Eric Fleming, a residential real estate broker in New York City, got turned on to watch-collecting six years ago when a client gave him some timeless advice. The client, who worked for jeweler Harry Winston, told Fleming he would never be able to sell a $4m apartment wearing a cheap watch.

Fleming, who was wearing a $400 Tissot sports watch back then, listened — and then some. The 37-year-old has since amassed a collection of 11 watches, ranging from a $250 Luminox sports watch to an $11,000 Rolex Yacht-Master Platinum.

A watch for a man “is a very personal thing, it defines our character, our taste. There are not a lot of places where we can define ourselves,” said Fleming. He said owning fine watches has helped him professionally, as his client predicted: “Many clients notice my watches, I don’t wear the same one all the time.”

One reason watch-collecting is growing: an increased interest in technically interesting, well-made consumer goods, said Benjamin Clymer, executive editor of watch-collecting website Hodinkee. Desired watches often exude craftsmanship and a proven, longstanding notion of design.

These watches are anti-fad, they are timeless,” he said. “At their core, they were designed many generations ago, and the fact that there is an increased interest in them now speaks to the desire to move away from trend and toward craftsmanship.”

Vintage watch-collecting — which began in earnest in the 1980’s in Italy and Germany — is now a global phenomenon, with auctions held twice a year in four cities, according to Reginald Brack, head of private sales for Christie’s Watches, one of the top auctioneers of timepieces. Each location has its own specialty. Geneva auctions, for example, specialise in vintage watches more than 25 years old, while Hong Kong features auctions of timepieces that are more modern and have more jewels, said Brack.

If you have some watches collecting dust on your dresser, read up. One of them might be a treasure.

Most coveted

You don’t have to be a jet-setter to buy a watch worth collecting. Watch enthusiasts can go to a neighborhood flea market or local dealer to scoop up an early Swatch that is now highly collectible, such as limited-edition models designed by artists like Keith Haring, which can go for as much as $1,000 at auction. Other reasonably-priced models to look for are mechanical Omega and Heuer watches from the 1960s and 1970s. They could be purchased for as little as $200 only five years ago, and now go for $2,000 on eBay.

Higher-end collectibles include early models of German brand A Lange & Sohne from the early to mid-1990s; complicated Patek Philippe models from the 1990s; and Rolexes from the 1960s and 1970s, said Clymer.

So called “complicated” watches, or those that display more than hours and minutes, are among the most collectible. That is because collectors, who are predominantly male and often in their mid-20s to 40s, are drawn to the watch’s mechanism. “It’s similar to car collecting, there’s a strong technical appeal, with over 400 parts put into something the size of a postage stamp,” said Joe Thompson, editor-in-chief of WatchTime, a US-based watch enthusiasts’ magazine. “Guys find it fascinating to know what’s going on under the hood.”

For those who simply want to invest in the trend, there is a watch fund, Precious Time, which buys the best vintage watches, in the rarest configurations, from top brands such as Patek Philippe, Rolex, Audemars Piguet, Cartier and Breguet. The fund — started by a Milan-based collector, Alfredo Paramico, who has amassed what some experts consider one of the finest collections in the world — holds the watches, then sells them at an appropriate time to collectors for a profit.

Experts say top models are becoming harder to find for sale as the popularity of watch collecting soars.

Auction records set last year by Christie’s included the $1.7 million sale of the Patek Philippe, Reference 3448, a white gold, perpetual calendar wristwatch with moon phases and leap year, made in 1981. Christie’s also set a world auction record for any Rolex wristwatch, $1.2 million for an oversized, stainless steel, split-seconds, chronograph wristwatch, Reference 4113, manufactured in 1942.

Hidden treasure

Still, according to Clymer, deals can still be found. Good places to hunt include private and authorised dealers, and online and off-line auctions at houses such as Christie’s and Sotheby’s. Estate sales and watch-collecting groups such as Red Bar Crew in New York, to which Fleming belongs, and eBay are also good options.            

To better understand what constitutes a “deal” and become more knowledgeable overall, experts suggest reading voraciously. Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Antiquorum, which specialises in watches, put their auction catalogues and sales results online. Also recommended are specialised media such as WatchTime, web sites like Hodinkee, and online discussion forums like ThePuristS and TimeZone.

What to look for

Gordon Bethune, former chief executive of Continental Airlines and a watch collector whose 50 vintage watches sold for $5.7 million at Christie’s in 2012, suggests developing a network of dealers who can act as advisors. His own network “helped me learn what to look for when I bought,” Bethune said.

Clymer believes “rarity trumps everything. If there’s only one watch made, it will ultimately be very special.”

What is paramount in collecting, experts agree, is the condition of the watch.

Originality of parts is vital, said Clymer. “Don’t have the dial hands replaced, you don’t want the case overpolished,” both of which greatly devalue the watch.

Paramico, who rarely wears his watches and relies on his mobile to tell time, does not recommend servicing vintage watches often, to preserve their original condition. Clymer suggests storing them if they are not worn frequently (they don’t need to be kept wound or working) and also insuring them.

If buying directly from a dealer, either in person or online, Matthew Bain, a Miami-based dealer, said it is important to understand the dealer’s return and warranty policies, in case you don’t like the watch once you receive it. While dealers have price markups to consider, buy at auction, Clymer said, and “you’re on your own, each watch is sold as is.” And purchasing a watch on eBay could be problematical, because it is often unclear who the seller is.

The bottom line

Experts say there is potential for watches to appreciate as an investment. Certain names might be more likely to offer returns, but the most important factor is that the buyer likes what he’s considering. Consider what Christie’s advises clients looking to buy any kind of treasure:

“The general rule…buy what you love,” Brack said.