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State of the Arts: Is Time Running Out for Vintage Watch and Clock Collecting?

Don Barrett sorts watch crystals at his vintage timepiece shop in Kent.
Don Barrett sorts watch crystals at his vintage timepiece shop in Kent.

Knowing the time is an essential part of life, whether you’re running late for work or you want to be early for a date. And for decades people turned to wristwatches or pocket watches to keep track. But in the age of smart devices, could the hobby of collecting timepieces be dying out?

Denny Potter is the first person I meet on a sunny afternoon at a conference of vintage watch and clock collectors in Kirtland. 

He’s selling old pocket watches and jokes he might just make enough to buy lunch.

"The watch business is really flat, except for high end watches still sell. But we’re gradually getting out of the watch and clock business. Clocks have been flat for a long time, for two, three years. I have clocks that I paid $150 for I can’t get $75 for (now)."

That’s what I hear from many people at this convention: The market is dwindling.

"And as you can see, the tables aren’t full, attendance is down. The place used to be packed," Potter said. 

The Threat of the Smart Device
In a world full of smart phones and smart speakers and yes, smart watches, Potter thinks the younger generation is just not interested.

"A lot of the collectors are dying off. It’s very difficult to get a pocket watch or wristwatch fixed today. And parts are getting harder and harder to come by. I see people buy a watch in bad shape just to get the parts out of them for (another) watch that they need to fix."

Credit Mark Arehart / WKSU
Denny Potter has seen collectors dwindling at vintage watch and clock shows.

Membership in the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors has been steadily declining for years. At its peak in 1996, the group had 38,000 members, compared to just about 12,000 today.

The group says one reason membership is down is because many people are choosing to look to smartphones and not watches for the time. But there could be another reason for the downturn: online auction sites like eBay.

The Online Marketplace
A quick search for "Vintage Watches" can net more than 100,000 hits.  In a few minutes you can browse more vintage pieces from your couch than you could in an entire day at a watch convention.

This puts local shops like City Bank Antiques in a bind. The shop, which specializes in vintage clocks and watches, is owned by Karen and Don Barrett. 

"We are a mom and pop store in Kent, Ohio. So we’re not so much interested in advancing an online presence. That’s another business," Karen Barett said. 

'It all started with one watch I bought about eight years ago and ever since then it’s turned into thousands and thousands of other watches.'

She said the vintage clock business was booming about 10 years ago to the point where they actually expanded their store to meet demand.

But then, Don Barret said, the bottom dropped out. “We don’t get any customers. Not too many people are interested, really.”

Reaching Younger Collectors
The National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors has held shows like this year’s in Kirtland for more than three decades. That’s longer than collector Logan Joo has been alive.

"It all started with one watch I bought about eight years ago and ever since then it’s turned into thousands and thousands of other watches. And I just love doing it," said Joo from behind a table of vintage timepieces he has for sale. 

He’s 21 and buys and sells watches in person and through eBay and other sites. He also runs a watch collector group on Facebook.

Photo of Logan Joo
Credit Mark Arehart / WKSU
Twenty-one-year-old collector Logan Joo thinks vintage watch and clock collecting can stabilize if younger people like him pick it up.

A mix of scrounging local shops, conventions and online marketplaces works for him. But for there to be a future for this kind of collecting, he said hobbyists need to get more people interested in vintage timepieces. 

"We all pretty much need to do what we can to get as many younger people in here. Otherwise it’s just going to die out."

Mark Arehart joined the award-winning WKSU news team as its arts/culture reporter in 2017. Before coming to Northeast Ohio, Arehart hosted Morning Edition and covered the arts scene for Delaware Public Media. He previously worked for KNKX in Seattle, Kansas Public Radio, and KYUK in Bethel, Alaska.