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How To Assess And Appraise A Vintage Rolex Watch

Vintage Rolex Explorer Illustration

If you want a vintage Rolex, you will need to learn how to assess one. This skill will minimize the risk of getting screwed or scammed.

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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 get yourself a copy of The Vintage Rolex Field Guide.

If you don’t have the time or patience to consult a book, then this post is your TL;DR. 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 inhibits your ability to see the dial, then move on and evaluate the other areas. 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 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.

Visually inspect the following:

  1. Signs of refinishing (page 44).
  2. Signs of loose material (flakes, dust or fluff are all bad).
  3. Correctly printed fonts and spacing (kerning and ligature).
  4. Correct texture and color of lume material on the dial and hands.
  5. Condition of the dial paint and lacquer (clear coat).
  6. Signs of tool scratches or drag marks from hands being improperly installed.
  7. Chapter ring minute markers need to be uniform and even.
  8. Signs of corrosion or moisture on dial and hands (page 33)
If these things pass inspection, then move onto the next section. If not, these factors will reduce value and price. Think very carefully about whether or not to buy and consult The Vintage Rolex Field Guide for how to proceed.
Vintage Rolex Field Guide Tool Set

Numerically Correct

You need to inspect the case Serial number and the case Reference number. Other numbers need to be considered but described in the next section.

In most vintage Rolex, numbers are engraved with a pantograph (not stamped) between the lugs. In some models, these are on the caseback. Examining the numbers usually requires the 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 require special care as gold is soft and easily scratched. Either ask the seller to perform this or mask the lugs with tape. 

Vintage Rolex Field Guide Tools Bunde

Once you have the bracelet removed, examine the numbers and cross-reference them with The Vintage Rolex Field Guide.
  1. Check the serial number to date the case (page 24).
  2. Check the reference number to verify the watch has the correct crown (page 49), hands (page 46) and dial(page 45). 
  3. 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 199), hallmarks (page 34) and the font style and positioning of period-correct engravings. While you can descend to forensic level detail, focus first on validating the numbers.

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 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. 

Loupe, Springbar Tool, Caseback Opener

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 the 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.

When the caseback is loosened, gently unscrew it with your fingers. Your inspection will be as follows :

  1. Examine the markings on the caseback with your loupe and then take pictures. Your phone camera will do.
  2. Check engravings are period correct (page 31) as casebacks are interchangeable and commonly mismatched.
  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 look for signs it’s been serviced in the past.
  5. Look for correct finishing such as Perlage on the caseback and movement (page 220).
  6. Look for signs of pitting and corrosion (page 33) or moisture ingress.
  7. Examine the 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.

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.

If the caseback stubbornly refuses to open, there are a few options to try. First, try a few drops of penetrating oil 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.

CONCLUSION - Buy Some Tools

These three 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 these four things,
  1. A jewelers loupe
  2. A springbar tool
  3. A caseback opener
  4. A copy of The Vintage Rolex Field Guide
Book, Loupe, Springbar Tool, Caseback Opener

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