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vintage watches vs. new watches: which one should I buy?

Over the past year, as many luxury sectors have struggled with the pandemic, some categories have surged in interest and value, most notably antique or vintage watches . Sotheby's , for example, reported in December 2020 that its worldwide watch auction sales had reached $97.5 million, with more than 140 online sales totaling $47.4 million, nearly eight times the amount of sales and five times the value reached in 2019.

Meanwhile, new Swiss watch exports fell 21.8 percent in value, according to the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry, due in part to factory closures for months. A recovery seems to be underway for watchmakers, with many showing off new products this month at the watch and wonder fair. But there is no doubt that the vintage market is the strongest it has ever been.

After all, there was a certain appeal to vintage in a particularly difficult year. There's nostalgia for a bygone era of design, an interesting backstory or notable provenance in your life story to 'adopt' it, the relaxing distraction of going down the rabbit holes of historical research in spare time, and even a sense of of triumph when a coveted piece is found at last, or when it is won after a battle at auction.

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As always, there are opportunities to own, at a relatively affordable price, a watch model or brand that, if something new were sought, would be within the reach of the most connected or wealthy.

Among watch enthusiasts , who have become more serious as the field of watch collecting has become more popular in the last 10 years, there is a debate. When shopping for a new one, you often have to try to get on a waiting list for a fashion debut. Or you can buy a new watch that everyone else is sure to have.

Those perspectives are opposed to the search for a historical piece , a process over which one could have a little more control. In the end, you are left with something more unique that has proven to hold its value over time.

This is a fair and valid argument. But this month, when the best watch companies introduce new models, it's worth considering the wonder and glory of a brand new watch and the benefits of owning something made with the latest technology.

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Ruediger Albers, president of Wempe USA, sells watches made by Rolex, Patek Phillippe, Tudor, Cartier and TAG Heuer. Having seen some of the world's most coveted watches fly off his shelves, he cites the peace of mind afforded by warranties from manufacturers and others, as well as the greater ease of maintenance due to the availability of parts.

“Today, many of the brands we have have vintage-inspired designs but with the highest level of reliability, often higher power reserve, scratch-resistant materials, all thanks to modern technology,” Albers argues. “Often these watches can be submerged in water without worrying about old parts that could cause a poorly maintained vintage watch to fail . With limited replacement parts available, that could spell the end of the watch and therefore your investment."

Julien Tornare is the CEO of Zenith, which in recent years has mined its mid-20th century archive to produce contemporary pieces with a vintage “flavour”. “Owning a vintage watch is like owning a piece of history, not of the make and model itself, but also of the owners of that specific piece that has come before you,” he says. "It also has a distinct personality that comes with time, unique to each specific piece, like patina."

Tornare contends that when you buy a new vintage-inspired watch , you get the best of both worlds. “You can own a piece of history while taking advantage of the latest technological advances.”

There is also the appeal of being the first to own a new technology. This month, Frederique Constant launched a watch with a new “monolithic” silicon oscillator, allowing it the highest frequency of any mechanical watch on the market.

Also this month, Panerai created a diver's watch made from 98.6 percent recycled materials , and Bulgari squeezed a calendar into a wafer-thin titanium case less than 6mm thick in its latest record-breaking Octo Finissimo model. . Because these things have never been done in watchmaking, buyers will be in for exciting historical pieces.

In fact, if you're worried about finding a new watch with long-term value and the potential for it to be a collector's item, there are several places you can look. Try a watch with a new innovation from a big, established brand like the ones just mentioned.

Or consider independent boutique watchmakers like MB&F , Laurent Ferrier , and Greubel Forsey , who make limited runs of watches with wildly creative approaches to timekeeping, with beautiful machinery displayed on jaw-dropping dials. Whether futuristic or classic in style, many of the best examples instantly become collectible classics whose interesting looks are always conversation starters.

Jared Silver, president of California-based watch and jewelry house Stephen Silver , is a proponent of these brands. “Our clients value both collectability and financial performance. In selecting our watch partners, we lean toward independent brands because we believe they have the greatest potential of all sectors of the watch industry to meet both considerations."

With a watch from such a brand, you'll get a good warranty and service as you join the creators on their journey as watchmakers. It's “a relationship that often becomes personal,” Silver considers, adding, “Vintage pieces are sought after because they were the most creative or cutting-edge pieces of their time. I urge customers to use the same criteria when considering new watches ."