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What to know before diving into preowned watches

Paul Newman's record-breaking watch
Paul Newman's record-breaking watch 04:13

NEW YORK - Luxury watches have long been a symbol of the wealthy. That's changing, thanks to a booming trade in preowned luxury watches that's led by a growing number of specialized retailers. Established luxury watchmakers and dealers are also getting into the trade.

"Retailers seem to get much more excited about selling preowned than new because they can set the price," says Ariel Adams, founder of aBlogtoWatch, the foremost authority in watch blogs.

From a vintage 1930s Cartier Tank to a gently worn 2017 Rolex Sea-Dweller, deals can be had. Here's a guide on how to score one:

Where to buy

The luxury watch you've coveted for years might no longer be out of reach. But where to start looking?

You'll find many dedicated online retailers like SwissWatchExpo and Second Time Around Watch Co. Traditional retailers like the iconic Tourneau chain also sell preowned watches in stores and online. Most established retailers offer pieces that have been serviced by watchmakers and tested for mechanical accuracy. To avoid knock-offs, check online reviews for the dealer.

Don't overlook online outlets that aren't just for watches. Overstock and eBay offer thousands of well-priced luxury watches.

To get the lay of the land, start with industry websites like Hodinkee and aBlogtoWatch. There are also numerous YouTube video reviews and Instagram watch "geek" feeds.

What to buy?

"The most important piece of information I tell people is: Buy a watch you want to wear," said Adams. "Now that sounds really obvious. But a lot of people, without really knowing, try to follow other people's advice. Watches are like clothing: Just because someone really likes their pair of jeans that doesn't mean it will look good on you."

Paul Boutros, head of Americas for auction house Philips Watches, cautions against approaching the watch as an investment.

"Buy watches because you love them," he said. "As far as investment goes, it's best to invest in stocks or real estate."

How to score a deal

To figure out roughly how much you should pay, compare prices on online marketplaces like Germany-based Chrono24, where retailers and individuals list watches for sale. But watch collector Paul Bragan, a senior partner at market research firm Wakefield Research, cautions shoppers to take those figures with a grain of salt. The list price is often not what a watch ends up selling for, Bragan said.

Once you have price points, zero in on a good-condition piece. Many online retailers offer "first-time buyer" discounts or incentives for returning customers. Most offer email newsletters that will alert you to upcoming holiday sales, and not just for Christmas. Tourneau and online platform Watchbox offer sales tied to other holidays such as Independence Day and Labor Day.

Watchbox's innovative app even allows you to offer your own price as a starting point.

Have a watch you don't wear anymore? As with cars, figure out if you can trade it in for your dream piece.

Consider the "gray market"

If you really want a new piece, consider the so-called "gray market." Brand-authorized dealers often offload excess inventory onto third-party websites. Those sites, in turn, will offer discounts of roughly a third on new and unworn pieces. But there's a catch: Those third-party sellers can't offer warranties against defects or mechanical failures.

"The gray market is just for that customer that wants a special big deal," said Steven Kaiser, founder of New York-based luxury industry consulting firm Kaiser Time. "You are always going to have that customer."

Pay attention to the fine print

You should consider details beyond the sale price. How much of a warranty does the seller offer? Does it cover water damage? What's the return policy? Does it include a restocking fee? If you're on the hook for return shipping costs, that could be good chunk of cash if you need to insure the package.

Don't forget insurance

Many home insurance policies cover personal possessions, but it's usually worth getting a separate "valuable item" policy for peace of mind. Many such supplemental policies cover theft or loss away outside the home.

What about women's watches?

"It's a man's game," said Watchbox founder Danny Govberg, who estimates that only 5 percent of preowned watches on the market are designed for women.

But that's good news for female watch enthusiasts. It usually means better deals for the smaller-dial Rolexes and Omegas.

Take care of the watch

Luxury watches are made to last decades, but they require care. Mechanical pieces need more care than those that run on batteries, known as quartz watches.

"You should make sure it's wound at least weekly and running at least weekly," said Susanna Woycitzky, watchmaker at Watchbox. She added that you should also keep your watch away from magnets, including those on iPad covers, purses and money clips.

Most watches are waterproof, but it's best not to test it.

"Don't take them swimming in the Mediterranean," said Christian Zeron, founder of online retailer Theo&Harris.

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