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The Heuer Monaco is an automatic chronograph famously worn onscreen by Steve McQueen in the 1971 film Le Mans.

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Like many of us, Scott Mackenzie has found himself killing a lot of time online in recent months. But instead of doomscrolling news headlines, he is focused on finding the perfect vintage watch.

“I have a routine of hitting certain watch websites and forums every day,” says Mackenzie, a business development manager for an automotive services company in Calgary. Among his regular online haunts are Chrono24, a massive online marketplace offering both new and vintage watches from sellers around the world; Yorktime, a Canadian online watch seller; and Hodinkee, an American site known for its deep-dive editorials and a tightly curated selection of new and vintage watches for sale. “I’ll watch some Netflix, play some chess online and then read stories on Hodinkee,” Mackenzie says.

The Longines Heritage Classic is a modern update to a 1940s 'tuxedo' watch with an unusual black and white dial.

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The eagerness of enthusiasts such as Mackenzie to track down the perfect timepiece resulted in a banner year for interest in – and sales of – vintage watches in 2020. Chrono24 reported its best year ever, with US$2.4-billion in transactions, an increase of 25 per cent over 2019. Hodinkee, meanwhile, recently received US$40-million in funding from backers including LVMH, Google and celebrity watch collectors John Mayer and Tom Brady.

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“During the pandemic, people have become closer to their passions because they’re spending more time at home,” says Paul Boutros, head of watches for the auction house Phillips in North America. Phillips also reported its best-ever year of watch sales in 2020, including the record-breaking sale of a Heuer chronograph famously worn onscreen by Steve McQueen in the 1971 film Le Mans, which fetched more than US$2.2-million in December.

While most people aren’t in the market for a seven-figure watch, Boutros says big results such as these help to drive excitement at every price point. “These auction results motivate people to buy watches,” he says. “Unlike so many new things you buy, its value doesn’t go down to zero. With a watch, you can wear it for 50 years and its value may go up significantly.”

The Timor Heritage Field is a reboot of a classic (and highly collectible) Second World War infantry watch.

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Despite the allure of appreciation, Boutros cautions that shopping for a rare vintage watch is not without its pitfalls. “Getting into collector’s watches, especially vintage watches, is much more difficult than it looks,” he says. To avoid watches cobbled together with non-original parts, watches with over-polished cases, and worst of all, outright fakes, he advises newcomers to do their research and – as with purchasing a used car – to be judicious about who they buy from. If you’re buying a watch with a thought to its future value, however, there’s pretty much only one thing to keep in mind. “Condition is everything,” he says. “And highest prices are paid for the best-preserved watches.”

For anyone who wants the vintage look without the legwork, the world’s top watch brands are happy to oblige. Watchmakers have kept pace with the growing interest in vintage watches in recent years by dusting off models from their archives, updating them with modern components, and re-releasing them.

The Hamilton PSR is a modern version of an early digital watch from 1979, complete with a funky gold-toned case.

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Some of the best recent “new” releases include the Longines Heritage Classic, a modern update to a 1940s “tuxedo” watch with an unusual black and white dial; the Timor Heritage Field, a reboot of a classic (and highly collectible) Second World War infantry watch; and the Hamilton PSR, a modern version of an early digital watch from 1979, complete with a funky gold-toned case. Unlike many vintage watches, with movements that can require expensive servicing and cases that are prone to moisture infiltration, these watches combine vintage looks and modern technology in an alluring package.

For Mackenzie and his fellow vintage watch collectors, however, the challenges of shopping for and maintaining a collection of decades-old watches is worth the effort. “People are going back to the classics,” he says. “They’ve got character and there’s a story behind them.”

Among his most prized finds is an Omega Seamaster from 1955, a simple three-handed watch with a small case and hand-wound movement. In addition to its retro looks, it was the first vintage watch he bought for himself, lending it added significance. “It’s dressy, it’s classy and it’s understated,” he says. “I’ve been wearing it a lot more these days.”

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Seamasters from this era are currently selling in the mid-$2,000 range, which puts it at the low end of the vintage watch price scale, but Mackenzie isn’t concerned. “My biggest thing is, I intend to pass these on to my son,” he says. “He’s 14 right now and he’s getting into watches too.”

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