It used to be a case of “you get what you pay for” when it came to watches, both in terms of quality and kudos. Dropping a few thousand not only meant you’d get decent mechanics but also boardroom brownie points for sporting a reputable name on your wrist.
Blame the Japanese for flooding the market with timepieces that were cheap and battery-powered during the Quartz Crisis of the 1970s and early 1980s, but anything in the sub-£1000 bracket used to be treated with derision or even contempt. Thankfully, for your bank balance at least, this doesn’t hold true any more.
Whether it’s because quartz got cool or watch brands realised that not everyone with an interest in horology had the readies to fund their burgeoning obsession, some interesting things have started to happen in the lower price brackets.
As with any search for a bargain, you have to know where to look and which brand names to zero in on, but if you do you could be in with a chance of kitting out your entire watch wardrobe for half the price of an Omega Speedmaster.
And we’re not just talking quartz watches from fashion houses – though there are some seriously cool styles to be found there. We’re talking timepieces from names with real design cachet to genuine automatics, even Swiss ones.
You won’t have to go trawling the internet equivalent of the bargain basement to find these hidden gems, either. Just read our handy guide to the watch brands that are making the affordable end of the market worth taking a second look at.
It was created to be the cheapest watch on the market and has a name that is a portmanteau of ‘Swiss’ and ‘watch’ – not the best credentials for long-lasting success. But hey, it’s amazing how much mileage Swatch has got out of some injection-moulded plastic.
Swatch’s stock in trade seems to be ‘if you can imagine it, we can do it’. It has collaborated with artists and fashion designers, been at the forefront of youth culture – it sponsored the first Breakdance World Championships – and even had the chutzpah to go automatic with a movement assembled by robots in a watch that will get you change from £110, the SISTEM51.
This US fashion watch brand was set up by Jake Kassan and Kramer LaPlante, who dropped out of college to prove that huge mark-ups and ritzy retail premises weren’t necessary for success.
A crowdfunding campaign got them off the ground and since 2013 they have been delighting fans with their crisply designed timepieces that cover every style a man could wish for, from the sporty heft of the Mariner to the dress elegance of the Classic lines. There’s even a bit of bling in the form of the Rogue, if you’re feeling flash.
Think pilot’s watches and the names that instantly come to mind are the likes of Breitling, Bremont and Bell & Ross; brands you’d need a pilot’s licence to afford. Which is what makes AVI-8 so great – you get all of the aviation inspiration but without the sky-high price tag.
There are six collections – five named after planes, one affectionately called ‘Flyboy’ – and they have everything you’d want from this style of timepiece. There’s the tachymeter scales and sub dials in the Hawker Hurricane; the oversized numeral and cross hairs on the Flyboy; and the wonderfully vintage-looking straps across all the ranges.
Stylistically AVI-8 doesn’t put a foot wrong and gets a proper British salute for making a democratic pilot’s watch.
As you’d expect, Tommy Hilfiger’s watches are a horological distillation of the preppy East-Coast American style that made his name. It is the kind of sports elegance embodied by the Kennedys, one that works best with a pair of crisp chinos and a sweater artfully draped around the shoulders.
There’s the Windsurf for a day at the beach; the Emerson for nipping about in one’s sporty little number; and the Oliver for cocktails on the deck at sunset.
This isn’t a brand that’s about mechanics or reinvention, it’s about creating a wardrobe full of classic pieces you’ll always want to wear. Especially when you’re holidaying in Westchester.
Mondaine is a brand more Swiss than Roger Federer personally hand-delivering a bar of Toblerone. That said, you don’t need a Swiss banker’s pay packet to own one.
Often seen as the younger, more affordable companion to the horological greats, Mondaine prides itself on packing traditional craftsmanship at a stitch of the regular price. That means quartz tickers hand-assembled in Switzerland that all bear the same logo seen on the country’s national rail service.
Citizen has always prided itself on accessible watches. So much so that the Japanese brand was just one manufacturer responsible for the previously mentioned Quartz Crisis, peddling the most accurate watches ever made at a fraction of traditional prices.
Bad news for Switzerland, sure, but good news for your wrist and wallet. Today, Citizen has continued the same budget-friendly mantra and offers a wide range of landmark pieces, like its acclaimed Eco-Drive – a line that uses natural or artificial light to power the battery. Which means you won’t have to fork out for a replacement.
This Swatch Group alumnus is pretty much the benchmark when it comes to both choice and bang for your buck. You could assemble your entire watch wardrobe from its sub-£300 collections and, since the brand has been innovating since 1853, you can be confidant that you’re buying into genuine horological heritage.
Want a dress watch? Try its Tradition range. In the market for an oversized chronograph? Look no further than the Chrono XL line. You can even get an automatic powered by Swatch Group’s entirely machine-made movement, the Swissmatic. Everything is of such a quality you don’t feel like you’re making compromises.
Given that this Japanese brand grows its own quartz for its battery-powered timepieces and prides itself on making everything in-house, that you can get any of its timepieces for under £300 seems like a bonus. However, Seiko excels at this price point.
Thanks to Japanese movements being more reasonably priced than their Swiss counterparts, you can secure stylish steel automatics for under £200, while its groundbreaking kinetic technology means owning a quartz watch that never needs a battery change. Each watch is also robustly made with an aesthetic sense way beyond its price tag.