There was once a time when people saved up for certain designer handbags, knowing that they would hold their value for years to come. Today, thanks to the boom in the luxury watch market, some women are opting for timepieces rather than Chanel flap bags or Hermès Birkins.
But, with the limited inventory of luxury watches — as a result of the industry’s limited production, made even worse by the pandemic’s impact on the supply chain — as well as the promise of lower price points, many are shopping for secondhand pieces rather than buying them new. “Watch trading has just started to expand,” confirms Elizabeth Layne, chief marketing officer at luxury resale platform Rebag, adding that, like handbags, shoppers are increasingly looking at watches “as an investment piece.”
It makes sense: Even on the resale market, luxury pieces can sell for six figures. Then, there’s the value retention factor, which determines how much money consumers could make from selling a piece in the future, should they change their mind (or just want to make some cash).
With all this in mind, here's what you should keep in mind when shopping for a designer timepiece, secondhand or new.
What Types Of Luxury Watches Are Most Valuable?
Layne says shoppers should first decide whether they want a “fashion watch” or a timepiece: “Fashion watches tend to be more seasonal, while timepieces are more classic.” The former may include watches from luxury, fashion-forward brands like Gucci, Chanel, and Bulgari, and may feature more interesting design details and double as jewelry. “We’re seeing our watch customers get creative with accessorizing their [watch] models,” says Steffi Lee, editorial manager of fine jewelry and watches at The RealReal. “They are choosing delicate styles to pair with vintage rings and bracelets for a stylistically unique look."
Although fashion watches come at lower price points (by luxury standards that is), Layne says their trendy elements and jewelry-like design reduce their life span, versus classic timepieces from brands that specialize solely in timepieces.
While it all comes down to personal preference and budget, Layne suggests investing in timepieces from brands like Cartier, Rolex, and Philippe Patek that retain more value. “It’s better to invest in a Chanel or Hermès bag than a watch [from these brands],” says Layne.
What Luxury Watch Brands Should You Invest In?
Right now, the secondhand luxury market — both in demand and resale value — is dominated by Rolex, a brand that, according to the Rebag 2021 Clair report, holds 82% of its value. “Some models within Rolex actually resell for two times the original value, so you’ll be making money,” she says.
While most Rolex watches in the secondhand market sell well, Layne says there are four models that do best: the Batman, the Daytona, the Submariner, and the Coke. According to Rebag’s data, the Rolex Batman — which was discontinued in 2019 — holds an average value of 180% in the secondary market. Meanwhile, the Daytona — named after the Daytona International Speedway in Florida — and the Submariner — known for its appearances in the James Bond franchise — retain an average of 170% and 160% of their original value, respectively. Lastly, the Rolex Coke model — known for its black and red colorway — holds 120% of its value.
According to Brynn Wallner, founder of the popular watch blog Dimepiece, Cartier is another popular luxury watch for buyers right now. “It's such an iconic brand,” she says, referring to the jeweler's 175-year history. “Within the watch community, it’s also been revered to high esteem.” While Rolex watches are attractive for their resale value, timepieces by Cartier are more versatile. “The value is really in the fact that you'll probably wear it every day,” says Wallner.
According to Rebag’s 2021 Clair Report, the average value retention for Cartier pieces is 62%, with models like the Cartier Tank Française — first introduced in 1996, modeled after the classic Tank — holding nearly 70% of their value. On the luxury consignment site The RealReal, the resale value of the Panthère de Cartier — first introduced in 1914 — is up by 60% year-over-year. Lee also points to the Cartier Ronde Solo — which features a round shape — as “a great example of a universal watch, adaptable to a more masculine or feminine aesthetic depending on how it’s styled.”
How Much Does A Luxury Watch Cost?
The price of a watch varies vastly and depends on whether you’re looking for a seasonal addition to your 2022 wardrobe or a lifelong timepiece. While fashion watches come with "lower" prices — an Hermès watch can sell for $1,000 to $3,000 — they are harder and less lucrative to sell in the long run. A Rolex in the secondhand market currently sells for as low as $1,600 but can go up to $144,000, depending on the model and material, according to the watch search engine WatchCharts. But while the cost may be higher for the top-tier watch brands, they normally sell for twice their original value in the secondhand market, according to Layne. If an investment piece is what a buyer is after, she says that looking for discontinued models, especially for brands like Rolex, Audemars Piguet, Philippe Patek, and Richard Mille, is a wise long-term goal because of the higher demand for them.
For many first-time shoppers who are looking to splurge, Cartier is a good starting point because of the brand’s mid-level pricing but good retention value. “They're not super rare watches, so you can find an abundance of them on the secondary market and you can find a pretty good price,” says Wallner. On The RealReal, for example, the cheapest available Cartier Tank Française is selling for $1,995, while, on Rebag, it’s going for $2,365. (Its estimated retail value ranges between $3,200 and $3,500.) Wallner says this price range is typical for a first-time watch investment, depending on the quality and rarity of the model.
Still, even a thousand-dollar watch is out of reach of many. Wallner says there are still good investment opportunities to be found with lower budgets. "You can get a cool vintage Seiko that costs $300 on eBay," she says. Wallner also suggests going with direct-to-consumer brands, instead of big names, that offer quality watches below $500, including Daniel Wellington and Breda. It's also a good starting point for those who are interested in watches but don't wear timepieces on a regular basis. "If you [previously] never wore watches, it's nice to start with a watch that's not as expensive just to make sure you like the feel of it on your wrist," she says.
What Else To Keep In Mind When Shopping For A Luxury Watch?
There are other influencing factors to consider beyond the brand and model, like authenticity. Lee recommends asking for evidence of the authentication process before buying a four-figure watch from a secondhand seller, as well as performing a thorough evaluation of the item’s condition in person and reading over any mentions of services or repairs. “While servicing a piece is vital to its longevity, it’s also important to remember that every polish and cleaning will wear down the natural material,” she says. Furthermore, she recommends going for pieces that come with a box, technical paperwork, or certificate of authenticity, which all help with resale value.
Wallner’s biggest tip for first-time watch buyers is to keep an eye on the prize. “If you want a Cartier, save up for a Cartier, and don’t spend less money on some other watch you don’t love,” she says. "When you do get that watch [you want], it really feels so special."
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