6 Affordable Vintage Watches for a Budding Collector

6 Affordable Vintage Watches for a Budding Collector

Whether you’ve inherited a watch from a family member or purchased one from a local garage sale, the hobby of collecting vintage watches starts with someone who appreciates history, values craftsmanship, and geeks out over design. 

When starting out, the idea of collecting watches can be overwhelming and quite expensive. Over the last decade, I've seen the desirability in vintage watches explode, leaving many popular and desirable watch models out of reach for novice collectors. While higher prices can be a roadblock, it shouldn't dissuade you from exploring the abundant realm of affordable watches still in the market. In many instances, accessible watches have similar movements and design features to their popular relatives and are often overlooked.

Here we’ll show you 6 affordable vintage options and why we think each of them make a compelling start to a new collection. 

Caravelle/Bulova W/Manual Wind 11dp Movement 

In the early 1960s Bulova introduced Caravelle as a sub-brand with a goal of competing with other affordable brands such as Timex and Citizen. They did so by producing non-jeweled movements in Japan and perhaps most notably, the 11DP movement. Caravelle achieved this success while also being well cued into the space age and modernist design aesthetic of that time period.

A topic of note, the gateway piece for my own personal collection happens to be a Caravelle. Looking back on when I first got the watch, I’ve learned so many lessons from that first purchase that I still use today when grading a watch. For instance, when buying a vintage watch it's important to know about the movement inside. Knowing how to correctly set the date and time without stressing the movement, can be vital for the preservation of your watch.

Measuring in at 35mm, this example is truly immaculate. At almost 50 years old, it looks as good as the day it came out of the factory. Featuring blue accented hands and a funky case design, this piece is a charming and highly well preserved vintage find. The 11DP movement is an extremely reliable and simple movement that can be repaired by any local watchmaker. At only $500 dollars this is the ideal ground floor vintage watch to give as a gift or test the waters to decide if watch collecting is right for you.  

 Universal Genève White Shadow

For many watch nerds, one of the best vintage brands to collect is Universal Genève. At one time, their production quality was compared to that of Patek Philippe. Without question, the most well-known model from Universal Genève was the Polerouter, which was created by the esteemed designer, Gerald Genta.

Produced in the 1970s, this tonneau-shaped watch, named the White Shadow, was another  micro-rotor watch designed by Genta. Universal Genève produced three distinct models, the White Shadow, Gilt Shadow, and Golden Shadow in which the cases were made of stainless steel, gold-plated steel, and solid gold. 

Equipped with an ultra-thin movement, Universal Genève went on to claim the title for thinnest self-winding movement in the late 1960s. Despite its compact size, the White Shadow’s 35mm case shape gives the wearer the illusion of being larger than its actual dimensions. There is something charming about a watch that can both disappear but stand out when needed.

Additionally, this example boasts its original Gay Freres bracelet, which is difficult to find with most vintage UG pieces. I look at this watch as the perfect start for someone who wants to explore the high-quality of vintage UG for themselves.

Duval Skin Diver

The one thing I love about the affordable watch market is that you can always find a great funky 60’s skin diver for a good price. Before the notion of a desk diver, watches were true tools, synonymous with the outdoors and, of course, maritime applications. For recreational divers, watches were an instrument to be worn and used for a variety of different timing functions while underwater. 

When this Duval skin diver dropped into the shop, I knew it would make my list. It's not often you see a watch that's been lovingly used for decades and still boasts its brightly colored dial. I have a thing about orange watches as they are a fun and striking pop of color we don’t see often in vintage. 

There’s nothing quite like throwing a vintage skin diver on a NATO-style strap or tropic strap and letting the compliments flood in. At 38mm, it's an ideal size for almost any wrist and priced around 1k. This watch is a great collection starter for someone looking for a piece that’s striking and wholly authentic.

Seiko 6139 Chronograph

The ref. 6139 “Pogue” from Seiko is easily one of the brand's most historically significant pieces due to its connection to the space race. Said to have been the world's first automatic chronograph, it was made famous by astronaut Colonel William Pouge, who famously snuck his yellow dial version onto his 1969 space voyage. The 6139 was one of Seiko's most popular watches during the early 70s and helped lead the way for Seiko to become the household name we know today.

The 6139 is another model that’s special to me personally. Since I started collecting, I’ve amassed a collection of 6 variations of this very reference, and for good reason. For a new collector, sometimes focusing on a particular brand and model can help guide you in the right direction. It can be far too overwhelming to attempt mastering several different references and brands in conjunction with one another, and Seiko is the perfect place to start. 

You’ll be hard pressed to find better value in a vintage chronograph under 2k. Even today, vintage Seiko somehow holds up to more expensive and sought after brands. I can share from experience that collectors of every level appreciate a great “Pogue” or vintage Seiko example.

Vulcain "ShockProtected" Alarm

There have, of course, been many revolutionary developments in watchmaking over the decades. Groundbreaking complications, exquisite manufacturing techniques, and even the addition of illuminated dials. With so much innovation, there was one brand that always stood out.

Vulcain, a Swiss luxury watchmaker that was founded in 1858, is most well known for their alarm watches. These watches used a hammer mechanism that struck an internal organ and made a sound that resembles a cricket. Their ingenious design enabled this alarm to run off its own spring to avoid the watch's power reserve being affected and ultimately help provide a consistent 20-second ring to the wearer.

Today, Vulcain is most well-known for its historical connection to the U.S. presidents. In 1948, President Harry S. Truman was famously gifted a “Cricket” alarm by the White House Press Photographers Association, which he wore regularly. As tradition developed, each president since then was gifted a Vulcain watch. What could make a better gift for the busiest person in the world than a watch with an alarm?

This Vulcain Alarm is the perfect entry to the world of alarm watches. It has an enormous amount of charm on the wrist and although it's not the more famous “Cricket” model, it still has the signature buzz that you would come to expect with a Vulcain watch. Priced under 1k, it's a perfect entry point to a budding collection and equally great conversation starter when your wrist starts chirping.

Longines Conquest

When we talk about brands that are continuously undervalued, I always, without hesitation, point to Longines. Many other collectors would agree the brand has a rich history dating back to  1832 and has produced some high-quality vintage pieces that deserve more recognition today. 

The Conquest is one of Longines most popular dress models and is, in fact, still manufactured today. The beauty in these watches comes with their unique design details. There are several iterations of the Conquest including black dial versions with gold markers, Calendar configurations with 3 o’clock or 12 o'clock date windows, and two-tones examples similar to that of the Rolex Datejust.

This particular watch is in sharp vintage condition and is a rare opportunity to own a Conquest with its original box and papers. Completely overhauled, this example still shows its original gold medallion and green enamel covering on the caseback. The Automatic Longines caliber 19AS is iconic and a true workhorse movement that is sought after by collectors.

In closing…

There are many paths to getting started as a new collector. Some, like myself, begin with Seiko and others are willing to save and spend a bit more for their first watch. Whatever you decide, know there are amazing affordable vintage finds that are still out there waiting to be discovered. 

Lastly, while collecting watches can be immensely enjoyable, it's important for new watch buyers to purchase from reputable sources. Whether you're interested in a very popular watch model or an under-the-radar piece, acquiring it from a trustworthy place is an important consideration to avoid mistakes early on. Contact us directly and we’re happy to source or share a listing of other reputable dealers who can help you start your own vintage journey. 

Happy hunting!

Steven D. Elliott is designer, menswear aficionado, and of course avid watch collector based in NYC. When he’s not chasing around his young daughter, he’s attending local meetups and lamenting about the ones that got away.

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