second language and combined with a cock-sure attitude things can escalate quickly and become combative. Don't take any of this to heart and don't feed the trolls. So when someone says the "the lugs are too thin", what do they mean? How do you assess the condition of a case?
These are the key factors to look at when examining a vintage Rolex case. Keep in mind that Rolex hand-finished these watches using (overworked) humans. As such, no two would be exactly the same when they left the factory. This is especially true for softer precious metal pieces.
- Assess the distance between the lug hole and the surface of the case. The hole should not appear too close to the edge.
- Excessive polishing of the top surface can make this distance look thin.
- Polishing the sides of the case can reduce the horizontal thickness leaving the lug looking thin. What they really mean is too narrow.
- This bevelled edge is known as a chamfer (or shamfer) and much loved by vintage enthusiasts. Rolex changed the shape and size of chamfers over the years. With wear and polishing a chamfer becomes less visible and restorers will recut and reapply this bevelled edge effect. It's not uncommon to get the size and shape wrong for the age of the watch.
- The shape of the case side is not always the same on each model. Sport watches tend to have straight cut sides, while Datejusts have bowed or convex sides.
- The case finish is not always the same e.g. the early Oysterdate has polished top surface and satin sides, but early Datejusts have satin top surface and polished sides.
- There is a difference between brushed and satin finishes. It is very difficult to reproduce the Rolex factory finish.
- Polishing removes metal and can leave the lug hole looking splayed and elliptical rather than sharp and round.
Is it safe to ... ?
Stop! Yes, it's safe. If you accidentally get water inside the case (usually through the winding crown) then send it to a good watchmaker to sort out. Scratches and cracks are fixable. With the exception of some special and fragile dials, you have a few days before the water does any real damage.
If you do manage to damage your vintage Rolex, call one of these guys and book it in. They're road-tested, battle-hardened, highly respected, independent watchmakers specializing in vintage Rolex watches. You are guaranteed to get the highest quality work at a fair price.
How do I care for a vintage Rolex?
Vintage Rolex watches are more robust and durable than most people give them credit for. The fact is, a Rolex watch can withstand much more than the human wearing it. If it's properly serviced, meaning it passed a waterproof pressure test, you can take it anywhere provided you clean it now and again.
How do you clean it, you ask? The same way you clean yourself - with soap and water. And perhaps a toothbrush to get in the cracks. No special equipment, chemicals, or rituals needed. Obviously if it's not water resistant, like some old Cellini's, War-era trench watches, and pocket watches, then don't do this. If you don't know if your vintage Rolex is waterproof, ask first!
Now if you're going to really abuse a vintage Rolex, rest assured that just about any damage can be repaired at a price. So don't behave like a sissy and treat your vintage Rolex like a precious baby. Wear it like the Man's Man it was designed for. That goes for you ladies too.
How do I score one of these beauties?
There are three ways to buy a vintage Rolex watch and in order of risk, they are
- a private seller through a watch forum
- a dealer specializing in vintage
- a bidding auction
These three choices represent thousands of sellers around the world. To stay on top of them all, setup alerts on
When you find one you like, assess it carefully before making an offer. If you're at this point you are beyond the bluffer-rookie-noobie phase. At this point you're in deep and need to by The Vintage Rolex Field Manual Chevalier Edition to do more homework. If you're not into homework and have to buy one RIGHT NOW, contact one of these trusted sellers,