You generally have two types of watch enthusiasts: The first loves buying glorious vintage watches from times gone by, while the second is not interested in owning vintage watches at all. They may be interested in the stories and designs that come with the classics, but they would never buy a vintage watch for themselves. Modern watches are simply the better choice in their mind. But are they right? While it’s objectively true that modern watches are produced from better materials and with the latest technologies, it’s not just these intrinsic qualities that make them the better choice for the latter group. Vintage enthusiasts would beg to differ. For them, the history, the intentionality, and the stories that come with vintage watches are worth much more than a shiny new watch. So, is one better than the other? Let’s find out by looking at some of the biggest icons in the industry.
Daytona vs. Daytona
The Rolex Daytona is not only the most popular watch in the world right now but also the perfect example for this article. There is a clear division between vintage Daytonas and modern Daytonas. When we refer to vintage Daytonas, we’re talking about the manual-winding editions produced from 1963 until 1988. In 1989, Rolex introduced the first automatic Daytona models. That’s also when we saw the design updates that led to the watch as we know it today.
So, which ones to compare? Let’s pick the two that are closest to each other: The current white dial Daytona ref. 116500LN is most similar to the last of the vintage manual Daytonas, the ref. 6263, which was in production until 1988. If you put these two watches next to one another, you’ll definitely see where the current model gets its looks from. Both boast stainless steel cases with white dials, contrasting registers, and screw-down push-pieces, but there are also differences.
First off, the vintage ref. 6263 measures 36 mm across, which is noticeably smaller than the current 40-mm Daytona. Secondly, there are obvious differences in the materials and finishing. Many vintage enthusiasts complain about the flashy appearance of modern Rolexes with their ceramic bezels and polished center links. Another detail that differs is the height of the pinions on the registers at 3 and 9 o’clock; they are above the center pinion on current Daytonas. It’s one of those “once you’ve seen it, you can’t unsee it” details for people that like visual balance.
However, the most significant difference is that vintage Daytonas are storytellers, whereas the modern version is rather sterile. If you are looking for a modern sports watch for everyday wear, it doesn’t get much better than the current Daytona ref. 116500LN. But if you are looking for the true spirit of the Daytona, there is no denying that a vintage model with a legendary manual Lemania movement is very hard to beat.
Verdict: Go vintage.
Omega Speedmaster “Moonwatch”
A second obvious choice is the legendary Omega Speedmaster “Moonwatch.” This watch debuted as a sports chronograph in 1957, but its story changed in 1969 when it became the first watch on the Moon. Let’s take the Speedmaster ref. 105.012 (the watch on astronaut Buzz Aldrin’s wrist when he set foot on the lunar surface) and compare it to the current Speedmaster Professional ref. 310.30.42.50.01.001 with Hesalite crystal and a solid case back. As you will quickly learn, the two watches have a lot in common.
The ref. 105.012 was the first Speedmaster to feature the asymmetrical case with twisted lugs still in use today. It was also the first Speedmaster to feature the word “Professional” on its dial. On top of that, it was powered by the famous caliber 321, which has since become legendary among Speedmaster enthusiasts. In fact, the movement is so famous that Omega decided to create a modern version of it for the Speedmaster Calibre 321, also known as the “Ed White,” from two years ago.
The modern Speedmaster Professional very much looks like the vintage Speedmaster ref. 105.012. What Omega has done brilliantly over the years is to make sure that new “Moonwatch” models always feature plenty of details from the past. That way, there is never too much disconnect from the authentic vintage pieces. Moreover, the brand has continued to use the Hesalite crystal found on vintage models. Omega did decide to upgrade this model’s movement, however. The new caliber 3861 is a modern, co-axial version of the caliber 861 that succeeded the caliber 321 from the 105.012.
Overall, it’s tough to choose between these two watches. Omega did a great job on the design of the new Moonwatch’s case, step dial, and brilliant bracelet. It is truly a step up from the previous version, but if you would like to experience the watch that went to the Moon, there is nothing better than the ref. 105.012. While the modern Speedmaster Professional “Moonwatch” carries on the legacy, the vintage “Moonwatch” was what started the legacy in the first place – nothing beats that.
Verdict: Go vintage for the history and then buy modern for daily wear.
Audemars Piguet Royal Oak “Jumbo”
Next up is the iconic Audemars Piguet Royal Oak “Jumbo.” This iconic watch was designed by Gérald Genta and sparked a revolution when it premiered in 1972. Nowadays, the Royal Oak is seen as the first modern steel luxury sports watch, a category that has become incredibly popular as of late. But nothing beats the original, right? Well, other than the modern version, perhaps.
What immediately stands out is that the first-generation Royal Oak “Jumbo” ref. 5402 is not that different from the current Royal Oak “Jumbo” Extra-Thin ref. 15202. The size, case, bracelet, and even the movement are all the same as they were in the 1970s. What Audemars Piguet has changed, however, is that the date disc is the same color as the dial, whereas the original version had a contrasting white disc. They’ve managed to improve in the new version despite leaving it unchanged for decades.
Audemars Piguet needed a very slim movement to bring Genta’s vision of a modern sports watch with an integrated bracelet and slim profile to life. They used the ultra-thin automatic caliber 2121, which resulted from a collaboration with Jaeger-LeCoultre and funding from Audemars Piguet, Patek Philippe, and Vacheron Constantin. It’s not surprising that Audemars Piguet still uses this movement to this day in the ref. 15202, as it is widely regarded as an exceptional caliber.
When it comes to picking one over the other, I would personally go for the modern version. Some of the vintage pieces have not aged well, and considering the current version is practically identical to the original but with some slight aesthetic improvements, it is an obvious choice for me. While I absolutely adore Genta’s legacy and original design, I would pick the Royal Oak “Jumbo” Extra-Thin ref. 15202.
Verdict: Go modern.
Patek Philippe Nautilus
The final iconic timepiece I want to discuss is the Patek Philippe Nautilus. This is another Gérald Genta creation that was first introduced in the 1970s, more precisely in 1976. The original watch, the Patek Philippe Nautilus ref. 3700, is easy to compare to the modern Nautilus ref. 5711/1A. Although Patek Philippe currently only offers a green dial version of the ref. 5711, the discontinued blue edition was the same watch in terms of technology. It remains to be seen what the brand will do after the green dial version goes out of production. A Patek Philippe collection without a Nautilus based on the iconic original seems impossible.
When designing the Nautilus for Patek Philippe, Genta used a similar approach to the Royal Oak and IWC Ingenieur, the latter of which debuted in the same year as the Nautilus. Genta explored a different basic symmetrical shape for each creation: round for the IWC, square for the Patek Philippe, and octagonal for the Audemars Piguet. The square lines of the Nautilus haven’t aged one bit, even though Patek Philippe has updated parts of the design and movement.
The vintage and modern editions both feature the same case and bracelet, but Patek Philippe decided to add a second hand to the new version. Moreover, the indices have a greater presence on the modern watch than they do on the original ref. 3700. There is more luminous material on the indices, and the minute markers have also changed shape. I have to say that I like the modern version a bit better, though I am on the fence about the second hand. If the maestro wanted to keep it simple, why change it? Audemars Piguet was clever not to meddle with the design.
The movement has also changed over time. The first Nautilus ref. 3700 used the same automatic caliber 2121 found in the Royal Oak but renamed it the caliber 28-255. The current version, however, uses the automatic Patek Philippe caliber 26‑330 SC. This modern movement is absolutely brilliant, as you’d expect from the Geneva-based brand. When it comes to choosing modern or vintage, I have to say that I prefer the latest version in terms of appearance – it’s just a bit better balanced. That being said, I have had the pleasure of wearing an original Nautilus ref. 3700 several times, and I must admit that wearing an original Genta design as he intended was pretty powerful. That’s why I would have to go with the vintage piece.
Verdict: Go vintage.
There you have it! A vintage vs. modern comparison for four industry icons. Obviously, there is no right or wrong when it comes to these legendary timepieces. You just have to pick the one you prefer – if you can afford one, that is. Each of these icons sells for a lot of money these days. The crazy prices make having an opinion about them a lot easier since the chances of actually having to make a choice are slim to none. If you do have the funds, however, I wish you a happy hunt!