Back To The Bay: Five Secrets For Shopping For Watches On eBay In 2020
Vintage & Auctions

Deal Or No Deal: Five Secrets For Shopping For Watches On eBay In 2020

Bargain hunting online has changed, but there are still some treasures to be found.

By Rhonda Riche

When I first started collecting watches, eBay was my happy hunting ground. After a few hours on the watch forums, looking at people’s pictures of Omega Constellations with pie pan dials or reading arguments about the merits of Seiko Bullhead Chronographs, my next stop was invariably eBay in search of said models. What can I say? I was an impressionable youth.

These were the glory days of the online auction site, where one could snag a Jaeger-LeCoultre for a song just because the seller had misspelled the brand name or taken grainy photos. But you could also sell a beat up Benrus for big bucks if you found the right combination of two bidders who desperately needed to fill an emotional hole in their lives by replacing their dad’s retirement timepiece.

Now that life is a little slower, I find myself occasionally spending sleepless nights returning to the auction site, and I learned that today’s eBay is very different than it was when I signed up in 2000. Through much trial and error, here are my top five tips for successful eBay shopping in 2020.

FOMO No More

Today’s eBay is less an auction site than it is an online reseller. And in most cases, if you are looking for something new, you just buy it directly from the brand or a boutique with an online store.

Still, eBay stands as a resource for limited edition or discontinued models. Like ticket scalpers or toilet paper hoarders, some people will buy up rare models in the hopes of profiteering, making folks with chronic FOMO overpay for a watch they need to have. 

For example, if you overslept on the sold-out Casio G-SHOCK x NASA DW5600 Digital White Watch DW5600NASA-20, there are plenty currently listed on eBay.

To be clear, I don’t want to encourage people to go out, buy all the watches, and then jack up the prices. Yet, at the same time, if your mind is filled with thoughts of the Casio G-SHOCK x NASA DW5600 Digital White Watch DW5600NASA-20 that got away, you can get one on eBay $324.95, just a mere $194.95 more than its original retail price of $130.

Location Location Location 

The number of watches available on eBay can be overwhelming. One way to curate the search experience is to search by location. For example, if you purchase a timepiece from your own country, you won’t have to pay a customs tax and insured shipping is going to be a heck of a lot cheaper.

However, there are advantages to buying internationally. I like to purchase from France because sellers from the country seem to offer a lot of interesting timepieces and accessories for very reasonable prices. For example, I just bought two hard-to-find replacement parts for a 1970s era Jaeger-LeCoultre Pierre Cardin Espace for a pittance on eBay. 

While you can’t shop specifically by country, you can use language-specific search terms to navigate. “Montre” means "watch" in the language of love, and “armbanduhren” is the German equivalent. The only downside is that it gets pretty tricky when reading the item descriptions. But Google translate can help.

I would be wary of buying older watches from sellers in countries with a lot of humidity, if only because my beloved Brazilian Omega Dynamic and 1970s Oris from India both had rust problems caused by humidity requiring extensive overhauling. An exception to the rule would be Mido watches that are specifically marketed to withstand the elements of tropical Latin American markets.

Catch Them While You Can

The secondary market for watches is booming. This means that prices for solid but undersung brands are rising. 

You can still acquire non-Swiss brands such as Glashütte, Junghans, Nomos, and Seiko at accessible prices. But the low prices won't last long. I had my sights set on a vintage Grand Seiko for $600. I didn’t want to raise my bid any higher, so I lost. I have never seen one in working order for less than $2,000 since. You snooze, you lose.

Vintage Eterna, Zodiac, and Vulcain are just three Swiss brands that are growing in online popularity. You’re better off buying retro watches from a respected dealer because they can also sell you things like provenance and service history. But if you are not fussed about these things, eBay could be right for you.

Don’t Settle

This tip should inform all timepiece purchases, but especially when it comes to eBay, where algorithms will “suggest” watches based on your search and bid history.

If you have your heart set on a Pepsi, do not compromise with a Root Beer (or vice versa). Even if you save a lot of money, at the end of the day, you won’t be satisfied.

It may sound a bit hardnosed, but there is still a lot of wriggle room. That is if you're honest with yourself about why you want a particular watch. For example, if you admire the style of a vintage Bulova Devil Diver but aren’t so hung up on labels, you can opt for the Caravelle (Bulova’s sister brand) version. Or a Tudor Oyster instead of a Rolex. 


Today’s eBay offers all kinds of buyer protection, so if you end up with a dud, you should get your money back. But to save yourself the heartache of thinking you’ve finally found your dream watch, you should do your research first.  

You can use eBay’s own completed sales filter to research what the going rate for a Zodiac SeaWolf is going for. And you can check out past auctions to learn more about history and condition. While looking at an auction for a Hamilton Fontainbleu, I fell into a whole rabbit hole about the race to develop the first automatic chronographs. Research is fun.

While you can reduce your risk by doing your homework, any eBay win can still turn sour.

Ultimately I didn’t bid on the Hamilton because it was missing its crystal, but I did win a lovely ladies 1970s Universal Geneve. And I won it for just $36 plus shipping. 

One reason the watch was such a steal was the seller was not experienced in selling watches. Good for me.

The seller's inexperience meant that they were not good at packaging watches for the mail. Bad for me.

The watch that arrived was authentic and in good working order, except one of the lugs had snapped off during its voyage. Bad for the watch and me.

I decided that since it was such a deal, I would just get it fixed. And then everything shut down, and the watch is still sitting on my desk, waiting to be worn.

But even once the lockdowns lift, do not buy watches that don’t work. There’s no guarantee that your watchmaker can source the right parts, or the brand’s service center will work on it. The only exception to this rule is buying a non-working donor watch to harvest its parts to fix another favorite timepiece.

On the plus side, if you are unsatisfied, you can always resell it – on eBay!

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