Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis
Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis in a he iconic 1962 Cartier Tank watch. (Photo: Getty)

8 Things To Know Before Buying a Watch

Hooked on checking out people's watch collections on TikTok? (Same.) Nathalie Atkinson got expert tips on how to start a watch collection.

This article was originally published in December 2020 and has been updated.

Are you thinking about buying a watch? As a beautiful object and as a metaphor, the wristwatch may be the ultimate heirloom. It witnesses both the mundane moments and the milestones in our daily lives, and its design is an intimate expression of taste. Collecting watches is like embarking on a lifelong adventure; both vintage and new models, either of which can be rare, appreciate with changing trends — as do historically important timepieces or those with a celebrity pedigree. For example, the iconic 1962 Cartier Tank watch that belonged to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis was sold for over $500,000 to Kim Kardashian at a Christie’s auction in 2017.

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Here are eight things watch collectors Dan Tanenbaum, Jeremy Ong, Pedro Mendes and Kat Shoulders and Katlen Schmid say you need to know before buying a watch.

1. Do your research

To talk shop about watch specs, learn the lingo pertaining to shape, finishing and balance as well as engineering: Think case size, thickness and crown, and know a tourbillon from a minute repeater. And bone up on a piece’s background. “Know the history behind it, get it checked out and don’t hesitate to pay a premium with a dealer,” says Dan Tanenbaum. “It’ll give you peace of mind and give the watch credibility.”

2. Know your size

Familiarize yourself with dimensions that work best for you. Kat shoulders, of the horology podcast Tenn & Two, advises that most vintage men’s watches from the ’30s and ’40s are particularly suited to women’s wrist proportions. Know thicknesses and dimensions, because brands like Rolex list case sizes (for example, 34 mm, 36 mm and 41 mm) as opposed to “women’s” or “men’s” on the label.

3. Get a few tools, and store watches properly for protection

A loupe and watchmaking repair tools like fine screwdrivers, a spring bar tool (for changing the strap without scratching the case) and a case opener are essential; try precision-made Swiss brand Bergeon’s wares. Make sure to budget for the fact that in order to maintain their mechanical movements, higher-end and vintage watches should be professionally serviced about every five years. Toronto podcast producer and writer Pedro Mendes stores his watches in display boxes so he can appreciate them while keeping them clean, free of dust and away from the sun’s damaging rays.

4. Buying a watch is best done in person

Unless you’re dealing with a reputable auction house or an horology dealer, vet significant vintage purchases (anything in the five figures) in person — especially with harder-to-find grails. Collector Jeremy Ong once flew to Manila to inspect a private seller’s Universal Genève Tri-Compax 222102 from the ’60s (a rare variant model nicknamed “the Evil Clapton”) before buying it.

5. Combine your interests

“If they include water or outdoor activities, there’s a whole genre of dive and field watches,” says Mendes. “And if they’re art deco or jazz, there are whole streams of watches that come out of that design aesthetic. For me, it’s satisfying to make those connections.”


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6. Join a community to satisfy your curiosity

“I’ve met collectors from all walks of life, all bonded together by a common hobby,” Ong says of joining Instagram to share collection photos. “It gets your name out there, and I’ve made a bunch of new watch friends and also attained some pretty amazing pieces.” Podcast Tenn & Two’s Katlen Schmidt loves these personal connections. “More than the watches, the neat thing about this and any hobby is the people,” she says. “You make so many friendships.”

7. Know when to let go

Trial and error is part of collecting. As you grow more confident, you can swap and sell watches you’re less interested in to fund other pieces and trade up. “I think it’s always changing,” says Schmidt. “You can never say it’s your watch collection until the end of time.” Adds Shoulders: “I went through a major flipping phase — watches coming in and going out. I don’t regret it. I think I learned a lot about myself.”

8. Be patient

“You should never be in a rush, like ‘I have to get this tomorrow’ or ‘It’s my husband’s 50th birthday in a week,’” advises Tanenbaum, especially with hard- to-find models. “If you’re not in a hurry for it, you’ll get a great example — that’s true with the collecting of anything.”

A version of this article originally appeared in the Winter 2020 issue of FASHION magazine. 

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