Great watches are expensive, there’s no getting around it. If you want a prestigious name and a Swiss automatic movement, even without any kind of crazy complication, you’re looking at an investment. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t get “good” at a steal. If all you’re after is a good-looking accessory that happens to tell the time, there’s no need to break the bank.
Under the loupe of a collector of course, there will be some telltale signs that they’re not what you’d call “luxury watches”. First, there’s the secondhand which, on a quartz watch, distinctly jumps from second to second rather than the smooth, sweeping movement of an automatic watch.
Then there’s gold. It’s not getting any cheaper so you can be sure that these timepieces won’t be plated so much as painted. Finally, there’s the feel of the thing. That’s a little more subjective, but often you just know when a watch is serious or not by its weight on your wrist, be that steel, rose gold or even titanium.
On the other hand, there’s a huge difference between dropping £150 on a decent-looking, functional timepiece and splashing your inheritance on a £15k Patek Philippe. That’s a lot of money and if you’re not the kind of guy that idolises Swiss watchmaking then it’s not going to be worth it to you, no matter what everyone else says. Does it tell the time any better than a Casio version? Absolutely not.
So why invest thousands of your hard-earned salary on a watch when you can get a handsome timepiece for a fraction of the cost? I’m not saying the below are budget pieces by any stretch, but they are actually affordable – not just by watch standards, but by anyone’s.
Ape’s Pick: 5 Automatic
Well I did say Swiss mechanical movements were expensive; Japanese however, are not. Cards on the table, I own this watch and I love it. At 37mm it’s pretty small, but don’t let its size fool you. Seiko makes some of the most under-priced watches in the world and if anything makes other watchmakers look like shysters in comparison.
This little thing even includes a day date function, all for far less than some quartz watches retail at. It’s the cheap watch to wear around watch collectors; they simply can’t say anything bad about it.
Ape’s Pick: Spitfire Type 300 Edition
The Spitfire’s icon status has meant that a fair few watchmakers have tried to capture its prestige over the years; Bremont did it way back when, IWC more recently with the Longest Flight and I’m sure many others besides. AVI-8’s is one of the more unusual interpretations out there.
For one, the 42mm case is slightly elliptical, a reference to the plane’s fuselage. Fortunately it’s subtle enough to save it from straying into a Dali painting. The clearest aviation reference though is the dial itself, which could fit nicely in a vintage cockpit.
The entire layout looks more like an aviation instrument panel than your usual automatic watch, though you read it just the same. It might look a little crowded but it’s surprisingly easy to read at a glance, the only real mandate of a pilots’ watch. That and accuracy which, thanks to the Japanese automatic movement, shouldn’t be too much of an issue.
Ape’s Pick: Allied 40mm
Inspired by the A-11, this Timex watch is a military icon and “the watch that won WWII”. Worn on the wrist of every allied force during that battle, it’s drawn directly from the brand’s extensive archives.
The movement is quartz, as you’d expect for anything under £200 (Seiko being the exception), but it’s far better than the bog-standard movement you find in most fashion watches. For one, it includes a quick date change function. It shouldn’t be needed unless the battery runs out, but it’s nice to have nonetheless.
Ape’s Pick: Native 40mm Black Leather
Nordgreen everything you would expect from a Danish watch brand: quality, simplicity and exceptional design. Working directly with Jakob Wagner, one of Scandinavia’s most acclaimed designers, the specialise in pared-back, versatile timepieces that are meant to be worn every day and can adapt to every occasion.
Their best-selling Native watch is the epitome of the company’s ethos. Featuring a clean dial, invisible time marks and rounded lugs, it’s a contemporary take on a classic watch style. There are three dial colours, four case colours and three sizes to choose from, along with a plethora of interchangeable straps (we’d recommend picking up a few), but our pick is timeless black leather with a silver dial and white face.
Ape’s Pick: Venice Moon Phase
It’s not hard to see why Filippo Loreti has taken Italy by storm. Their watches are generally sub-£100 and still actually look like “proper” watches. If, like most guys, you’re after a good-looking timepiece, then why invest in anything else? The brand’s Venice model kicks things up a notch, adding a moon phase to the Miyota quartz movement.
The blue and yellow gold finish is stunning, especially with the moon and stars showing through at 6 o’clock. It even has a full calendar on the dial, showing day, date and month. The only thing it doesn’t have is a secondhand. It may be quartz but who says you need to actually let on?
Ape’s Pick: Classic St. Mawes 40mm
In many ways these guys are the Scandi equivalent of Filippo Loreti. Where the latter loves adding complications to the movements and busying up the dials with a bit of flash, Daniel Wellington prefers minimal and reserved.
The St. Mawes is about as restrained as a watch can get and still have indexes. A plain white dial, rose gold batons and a simple two-hand movement (again camouflaging the quartz by knocking off the second hand) it’s the definition of simplicity.
It comes in 36mm if you really want to lean into the vintage look, but the 40mm is far more wearable. The only issue you might have is that minuscule crown.
Ape’s Pick: Sixtease
Swatch produce some seriously cool, traditional-looking watches and even have a decent selection of automatics to choose from. Screw that though. There are enough watches on this list that pretend to be “proper” watches, so how about something that’s just a hell of a lot of fun?
There’s always a Berlin design studio’s worth of funky Swatches around at any time, but this… this is the one. Aside from the fact that I love a good pun (hazard of the job), the psychedelic monochrome pattern that bends its way across the Sixtease is eye-catching to say the least – stretching across dial, case, strap and all.
It definitely wears its inspiration on its sleeve. Or wrist. Or whatever.
Ape’s Pick: Urban Chronograph
Thought a custom watch was out of reach? Undone would beg to differ. It’s their entire raison d’etre. Just go on their website, pick a base watch – the sleek Urban, rugged Basecamp or the Aqua (a diver, obviously) – and get going. The more you add, the pricier it gets but it’ll never leave the realm of the eminently affordable.
Now, I’m not saying they’re the best built watches in the world – they’re better than most fashion watches, nowhere near most Swiss – but at this price point what do you expect? You’re still getting a custom watch, designed by you (within the bounds of the Undone website) and sent to your door.
Of the lot the Urban has some of the more interesting custom options, especially in the vintage-inspired dials. As it’s a quartz it’s also the most affordable – and if you’re not happy with your final choice, it’s cheap enough to go round again.
Boldr Supply Co.
Ape’s Pick: Venture Jungle Green
Field watches are in right now – well, they haven’t really been out since the 1940s – and there are a fair few on the market, imitating either the Dirty Dozen or the American A-11. Boldr’s is a little more individual than that, impressive given that generally a field watch is a field watch is a field watch.
At 38mm it’s definitely tapping into the current need for retro sizing, and thanks to the titanium case feels light and comfortable even for a smaller timepiece. The off-centre crown gives it a nice bit of differentiation and it’s particularly handsome in the jungle green, just shy of being a nod to military khaki.
It’s also equipped with an automatic Japanese movement, boasts 200m water resistance, is slathered in lume and comes on a cool NATO strap.
Ape’s Pick: DeZert
This might not be for everyone. Where most watchmakers like to hide their quartz movements, The Electricianz (a name I can’t help but wince over) revel in it, using their dual battery movement as a design statement. In the case of the sandy-coloured DeZert, the result is some steampunk, Mad Max dystopia kind of timekeeper.
It’s practical for sure, even more so than a normal quartz timepiece as one of the batteries acts a redundancy; just hit a switch to start using the spare. Think of it an affordable version of the types of insane designs MB&F or Urwerk come up with, somewhere between a watch and an electrical transformer.
The steel case is also wrapped in thermomoulded nylon – because of course it is; why wouldn’t it be? – resulting in an an odd, velvety feel and an abrasion-resistant layer. The DeZert is quirky, it’s practical and it’s like nothing else out there. Nobody said it needed to be handsome, too.
$370.00 at The Electricianz
Ape’s Pick: Brooklyn Moonphase
A return to New Amsterdam for the pair of Dutchmen behind Maen, the Brooklyn Moonphase is more classical than you might expect, given that its namesake is the hipster hub of New York. In fact, it’s about as traditional as a quartz watch can get, with a lovely sunray dial and a svelte 39mm stainless steel case. That said, the polished lugs and bezel make for a nice contrast with the brushed (matte) case. It’s subtle but a nice touch all the same.
The titular complication is also a little more subtle than many a dress watch would opt for, though that likely has more to do with the movement – a Swiss Ronda number – than the whims of the Maen designers. The yellow moon and stars stand out nicely in the midnight blue version of the Brooklyn; less so against the silver.
The rest of the watch is simple but well-done, from the faceted indexes and hands to the Italian leather strap, all adding up to a sophisticated modern dress watch for around £235.
€269.00 at Maen Watches
Ape’s Pick: Chrono XL
Tissot’s signature men’s quartz piece does pretty much what it says on it’s big stainless steel tin. It’s a chronograph, powered by a solid ETA quartz movement (certainly one of the better ones out there), and it’s big. 45mm might not sound that much more than your standard 42, but once stopwatch pushers start getting involved it all stacks up.
There are a fair few variations of the watch, most with an unusual PVD coating. For the uninitiated, that’s Physical Vapour Desposition, essentially bonding an additional layer of material to the stainless steel case for colour and sometimes protection. You’ll see it most commonly in black watches, which in Tissot’s case is the coolest of the Chrono XLs.
The equally black dial and cream indexes make for a design that’s eye catching for more than its size. If you’re looking for a stealthy, macho timepiece with a Swiss movement that doesn’t break the bank, it’s Tissot all the way.
£290.00 at Tissot
Ape’s Pick: Mechanical Classic FAC08002F0
Think of Orient as a more classical take on the Seiko formula. They’re a Japanese powerhouse, they produce their own movements and they offer well-made mechanical watches at a fraction of Swiss prices. The only real difference is their best designs are the more traditional ones; Seiko’s are their rugged sports watches.
Case in point, the Mechanical Classic FAC08002F0. And yes, you need to know the reference as “Mechanical Classic” covers a multitude of very different models. This particular number has a stunning green fume (smoky) dial set off by a 42mm gold-coloured stainless steel case.
It’s a good-looking piece and green is very zeitgeisty; throw in an automatic movement (an in-house one, if that really counts for anything) and you have a great Japanese watch for very little cash. Enough said, really.
£112.09 at Amazon
Ape’s Pick: Marine Star
Want something that’s easily mistaken for a Rolex from far away? Look no further than Bulova’s Marine Star. Well, that might be selling it a bit short. You get a lot of bang for your buck with the Citizen-owned brand, including in this non-chrono version of their signature diver.
A good-looking, two-tone watch with all the necessary aesthetic accoutrements of a diving watch, it’s only really let down by its 100m water resistance. That’s enough to go swimming or snorkelling in, but not to actually do some serious diving. Still, who actually goes diving with a watch anyway?
The build quality is great for the price – and for plenty of more expensive watches, too – though you’ll have to make do with a quartz movement. Still, Citizen make brilliant quartz calibres so don’t let that stop you.
£299.00 at Bulova