How to Find a $2 Rolex
This is an edition of the newsletter Box + Papers, Cam Wolf’s weekly deep dive into the world of watches. Sign up here.
Every weekend, Alicia Williams searches for gold and silver at an assortment of garage and estate sales in Tacoma, Washington. She starts early. At 8:30 a.m. this past weekend, she was already rolling into her second location of the day. It was a yard sale that had opened a half an hour earlier and there were already seven or so people milling about, Williams said over email. That means that a full 30 minutes and at least half a dozen people had passed over the treasure hiding in plain sight. Williams, on the hunt for precious metals, went over to a shelf and started picking over a basket filled with jewelry. Inside, she found a watch with the Rolex logo on it. Its price was marked with a neon-green dot. The ask? Two American dollars.
Just like that, Williams got to live every watch collector’s wildest dream. You’re perusing the jewelry section of a thrift store or garage sale, and then there it is, a mythical object that seems to radiate only for you. The fruits of a lifelong hobby and time spent commenting on watch forums has finally paid off: a valuable watch emerges from the secondhand shlock. Perhaps the most legendary example of this phenomenon is the man who found a LeCoultre Deep Sea Alarm at his local Goodwill in Phoenix, Arizona for $5.99 in 2015. He sold the LeCoultre to Eric Ku, the cofounder of Loupe This, who ponied up $35,000 and an Omega Speedmaster. (“Still have it, baby,” Ku texted me when I asked about the watch. “Best part is the paperwork.” By which he means the itemized receipt and hangtag from Goodwill.)
Finds like that are practically impossible to come by nowadays. Figuring out the value of any watch, the conventional wisdom goes, is way too easy in the Internet Age for pieces like the $35,000 LeCoultre to ever slip through the cracks. So imagine my surprise (and jealousy!) when two instances of thrift-store finds popped up on Reddit this week. The first was a LeCoultre Master Mariner Dolphin that user AllieShannon spotted in a thrift shop. (What’s up with passed-over LeCoultre watches?) AllieShannon declined to speak with me about their find, citing the overwhelming attention the watch has already garnered. The second was Williams’s Rolex, a legit Speedking 4220 that inspired one user to comment, “The gods are looking favorably upon you.” Another user called it the “best find in the history of the [subreddit].”
“Gosh, I really don't know what to say, not really that exciting,” Williams wrote over email, further driving the stake through my heart. She simply spotted the watch in the basket of jewelry and thought, “Why not? It says ‘Rolex.’”
Williams admits she’s not exactly a watch expert. Her first email read to me, in totality: “I don't know anything about watches.” Still, she knew the Rolex name and promptly took the piece to a jeweler to have it evaluated. The store offered $1,000 or the option to consign it for 30%. Eric Wind, owner of Wind Vintage, said that sounded about right. A watch of this Speedking’s caliber might roughly be worth $800 to $1,000, he said.
“It seems real, but the dial is reprinted,” Wind said over text. Reprinted dials are, typically, handmade dials added after a piece has left the factory—a severe detriment to the value of this piece. Wind identified that “the Rolex font and numerals” were both incorrect and noted the “lack of SWISS MADE or SWISS below 6 o'clock.” The reprinted dial also limits what Rolex will be willing to help the owner with. “My experience is [Rolex] doesn’t touch watches with reprinted dials,” Wind wrote. “They will reject them for service.” Still, turning $2 into $1,000 isn’t a bad day at the yard sale!
Finding a $2 Rolex—even one with a reprinted dial—is obscenely good luck. Finding the lesser known LeCoultre is maybe a more realistic bullseye for the rest of us to aim for. Like Williams, AllieShannon’s knowledge of watches is limited. She posted the piece, priced at $100, to Reddit when she struck out on finding more details online. “I’m still shopping so I’m hoping to get some information before I check out,” she wrote on Reddit. Wilder still is that the watch came in what appears to be its original, sumptuous velvet green box. The watch is worth at least multiple thousands of dollars.
Obviously there’s a level of skepticism we have to approach these stories with. A $2 Rolex stinks of Reddit bait but its shoddy dial makes the story slightly more believable. Plus, these finds do happen. As Wind noted in his original write-up about Ku’s LeCoultre in 2015, other horological grails like a Blancpain AM Milspec, a ‘20s-era Vacheron Constantin, and a vintage Omega that belonged to T.E. Lawrence—the real-life Lawrence of Arabia—were all previously found for similar bargain-basement prices.
When it comes to watch collecting, many hardcore enthusiasts say it’s the thrill of the hunt that satisfies them most: falling in love with a particular model or style, and then tracking down the exact reference you want in good condition after a labored search. But even that hard-earned gratification can’t quite compare to the sheer adrenaline hit of stumbling upon a rare watch when you least expect it and then hustling to purchase it and get it home before you wake up from the dream. This week, with its two thrift-store finds, is proof that that dream is still very much alive.
See all of our newsletters, including Box + Papers, here.
Originally Appeared on GQ