Collecting vintage watches on a budget can mean different things to different people. Much has been written, but most of what I find online is targeted at the $600 and-up market. Now that is affordable if you are initially looking at $1800+ pieces, but I’d like to focus on the more affordable $200 range in this article.
Most credible vintage watch dealers sell watches that have been properly refurbished…but the price is usually on the high side. Another route is to search eBay and have the watch serviced/refurbished. While it can be a daunting task, I’ve outlined one example of acquiring and refurbishing a nice vintage 50’s style watch that is practical. Remember that these watches averaged around 32mm in diameter, much smaller than the current trend in fashionable timepieces, so sporting such a watch is bucking the current trend 🙂
Since I can evaluate many watches that come through my shop for service, I have found many “average” watches that are stylish, build a quality case, and sport a very good quality Swiss movement. One such maker is the American brand Benrus (for more information see The History of Benrus Watch ). These watches were made in America and sourced the movements from high-quality Swiss makers (ETA and A. Schild or AS). I narrowed my search to watches that were running, with solid metal or 10k gold-filled (RGP), and with a dial and hands in good vintage condition. I avoided gold plated, as these tend to flake easily, and just don’t look as nice. I initially set on a cost cap of $30 including shipping.
As shown in these pictures, the watch I settled on was not in bad shape. The crystal was scratched and cracked, and the lume on the hands and dial was getting brittle and missing in some places. The dial, however, had just the right amount of “patina” in my opinion. The gold-filled case did have some pitting and was quite scratched, but had minimal wear through at the bottom of the lugs.
I completely disassembled the watch and found a movement that was quite dirty, but otherwise did not show much wear. Most of the corrosion damage was at the split stem, a weak point for moisture intrusion on this type of case.
The movement cleaned up very nicely, and the corrosion on the male and female stem was brushed to remove all loose corrosion. The plates, pivots, and jewels were in excellent condition.
As the watch was reassembled and oiled all the wheels ran as smooth as silk. This AS 1201 movement includes upgrades such as end cap jewels on the escape wheel, a temperature compensating hairspring, and shock-resistant balance wheel jewels…on par with common quality movements of its day. The mainspring was replaced with a new white alloy spring. As a bonus, the plates did not exhibit the usual scratches inflicted by previous services and were finished off with a nice brushed finish.
A new crystal was installed, the case was polished and almost looked like new. I did remove the old lume and replaced it with a bit lighter off white color, which I thought complimented the dial and hands nicely. I installed a white stitched leather band. After some minor hairspring adjustment and balance poising, the watch exhibited a beat error of 1.6 ms and timed at +/- 3 seconds/day and no more than a 10-second variation between common positions…pretty good! In day to day use the timing is never quite as good as the machine indicates but still does not vary more than a respectable 5-7 seconds/day while on the wrist.
The Final Cost: The Watch was purchased off of eBay for $20. Although I did all the work myself, the cost to a customer would be $145 (including the lume restoration) for a service, $10 for a new crystal, $28 for the mainspring, and $15 for the band. Total Cost $218 + shipping. Now the actual street value of the watch does not equal the money put into it (unless it was for sale in a retail shop). But if you are just looking for an authentic vintage good quality watch then it is not a bad price.