How to Shop Vintage Watches

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Watch whisperer Max Bernardini chimes in on the time-honored tradition of introducing one’s son to the world of vintage watches.

When the Marquis d’Arnesano Max Bernardini, better known as Max, turned 16, his father gave him a 1944 Rolex Oyster Perpetual Ovetto—the so-called “Bubbleback,” which over the years has been a gateway watch for collectors.


“I traded it three months later for profit and several times after that,” says Max. “That became the basis of my business. 
I actually managed to buy it back after ten years for 20 times the price I sold it for, and I still own it today.” 


In the years since his first foray into the antique-watch arena, Max has emerged as a connoisseur’s connoisseur. His Milan store, Bernardini Vintage Luxury on Via Caradosso, across from a 15th-century church that houses Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper, is ground zero for 
vintage-watch lovers, who like Max prefer designs from a time when the quality of the product was defined by the quality of the client. departures asked Max about buying your son his first serious watch; not surprisingly, his suggestions skewed toward vintage. 


Do you subscribe to the Patek Philippe slogan that you never own 
a watch, you merely look after it for the next generation?

Well, I’m a guy who has a Patek Philippe logo tattooed on his wrist, so I would say yes [laughs]. 



Why do you think that buying a son his first watch, or handing 
a father’s watch down to him, is such a masculine rite of passage? 

Quality watches, whether new or old, are great investments, and there are definitely men who buy watches for their sons with long-term financial gains in mind. But to me, that they are good investments is incidental; there are other, more emotional factors at play. 


For one, a man has an undeniable bond with his watch—you look at it countless times throughout the day, and it’s something that literally touches your skin all day—and that bond is amplified when we are talking about passing down a watch from father to son. It’s going from your skin to his—there’s an intimacy that has a very different value than, say, a house that is passed down through the generations.

If you’re a collector, one day your watches—and maybe you’ve been adding to the ones you got from your grandfather and father—are going to be your son’s. That’s why you buy them, but the patrimony shouldn’t just be about money; it’s about knowledge. 


So it makes a big difference if you involve your son in the purchase? 

Absolutely. When you’re expert enough and when you’ve listened to enough people like me, a watch will sing. All the little details—the shine of the dial, the crisp of a lug, the sound that the button of a chronograph makes—will make sense to you. And if you manage to educate your son to perceive that kind of harmony and distinguish these little details, that’s when you build a man of great taste. The lessons that you teach your son about a quality watch can be applied to everything from buying a house to appreciating art and poetry.


Many of the collectors I deal with, men who can afford to buy a half-a-million-dollar watch, will deliberate for hours with their sons over a 2,000 or 3,000 euro watch. They really put in the time to educate them to distinguish quality. Are you sure? Why this model and not that one? They see it as an opportunity to teach their sons about the culture of luxury. 


I imagine that not everyone is as concerned with teaching kids the value of money and quality. 

I have one client from a very wealthy Italian family with four young boys. The grandfather, not my client but his father-in-law, buys them each an important Patek Philippe every year. 


So when these kids turn 18, they’re each going to have 18 Patek Philippes, which are worth between 50 and 100 grand each. If you can play ball that hard, good for you.


But even with him, it’s not all about the money. One of the watches he bought is a chronograph with a pulsemetric scale—a watch that doesn’t exist today but in the old days was a doctor’s watch—because I guess he is really hoping that one of his grandchildren will follow in his footsteps and become a doctor. 


Other than obviously buying from reputable dealers, what would you advise?

It’s the universal law that goes for everything: Don’t go after the deal. If it’s too cheap, then somebody’s playing you. There’s a reason why no one bid on that watch you thought was a steal at auction. There are professionals in this work (and not just me but people like Davide Parmegiani in Lugarno, Matthew Bain in Miami and Alessandro Ciani in Los Angeles, to name a few) who have dedicated their lives to collecting and whose reputations are worth more than the watches they sell. They’ve made mistakes, and they’ve paid for them—give them their profit to avoid making the mistakes that they did. 


Henry Graves, the amazing watch collector from the 1930s, had a motto that I suggest drives every purchase: esse quam videri, which in Latin means “to be, rather than to seem.” You don’t have to pretend you’re someone else; you don’t have to have a flashy watch to feel confident. One of the most important lessons you can teach a child is not to pretend they’re someone they’re not.

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