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About Time

Why Vintage Watch Collectors Go Mad For Patination

The right kind of wear and tear can actually increase the value of your timepiece

  • A Rolex Submariner Ref 5512, worn by Mr Alessandro Squarzi

“We do get people in who just don’t get it,” says Mr David Silver. “To them, they’re being asked to pay a premium for a watch that looks older.” Mr Silver is the owner of specialist dealer the Vintage Watch Company, where you can buy a rare vintage watch with faded bezel or dial, or discoloured numerals, for perhaps two to three times the price of a mint equivalent. And many do. “A patina – certain signs of wear on a watch – gives it rarity, value and individuality,” argues Mr Silver. “And we find that now, for some people, when it comes to their sports watches, the more extreme the better.”

This doesn’t mean they want a watch to look battered; that would perhaps indicate that it had not been well cared for. But they may want the white indices to have turned ivory – through the action of heat and light over time; for a black dial to have mutated into a shade of brown, or “tropical”, as it’s known in the trade; for the black bezel to have faded to grey, or, better still, for the numerals to have disappeared altogether, a look known as a “ghost” bezel; for the red on that Rolex “Pepsi” GMT to be more, well, fuchsia. “Send the same watch back to the manufacturer for servicing and they’ll ask if you want a new bezel,” laughs Mr Silver, who wears a 1960s tropical brown dial Submariner, “because for them it’s about preserving the functionality of the watch.”

But then fashion has rarely cared much for function. And a touch of patina on your timepiece has certainly become fashionable, bringing some watches into that select and not altogether rational category of products that are thought to be enhanced by signs of age, along with some clothing, shoes and furniture, unlike, say, classic cars or paintings. Mr Rolf Studer, the co-CEO of watchmaker Oris, notes how not only are brands like Tudor, Omega and Officine Panerai mimicking the colouration more typically found in patinated watches, but some – Oris a pioneer among them – are deliberately using materials such as bronze that more easily develop a patina. (On that note, be sure to cast your eyes over the brand’s limited-edition Carl Brashear chronograph.) All of which, arguably, has only fuelled demand for the “real” thing.

“A patina is an expression of what a watch is all about these days, which isn’t telling the time, but is about creating some kind of emotional connection, about creating memories,” argues Mr Studer, who wears his vertigris-inflected bronze bezel watch in the sea to bring on patination, but not in the shower, lest it “wash” the patina off. “In watches patination has taken a while to be accepted outside of collector circles – when we launched our bronze SixtyFive Diver, we had to stress that the changes that came were not a fault. And I think it’s for the same kind of reasons that people play vinyl records in a digital age – it gives a different feel to the whole experience.”

  • Rolex Submariner Ref 5512

Certainly many, like Mr Sam Hines, worldwide head of watches for auctioneers Sotheby’s, find patination “beautiful, aside from the fact that it elevates the watch above a standard example,” as he puts it. He argues that the demand for some artful discolouration tends to be limited to sports watches – perhaps because it expresses the active life the watch has led, or perhaps because we still prefer our dress watches to look as pristine as the rest of our formal attire. But he notes, too, that the prices collectors are willing to pay for patina is only creeping up. A 6538 Big Crown Rolex Submariner can be yours for a not inconsiderable US$200,000. Want it with a tropical dial, and you can expect to pay upwards of $400,000.

Such pieces are only likely to become rarer still, too. Indeed, the days of patination in watches might be numbered. The materials used in high-end, more progressive watch manufacturing are leaning towards those that provide the designs with greater durability and stability. Ceramic may be becoming more commonplace, but more recently watch cases are also being made out of silicon crystal - the stuff typically reserved just for the glass, to make it scratch-resistant – or proprietary materials the likes of IWC Schaffhausen’s Ceratanium, or Officine Panerai’s corrosion-resistant Carbotech. “And you can be sure that a company like Rolex will engineer out the patination process by using materials that will better fix the colour, for example,” suggests Mr Silver. “In time that will take the charm out of the ageing process.”

“This interest in patina and wear in watches is a very subjective thing,” admits Mr Justin Koullapis of watch dealers The Watch Club. “It does play into the role for one’s watch as a statement of your appreciation for aesthetic things. And I think it gives a watch an enigmatic quality, a certain warmth. Of course there are limits. If bits of the luminescence on the hands flake off every time you wear the watch, that’s not useful. There’s a fine line between a pleasing patina and just being knackered. But the former is something special. It allows the watch to be expressive of passing time in a more poetic way. It’s evidence that a watch had a life before its present owner, and will likely have one beyond him, too.”

Watches that will wear well

  • IWC SCHAFFHAUSEN Portugieser Chronograph 40.9mm 18-Karat Red Gold and Alligator Watch

  • Vacheron Constantin Fiftysix Automatic Complete Calendar 40mm 18-Karat Pink Gold and Alligator Watch, Ref. No. 4000E/000R-B438

  • Zenith Power Reserve 40mm 18-Karat Rose Gold and Alligator Watch, Ref. No. 18.2121.685/01.C498

  • Cartier Santos Automatic 39.8mm 18-Karat Pink Gold Interchangeable Alligator Watch, Ref. No. WGSA0007

  • Oris Carl Brashear Chronograph 43mm Burnished Bronze and Leather Watch, Ref. No. 01 774 7744 3185

  • Montblanc Automatic 40mm Red Gold and Alligator Watch