Buying Parts For Vintage Speedmasters

It is with great pleasure I introduce the first the very first guest article by a fellow collector, who you might know already on Omegaforums.net as @Oddboy. He is a knowledgeable and prolific collector and I am thrilled to have him contribute his thoughts here.

As Speedmasters rise quickly in value, so too does interest in Speedmaster parts.  In this article, we will explore some of the – sometimes contentious – issues around buying parts.

Of course all of us would love to buy original, first owner watches that have been tucked away in a sock drawer or shoe box in someone’s closet.  The reality is that this doesn’t happen all that often.  The majority of Speedmasters bought these days are from the more common outlets – eBay, auction houses, dealers, pawn shop and of course, watch forums.  As these watches pass from one person to the next, we lose sight of the watch’s originality.  The friction of moving through all those hands often leads to watches that are “upgraded” or “enhanced” for sale.

What does “enhanced” mean?

Old watches often have issues that need to be addressed.  The movement, for example, may need parts in order to continue to function.  While many of the initiated would buy a Speedmaster in a non-functioning state, the majority of us would not.   While many of these parts are available at various parts suppliers or on eBay (among other sites) as well as directly from Omega (with some caveats), there are parts that are simply not available.  There’s also the matter of finding the right watchmaker to service a vintage movement.   However, buying and replacing old, worn movement parts is generally acceptable.  The watch wouldn’t work if we didn’t do this.  The key here is that the replacement parts are authentic Omega parts intended for the caliber and, ideally, the reference of the watch.

Pictured here is a Hammer Spring for a 321 (part #320-1734). These are no longer available. If your watch needs one, you have a long hunt ahead of you. A short time ago (late 2017), a parts supplier had a number of these listed on their web site – 38 if I’m recalling correctly. I made contact and ordered a few. Through an email exchange coordinating the purchase, I learned that somehow, word got out that these were available, and the parts supplier was selling them like hotcakes. In the space of 2 days, his stock was depleted (though he mentioned that he would keep some for his own watch repair business).

But what about the visible parts – the parts that make up most of the value; that attract or repel us?

This is where the lines begin to blur.

While not preferred, many collectors accept watches that are enhanced, as long as disclosed, and when the “enhancement” is unobtrusive.  Replacing a beat up old “meteor” DON bezel with a nicer one is generally acceptable, provided that the new one matches the condition of the rest of the watch.   There is a question here too of whether anyone would know if you did such a thing (hint: the experienced collectors probably will).

Replacing modern parts on a vintage watch – be it hands, bezels, dials – all more or less accepted as “returning a watch to its original form” and this practice is generally OK to all but the most pedantic purists.  But is there a line?   What if all of those parts – hands, bezel, dial – are replaced with sourced parts?

Even if disclosed, is the watch still desirable?  (hint: it can be).  We are not talking here about embellishing parts with reluming, repainting (perhaps an article in its own right), or otherwise changing the part, but rather hunting out proper, authentic, vintage parts to put onto the watch in question.  Opinions on this are divided.

So, what about buying parts?

eBay, parts houses (“while supplies last!”), watch makers and fellow collectors are all sources of parts.

You can find just about anything with a little patience and a ready war chest.  Many parts, especially “consumable” parts (like pushers, crowns, stems, crystals, main springs) are available with very little effort on ebay.  You can find DON bezels of varying quality without too much effort as well, though the better ones – and the better prices – are often on the forums.  Baton hands are also not impossible to source, but you have to be quick.

Proper tritium hands go quickly, and are not cheap.  An Hour and Minute pair of hands would go for somewhere around $500 these days, and they don’t last long.

Even cases can be found, but it starts to get harder.  Modern twisted lug cases are slightly different from vintage ones.  Straight lug cases are often pitted or rusted, or have damaged threads (for caseback, or for pusher stems).  Sometimes the holes for the pushers are worn and pushers can’t be fitted anymore without “adjustment”.   Dials, the heart of the watch, can be found too, but you have to ask yourself… why is the dial for sale and not on a watch?  Quite often, it’s because the dial that’s for sale has been replaced by a better one.  And often, the better one came off another watch.

In other words, some people will buy a whole watch just for a particular part.  As far as pricing goes, well, it’s all about condition.  A nice pre-pro dial in good condition with original lume can easily command $5,000 or more.  Earlier dials (flat O, short minute marker dials) have pushed right up to $10,000.  Good Professional dials will fetch $3,500 to $5,000.  Less good versions of these dials will easily drop to 50% of those prices or less.  The difference between a watch with a good dial and one with a worn dial can be 100% or more.

So here we are at the far end of parts acquisition… buying a watch to yank parts off of it to enhance another watch.  Again, the question is always, how would anyone know?

Where is the line?

In my humble opinion, I think buying a watch for no other reason than to dismantle it is going too far – but as always there are exceptions to the rule.  There are watches for sale, most often on eBay, that sell for “VAP”, or Value As Parts.  These can be good buys for a heavy collector who wants or needs to gather some “spares”, especially as a number of parts for 321 movements are NLA.  If the watch is too far gone to ever make to even the “Running”+ category on the Price Chart, then I would accept it being bought for the constituent parts to be disassembled and used elsewhere.

There are no hard rules about buying parts for watches.  There is a code of ethics that fellow collectors expect of each other, and your morals will guide you when the community consciousness is not there to help you with that.  But aside from the expectation of forthrightness, there are forces to contend with, or at least be aware of.  Replacing parts can result in a more valuable watch, but more often than not, the investment does not pay for itself.  Replacing parts can certainly increase your own enjoyment of a watch – especially, it can increase your enjoyment of posting in the WRUW thread.  But the most rewarding kind of watch is still one that you bought that was already complete, and ideally all original.  There is still no better find than the one owner sock drawer find.

Footnote

Value As Parts

It is important to understand the concept of VAP.

In order to determine if an investment in parts – whether on their own, or in a parts watch – you need to appreciate the value proposition.  The Price Chart has a good discussion of the Value of DON bezels and how they affect the price of the watch.  This same approach can be used for any parts decisions.

For example, if you’re considering a dial for your watch, consider: does replacing the current dial with a better one increase the value of the watch?  If so, by how much?  By at least the price of the dial you’re considering?  For example, if you bought a 105.003-65 for $8,000 but you aren’t thrilled with the dial, is it worth spending $5,000 one a better one?

If you buy the dial, you’re now $13,000 into the watch.  You may be able to sell your not so nice dial for $2500, possibly less.  So let’s say your watch now cost you $10,500.  From a pure value point of view, was that a good buy?

Maybe.  If it increases your enjoyment of the watch, then, well, only you can put a price on that.  From a market perspective, you might break even.  However there is an intangible cost here to replacing the dial: the watch is no longer original.  Would anyone know?

Probably not (unless they recognized the dial – which happens!).

Should you disclose it?  Of course.

Would you disclose it?  Hmm, personal decision.  I hope you would.  I would.  But as soon as you do, the value of the watch drops by some immeasurable amount in the eyes of Speedmaster hunters.  So your $10,500 Ed White might only be worth the original $8,000 you started at even after you’ve invested in an expensive dial not to mention all the blood, sweat and tears you put into finding it and having it put on.   Did the investment pay off?  Probably not.    Is it worth doing for your own enjoyment (or for increasing Likes on the OF WRUW thread)?  Could be.  The point of the discussion is to be conscious of what you’re buying into.

 Bonus Material

Part #320-1112.   Looks kind of like a paperclip, doesn’t it?