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
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
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
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
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
Casio G-Shock GM6900
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
Swatch Sistem51 Irony Petite Seconde
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
Timex M79 Automatic
The quartz Q Timex has some extreme 1970s styling going on; the new M79, however, takes that styling to a new place with an automatic movement. Does its colorful bezel, integrated-looking steel bracelet, domed acrylic crystal, and day/date function make it the perfect cash-strapped casual watch? It just might.
Movement: Miyota 8215
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
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
This is not your standard microbrand watch: its case is eye-catchingly rectangular, its markers include a timer for pulling an espresso shot, and its chronograph movement is a Seiko meca-quartz. Plus, sleek colorway options include a perfectly retro panda dial version, and a delectably handsome copper dial.
Movement: VK68 meca-quartz chronograph
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
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
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
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 with its own unique flair. The Retrospect II is a beauty: it has loads of great vintage steel dive watch nods, a sunburst dial, and an inward-sloping bezel with a ceramic insert option. It was sold out for some time — but is now back in stock with attractive new dial colors.
Movement: Seiko NH35A automatic
Le Forban Sécurité Mer Malouine
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
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” 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.