Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Watch Collecting - Installment II

Getting Educated

One of the main hurdles in watch collecting is sifting through all the makes, styles, and features. There are several ways to bein to get educated on your newfound passtime.

Retail Outlets

Virtually every mall in the world will have retail vendors for your collectable of choice. For watch collectors, department stores, jewelry stores, and specialty stores are often the places where a collector is first introduced to the object of their obsession. While accessible, these retailers are not necessarily the best place to make your first purchase.

Department stores generally stock a small variety of watches, which they can sell at a reasonable rate and with a favorable profit margin. These stores can be a good place to see several types of watches, and get some idea of popular styling. Most department stores focus on quartz watches because the majority of the non-collecting population find quartz to be accurate, inexpensive, and relatively maintenance-free. Some department stores may have a few mechanical or alternately powered watches (such as solar or mechanical-quartz hybrid types like Seiko Kinetic™ watches) – but most have a very limited selection of these types.

Looking at these stores can help a collector form initial impressions of what general size, style, and materials interest them, and most department stores are very approachable for the beginner, and are very willing to let the buyer try on many different watches. However, because of the limited selection and focus on profit margin, these stores rarely offer the best pricing. Also, a watch bought at a department store is typically covered primarily by the manufacturer’s warranty, and any difficulties with the watch will likely have to be resolved between the buyer and manufacturer’s customer service department.

Jewelry stores are another common place for the beginning collector to get hands-on experience with watches. Typically, jewelry stores will carry a slightly higher tier of watches, but often limit their selection to a few manufacturers with whom they have a retail agreement. In some, but not all cases, these jewelers may be "Authorized Dealers" (AD) for the lines they sell. Authorized dealers often have access to the entire line for the makers they represent, and can act as points of contact for service issues. Most watch manufacturers will only honor warranties on items purchased at their authorized dealers. In exchange, the retailer often agrees to pricing guidelines, limiting the extent to which their lines can be discounted (this amount varies from manufacturer to manufacturer). For example, the markdown to be had from Authorized Rolex dealers is often rather slight, while Omega AD’s generally have a little more latitude in discounting.

It is important to know if the retailer is an AD for the lines they sell, and what that means for the buyer. One other ‘service’ often offered by jewelry stores is financing. This is typically through a third party creditor, and can be at very high (20%+) interest rates. Most collectors avoid this option, as it almost insures that the watch will cost more than they will ever recoup from a subsequent sale.

Specialty stores can also be found in most places where retail stores congregate. They can range from small shops offering lower tier, mostly quartz watches (these are the kind commonly found in shopping malls in the US) – to huge stores with a vast variety like Tourneau and Wempe. These are great places to see watches in the flesh, and get a good sense of the range of styles and options on the market. Like jewelry stores, specialty stores can be somewhat intimidating to the beginner. Don’t be hesitant! Ask to see items that interest you, and try on what ever strikes your fancy.

Be aware that there is no guarantee that sales staff at jewelry and specialty stores are ACTUALLY KNOWLEDGEABLE. In most cases, a collector with any degree of sophistication will have an equal or greater knowledge base than sales people. When you meet a sales person that seems to know what they are talking about, and you later verify what they tell you through other channels, remember their name. When you return to shop again, ask for those in the shop who you have confirmed are competent.

Specialty shops, like jewelry stores, may or may not be ADs for the lines they carry. All of the information above pertaining to jewelry store ADs likewise applies to specialty shops. Larger specialty shops that are not ADs for all of the lines that they sell may offer a warranty for watches they sell – these should be considered as in lieu of, not in addition to, manufacturer’s warranties. Again, manufacturer’s warranties are generally only valid for items purchased from ADs.

A subset of the specialty shop category is the Factory Outlet. A few manufacturers have outlet stores, Seiko among them. Other manufacturers, such as Sinn, will sell direct from the factory if you visit them. These stores will have an extensive collection of the lines by their manufacturer, and may offer discounts beyond what might be found at other retail outlets.

Online Retailers

The internet is awash with watch sellers. It can be difficult to determine if the sellers are ADs, so-called ‘Grey Market’ dealers, or are individuals who have no physical store location. Increasingly, watch manufacturers are combating dealers who are not Authorized (‘Grey Market’ dealers) by prohibiting ADs from posting actual selling prices online.

Many brick and mortar dealers who are ADs sell through the internet in addition to selling from their storefronts. Often, they will display the MSRP or ‘list’ price on their web site, and ask that you call for their best pricing. This is often because they are ADs who agree not to advertise discounted prices so that the manufacturer’s product is resistant to devaluation. If you are buying a new piece, and warranty coverage is important to you, an AD is probably the best way to go.

However, if price is your bottom line, a grey market dealer may be just the thing for you. Many of these dealers are ever bit as reputable as jewelry stores or specialty shops – but they are able to offer greater discounts than ADs due to their lack of a binding agreement with the manufacturer, and also because they can often operate on a smaller profit margin. Also, online dealers offer the best variety of vintage and discontinued models. Some allow trades and are more flexible about the method of payment.

The bottom line with any seller is the old chestnut "Buy the seller". If you are interested in a watch from an online seller, ask for references. Other sources of information pertaining to these sellers may are also available on the internet, as will be discussed later.

Watch Forums

By far, the best resource for the watch collector on the internet is the accessibility of other collectors, and their accumulated knowledge. Watch forums are virtual bulletin boards where collectors gather to show their collections, ask for seller references and trade and sell their own watches. After visiting stores, both physical and online, to get some ideas of what is out there, the budding collector should turn to the forums for a focusing of their watch collecting interests.

There are several types of "fora" on the internet. Some are dedicated to the products of a specific manufacturer(s). One good example of this type is the Seiko and Citizen Watch Forum (SCWF). Another is On The Dash , which focuses on vintage Heuer chronographs. This type of site is the ideal starting place for someone who intends to focus on a narrow range of brands, or who is looking for in-depth information.

Another type of forum is that dedicated to a collecting segment. For example, the Poor Man’s Watch Forum (PMWF), caters to collectors of "Watches (mostly) under $1000"; The Purists focus on higher-end watch brands ranging from $1000 to hundreds of thousands of dollars. All of these forums contain links to watch resources to be found elsewhere on the internet, and both have "Sales Forums" associated with them that allow people interested in their respective collecting segments to buy and sell their watches to each other. Many times, some of the best and safest watch deals to be had online are through venues like these.

Sites such as the Military Watch Resource define their collecting segment not by brand or cost, but by function. Upon initially turning to the forums, it is a safe bet that the beginning collector will soon be inundated with watch designs and manufacturers which he didn’t know existed.

Other forums are omnibus sites that contain long lists of sub-forums for different collecting interests. Two of the most popular sites fitting this category are Watch-U-Seek (WUS) and Timezone (TZ). In addition to fora, Timezone has watch reviews and short columns on all sorts of watch related topics.

In my experience, members of watch forums are very friendly and helpful. They typically enjoy welcoming new collectors to the field and sharing the details of their timepieces. Simple good manners are generally the only etiquette needed to have a successful visit to any of these sites, although some sales and trading forums have more specific guidelines that should be followed. Many of the sites have Frequently Asked Questions sections (FAQs), which should be consulted on the initial visit.

Specialized Websites

The internet is filled with the homepages of collectors, and sites dedicated to specific collecting interests. Doing an internet search on any aspect of watch collecting will yield long lists of sites to peruse. Manufacturers also host websites displaying their lines.

One omnibus site that stands out, with hundreds of links to watch related sites and reference material is Chuck’s Watch & Horology Page . Here, Chuck Maddox kindly collects enough links for years of browsing.

Print Resources – Books

There are many books on clock and watch collecting, as well as horology (the science of time, timekeeping, and timekeepers), both technical and historical. Unfortunately, libraries tend to overlook this hobby, so it may be necessary to buy the books on your own. Also, many of these are geared to collectors of very specific interests.

Below are a few books that are good for the beginner. For a good start, without breaking the bank, look into the two in bold.

Miller's: Wristwatches : How to Compare and Value by Jonathan Scatchard

This is a very cursory look at the major categories of watches, and a few collectable brands. A good browsing-while-in-the-store book for the rank beginner.

Collecting & Repairing Watches by Max Cutmore

Goes a bit into the theory of operation of watches, and highlights some collectable watches. Relatively inexpensive, I’d buy this one first.

Revolution in Time: Clocks and the Making of the Modern World by David S. Landes

An in-depth look at the evolution of timekeeping, detailing technological advances. Very good historical framework for any collector.

Complete Price Guide To Watches by Cooksey Shugart

The most frequently cited price guide. Useful, but not terribly inexpensive – this is a good choice for an intermediate collector.

Marking Time: Collecting Watches - and Thinking about Time by Michael Korda

Now out-of-print, it can still be found on used book websites like Bookfinder (or perhaps on Barnes and Noble remainder tables). A pleasant introduction to watch collecting, although not everyone will agree with all of Korda’s assertions.

It is easy to sock a lot of money into books about watches, but many of them have many pictures, but little useful content – or worse, are essentially advertising by another name (as I feel some of the ‘Watch Annuals’ are). Try to keep your library useful and relevant, and save the rest for watches!

Refining the Want List

We have addressed two of the biggest hurdles in watch collecting – where to find watches, and where to find information about watches. As the collector explores these resources, some concept of the direction he or she intends to take with the new collection has probably begun to take shape. There are many questions a collector can ask in building the framework for their collection.

Foremost, what to collect? Some collectors choose a very narrow area of interest. Some collectors believe that for a collection to be relevant it must be tightly focused and add to the body of horological knowledge. Others think this is an elitist approach, and prefer to collect ‘whatever makes them happy’.

One benefit both types of collector can share is that watch collecting gives the collector not only an aesthetic satisfaction from the beauty of the pieces themselves, but also provides the collector with a functional collection as well. Whereas many collections, such as art or coins, are interesting for their beauty, watches provide the added benefit that they are made to be used. Considering both of these attributes is important during collection building, and allows the owner to gather functional art. Whatever the focus, the watch collector can and should use their collection.

In deciding what to collect, the collector should begin by setting realistic budgetary guidelines. Not everyone has the means to breathe the rarified air of a vintage Patek Philippe collector, but thankfully interesting collections can be made for modest means. Determining up front a ballpark figure for the pieces in the collection can help focus the collecting interest.

Once price range is determined, a general census of watch attributes that one finds desirable is useful. Factors to consider include watch types, materials, movements, and styles.



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