The Best Graduation Gift Is a Vintage Pocket Watch and Here’s Why

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At a Phillips auction on May 18 in Geneva, even before that Basquiat painting broke records for selling at a breathtaking $110 million, the auction house recorded another slightly less covered record deal: a vintage “Bao Dai” Rolex sold to an anonymous phone bidder for $6,850,000. Makes you think that a watch is probably a great investment piece, which is also part of the reason why they’re given as the classic graduation gift. They’ll last a lifetime, possibly increase in value, and always remind the gift-receiver of that very special time in their life (it’ll work as a Father’s Day gift too, especially for new dads).

To accomplish buying a worthwhile watch without spending upward of six figures, or even four or five figures, it turns out that the way to go is with a pocket watch. “So much attention is paid to mechanical wristwatches, but you can really get amazing amazing deals on mechanical pocket watches,” says Nicholas Manousos, president of the Horological Society of New York, who introduced us to this watch-buying hack. “They have all the same gears and springs as wristwatches, and if you take care of them they’ll last for a lifetime and you can pass them down to your kids.” So it’s likely that they’ll still be in great working condition when the collectors’ attention eventually turns back around to these handheld pieces and their worth skyrockets.

Manousos then directed us to the three best American-made brands of the early 20th century: Hamilton, Waltham, and Elgin and sent us off on a vintage search. Below is the best of what’s out there.

Waltham, first founded in 1850, is a premier American watchmaker. This piece is from 1894 (!!) and still looks and works great.

Another Waltham, this time in silver and originally made in 1868.

A turn-of-the-century piece from 1906 in 14-karat gold.

Or try an unusual octogon shape, also from Waltham.

Elgin is another early-American brand, founded in 1864, that’s well-respected in the collectors community. This piece was specifically designed for women (although we say it works both ways) and it can be worn as a necklace as well as held in a pocket.

A Masonic-themed Elgin pocket watch for the graduating goth.

This rose-gold Elgin with art deco–style numbers from 1923 is very much back in style thanks to millennial pink.

These extra-large numbers are sure to make a statement, and the case itself has gorgeous detailing.

Hamilton, a watchmaker founded in 1982 that Manousos from the Horological society calls, “the most famous American watch brand,” made this World War II–era piece with a very modern black face.

I love the subtle ridges and swoopy numbers on this Hamilton piece originally made in 1967.

A very classic-looking, gold-plated Hamilton from 1908.

Even this rare 1940s Rolex stopwatch sounds like a steal at $1,500 compared to that $6 million Phillips sale. And who knows how much it’ll be worth in ten years …

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The Best Graduation Gift Is a Vintage Pocket Watch