Watch Collecting - a beginner's guide


2015-06-26 13:37:45

Watch Collecting - a beginner's guide

Paul Fraser Collectibles' crash course on the essentials of watch collecting

Watch collecting can be one of the most complex of all pastimes.

Horologists study for years to learn the workings of these miniature marvels, but our guide will give you the essential info you need to know in just a few minutes.

Watch types

Omega SeamasterThe Omega Seamaster - one of the most recognisable diver's watches

Sport watches - These watches cater for the individual on the go, with special functions to meet their intended purpose. Pilot watches perform vital flight plan tasks, while diver's watches are waterproof to impressive depths and time the oxygen you have left to breathe.

Chronographs - Like sport watches, the chronograph is designed for functionality, incorporating a stopwatch function. Often there is more than one dial, recording second, minutes and hours.

Quartz watches - Quartz watches achieve the greatest accuracy, using tiny crystals that vibrate at a specific frequency. Almost all other forms of watches will lose their accuracy over time, and many cannot easily be fixed.

Mechanical watches - Mechanical watches are best loved by collectors - prized for their design, beauty and engineering. Most luxury watches, or haute horlogerie, are mechanical and the best examples feature a number of "complications": the name given to any feature of a watch that is not telling the time.

Digital watches -A modern advancement usually frowned upon by collectors, the digital watch relies on electronic drives. The first digital watch was the Pulsar from the Hamilton Watch Company, which was made in 1970 after the company designed a prototype for Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey.


Watch movementA modern watch movement

The "movement" of a watch, also known as its calibre, is its internal mechanism, and this fascinates some collectors. Some collect purely based on the movement contained within the watch, and a collection can comprise several different watches, all with the same mechanism inside.

There are two main types of watch movement: manual and automatic. Manual requires the user to turn the crown in order to wind the mainspring for energy, while the motions of the wearer's wrist wind an automatic while it is worn. That said, there are thousands of mind-boggling variations - get researching!


For many collectors, complications - or simply, the features of a watch - make the hobby worthwhile. Watches can have hundreds of different functions, including:

Moon phases - a display with the current phase of the Moon

Sidereal time - a time scale based on the Earth's rotation relative to the stars

Time zones - found on world traveller watches

Solar time - the time based on the Sun's position in the sky

Equation of time - shows the difference between standard time and solar time

Leap year cycle

Zodiac signs

Perpetual calendar - a calendar that spans many years, providing the day of the week for future dates

Star charts

The tourbillon

A complete tourbillon before it is placed inside the watch case

No collector can call himself a true enthusiast without knowing the function of a tourbillon.

In short, the effects of gravity are particularly felt by the tiny mechanical parts inside a watch, and this can affect accuracy. To counter this problem, the master watchmaker Abraham-Louis Breguet developed the tourbillon in 1795, creating a rotating cage in which the escapement and balance wheel are set.

However, a tourbillon is mainly included in modern watches as a display of the watchmaker's skill, and debate remains as to whether they ever improved accuracy.

The lingo

As with holey cheese and chocolate, the Swiss are world renowned for their watch making. As such, many horologists use original French terms when talking about their collections. Here's a few French phrases to ensure you can talk the talk:

Ebauche -the term given to an incomplete movement blank, or the individual parts of a movement that has yet to be assembled. This term frequently appears when buying spares. The timing system, mainspring and escapement are not part of an ebauche.

Etablisseur - a watch factory that produces watches by assembling pre-fabricated parts

Chablon - the collective term for a watch movement, encompassing all its individual parts

Termineur - a watchmaker who assembles watches for an etablisseur, also known as an "atelier de terminage"

The most valuable watch ever sold at auction

Patek Philippe is known for producing some of the finest, and most valuable, watches in the world. It makes sense then that the most valuable watch ever sold at auction was a one-off piece created for one of the world's wealthiest watch collectors.

The Henry Graves Supercomplication is a one-of-a-kind gold pocket watch created for the American banker Henry Graves Jr. At the time it was built in 1933, it boasted the most complications of any watch. It sold for $11m at a Sotheby's auction in 1999.

Today, it is housed in the Patek Philippe Museum in Geneva, a mecca for dedicated watch collectors.


Rolex Cosmograph DaytonaThe Rolex Daytona, one of the most collectible watches, celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2013

Many beginner collectors are drawn to the hobby by the allure of investing.Here are a few buying tips that will improve your chances of making a profit:

Buy quality - Buy the best you can afford, as only the top pieces demonstrate investment potential. Also, with a superior quality watch, you won't be disappointed even if you lose a few dollars. Stick to the best known brands, such as Patek Philippe, Rolex and Breguet, as their reputation is unlikely to fade in the minds of fellow collectors.

Buy rarity - Rarity drives the market: a watch collector will pay more for a watch that they haven't seen before, or have been unable to find.

Buy provenance - A watch can be worth thousands, but if its ownership history is uncertain, collectors are likely to steer clear. Buy boxed watches that have full documentation, and if you can find a watch worn by a famous name, you could be on to a winner.

Buy iconic - Certain watch lines will never go out of fashion, and are likely to hold their value long into the future. Think James Bond watches, Rolex Daytona, Cartier's Tank, Omega's Seamaster or the Tag-Heuer Monaco.


Below are a few useful websites to get you started, but when it comes to watch collecting, you really can't discount the value of a book. There are thousands of books on specialised subjects available, which can even form the basis of a collection on their own.

Chrono24 - International online marketplace for watches

Luxury Watches 101 - An independent guide to buying luxury watches

Watch U Seek - Top forum site and gathering place for the collecting community

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