The value of antique or vintage watches is determined by several factors: the maker, condition and the type of materials. Antique pocket and wristwatches generally do not command high prices. But an 18k gold watch is far more valuable than any other timepiece. A standard practice among some jewelers is to automatically add $750 to the value of a watch with an 18k case.
Antique watch cases are usually made of stainless steel or a base metal that contains elements of lead, iron, copper, tin or zinc. Some watches are “gold plated” or “gold filled.” Vintage or antique gold-filled watches are relatively common. The range of gold-filled watches starts at 9k. These watches are generally manufactured in the United Kingdom. Watches manufactured in the United States generally start at 10k. The 10k gold-filled watch is followed by the higher valued 14k and 18k gold watches. There are no 24k gold watches because the gold is too soft and prone to damage.
Plated Versus Filled
The value of a gold-plated or gold-filled watch is determined by the thickness of the gold layer that is soldered onto a base metal case. An electroplated gold watch is 14k or higher with a layer thickness no less than .175 microns, or one millionth of a meter. A gold- plated watch has a minimum thickness ranging from .5 microns to 2.5 microns. A gold-filled watch has a layer of gold 200 times thicker than the heaviest gold-plated timepiece and commands top dollar. Most vintage gold watches have the micron level stamped on the inside of the case back.
The watch may have a marking, such as “1/20 14k GF”, inside the case back. This means that 1/20th of the total weight of gold must be 14k. It’s not uncommon for the gold-filled layer to wear down and expose the base metal through normal use. This greatly devalues the watch.
The Great Equalizer
As of July 2010, an ounce of gold was valued at about $1,210. A vintage 18k gold watch may fetch a price near that amount. The gold content earns the watch $750, plus whatever value is placed on the brand name and condition. Some jewelers will purchase 18k gold watches, throw away the mechanical movement, and melt down the gold case and dial as scrap for sale. A scrapped mid-level 1950s 18k Cyma Autorotor watch can sell for the exact same price as a scrapped high-end 18K Omega Constellation.
Gold watch prices can’t always be determined by the price of gold alone. The brand name of the gold watch, above all, determines the price of the watch, followed by the condition of the timepiece and the model. A pristine 1950s 18K gold Rolex Oyster Perpetual men’s watch can sell for $3,795. A similar vintage men’s watch, such as a late-1940s 18k Eterna, sells for no more than $745. Eterna lacks the name recognition compared with Rolex. The Eterna’s value is determined by its weight in gold.
Rob Wagner is a journalist with over 35 years experience reporting and editing for newspapers and magazines. His experience ranges from legal affairs reporting to covering the Middle East. He served stints as a newspaper and magazine editor in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Wagner attended California State University, Los Angeles, and has a degree in journalism.