Cost of Entry
The 5 Best Ultra-Cheap Mechanical Watches
There seems to be an unwritten, unspoken rule that a mechanical watch needs to be expensive. Consider that what we call “affordable” — Tissots, Seiko divers, Hamiltons, etc. — will still typically set you back around $500. This, compared to the Rolexes and Omegas of the world is a lot more approachable, but apply the comparison to the quartz watches and digital watches that make up the lion’s share of the low end. Those watches almost always tend to come in under $200 or often even less.
This reiterates that unspoken rule that the mechanical watch is almost always a luxury that comes at a premium, but as is the case with rules, we occasionally have exceptions. There are, as it so happens, a small few mechanical watch lineups you can purchase for around what you’d pay for a decent quartz or digital watch. Most come from big watchmaking names that can churn out utilitarian, cookie-cutter mechanical pieces en masse, and they lack a lot of what we idealize in high-end mechanical watches — namely obscenely detailed finishes and lovingly-crafted movements assembled by some fifth-generation watchmaking savant.
But you do gain a mechanically-propelled movement and a sweeping seconds hand that have an uncanny ability to entrap the hearts of the horologically curious. They may not be “grail watches”, but they are lovable, easily accessible gateways into the hobby, which is exceptional in its own way.
If you’re already into watches, there’s a good chance you’ve crossed paths with a Seiko 5 in your life, even if you haven’t owned one personally. The humble and ubiquitous 5 is practically synonymous with “cheap and cheerful mechanical watch” since it was introduced in 1963. From the onset, the lineup was billed as simple, durable and, most importantly, affordable. A nearly impossible amount of 5-branded watches have been produced in the following decades complications, but today the original mission statement remains true.
The movements used in the 5 have varied over the years, but new 5s you can buy today rock Seiko’s simple 7S-series movement and come in a multitude of styles, ranging from dress watches to divers. All tend to come in under the $200 mark and are readily available in places like eBay and Amazon, brand new; the most commonly available and accessible models tend to be the field watch-style SNK watches that you can find starting at around $60-$80 on Amazon. They’re by and large one of the best ways to get into mechanical watch ownership for the money — ask any other watch enthusiasts, and they’ll almost assuredly agree.
Orient is more or less Seiko’s quirky younger corporate sibling, so it’s a brand you can always count on to offer a lot of bang for the buck — both the popular Mako dive watch series and Bambino dress watch line come to mind. But at the very entry point into the brand’s mechanical offerings is the obscure “Tristar” line that feels in many ways like the brand’s counterpart to the Seiko 5. Hell, the movement inside (the Orient Caliber 469) is based on a 1970s Seiko caliber which itself formed the basis for the modern 7S.
Thus, we have about as simple an analog watch as you can get, with just a time function, a day and date function (adjusted not by the crown but by a pusher) and a stainless steel bracelet and case coming in around 37mm in diameter and lacking in any ornate finishings. That said, one of the areas where the Tristar lineup sets itself apart from other minimalist mechanical watches are with its array of dial colors, which range from basics like black and silver to bolder hues such as bright blue and teal. Tristars can be readily had on Amazon or at Long Island Watch for under $100, which is not bad considering they all come stock on stainless steel bracelets.
The modern Marlin lineup was only introduced as a limited edition in 2018, but the name goes back quite a ways from the brand, back to when its humble, everyman time-tellers were mechanically propelled as opposed to quartz-powered, as many modern Timex watches are. Of course, the Marlin harkens back to the brand’s early watches by rocking a mechanical movement, which made big waves for Timex and lead to the watch selling out pretty quickly.
Realizing the premium watch enthusiasts place on handsome, vintage-style mechanical watches in the $200 price range, Timex has transformed the Marlin into a full-on lineup. That includes the initial hand-winding design which uses a Chinese-made mechanical movement of unspecified origin (though many have speculated the engine is supplied by watchmaking behemoth Seagull) as well as a new automatic-powered iteration rocking a Miyota 8215 that hails from Japan. The former retains the spot-on recreation of the original Marlin (including the positively tiny 34mm diameter), but the latter is more “reinterpretation,” with a cleaner dial design and a larger 40mm case.
Unlike most of the other watches on this list running on guts sourced from Asia, Swatch’s Sistem51 is built in Switzerland (though the value of a watch being “Swiss-made” is fairly subjective). Still, it’s more about how the Sistem51 is made than where that’s so unique: to keep the price low, Swatch manufactured the movement autonomously from as few parts as possible (51 to be exact) and held them together with a single screw; many parts are made from plastic, too. The result is decidedly utilitarian-looking, but the Sistem51 embraces the look by giving many of the visible components funky designs. Point being, it’s cheap, but it’s fun. More watches should be fun.
Initially, when the movement hit the scene in 2013, the watch only came with a plastic case which, in addition to feeling, well, plastic-y, meant that once the movement goes belly up, the entire watch is kaput. Recently, however, the Sistem51 line has gotten some references with stainless steel cases that remedy both the cheap feel and allow for servicing. Whether or not you opt for plastic or metal, though, the Sistem51 is a decidedly novel piece of wristwear available in Swatch’s signature funky designs. What’s more, you can nab both steel and plastic versions for under $200, though some steel versions with steel bracelets will exceed the $200 mark.
Citizen NH Series
Citizen is well-known for its solar-charged quartz watches, so much so that you’d be forgiven for not realizing the brand sells watches with automatic movements. Admittedly, the brand’s “NH” references watches aren’t really touted by the brand, but they are something of a poorly-kept secret in the enthusiast crowd. You can find them at Long Island Watch under the $200 mark, and they all rock Miyota’s 82000-series automatic (Citizen, need we remind you, owns Miyota).
The NH series comes in a few flavors, though mostly in a simple dress watch (available in a considerable amount of different dial designs and colors, not to mention some with gold plating), as well as a 100-meter dive watch design. Another option for fans of the obscure is Citizen’s similar NJ series which uses the same Miyota movement but comes in titanium, as opposed to the NH’s stainless steel. With the premium material does come an increase in price, but some NJ references can still be had under $300.