Rolex is hands-down the world’s most famous luxury manufacturer and vintage Rolex watches are some of the most desirable and collectible timepieces in existence. However, shopping for a vintage Rolex can often be an intimidating task, even for experienced collectors. Unlike current-production Rolex models, you can’t simply go onto the company’s website to find out information about them, as the vast majority of the brand’s vintage models were discontinued long before the internet was ever created.
On top of that, you often hear horror stories about people buying fake or “frankenwatches” and even when you are buying from a trusted and reputable seller, there is a seemingly endless sea of information and small details that exist between different models, which can often account for thousands of dollars in resale value. To help you navigate this process, we have put together this quick guide on vintage Rolex watches and what to look out for when buying them.
About Vintage Rolex Watches
Although it is generally understood that vintage items are not as old as antiques, there is no standard definition for how old something needs to be in order to be classified as vintage. When it comes to watches, most people will generally agree that a timepiece must be at least 20 years old to be considered vintage, but you will find others who believe that the term should only apply to watches that are more than 40 years of age. Specifically, in regards to vintage Rolex watches, the 1980s are often seen as the cut-off for vintage models, as many of their successors that were introduced during the 1990s continued to remain a part of Rolex’s catalog into the early 2000s.
Many of Rolex’s most iconic watch collections have existed for decades, so you will find vintage versions of some of its most famous and recognizable models such as the Submariner, Oyster Perpetual, Datejust, and Daytona. Additionally, you will also find other models such as the Oysterdate, Everest, and Sky-Rocket, which only exist in vintage forms since they were discontinued entirely and never revived as modern watches.
Vintage Rolex Prices
Most people associate vintage Rolex watches with the record-breaking auction prices that they frequently see covered in the news, but the fact of the matter is that vintage Rolex models actually occupy an incredibly wide range of prices. While there are certainly some rare and important watches that sell for millions of dollars, others can be purchased for as little as a few thousand, and vintage models are actually both the most and least expensive Rolex watches currently available.
Vintage examples of highly collectible Rolex models like the Submariner, Daytona, and GMT-Master almost always sell for values that are greater than the brand-new retail prices of their contemporary equivalents. However, for other fan-favorite models such as the Datejust, Day-Date, and Air-King, vintage references can typically be purchased on the pre-owned market for a significant discount compared to their more modern siblings.
Additionally, the value of vintage Rolex watches (particularly the highly collectible models) is often tied to the originality of their components, which means that vintage Rolex prices can sometimes go against conventional wisdom. For example, a vintage Rolex sports watch that looks old and beat up because it has never been polished or had any parts replaced will almost always be worth more than an otherwise identical example that has been polished and fitted with a brand-new dial. The originality of certain components such as the dial and case are incredibly important and if these have been replaced with later-era equivalents, the value will almost always be negatively impacted.
What to Look For When Buying a Vintage Rolex
Once you decide which vintage Rolex you want to purchase and have narrowed down your search to a specific model and reference number, there are a few things that you should always look out for whenever buying a vintage Rolex.
Check for Authenticity
First and foremost, always check for authenticity. If the watch itself is not authentic, then nothing else about it matters and you should immediately walk away from that purchase. The authenticity of all its components is crucial, as a single fake component can sometimes detract thousands of dollars from a vintage Rolex watch’s overall value.
The Originality of Key Components
There are certain components like the dial and case on vintage Rolex watches that are incredibly important to their overall value. The impact of replacement components is not symmetrical across all models but in certain instances, it can mean a difference of tens of thousands of dollars. Replacement components shouldn’t necessarily be a deal-breaker, but they should influence the price that you pay for a watch.
Naturally, overall condition matters when it comes to vintage Rolex watches and in most instances, better condition means a higher price (provided that key components are all original). Although a desirable patina can often add to a watch’s value, mint-condition examples are still typically worth the most and will always be in short-supply.
Box and Papers
Having the original box and papers for a vintage Rolex watch almost always increases its value but this amount is not going to be the same for all models. For some, it might only increase the price by a couple of hundred dollars but for an ultra-rare model that is already worth six figures, the presence of the original box and papers can mean thousands of additional dollars in resale value.
Previous Owners / Provenance
Vintage watches all have past lives, and sometimes having a famous previous owner or an especially interesting backstory can significantly add their overall value. A perfect example of this is Paul Newman’s very own vintage Rolex “Paul Newman” Daytona. The watch sold for a record-breaking $17.8 million dollars at an auction in 2017, but it would have never achieved such an impressive figure had it not belonged to Paul Newman himself.
Where to Buy Vintage Rolex Watches
One important thing to note is that Rolex only sells brand-new models, so you will never find any vintage Rolex watches at the brand’s own stores or boutiques. This means that the pre-owned market will be your only way of obtaining one, and while the saying “buy the seller” is often used, it is especially true when it comes to vintage Rolex watches.
Finding an honest seller is an absolute necessity, but it is also important to make sure that the seller you choose is knowledgeable enough to guarantee that they don’t accidentally misrepresent their product or give you a watch with a major mechanical issue. Buying from a trusted and reputable source means that you will almost never be paying the absolute lowest price, but this small premium is easily worth the peace of mind that comes from not having to worry about your purchase.
Vintage Rolex watches are the definition of classic and timeless style, and regardless of whether you are shopping for a humble entry-level model or a multi-million-dollar grail watch, you will be getting a piece of Rolex’s prestigious history and one of the world’s best luxury watches.