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Seven years ago, Reiho Shibata opened Item, a vintage watch store in Shibuya, Tokyo, where he specialises in watches from the 1960s, such as the Rolex Date and the Omega Constellation. Within the glass cabinets that line the walls of the small shop, there is a 1970s Cartier Vendome, an Omega Ladymatic from the 1960s, a Rolex 1956 Precision. Although a vintage Seiko sign is bold in the window, it is an anomaly: European and US watches, not homegrown brands, are why collectors come. Mr Shibata says most of his customers are Japanese; the typical client is aged 25 to 30, buying a watch priced at around Y100,000 ($880).
The vogue for vintage watches has its roots in the shared cultural history of many of today’s buyers. According to Masayuki Hirota, a watch expert who writes for Chronos Japan, Nikkei Magazine and GQ Japan, the 1980s and 1990s saw a lot of publicity and interest in vintage watches in the country. “Our passion for vintage watches was strongly influenced by the Italian market in the 1980s,” says Mr Hirota.
“From there the boom spread and strongly took root in Japan.” He estimates that Tokyo has about 50 vintage watch stores, when you add the city’s pawnshops into the mix, and names Carese, Private Eyes, Shellman and Kusumoto pawnshops as among the best.
Indeed, such is the appetite for vintage watches in Japan today that fashion-forward, multi-brand stores like Beams, United Arrows and Arts & Science carry a selection in their flagship stores. Even Shellman, he says, has outposts in department stores such as Isetan Shinjuku Men’s, Mitsukoshi-Ginza and Barneys New York.
Adding to the appeal of vintage watches are favourable exchange rates and a rise in tourist visits to Japan. According to the Japanese National Tourist Organisation, the estimated number of international visitors to Japan in November 2015 reached over 1.6m, a 41 per cent increase on the previous year, with China, Taiwan and Korea the top three countries of origin. However, Christophe Savioz, Swatch Group’s country manager for Japan, says that Chinese tourists are in the main “interested in current models, and are not seen as much in pre-owned and vintage stores”.
“Tokyo is well known as the main vintage watch hub for Asia,” continues Mr Savioz. “I would say that many Asian watch collectors come to Tokyo to find classic timepieces. Considering that Omega, which is part of the Swatch group, was one of the earliest watch brands present in Japan, it is natural that a lot of our vintage watches, such as highly sought-after Constellations and Speedmasters from the 1960s, are available.”
He cautions, though, that the pre-owned watch market is quite separate to Omega’s own retail and boutique network in Japan and that the only time the brand liaises with vintage retailers is when there is a request for a watch to be serviced.
The appreciation for European and American vintage watches, and their iconography, is palpable from the minute you walk into some of Tokyo’s leading vintage watch shops.
At Carese, which has three Tokyo stores, vintage point-of-sale materials such as a 1960s poster advertising an Omega Constellation are sometimes just as compelling to the Japanese watch collector as say, a pristine 1950s Omega Seamaster. A short walk away at Dazzling Shiggy Collection, there is European and American watch memorabilia such as a framed Omega advert circa 1950, which fetches Y12,000 ($106) — positively entry level when you compare it with a 1965 Jaeger-Le Coultre Automatic Date for Y330,000 ($2,900) plus tax.
Carese uses original advertising material and original boxes to enhance vintage watches by Rolex, Omega, IWC, Patek Philippe, Vacheron Constantin, Longines and Breitling. “We acquire most of these advertising goods, dating from the 1920s to the 1970s, at vintage watch shows,” says Emi Nomura, who works in the sales division at Carese’s Roppongi Midtown branch. Company staff travel to Germany, the UK and various cities in the US, including Miami and Los Angeles in search of vintage watches. At Carese, prices range from Y100,000 ($880) to Y7m ($62,000) for rare pieces. And of all the brands, “Rolex especially is always in demand,” she says.
Benjamin Clymer, founder of the US-based watch blog Hodinkee, says wearing a vintage watch has become part of the uniform in Tokyo. He describes the Tokyo hipster as a man who “wears Visvim, carries Porter [a brand of luxury bag], drives a vintage Land Rover Defender, shoots with a Leica and wears a vintage Rolex Submariner big crown”.
Tsuyoshi Tojo set up East Crown in 1995 and was later joined by his son Katsutoshi, who says that the turning point in the business followed Christie’s Rolex Daytona “Lesson One” auction in Geneva in November 2013, when investors bought vintage watches. “Since then, the market for vintage Rolex has become crazy and changed a dealer’s life,” says Mr Tojo.
East Crown does not have a storefront and operates in a by-appointment showroom. “We wanted our customers to see our watches privately, without any noise, distraction or a feeling of being rushed. Also, we don’t have a lot in stock to display in a shop.
“We believe that in the vintage market it isn’t volume but the quality of watches that is important.”
East Crown’s watches are sourced from all over the world and that too is where customers come from, seeing stock on their website or on Instagram. He says that what is most in demand depends upon where the customer is based. “In Japan, it’s a Rolex Daytona ‘Paul Newman’, and in Hong Kong a Rolex Submariner is more popular than any other watch.”
And Mr Tojo’s predictions for the future? “We specialise in chronograph watches and expect that the Killy 6036 and 6236 — the most complicated watch ever produced by Rolex — will soon be a hit in the market, as it’s still undervalued and rare.”
This article was amended on March 21 to identify Porter as a luxury baggage brand.