What’s the perfect watch? The one you’re wearing. And which one is that? The one you can afford.
It’s simple reasoning, but bears repeating in the watch world, where we are so often obsessed with the most pristine, gold-laden, house-costing timepieces. Yes, watches can be luxury goods, and those luxury goods are beautiful. But a watch can also just be the thing you wear on your wrist that tells the time and costs, well, not as much as a house. And — quote us on this — that affordable watch can still be amazing.
A watch that costs less than a week’s paycheck — sometimes much less — well, there’s no need to regret buying that. For one, you can afford it. Also, some of the best watchmaking companies on the planet make affordable watches; they make those watches well, and with cool features, and lots of interesting history, and plenty of dashing, interesting, and unique style choices.
(A side note: among our list of the best affordable watches, you’ll find repeated brands. This is why: a handful of brands make a bunch of the best affordable watches. You can always rely on the Seikos and Citizens of the world to deliver incredible value.) Plus, there’s this: an affordable watch doesn’t have to meet every single one of your watch needs. Because you can afford to buy a different one, too.
And there you have it: affordable watches have the power to turn more people into watch nerds than haute horlogerie. Trust us: any one of these sub-$500 watches is going to make you feel good when you buy it, and feel even better when you use it. Because they’re not cheap or chintzy. They do what you need, for less, and shouldn’t you be saving to send your kid to college, anyway?
Here’s something you won’t find pretty much anywhere else: an aluminum watch for less than $100. Timex modeled it after a mil-spec watch it made in the 1980s that was meant to be discarded after it stopped working. The MK1 has an anodized aluminum case (update: the brand makes it in steel now, too), so it’s ultra-light on the wrist, and it has the classic Indiglo function. And for $89, it might be the perfect summer beater watch.
Price: $89 (aluminum, nylon strap)
There’s some disagreement about what the “5” in Seiko 5 even means. In fact, to many of its wearers, what matters is price and variety: there are hundreds of different versions of the Seiko 5, and dozens of the Seiko 5 Sport — and most all of them cost less than $200 (Some less than $100). So just decide: do you want it in black, white, blue, red, or green? Or maybe slate sunburst? With the crown at 3 o’clock or 4? With a day/date? On a steel bracelet or on canvas? Well, maybe you really need two or three…
Movement: Seiko 7S25/7S26/7S35/7S36 automatic
Price: Often sub-$100; sometimes between $100-$200
Ever since surviving a Gear Patrol-induced stress test (read: being dropped off a balcony), we’ve always had a profound respect for this tough little brand, which often sells its watches with ugly plastic shrouds for extra protection. These are watches for the blue-blooded, outdoor-working everyman, and the A-2T, with its lightweight titanium case, hardy nylon band, luminous dial and unstoppable quartz movement, is the perfect watch for camping or yard work.
Movement: Japan-made quartz
Timex Marlin not quite your bag? The clunkily named Citizen NH8350-83L has similar classic dress watch styling, plus a Miyota automatic movement, for about $100 less. You also get a 40mm stainless steel case with matching bracelet, plus a day-date function.
Movement: Miyota 8200 automatic
The Sistem51 made waves when it was announced back in 2013. Here was a Swiss-made mechanical movement for less than $250. Swatch made it by automating the creation of the mechanical movement—a cool innovation—but really, they were ahead of the game in realizing that consumers wanted a mechanical movement for a lot less than other Swiss watch companies would offer. Today, they offer the Sistem51 in all sorts of versions, from the funky (Originals) to the dressy (Ironies). (And even a sweet Hodinkee special edition.)
Movement: Sistem51 automatic
Withings Steel HR Sport
French company Withings was one of the first brands to get in on the “hybrid smartwatch” game, pairing analog time-telling with everyday smart features via a smartphone app and clever digital integration. The new Steel HR Sport is their toughest yet, and one of the best of these hybrids: beyond its chunky stainless steel construction and stylish stick hands, it has a heart rate monitor, multi-sport tracking, GPS and VO2 assessment.
Movement: Hybrid smartwatch
Mr. Jones Watches The Last Laugh
Crispin Jones, the founder of Mr Jones Watches, graduated from the Royal College of Arts in London and spent time building interactive sculptures before founding his watch company. His watches, including The Last Laugh, are meant to provoke thought as well as tell the time; this one, for instance, is a memento mori (a reminder of death).
Movement: ST1 721 automatic
Timex Marlin Automatic
The handwound Marlin has some extreme 1960s styling going on; the new Automatic version takes that down a notch. Does its multiple dial color options, domed acrylic crystal, and day/date function make it the perfect cash-strapped dress watch? On steel mesh (ten bucks more), it just might be.
Movement: Miyota 8215
There are a confusing number of Bambino generations, with different functions, styles, and dial colorways. (Seriously.) Which means you’re spoiled for choice to find that one perfect mechanical dress watch for under $500—or maybe you can buy one for every suit you own.
Movement: Orient F6724 automatic
Dan Henry 1972 Chrono Alarm
Dan Henry is an unapologetic homagist: he makes watches that are inspired by, and sometimes directly mimic, the greats. This is divisive work, but among affordable watch geeks, he’s mostly beloved, because he does what the greats have done for much, much less. The 1972 Chrono Alarm is an obvious homage to the first ever black PVD watch, the Orfina Porsche Design Chronograph 1. Henry’s version uses a Miyota quartz movement, but the beautiful design is all still there.
Movement: Miyota OS80 quartz
This is not your standard microbrand watch: its case is rectangular, its markers include a timer for pulling an espresso shot, and its chronograph movement is a hybrid meca-quartz. Plus, new colorways include the perfectly popped Technicolor version, and a delectably handsome Cobalt.
Movement: VK64 hybrid meca-quartz chronograph
Past Filson watches were made by Shinola, with price tags to match. Their new line of field watches are outsourced overseas, so they lose the American-made provenance—but gain a damn nice drop in price. For a tough, simple field watch with lumed markers, a screw-down crown, and sapphire crystal, that’s just right.
Seagull 1963 Chronograph
Tianjin watch factory was a powerhouse during China’s industrial revolution, pumping out a number of watches, including the nation’s first mechanical chronograph, the ST19, made for its pilots. Today, the factory is known as Seagull, and it makes the Seagull Chronograph, an homage to that original watch. It’s one of the most affordable mechanical chronographs out there, with a great vintage look and feel.
Movement: Seagull ST19 hand-wound chronograph
Casio G-Shock Mudmaster
What makes a G-Shock so damn indestructible? There’s lots of high tech design involved, but the main protector is urethane-encased metal, the descendant of Kikuo Ibe’s first prototype. The new Mudmaster includes this, plus extra mud and sand resistance, and an entirely new carbon-fiber reinforced resin “core guard” interior feature that provides extra shock protection. Oh, and it also has a thermometer, digital compass, barometer, altimeter, and step counter.
Movement: Radio-controlled, solar-powered analog
Baltic, a French company sourcing Asian-made parts and assembling them in France, made its splash with vintage-inspired dive watches like the Aquascaphe. And yet it’s their clean HMS 001 that cracks the sub-$500 range. Quite easily, in fact — less than $400 gets you that beautiful dial (we’ll take slate sunburst every time), blued hands, and the option for an open case back.
Movement: Miyota 821 automatic
Nodus Retrospect II
The young LA-based brand does versatile steel tool watches better than many others—and in its own way. The Retrospect II is a beauty: it has loads of great vintage steel dive watch nods, a sunburst dial, and a bezel with a ceramic insert that slopes inward. It’s been sold out for some time — but should come back into stock in July 2019.
Movement: Seiko NH35A automatic
The Italian-designed brand burst onto the scene in 2015 with its geometric-shaped markers and classically inspired case shapes. The U2-C is a made-in-Italy field watch, with an automatic Seiko movement and a perfectly sized case. And it’s ready for the field with its 300 meter water resistance, all for 400 Euros.
Movement: Seiko NH35A automatic
Orient Mako USA II
Orient — owned by Seiko since 20019 — decided to upgrade its Mako diver in the American market, and asked online watch communities for feedback. The brand came away with requests for a sapphire crystal and a solid-end-link bracelet. Particularly in its white-and-black dial, the new watch is a beauty.
Movement: Orient F6922 automatic
Hamilton Khaki Field Mechanical
Hamilton updated this classic field watch for 2019 with a few new PVD options. The original remains a dead ringer for several field watches worn by the U.S. military during Vietnam and afterward. No, it’s not mil-spec — but it is a Swiss-made watch with a killer American look.
Movement: ETA 2801-2 hand-wound
Seiko Presage “Cocktail Time”
The Seiko SARB065 “Cocktail Time” has always been reminiscent of the Seiko 5, but just a little bit dressier: its movement is slightly upgraded, and then there’s the brilliant sunburst dial, with just the right amount of flash. Recently, Seiko released a new line of “Presage” watches, including the SARY082, which overhauls the old Cocktail Time, and gives potential buyers a tough choice: new or old?
Diameter: 40mm (SARB065); 40.5mm (SARY082)
Movement: 6R15C automatic (SARB065); 4R57A automatic (SARY082)
Junghans Max Bill Quartz
Max Bill is synonymous with the Bauhaus movement; for watch lovers, the pieces he designed for Junghans in 1961 remain cult favorites for not just their clean, Nordic style, but their affordability too. And by swapping a quartz movement in (rather than the ETA-based automatic), they get a price to match its utilitarian design.
Movement: Quartz J645.33