How To Appraise & Assess A Vintage Rolex Watch

If you want a vintage Rolex, you will need to learn how to assess one. This skill will help you minimize the risk of disappointment.

MORNINGTUNDRA | October 2020

If you’re comfortable throwing caution to the wind and willing to spend thousands on a punt, you don’t need to read any further. Just buy a watch you like and enjoy it! But if you want to buy well and spend your money carefully you should read on...

Assessing a vintage watch is a skill that improves with practice but if you’re starting out, here is the very minimum you need to know.

85% of the value is in the dial

You need to examine the dial carefully and up close. If the crystal is scratched, blurred or otherwise blocks your ability to see the dial clearly, then move on and evaluate the other areas of the watch. But know this - without a good look at the dial, you’re making a purchase decision on only 15% of the watch value.

In ideal circumstances, a watchmaker will remove the dial from the watch and take high-resolution photos of the front and back of the dial. The pros at auction houses will use advanced digital image processing techniques to reveal details invisible to the naked eye.

For the rest of us, we have to go on what we can see through the crystal, often in sub-optimal light. You will need a jewelers loupe. It doesn’t have to be fancy or expensive, just a minimum of 10x magnification.

Next, you need to know how to use it. Place the loupe against your eye, then bring the watch up close to your eye. Move the watch (not the loupe) to bring the dial into focus.

At a minimum, you are visually inspecting the dial for these things,

  1. Signs of loose material like flakes, lint or fluff - all bad signs
  2. Correctly printed fonts and spacing (kerning and ligature)
  3. Correct texture and color of lume material on the dial and hands
  4. Condition of the paint and lacquer (clear coat)
  5. Signs of tool scratches or drag marks from hands being improperly installed
  6. Chapter ring minute markers need to be uniform and even
  7. Chapter ring minute markers need to be uniform and even
If these things pass inspection, then move onto the next section. If not, these factors reduce the value and price. Think very carefully about whether or not to proceed if you’re not happy with the dial.

1. Numerically Correct

You need to inspect the case Serial Number and the case Reference number. In most vintage Rolex, these are engraved (not stamped) between the lugs. In some models, these are on the caseback. Examining the numbers usually requires removal of the bracelet. For this you need a spring bar tool and some manual dexterity.

Using a spring bar tool on precious metal cases requires special care as gold is soft and easily scratched. Either ask the seller to perform this or mask the lugs with tape. Once you have the bracelet removed, examine the numbers and cross-reference them with The Vintage Rolex Field Manual.

The serial number to date the case (page 27) and the reference number helps verify the watch has the correct matching crown (page 56), hands and dial. Both numbers want to match any accompanying accessories and papers (section 12).

As you gain experience you will also want to examine wear marks from end links (page 208), hallmarks (page 38) and the font style and positioning of period-correct engravings. While you can descend to forensic level detail, focus first on validating the numbers.

2. Opening Things Up

If the watch passes inspection in the first two steps, take time with this third as it involves opening the caseback. You will need a good caseback opening tool and a firm grip. You can ask a seller or watchmaker to do this for you, but if you really want to bond with your watch, learn to do this yourself. To avoid tool slips and scratches you can minimize risk with a high-quality tool.

If you’re willing to learn to do this, you won’t be disappointed. The procedure is not complex or technical and you will save precious time and money. You’re not going to be poking around inside, just using your loupe to perform a visual inspection then closing things up again.

Use the caseback tool to crack any waterproof seal and loosen the caseback. This can require some force (torque) and a strong grip on the case. If it adamantly refuses to loosen leave for now and we’ll discuss options later.

Once the caseback is loosened, gently unscrew it with your fingers. Once it’s removed, your inspection will be as follows :

  1. Examine the markings on the caseback and take pictures
  2. Check engravings are period correct (page ##) as casebacks are interchangeable and mismatched casebacks are common
  3. Look for other date markings on the caseback such as year and quarter
  4. Look for watchmakers' service marks. You don’t need to decipher them, just for signs it’s been serviced in the past
  5. Look for correct finishing such as perlage on the caseback and movement (page ###)
  6. Look for signs of pitting and corrosion (page ##) or moisture ingress
  7. Examine condition of screw heads and look for missing screws and signs of sloppy servicing
  8. Assess general cleanliness and signs it has been cared for
  9. Examine the position of the regulator (advance or retard). If pushed to a maximum position, the watch is likely due for servicing and unlikely to be keeping consistent time

Pro-Level Tricks

If the caseback stubbornly refuses to open, there are a few options to try. First try applying a few drops of penetrating oil to the edge of the caseback, and leave overnight. These are watchmakers sized drops not oil rig worker sized drops! This can usually loosen the thread sufficiently to open.

If this doesn’t work, you can try the watchmakers crazy-glue trick. Use Crazy Glue (or any glue with cyanoacrylate, NOT epoxy resin) to stick a nut to the case back then apply some serious torque with a spanner or wrench. Once it’s removed, soak the nut and caseback in acetone (nail polish remover) to separate. I can attest from personal experience this works well.

Watch Toolset
Get yourself a set of simple tools

3. Conclusion

These procedures are non-technical and well within the capabilities of amateur watch enthusiasts. While they might sound scary or intimidating, they’re really not. If you have patience, a well lit and dust-free surface, you can do this. You just need this bundle of four things

  1. A jewelers loupe, 10x magnification
  2. A springbar tool
  3. A caseback opener
  4. A copy of The Vintage Rolex Field Manual

Triplock Crown Types
VRFM book image

The Vintage Rolex Field Manual
Hard Cover Chevalier Print Edition

ISBN: 978-0578630823
Size: 8.5 x 0.9 x 11 inches
Weight: 2.5 lbs
Format: Hardcover
Published: 2020

196 vintage models
1,400+ distinct references
Timelines, charts, tables
Examples, photos, history
Watchmakers, restorers, dealers

What To Do Next

For a comprehensive list of models and their features, consult the book everyone's talking about.

At US$ 85.00 The Vintage Rolex Field Manual Chevalier Edition is a modest investment for a comprehensive education that could save you tens of thousands of dollars in expensive mistakes. It will introduce you to some well known and trusted professionals in the vintage Rolex industry. They will provide a starting point in your journey and help you reach your goals and find your first, next or last vintage Rolex.

Buy the book now from your favorite bookstore or right here, with free global shipping.

To purchase a vintage Rolex contact

Scott Baratz
+1 (617) 968 7100

To restore a vintage Rolex contact

Philip Ridley
+1 (817) 821 2118

To refinish a vintage Rolex contact

Mike Hui
+1 (408) 800 3244

To relume a vintage Rolex contact

James Hyman
+44 754 825 2335

To service a vintage Rolex contact

Tanner Morehouse
+1 (701) 840 3287