Watchmaking, especially by those who are very into watches, can quite reasonably be considered on level with high art. Taking one look at the movements of A. Lange und Söhne or Patek Philippe chronographs, or just about any F.P. Journe, and the art label makes a lot of sense.

But what about the rest of the watch? Well, more obvious attempts at art, in the vein of avant-garde design, have been trending over the last few years. In terms of watches, avant-garde design is probably best described by what it isn’t, rather than what it is. If you have any familiarity with classic watch design, the Submariner, Patek Philippe dress watches, or a Stowa Flieger, you have a handle on what avante-garde design is not. There may have been a time when the Submariner was groundbreaking in its design, but by today’s standards, the design is commonplace.

It’s emerging brands like MB&F, Urwerk, and De Bethune who’ve been pushing the design envelope and breaking away from cookie-cutter design with impressively creative timepieces. What you’ll often find with present day avant-garde design is elements of industrial-looking digital numbers, or the addition of obvious use of three-dimensional shape. The problem with breaking the mold is that these watches often come with an equally unbelievable and impressive price tags, leaving mere mortals’ bank accounts wanting.

But more recently, a handful of watchmakers have taken a shot at inspired and unique design, without the insane price tags. We’re bringing you five of the best of affordable avant-garde watches to give you the cutting-edge look without the buyer’s remorse. Or, at least without the bankruptcy.

SevenFriday P1

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Founded just two years ago, SevenFriday is the youngest company on our list. However, in that short span, their social media presence has grown tremendously; they’re easily recognized by just about any watch enthusiast with an Instagram account. Boasting a three-watch lineup of essentially the same design, SevenFriday brings the flair of an Urwerk’s factory-floor-machinery look but keeps the price around $1,000 thanks to the creative use of an otherwise pedestrian Miyota movement. The P1 ($992), their stainless steel reference, is not for the timid at 47 millimeters square. But at its price level, you’d be hard pressed to find something more creative and unique.

Hamilton Face2Face

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Watches with multiple time-telling elements have been done before, and they often involve intricately integrated movements. (In other words, they’re expensive.) But Hamilton’s Face2Face ($6,195) uses a reversible case to keep the two time-telling movements completely separate, with the added benefit of quick changes in dial appearance. One side shows a three-hand dial, and the other a chronograph, increasing functionality. The Face2Face is completely unique with regard to the rest of Hamilton’s lineup — not only in appearance, but price too. At a little over $6,000, it brings normally incredibly expensive design to a much more achievable price bracket.

Maurice Lacroix Masterpiece Mysterious Seconds

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A mostly under-the-radar watchmaker, Maurice Lacroix has quietly built up a small arsenal of in-house calibers, which they show off in their Masterpiece line. The Masterpiece Mysterious Seconds ($13,900), announced at Baselworld 2013, completely reinvents how seconds are displayed with a seemingly floating hand that swirls its way around the dial; as the floating seconds hand makes its way around the dial, each end alternately touches the outside of the dial at 15-second increments. Since a solid chunk of the hour and minute dial is cut off by the seconds dial, it’s clear this watch was designed mostly for the aesthetics — it’s not ideal for lap times. But in addition to displaying unique time interpretation and skeletonized design, the Mysterious Seconds also shows off Maurice Lacroix’s ability to hang with the big boys, as this level of craftsmanship is rarely seen at its price level, especially for a manufacture movement.

Omega Seamaster Chrono-Quartz

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The 1970s brought out a bevy of bizarre watches from Omega, including the Chrono-Quartz ($1,500+). Created for the 1976 Montreal Olympic Games, the Chrono-Quartz very well may have been the first hybrid analog/digital watch in the world. Despite its groundbreaking design, the concept was simple: Omega combined what folks were used to — an analog display — with the future — the cyborg-like glow of LCD numbers. First hybrid or not, it’s one of the most unique retro timepieces out there, and certainly avant-garde for its time. And let’s face it, retro is still very much in. If you’re going to look for an example, the more recently serviced, the better. Not many watchmakers can replace the LCD these days, so know what you’re getting into if you happen to pick one up.

Ventura Sparc MGS

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For 25 years, Ventura has laid claim to being the only Swiss watchmaker pushing the envelope of digital watch mechanics. In 2000, they created the first “automatic digital” watch, which incorporates elements of an automatic winding system with a micro-generator. And Ventura houses their unique in-house movements with equally unique outsides. The Sparc MGS ($2,600) shows off its movement through an exhibition crystal on the upper half of the case, and displays time on the lower half — it looks like something out of the Matrix. At $2,600, it’s not cheap for a digital watch, but the one-of-a-kind movement makes a strong case.

Shane Griffin

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