Phillips’ esteemed Head of Watches in New York, Paul Boutros, answers the one big question: which vintage timepieces from the pop era should you buy?
As someone who both grew up during the 1980s and fell in love with watches back then, I was excited to see the ’80s Week theme appear on HODINKEE. It reminded me of an email I received from Hodinkee Founder Ben Clymer back in 2019, where he asked some friends for our thoughts on watches we believed should be worth more than they are. As I thought through my answer, several pieces introduced in the 1980s came to mind, and a theme surrounding this decade I’m nostalgic for emerged.
As brands were coming out of the darkness of the Quartz Crisis, some very important and innovative watches came to market that, when considering their current market prices, offer great value for collectors today.
Make no mistake – with the onslaught of low-cost, very accurate quartz watches powered by batteries, Swiss brands struggled to survive, and countless brands couldn’t. But one thing I’ve learned from working with my Swiss colleagues over the years is that the Swiss are fiercely competitive, ranking as the third most competitive nation in 2020’s World Competitiveness Ranking (following Denmark and Singapore). Under such pressure came amazing creativity in the field of mechanical watches.
Here, then, are the “undervalued” 1980s favorites I shared with Ben. I’m happy to share them with you all today.
Patek Philippe Ref. 3940 and Ref. 3970
Patek Philippe has continually produced perpetual calendar and perpetual calendar chronograph wristwatches since 1941. No other brand would produce a serially produced perpetual calendar wristwatch until 1955, when Audemars Piguet introduced the groundbreaking ref. 5516 (the first perpetual calendar wristwatch to indicate the leap year), and it wouldn’t be until 1985 when another brand would produce a perpetual calendar chronograph in series – IWC with the Da Vinci Chronograph.
Both the reference 3940 and 3970 ushered in all-new movements. Introduced in 1985, the 3940 stood out for its ultra-thin caliber 240 base movement with micro-rotor – the world’s thinnest automatic movement when it was introduced at just 2.4 mm thick. A major aesthetic departure from Patek Philippe’s prior perpetual calendar models, which used apertures at 12 o’clock for the day and month indicators – references 1526, 3448, and 3450 – three sub-dials indicated the day, month, date, and moon-phase, along with 24-hour and leap-year indications.
With a beautifully proportioned 36mm case featuring a concave bezel, the model evolved subtly until it was discontinued in 2007 with production numbers in the several thousands. Today, scholars agree that, like the fantastic Quantième Perpetuel launched by Audemars Piguet in 1978, the reference 3940 was a key model for Patek Philippe that helped ensure its success through the 1980s and 1990s. It’s worth mentioning that AP’s Quantième Perpetuel was the world’s thinnest perpetual calendar wristwatch when introduced. Patek Philippe would take that title back with the 3940 – see how competitive the Swiss are?
First series examples of the 3940 with flat, sunken subsidiary dials, rare champagne dial variants, and early platinum examples with glossy, lacquered dials are especially interesting – and still are priced quite reasonably on the secondary market.
Introduced in 1986, the ref. 3970 perpetual calendar chronograph used a nearly identical aesthetic architecture of its iconic predecessors – the references 1518 and 2499. It used an all-new base movement, the caliber CH 27-70Q, which derived from the Lemania caliber 2310 – the same base movement powering early Omega Speedmasters. This was the first non-Valjoux movement Patek had ever used in a chronograph. The 3970 was sized at 36mm – a bit smaller than its direct predecessor, the ref. 2499 fourth series, which measured 37.5mm. Interestingly, the 3970’s case is larger than that of the revered 1518 (35mm) and the same size as the extremely rare and sought-after early ref. 2499s, with Vichet cases that also measure 36mm.
Like the 3940, the 3970 would add 24-hour and leap-year indications within the 9 and 3 o’clock sub-dials for improved functionality and practicality. The reference evolved over three series until it was discontinued in 2004. First-series examples with their snapback cases and feuille (leaf-shaped) hands, along with second series examples with feuille hands and screw-down casebacks, are especially attractive and rare.
Their superb quality, classic aesthetics, historical importance in the evolution of two of the brand’s most important models, and their relative affordability on the secondary market make them appealing on so many levels.
Rolex Submariner Ref. 5513 and GMT-Master Ref. 16750 with Glossy Dials
The Rolex product line saw many interesting developments in the 1980s. The Cosmograph Daytona went from the brand’s worst seller to its most sought-after timepiece thanks to the introduction of their first self-winding chronograph movement with the launch of the references 16520, 16523, and 16528 in 1988. Quick-set date functionality made models like the Day-Date far more user-friendly, and the
Around 1984, just prior to the introduction of sapphire crystals in their bread-and-butter entry-level sports models – the ref. 5513 “no-date” Submariner and the ref. 16750 GMT-Master – Rolex introduced an important dial change that has lasted to the present day. After 18 years, Rolex switched from the matte dials used since 1967 to vibrant glossy, lacquered dials with white gold, luminous hour markers. These still vintage, acrylic-crystal models were both discontinued and replaced with sapphire crystal versions: The ref. 16700 GMT-Master launched in 1988 replaced the 16750, and the ref. 14060 Submariner (now water resistant to 1,000 ft/330 m) replaced the 5513 in 1990.
The glossy-dial versions of these acrylic-crystal references are therefore quite rare, having been produced for just six years for the 5513 and only four years for the 16750. They combine the best of two worlds – vintage and modern – and are still quite affordable as the knowledge surrounding these rare variants is not widespread.
IWC Da Vinci Chronograph
Who would have imagined that IWC would be the second brand to introduce a serially produced perpetual calendar chronograph wristwatch, following Patek Philippe’s introduction of the model in 1941? Forty-four years would pass until IWC launched its innovative and outstanding Da Vinci Chronograph ref. IW3750 in 1985.
Inspired by Günter Blümlein, IWC’s CEO at the time, watchmaker Kurt Klaus developed the perpetual calendar module using just 82 components. All adjustments for the perpetual calendar could be made via the crown – a world’s first in the industry. The dial featured a four-digit year display with century slide that would advance once every 100 years. The watch was marketed with packaging containing a century slide for the 22, 23, and 24 centuries – genius.
The following year, in 1986, the Da Vinci Chronograph became the first wristwatch ever to use a ceramic case (zirconium oxide ceramic) as the ref. 3755. These 1980s watches remain a bargain and should, in my humble opinion, be worth quite a bit more than their secondary-market prices.
A collector for more than three decades, Paul Boutros is now the Head of Watches, Americas for the Phillips auction house. In October of 2017, he led the auction that brought in $17.8 million dollars for Paul Newman’s Rolex “Paul Newman” Daytona, the highest price ever paid for a vintage wristwatch sold at auction.
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