Vintage Watches: Art Meets Technology
A Coca-Cola vending machine on the fritz, a misfiring auto engine and an 18th-century pocket watch in need of restoration may share one thing in common —Dave Mycko, WorthPoint’s expert on antique and collectible watches.
Before setting up his watch-and-clock repair business in Miami in 1976, Mycko had paid the bills fixing cars and Coke machines. “I have this overall fascination with gears, pinions, main springs and power supplies,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to see how mechanical things work . . . I am a gear freak.”
Gears to watches
The watch, however, has been a lifelong passion. The first one Mycko worked on as a boy was his father’s Gruen wristwatch, which he took apart and put back together. And it still worked.
As collectibles, the watch has two faces—the technological and the artistic. “Rolex is technically oriented,” Mycko said. “Rolex’s goal has been to produce a high-quality watch that is ‘chronometer accurate’ and can withstand all temperatures at high altitude or under deep ocean pressure.”
Howard & Rice key-wind pocket watch made from defunct-Boston Watch Co. parts
The handmade 18th- and 19th-century pocket watches—with enameling and fancy engraved gold cases—are the art. “They are like snowflakes, no two are alike,” Mycko said. “No gear is interchangeable with another watch. When I have to repair one of these, I have to make the parts myself.”
There are many approaches and kinds of watches to collect, Mycko advised. There are the 19th-century decorative antique pocket watches—multicolored gold and finely engraved, which can run from hundreds of dollars to tens of thousands.
There are 20th-century “railroad watches.” These were an exceptional product of the Industrial Age and now fetch $100 to $10,000. “Railroad watches are appreciated and collected from the inside out,” Mycko explained. The precision and technical beauty went into their internal parts, and then they were housed “in high-quality, durable and functional but low-cost metal cases.”
A burgeoning market sprang up in wristwatches soon after the fall of gold in 1980. “This is an example of how the market swings,” Mycko said. “When I got into the business, it was all pocket watches, no one bothered with wristwatches.” Now there’s a broad array of interests. One interesting, but confounding area is the “comic-character watch.”
Dudley Masonic pocket watch, circa 1928
The idea of a Mickey Mouse watch was hatched in 1932 when a buyer for Montgomery Ward suggested to Disney’s merchandising mastermind, Kay Kamen, that a watch with Mickey on its face could be a big hit. Kamen then commissioned preliminary sketches from Disney artists and brought them to the Ingersoll-Waterbury Co.
In 1933, the first watches went into production, and their success was unprecedented. In one day, 11,000 were sold at Macy’s.
By June 1935, more than 2.5 million Mickey Mouse wristwatches had been sold. Several other watch companies jumped on the comic-watch bandwagon, and soon nearly every popular comic character was on a pocket watch or wristwatch. In 1989, Mycko co-authored “Vintage American and European Character Wristwatch Price Guide 1989” with Roy Ehrhardt, the leading watch-book author of the time.
Mickey Mouse #1 still rules
But the advent of the color copier has made it too easy to counterfeit character watches. “That really killed the market,” Mycko said. Although people are still in the hunt for a “#1 Mickey Mouse,” which can still bring $300-$500.
Character watches remain a fluky market, Mycko said, because certain watches can cross over to other collectibles markets. “A Popeye collector is going to want that Popeye wristwatch and will pay $1,500, which makes no sense to a watch collector,” he said.
All those 1930s-, ’40s-, ’50s-style Benrus, Bulova and Hamilton watches are now highly collectible for their retro styling and innovations that made them popular when new. Even Seiko and Timex (remember the “It takes a licking and keeps on ticking” ads?) form another market with prices ranging from $50 to $1,000. There is “something for everyone,” Mycko said.
Hamilton 21-jewels railroad pocket watch with white-gold filled open face
At the top of the market are the expensive watches Patek Philippe, Vacheron Constantin and Audemars Piguet, followed closely by Cartier and Tiffany. These watches were expensive when new, and in many cases, their values have soared.
Production-made watches like Rolex, Longines, Omega and LeCoultre that catered to a lesser-priced market are highly collectible today. But, with few exceptions, these lesser watch companies along with the styles of watches produced have had their day and have lost their cachet as the collectible-watch market changes. Consider an Omega watch made in the 1920s, with a curved back and Art Deco numbers. For a while, those watches commanded prices of $2,000 to $5,000. Now, Mycko said, they are “hard to sell at $1,500.”
The market, however, is filled with surprises. A self-winding enamel dial wristwatch from the ’60s by Swiss watchmaker Patek Philippe used to run $2,500 to $3,500. The very same watch now commands $25,000 to $35,000. A Rolex Cosmograph that Mycko said he had trouble selling for $600 to $800, now sells for up to $55,000.
Rare Waltham Masonic Dial hunting-case pocket watch with a painted porcelain dial
“There is a lot going on at this upper end,” Mycko said. These are the big investment bets and also the ego buys. “What you wear on your wrist tells a lot about your station in life. It’s like driving around in a Ferrari. The world knows you have arrived. And, it most definitely is a macho thing.”
“I call it organized insanity,” Mycko said. “They may be collectibles, investments or the stuff of dreams.”
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