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There was a time when the mark of the man - or at least his pay-packet - was his suit. Its cut, if not its label, told tales of status and wealth. But then good suits became accessibly priced and discretion an understatement became fashions by-words.

Now the status watch is the lasts bastion of the rich and refined. Average ownership across Europe is on the increase, currently standing at three watches for each man (though in Italy the figure weighs in at about eight - and the Italians are still late for everything). But don’t imagine that you’re safe with some modern designer-name timepiece. The watch industry now considers the £300-£500 price spectrum - until recently considered ‘top of the range’ - a little mainstream, and the predicted boom area is in the £10,000-plus range, driven largely be newly rich Russian entrepreneurs.

So, as often, the direction to turn is back - to vintage watches, ones with a story, that are beyond both fashion and most people's means. A recent Sotheby’s auction saw some models at the not-impossible starting price of £700 - with many modern watches in the auction selling for considerably less than the usual retail price (albeit without box, papers or guarantee). Other rarer watches, though, are priced at a great deal more: a Blancpain Moonphase comes in at £2,800, a Rolex Cosmograph Daytona (hardly vintage given it was made in 1995) at £3,200 and a 1950 Vacheron & Constantin chronograph at up to £8,000.

If you’re prepared to exercise your cheque-book further, you can enter the realm of obscure models from the likes of Cartier, Audemars Piguet and Jaeger LeCoultre. You could pay £25,000-plus for a triple calendar Rolex. In 1989 a Patek Philippe went for a heart-stopping £700,000. But for your money, as Sotheby’s watch expert Jonathan Darracott puts it, ‘you get the appeal of style and elegance, a watch no different in technical quality to any modern watch but with all the history and romance’.

Besides, you can usually get your money back. The smartest buys in terms of resale value are those big-name watches with the most complex mechanical movements, particularly perpetual calendar models.

‘Collecting watches is certainly a male occupation; they’ll collect with a passion’, says Roger Lister, a watch consultant to auction house Christie’s. ‘The market is buoyant and there’s good stuff around. But it’s best not to buy for investment. Buy the best you can afford and because you like it.’
Indeed, there’s not always gold at the end of the vintage rainbow. Although during the Eighties many watches appreciated by 50 per cent a year, depreciation with many vintage watches can be rapid now, and the market is complex. Certain brands are best from certain periods - Cartier from the Twenties, Rolex from the Thirties and Forties, Patek from the Thirties to Fifties - and then it’s often about specific models. And like any other market, it follows fashions, with the likes of Longines, Omega and Tag Heuer yet to truly crack it.

‘It can be unpredictable’, adds Lister. ‘Take Swatch for example. It was just another cheap quartz watch but went through a massively collectible phase.’

And the market has its quirks. Despite the natural inclination towards the yellow stuff, heavy gold vintage pieces are currently worth less than their steel counterparts. This price differential is probably due to the escalation in street crime - with traffic-light watch-napping a New York phenomenon already familiar worldwide.

The Asian crash has also meant the market has been flooded with good price - and excess always devalues. A vintage steel Rolex Moonphase, for instance, originally sold at one quarter of the price of its gold counterpart, but is now worth 30 per cent more, while a steel Perpetual Moonphase by Patek Philippe could - cheque-books at the ready - set you back a cool £600,000.

Of course, some men just can’t help being flash. Simon Merit of Arcade Watches, one of London’s most prestigious watch dealers, remembers a businessman who spent what he describes as ‘20 big ones’ on a vintage platinum Rolex, only to have a friend mistake it for steel and jibe that he couldn’t afford a gold one. So he traded in his platinum Rolex for a cheaper, but unmistakably golden mode. Let’s hope he remembered to take it off in the shower.

Face value
1 Rolex Comex, circa 1978, approx £8,000-£9,000
One of the most sought-after Rolexes, the Comex is named after the North Sea oil exploration company that commissioned a series of tough timepieces for its frogmen from the early Seventies to the Nineties. Fitted with revolutionary valves, the watch could cope with the variations in air pressure experienced in decompression chambers. Other watches were liable to explode in such extreme conditions. These rugged associations, as well as the technical ingenuity of the escape valves, make it a must-have for the serious Rolex buff. Later, the watch was produced for individuals as the Sea Dweller, but this is an original.

2 Rolex GMT-Master, steel, late Sixties, £1,500-£1,700
A hot tip for collectors at the moment, early GMTs with original plastic-glass are considered seriously undervalued. Still in production today, this most popular of Rolexes costs from £2,000 new. Yet for as much as £500 less you get an original with a history and a more hand-crafted feel. Don’t hang about though, prices for plastic-glass GMTs are slated to climb significantly in the next six months.

3 Cartier Tank, platinum, late Seventies, £4,500-£5,000
There are probably more stories made up about the name of this singular watch than there are actual versions in circulation. The Tank was never made for tank commanders in WW1 but it is just possible that the oblong shape of the case when it appeared in the early Twenties. This late-Seventies platinum version is a collectible because it uses the older, slimmer and altogether more sophisticated Piguet movement than the later widely used ETA movements.

4 Jaeger LeCoultre Military Alarm, early to mid Sixties £4,000
Not strictly a military watch, yet inspired by military designs, this was the diver’s version of Jaeger’s Momovox watch, which first appeared in the late Fifties. The waterproof mechanical alarm was the first of its kind. Set from a luminous central pointer, the alarm made the watch vibrate to warn divers they were nearing the limit of their dive time.

Watches courtesy of vintage specialist Tom Bolt at Which Watch Co. Tel  0203 073 0000 /07976 662103. All watches were available at time of going to press. The prices quoted are approximate and apply only to the examples shown.

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