Friday, May 17, 2019

Watch Shopping in Japan's Pawn Shops

I don't want to draw overly broad lessons about buying watches at pawn shops in Japan, but I thought I would tell a short story about my recent buying experience at one Tokyo pawn shop.

There probably should be a tick mark to the right of the
date window, but there wasn't, indicating that this watch
lives in a Twilight Zone of uncertainty: It might be the
real deal, or it might not be. 
A short while ago, I purchased a 1970 Grand Seiko 6185-8020 VFA at a pawn shop in Shibuya. The shop sells high end watches, as well as designer handbags, and jewelry with fist-sized diamonds. The Grand Seiko I picked up is a beautiful watch, eye-candy for collectors, but as it turned out, the watch was flawed in several ways. It may have been water damaged, and in repairing the dial, the tick mark to the right of the date window had been erased. The crown was not the original crown, either.

I didn't notice those problems before buying the watch. In fact, I didn’t notice the flaws even after I got the watch home. But two Grand Seiko experts from the Grand Seiko Owner’s Club instantly spotted these two issues, kindly and gently alerting me to the fact that my watch wasn’t whole.

The watch came with a calibration certification from Grand Seiko that I thought also guaranteed it was the real deal. But I was wrong. The calibration paperwork was just like a test for blood sugar, revealing nothing more than it’s narrow mission.

I've posted a photo of the watch I bought. If you Google "Grand Seiko 6185-8020" you'll see what this VFA should look like.* The lack of an indice to the right of the date window, a (probable) staple of all 6185-8020’s, will immediately jump out at you once you know what you’re looking for.

As soon as my friends pointed out my Grand Seiko’s defects, I boarded the Toyoko Line, the express, back to Shibuya.

The pawn shop wasn't happy to see me again. They argued and said I should have noticed these problems from the photos on the website. The sales clerk consulted with an unseen manager in some hidden room behind closed doors. After the clerk returned with the word, “no” on her lips, I pointed out that the description had noted some problems with the watch, including a scratched crystal and scratches on the case, both of which were acceptable for a vintage watch. But the online description didn't say anything about the crown being replaced or the dial being changed. Eventually, the shop gave me a full refund. (The shop also has a four day return window, so ultimately whatever their argument, they had to take it back.)

I know I said I wasn't going to draw any general lessons from this experience, but a hundred words later, I’ve changed my mind. Japan's prolific pawn shops offer watches you may not find elsewhere, so they’re worth checking out. That gem you're looking for might not be in Nakano Broadway, but it might be at one of the hundreds, if not thousands, of pawn shops around Japan. Here are some words of wisdom for shopping Japan's pawn shops.

1. If the shop doesn't have an at-will return policy that’s at least a few days long, don't buy there. Sometimes you can't tell that a watch has a problem until you've had it in your hands for several days.

2. Resist buying on the spot. If you see a watch you like, research it and check out comparable prices to make sure you're getting a good deal. Ask the store if you can photograph that watch.

3. If you're buying a vintage watch, consult with experts, who know more than you do, either before you buy the watch or before the return period has passed. Experts will know if that beautiful looking timepiece only looks beautiful because it's been cobbled together from hither and yon parts.

4. A time-certification, which is common for high-end watches sold at pawn shops, doesn't guarantee anything. Pawn shops may have the watch's accuracy certified, but that doesn't tell you anything about whether the parts are real or if the watch had been modified.

5. If you do return your watch, be prepared to go a couple of rounds before the shop accepts it back. Eventually, if you're returning the watch within the return window or returning it for cause, the shop will take it back. Don't rely on Google Translate or another translation app to explain the shop's return policy; find a native Japanese speaker (if you don’t speak Japanese) or ask the shop to write it out in your native language.

6. Don’t rely on your credit card to protect you. While card policies vary, you’ll probably find that they reject claims for second-hand goods, like vintage and used watches.

Japan's pawn shops can offer a wealth of interesting watches, but as the saying goes, buyer beware.

* Since drafting this article, one of the two Grand Seiko experts who told me that the missing tick-mark was a sign of a redialed watch, has revisited his opinion. The dail may be original. Or not. He's uncertain. But the six points listed above still remain true: buy with caution.

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