As I sat in the airport lounge waiting for my flight, I couldn’t help notice the Patek Philippe Calatrava on the wrist of the gentleman at the next table. Its creamy dial subtly resting like a cloud in a sky made from rose gold. It was dreamy, and I found myself starting for a moment. How I wanted one of these $16,000 watches. But before I could compliment his fine taste in timepieces, he interrupted my daydream.
“Excuse me,” the man said. “What watch are you wearing?”
It was a Brooks Brother’s Gentleman’s Watch from back when they produced their timepieces in Switzerland before signing on with Seiko. It was a gift from my parents for my 30th birthday. A humble watch, somewhat resembling the great Cartier Tank or Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso.
He then told me he liked my watch, got up after a short conversation, and left for the airport’s Brooks Brother’s store to see if they had one in stock.
Even though this gentleman had the Rolls-Royce of watches on his wrist, he still appreciated the sophisticated appearance of my inexpensive timepiece.
Not many of us will ever be able to afford a grail watch like this man’s Patek Philippe. However, it doesn’t mean that we don’t deserve to have a resplendent timepiece on our wrist.
Each man has a different idea of what is inexpensive. Some might consider inexpensive to be the $10 watch you can buy on cruise ships or at flea markets. Other’s may consider a Calatrava priced upwards of $16,000 to be pocket change. With that said, considering most luxury watches start at $3,000 and anything less than that is usually either overpriced and equally meretricious, unless you can afford to spend more than $3,000 on a timepiece, you’re better off dropping down to the sub $1,000 mark or considering something vintage.
Just because you can’t afford a luxury watch doesn’t mean your sense of style is inferior to a man with a fatter pocketbook. We all deserve to wear a beautiful watch, and thankfully at a lower price point, we rarely have to consider anything more than its aesthetic appeal.
Inexpensive Watches That Look Sophisticated
If you’re buying an expensive luxury timepiece you not only need to consider the appearance of the watch, but you also need to take into consideration the craftsmanship, accuracy, movement, and materials used to craft it.
The best part about buying an equally beautiful, yet significantly less expensive watch under $1,000 is that since it will likely be a quartz timepiece or employ a reputable mechanical or automatic movement from ETA, Ronda or Miyota, you can forget all about the mechanics and simply buy based on your style. In fact, any inexpensive quartz is likely to be more accurate than a manually-wound watch.
Bulova Dress Watch
Bulova has developed a reputation as being department store luxury. The brand is well regarded for their accurate timepieces and the appearance of many of the watches. It’s a watchmaker highly valued by chain jewelers and small retailers, and for a good reason.
The Bulova Dress Watch is exactly as advertised: a quintessential dress watch. Simplistic yet elegant, its white dial offers a clean backdrop over a metal case that’s fastened with a plain black leather strap. It passes the cuff test every time and is not only boardroom appropriate, but can also hold its own as a casual watch for the weekend. Provided of course you don’t plan to go swimming in it. At just around $100, it’s easy to see why this watch is so popular with young executives still paying off student loans.
Helgray GMT II
Kickstarter has successfully helped to launch a number of newcomers to the watch world. For most of them, their success is short lived, but for others—like Helgray—they become wildly popular. The new Le Mans line is arguably one of the most aesthetically pleasing timepieces in this price category. However, since I haven’t personally tested it, I don’t feel comfortable recommending it.
The GMT II, however, is currently sitting on my wrist. Another timepiece that passes the cuff test, this is a slightly more casual, and yet still professional watch. Capable of showing dual time zones, the purist will leave the secondary hand running at GMT time, whereas the frequent flyer will set it according to where they next land. The dial is simple, yet rather intriguing as it appears to change from a deep blue to a dark black depending on the time of day and the lighting. It’s easy to read in the dark and is the perfect choice for the urban man whether he’s going to school, a meeting full of lawyers or to the beach for a bonfire with friends. Priced just under $300, you’ll save money and time buying directly from their site with free shipping in both the United States and Canada.
Brathwait Automatic Minimalist
Distinctly British, this automatic minimalist watch is a tough one to beat. Powered by a 9015 automatic self-winding movement with date and swipe hand, it is as understated as any modern man could want.
What really separates Brathwait from the pack though is transparency. Unlike almost every other watchmaker in the world, Brathwait clearly advertises down to the penny how much it costs for them to make their timepieces. Not only do they include the cost of the materials, but they also show you their cost of fulfillment and shipping, storage, the product box, transaction fees (VISA, etc.) and other bank related expenses. If you’re worried about getting an inferior watch for a high price, Brathwait is likely the brand you want to consider.
Unfortunately, unless you find one used, you can no longer buy the Brooks Brothers watch I was wearing at the airport. Not since they moved their manufacturing to Japan. If you do like the art deco appeal and timeless elegance of a Cartier Tank, Rolex Cellini Prince or JLC Reverso, but can’t afford any of them, consider the Gatsby watch from Stührling. Perfect for casual and business attire, it curves comfortably around your wrist and neatly sits under the cuff—just peeking slightly past your cufflinks. Ideal for those interested in a brown leather strap, the Gatsby is the perfect choice for men who missed the roaring twenties.
Tianjin Seagull 1963
Most watch writers will tell you to avoid watches made in China at all cost. The reason is they’ve likely never worn the Seagull 1963. Imitating the watches handed out to airmen in the early sixties, this timepiece has a unique vintage appearance with a rather well appointed and superbly crafted Seagull No. ST21 mechanical chronograph. At just 38mm, it’s a perfectly unique chronograph for men with smaller wrists. Unlike most oversized chronographs, this one easily passes our cuff test. However, because it is a sport watch, I recommend wearing it with casual attire rather than a suit and tie.
Bernhardt Officer’s Watch
If you like the current trend of oversized watches, the Bernhardt Officer’s Watch is a great pick. The large 44mm timepiece uses a Unitas 6497 movement made by ETA that’s housed in a brushed and partly polished stainless steel case. It’s vintage styling and numbering scream masculinity and the quality of the watch and price at just under $500 really make it one worthy of your attention.
There are few luxury watch brands that you’ll ever see me recommend under $3,000. Frederique Constant is one of those few. The Swiss watchmaker is unlike anything else in Geneva. Entirely crafted in-house, the quality of these attainable luxury watches is second to none. It is one of the only Swiss Made luxury watchmakers to craft entire lines that are heirloom quality and will last a lifetime. All of their watches are stunning and well made, but I particularly suggest the slim line with their automatic in-house movements over the less expensive quartz option. Even with the automatic movement, many of the watches in their lineup can be found for under $1,000. You just have to look around.
A couple of years ago, NOMOS sent me one of their watches on loan for review. As I wrote in the original article, I was very skeptical when they approached me, thinking wholeheartedly that I wouldn’t be impressed by their work. Wow was I ever wrong. In fact, when it came time to return the watch, I found myself saddened by the fact I wouldn’t get to continue wearing the Tangente. Like Frederique Constant, NOMOS has managed to make an exceptionally well-crafted timepiece worthy of the attention of even the most discerning gentleman. Unfortunately, the timepiece does come in at over $1,000. However, if you can spend a little more, it’s my top recommendation.
Sinn has developed a reputation for making high-quality timepieces that sell at a fraction of what their owners feel they’re worth. Priced slightly over $1,000, the 556 is their most popular piece. It is a watch well suited for the rakish dandy, with elements of elegance equally matched with casual undertones. It is a watch you should consider buying or at least learn a little more about.
Fans of this watch are fiercely loyal, and they argue the quality surpasses some of the most esteemed luxury watches in the world. Made in Russia, the Barracuda is a classic and refined chronograph that is ideal as a daily-wear watch. Exceptional from the inside out, it’s the unique colors that really make it a standout. This is a timepiece you should put on the shopping list.
One of Switzerland’s most renowned second-tier watchmakers, Tissot has crafted some fine timepieces that pit it against brands like Tag Heuer. Often advertised as a less expensive alternative to a Rolex, the Visodate is a line that’s perfect for the boardroom or the backyard.
Another watch on par with the Visodate, Hamilton has a long history and reputation as one of the leading entry-level luxury watch brands. With many of the same visual characteristics as Tissot, it is an ideal option for those who want a more unique timepiece on their wrist that not every John, Dick and Harry wears to work.
Honorable Mention: Vintage Omega Seamaster
If you’re looking for a really great luxury watch at a reasonable price, not many vintage timepieces sell for as little as Omega Seamasters can go for on eBay or Touch of Modern. The quintessential dive watch, this James Bond approved watch is ideal for everyone from the deep sea diver to the MI6 assassin.
Where to Buy Inexpensive Watches
If you’ve read any of my other watch articles, you know I passionately plead with my readers to avoid buying luxury watches online unless they know their stuff. Buying a Rolex, a Patek or a Vacheron Constantin on eBay is about as risky as swimming in a shark tank while making your annual donation to the blood bank. Unless you know exactly what to look for, you run a fairly significant risk of buying a counterfeit.
This isn’t something you’ll likely have to worry about with an inexpensive watch. No matter how sophisticated it looks.
In fact, buying online is exactly where I suggest purchasing these kinds of watches. eBay can be an excellent source for discounted timepieces. Amazon can provide a ton of options with quick delivery. Kickstarter can introduce you to new and inventive watchmakers that let you get in as an investor on the ground floor. That, or dealers like Crown & Caliber, Gemnation and Bob’s Watches can net you huge deals on authentic watches at prices that seem too good to be true.
If you’re in the market for a watch, the department stores and the mall are great for Timex, Bulova, and Casio. But the really great stuff is best bought online or direct from the manufacturer.
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