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?
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
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
What makes a G-Shock so damn indestructible? There’s lots of high tech design involved, but the “resin” (plastic) case does a lot of the work. The new GM6900 includes this, plus an outer steel shell that doesn’t necessarily make it more robust, but does make the classic design feel fresh and interesting. Oh, and it’s packed with the brand’s typical suite of features, of course.
Movement: Casio 3230 module
While the old Seiko 5 certainly deserves a place on this list, we couldn't very well ignore the much newer Sports models, which were released in 2019. These feature day-date displays; unidirectional rotating bezels, the automatic Seiko cal. 4R36 movement with optional manual winding and a 41-hour power reserve, 100m of water resistance and a Hardlex crystal. Their proportions have also been upped to 42.5mm, so if you love the idea of an affordable automatic Seiko but want something larger than the old 5s, look no further.
Movement: Seiko 4R36 automatic
Realizing that consumers wanted a mechanical movement for far less than what was already on offer, Swatch automated the creation of its Sistem51, which uses just 51 parts. And when the watches that contained these movements launched in 2013, they were a revelation in affordability. Today, Swatch offers the Sistem51 in all sorts of versions, from the funky (Originals) to the dressy (Ironies).
Movement: Sistem51 automatic
The Marlin California dial brings back a classic look from the 1930s and marries it to a modern automatic movement and 40mm case. The look, which consists of half-Roman and half-Arabic numerals, was a staple on vintage Rolex "bubblebacks" — now, however, you can get the aesthetic for much, much cheaper. Other features include a 21-jewel movement and a comfortable leather strap.
Movement: Miyota 8215 automatic
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
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
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
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
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
The Seiko SARB065 “Cocktail Time” was 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. However, Seiko has since built upon the popular model by placing it in its Presage family and bolstering the collection with more colors and variations.
Movement: 4R35 automati
The most recent watch from Brew also offers an automatic movement for the first time since the brand's early days. Inspired by the drain grates for heat extraction from high-end espresso machines, the dial features tiny circular cutouts that lend it a unique look. Powered by either an automatic Seiko movement or automatic Sellita movement (for a few more bucks), it's well-sized at 36mm and available in several cool colors.
Movement: Miyota 8215 automatic; Sellita SW200 automatic
The Paris-based brand Le Forban Sécurité Mer, which burst onto the scene in 2020, revives the name and spirit of a company that made dive watches for the French navy starting in the late 1960s. The modern brand’s first model, a refined dive watch that recalls the designs of that era, has a perfectly sized 38.4mm case, a sapphire crystal and a Miyota automatic movement.
Movement: Miyota 8215 automatic
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
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