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.
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.
You may know Casio for its gold-plated digital bracelet watch that, for a period in the noughties, was the ironic wrist adornment of every fixie-bike riding, flat-white drinking Hackney dweller worth their E9 credentials. But to reduce it to that one signature is to seriously underestimate what this brand has to offer.
The retro nostalgia is still there – in its aptly named Retro collection – but you can also get your hands on world timers, Bluetooth hybrids and styles suitable for scuba diving. Think of the brand as a one-stop-shop for all your watch needs, from digital to dress.
Casio’s muscular cousin is over 30 years old but its charm certainly hasn’t diminished. When it was first created by Casio engineer Kikuo Ibe, its selling point was that it had a 10-year battery life, was water resistant to 10 bar (100m) and would survive a 10m fall onto a hard surface (Ibe tested this by dropping 200 prototypes from third-story windows and rooftops).
Three decades later, this is still a design that takes some beating when it comes to durability. But now it comes with a range of added extras, from the useful – world time, automatic calendar and alarms – to the more specialist, such as moon data displays and yacht timers.
Timex is considered the Everyman of the watch world. Historically it became renowned for a particular kind of all-American dependability – George Bush Jr wore one, presumably to distract US voters from his upper-class background – but recently it has acquired a certain retro cool.
In 2017, it collaborated with Mr Porter on a limited run of three special editions inspired by its Vietnam-Era military styles, while models such as its Easy Reader and Weekender are seen on the wrist of interestingly attired men from London to Tokyo.
From its impressively complex-looking chronos to its elegant Milanese bracelet Fairfield, Timex’s nostalgia-tinged design language shines through, which is precisely why people continue to wear it.
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.
Set up in 2007 by four friends who were fed up with the reverence accorded status and tradition in the watch industry – the unusual name stands for ‘transforming the industry of watches’ – Triwa has been on a mission to shake up things up, albeit in a refined, tasteful Scandinavian way.
Every watch is designed in Sweden and that language is writ large in the clever blend of classic elements that are subverted with fashion colours. The leather straps are organically tanned and sourced from its country of origin, and there’s the added bonus of being able to buy them separately so you can switch up anything in your collection.
If you really like Triwa’s aesthetic, you can complete your look with a pair of branded sunglasses, too.
It could be easy to dismiss underground watch brand Skagen as a bit one-note, shamelessly milking the Scandinavian thing; it is after all made in America and now under Fossil’s control. However, a deeper look through its collections reveals some interesting models that show a real flair for watch design along with a touch of irreverence for how it’s ‘supposed to be done’. There’s the regulator-style Signatur; the Holst, with its arresting sub dial configuration; and the very smart looking – and acting – Hagen hybrid watch.
Everything is shot through with a considered minimalism and you can’t deny the quality of the build, which feels even more impressive when you consider nothing in the range is over £300.
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.
Once upon a time, it wasn’t all about Switzerland. Pre-WWII, Britain – and specifically London – was something of a horological capital. But then Hitler decided to ruin it for everyone, sending thousands of would-be watchmakers (and other artisans) to join the war effort, and causing the industry to go into decline.
It didn’t completely die, though. Despite being born in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Rotary is based in the UK, which also serves as its biggest market. So expect a wealth of lines named after famous landmarks and a long history serving households on our home shores.
Sure, Rotary watches may not be crafted in rustic, romantic Clerkenwell workshops anymore, but they’re far more celebratory of British watchmaking heritage than its cousins au Suisse.
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.