I’m not a vintage Rolex expert and I would never try and predict what the future market for vintage Rolex looks like, but if current trends hold true those older stainless steel Submariners and GMT-Masters are only going to get more valuable.
With the current news stories about racketeering and kickbacks between Official Rolex Jewelers and grey market dealers I thought it would be a good time to talk about the market for vintage Rolex spare parts and what that means for the vintage Rolex collector.
A brief background will help set the stage for the current repair situation. A good watch can be easily repaired by any watchmaker. The idea that it takes special training to repair a watch is a falsehood perpetuated by the marketing machine of many of the high-end brands. If the watch is built well, any watchmaker can fix it, especially if he/she can get the necessary parts.
All the way back in the 1950s the Swiss watch manufacturers were already trying to control the after-sales service of their timepieces. Here in the United States, the Department of Justice “filed an antitrust complaint alleging a wide-ranging conspiracy between Swiss and US watch companies to fix prices, terms, and conditions of the sale of watches and watch parts, to restrict the manufacturing of watches and watch parts in the United States, and to control the export of watches and watch parts into the United States” and in 1960 Rolex along with 11 other companies entered into a consent decree which “prohibited U.S. importers of Swiss watches and watch parts from engaging in anticompetitive practices in the U.S. watch industry.”
When I started my career in watchmaking, back in 2006, Rolex had been violating the consent decree for several years. They were no longer selling parts through material houses and watchmakers who wanted to purchase directly from Rolex had to prove his/her skills by passing an independent certification exam or possessing a diploma from a respected school of horology. The Department of Justice opened a case and found Rolex in violation of the consent decree but Rolex’s legal team argued that the situation had changed and the decree was no longer relevant. Rolex won their case, and after paying a small fine the decree was repealed. The Department of Justice “determined that, as a result of significant changes in the watch industry during the past 45 years, the decree is no longer necessary to protect competition and therefore should be terminated.”
For the first 8 years of my career, I had the pleasure of working for an Official Rolex Jeweler (ORJ) which meant I had access to pretty much all Rolex parts, but some parts were only available on an exchange basis (like dials). There were still many Non Rolex Jewelers (NRJ) who also had access to parts, probably about 300 in the United States. The market for vintage Rolex sports models had not yet exploded. Sure double red sea dwellers were commanding a premium but most models brought the same prices as their current iterations. Nearly half of the Rolex watches I was repairing had some version of the Rolex 1530 in them and I could get any part for them.
Fast forward to the present. Rolex will still service these watches, but only on their terms. That means if the watch doesn’t have a service history with them they probably won’t touch it, and if they feel the bezel insert has faded to the point where it is no longer “functional” it will get replaced. ORJ watchmakers are not supposed to service these calibers and NRJ watchmakers can no longer order parts for the Rolex 15xx calibers.
Throughout my career, the number of individual watchmakers in the U.S. who can purchase parts from Rolex has been constantly decreasing. Today there are only approximately 50 NRJ watchmakers in the U.S. Everyone else who is fixing Rolex (several thousand of them) has to either use generic parts or purchase parts on the grey market. A parts account with Rolex is a precious commodity. Very few watchmakers are willing to jeopardize their relationship with Rolex by selling parts on the grey market. Most of the parts currently available were in somebody’s inventory when Rolex closed their account. With that relationship gone they are now free to sell them to whomever they wish (or hoard them for their own repair work.)
The Rolex 1520 was introduced in 1957. I would consider it to be the first of the modern Rolex calibers, and in many ways, one of the best. It is extremely well built and very reliable. The 15xx series (which includes the 1520, 1525, 1530, 1535, 1555, 1556, 1560, 1565, 1565 GMT, 1570, 1575, 1575 GMT, and 1580) was the mainstay of the Rolex lineup until the caliber 3035 was released in 1977 but continued to be used in some models until the release of the caliber 3000 in 1990. I don’t know how many watches were produced featuring variations of this caliber but it numbers in the millions.
If you are paying attention to the numbers, it should be painfully obvious that the demand for Rolex parts far exceeds the demand. Appropriately the prices are constantly rising. The situation for older Rolex parts is made even worse by the fact that NRJ watchmakers can no longer purchase parts for calibers 15xx from Rolex anymore. The supply of parts in the market will never be replenished.
Parts that could be purchased by a NRJ watchmaker directly from Rolex for $20-$30 just a year ago are now selling for $200-$300 on eBay and continue to rise.
What does this mean for the vintage collector?
First, if you are purchasing a vintage watch you should always assume it is going to need a service, even if the seller claims it was “just serviced.” If the watch was well cared for that service might be only $1,000 – $1,500, but if the watch has been neglected you may end up paying $2,000+ to get it running well again. Which watches are the neglected watches? Well, the most desirable ones of course. If it has never been polished, it probably has never been serviced. If the dial has a lovely “patina” it probably has been exposed to some moisture. If it still has the original tritium hands it probably hasn’t been to Rolex for service anytime in the last 20 years.
Second, if you are the lucky owner of one of these beautiful vintage watches you need to consider your answer to the age-old question: “Should I get my watch serviced regularly or should I wait until it stops keeping time well?” When parts are readily available it may be acceptable to wait until the watch breaks to get it serviced. The additional price of extra parts is probably less than the cost of extra services. When parts are not easily accessible, the calculus changes. The components in these old watches are very well made. Watches that are serviced regularly (about every 5 years) won’t wear out. It is the time period after the oils have degraded but the watch is still running when damage occurs. If you wait until the watch isn’t running well, or has come to a stop you can count on a very large repair bill. Suddenly the extra cost of parts could far exceed the cost of additional services.
Lastly, build a relationship with your watchmaker. Communication is key. You want to preserve that “ghost” bezel insert. Maybe you don’t want the case refinished (or maybe you want the guy who can make it look perfectly new again.) Find a watchmaker who does the job right and listens to your needs and then treat them right. There are not enough watchmakers like that.