It is funny how those friends of mine who always took the piss about my obsession for watches are the same guys who are now getting into watches and asking for advice on buying their first proper watch. Well, this article is for you.
So, you have been working a few years, have settled into adult life and have a little money put aside for a special something for yourself. Or you got a bonus in March and can't spend it travelling or in the pub because of this fucking virus... Either way, you're in the market and want to get something to be proud of, something that'll hurt just enough to purchase that the feeling will be a lasted memory. You want something that your friends and colleagues will notice and also achieve the nod of approval from your seriously particular and opinionated watch nerd friends... like me. This article will hopefully give some steer and inspiration and 3 different price points. I have also tried to cover the bases in terms of dressier and sportier options.
1. £500 and under
This is somewhat an easier section to write as the pool to choose from is smaller. However, at the same time, you can get some killer watches that fly under the radar a bit more. This way you can stand out a bit from the crowd of 22-year-old white guys from the South East with Datejusts…
A. Vintage Omega Seamaster/ Constellation
Although a bit of hunting and negotiating required, what may come as a surprise to many newbies is that, due to the sheer number produced, the market value of steel Omega Seamaster, Constellations and Geneve from the late 50s-80s can actually be had for under £500. These pieces offer excellent value with timeless, simple designs, great omega movements and one of the big boy Swiss names on the dial. Many of the Constellations actually utilise coveted Omega chronometer movements meaning they achieved and were recognised for possessing the highest level of accuracy.
However, these pieces are vintage and are therefore much more traditional in design and size, which may not be to some tastes. Furthermore, they are much more delicate. With acrylic crystal, much thinner case sizes and no water resistance these dressy pieces may not be versatile for someone who may want an all-round, high quality "beater watch". This leads me effortlessly to my other example.
B. Seiko Sarbs and Seiko 5 lines
I did these together because I'm lazy and they occupy the same price point with similar qualities and drawbacks. Both occupying the 300-500 price point, they offer classic Seiko design, great versatility, in house reliable movements and quality that far exceeds their price point.
The Sarb offers a superior movement, a classic yet versatile 36mm case and surprisingly good quality oyster style bracelet. For argument's sake they come in either a black or white/ cream dials. (There is a pink dial as well as a gold plated version and PDV version but these are seldom seen, I'm not even sure they exist). The smaller thin case is extremely well balanced and sits on your wrist like a Datejust or Oyster Perpetual. The brushed oyster style bracelet and glossy dial with polished smooth bezel give this piece a very versatile look and on a leather strap comes across much dressier.
The SKX series, or 5, as they are now know are much sportier and contemporary coming in a 42mm case and a whole range of case and dial combinations. However, like the Sarbs, they have tried and tested reliable in-house movements, iconic and recognisable designs based on much-loved dive watches of yesteryear and again generally offer an exceptionally good bang for your buck. This is a watch that, in my experience, has kicked off a watch obsession for many people. Particularly the old SKX007 series on the bracelets.
C. Orient Bambino
This one for some reason is a little unknown. A part of the Seiko brand, Orient benefit from the years of experience and economies of scale in manufacturing that Seiko has at their disposal. As a result, Orient are able to create excellently designed and well-made watches for very affordable prices. The Bambino is a dressier model but with a 40mm case and minimalistic dial options, it really hit the sweet spot giving off contemporary, casual vibes but fitting nicely under a cuff as well.
D. Hamilton Khaki Field
This is one of my favourites in this price point, even though I do in fact currently own a Sarb035... Hamilton is a brand with legitimate horological heritage particularly in military watchmaking having made watches for the US army and European armies throughout many ill-conceived wars. The Hamilton Khaki Field is an exceptionally solid and well-built watch based heavily on Hamilton's military watches that were utilised in the field of war - thus the name. With brushed steel 36mm cases, a number of different dial combinations and a swiss manual wind movement, these are fan favourite of watch nerds who want a military-style watch that is still waterproof and hasn't genuinely been "through the wars". God, I'm funny.
E. Independent micro brands: Baltic, Gekota and Dan Henry
Over the last 5 or so years, a number of new independent brands whose business model is affordable, well-made quality watches on a budget have been appearing on the market facilitated by Kickstarter campaigns and social media.
Baltic watches are a fan favourite. Hailing out of France these incredible well-made watches are entirely vintage focussed with their Bi-compax model based on 1950s/60s style racing chronographs and their classic Aquascaphe model based on the original Blancpain/ Rolex/ Omega style dive watches. Coming in small case sizes and very vintage-inspired designs, these are available for around £500 making them an exceptional introduction into good quality and thoughtful watch collecting.
Gekota and Dan Henry are two more watch brands that have also come into fruition in the last few years and also boast very vintage aesthetic. Occupying very similar price points and making use of Chinese mechanical movement both of these brands are able to produce exceptionally cool vintage inspired mechanical watches for as little as £250. Although both do utilise the meca-quartz and full quartz movements in some of their designs, Gekota has some outstanding panda dial chronograph models with manual wind movements for £300 and even a fully functioning Tourbillon watch with a sea-gull movement for around £1,500.
Again many newcomers to watches don't think they can obtain great mechanical watches spending in this price range. However so wrong they are. Especially when looking at the vintage and second-hand market.
A. Tissot Gentleman Powermatic
This is a watch I have written an article on before and have sung its praises. With a 40mm case size a range of case and dial variations and housing an in-house Automatic movement with a silicon balance wheel and 80 - hour power reserve, the Gentlemen is an exceptional achievement in terms of both mechanics and presentation for a Swiss watch that retails for less than £1,000. The Datejust inspired style makes this a very versatile watch that on a bracelet can be casual or office-appropriate then chuck on a leather strap and its far dressier.
B. Vintage Options
Now this section could be an article all in itself. There are plenty of great deals that can be had when looking around online but to help you see the wood from the trees, here are a few jumping-off points to look out for.
Must De Cartier Tank
This is one of my favourites here and definitely one of Felix's. From the early 80s until the late 90s Cartier made a gold plated version of the iconic tank. With a range of dial options from the classic Cartier Arabic numerals to the weird and wonderful, these gold plated manual wind pieces offer a chance to own an extremely iconic piece from one of the big brands for less than £1,000 usually. This is obviously a very vintage dress watch style and may not tickle the pickle of someone looking for something more versatile.
Now, this may come as a surprise, but a lot of the 1950s-60s steel dress watches can be had for around £800-£1500. 36-40mm case sizes, minimal dials and In-house movements, these watches are fantastic value considering the quality and prestige that comes with a brand like IWC. Pieces housing the calibre 8531 and calibre 89 are excellent automatic calibres can consistently be found below £1000 on eBay. As with the Cartier, these could potentially be a bit too dressy for the first time buyer, however in brushed steel cases and sharp brushed edges, these are slightly more versatile than the Cartier.
King Seiko, Grand Seiko and Seiko Lord Marvel
Again this could be an article in itself. Seiko expert collectors are forever taking advantage of the lack of appreciation and understanding of the lesser-known families in the vintage grand Seiko catalogue. King Seiko was a range of Seiko watches that was released alongside the Grand Seiko launches, held in a similar prestige to the brand and collectors alike, However, due to incorrectly perceived quality over time, the King Seiko was seen as lesser quality and can now be obtained for much less than vintage Grand Seiko. Furthermore, the Lord Marvel line was introduced with the sole purpose of beating Girard Perregeux's Ultra high-beat Gyromatic movement. Falling in the same price point as the King Seiko's, around £500-750, the Lord Marvel's offer a first-time collector a watch that is exceptionally important historically from a mechanical standpoint, that possesses the same exceptional Japanese design and finishing.
The sister brand of Rolex has been gaining popularity recently with nerds and the mainstream alike. This has had an impact on the prices of vintage pieces too. Although you can pick up the first series of Tudor Black Bay for about £1500 you can also get hold of some very good vintage Tudor Oysterdates and Day-dates for this price. These pieces basically offer everything a steel Rolex Datejust or oyster precision do but without the Rolex logo on the dial for half the price. For example, you can get a nice Tudor oyster Royal, essentially Tudor's version of the oyster precision, for about £600-750. This is a great looking, versatile vintage steel sports watch made by Rolex with Rolex parts for sub-£1000. I have owned two Oyster Royals in my time and loved them both.
Breitling Top Time
A recognisable James Bond Watch from an Iconic brand, the Top Time is a fantastic way to dive into collecting watches without breaking the bank. For around £1000-1500 depending on condition, one can buy a watch seen on Sean Connery's wrist in Thunderball and Jerry Seinfeld's wrist in Seinfeld. Utilising a workhorse Valjoux calibre 7730 and sporting splashes of colour on the dial, this piece also offers archetypical 1960s-70s racing chronograph design any watch snob will applaud you for.
C. Mido Baroncelli Heritage
This is a model that has recently caught my attention I must admit. Mido has quietly been occupying the low-tier swiss market alongside Oris, Tissot and Hamilton for many years now. All of these are of course great watches in their own right but maintaining low price tags due to modular movements and saving on materials and finishing. However, the new Baroncelli Heritage line is an exceptionally tasteful and thoughtfully designed modern dress watch. With a 39mm case size and 7.25mm thick, the Baroncelli Heritage boasts the perfect modern dress watch proportions. Couple this with simple yet contemporary dial and hand combinations and you have an exceptionally good looking watch priced at £850 retail.
D. Tag Heuer Aquaracer
An obvious one that has consistently been the top choice for "My first watch" category since the reinvention of the brand in the late 80s, Tag Heuer offer some exceptionally well built and designed watches for sub £1,500 that are simply in a different league to the competitors such as Mido and Tissot. A time only Aquaracer can be had brand new for less than £1,500. This is a classic dive watch with great finishing, 200m water resistance and a well respected Swiss name with an exceptional heritage. If I could recommend anyone anything, I'd say always go mechanical. Tag offer the F1 series with their very retro-inspired design and excellent build quality but do use quartz movements. When you have alternatives out there for the same price or less why would you buy quartz?
3. £3000 - £5000
I know this is a bit of a jump in the budget but if you going to spend more than £1,500 the only major upgrade will be pieces that are at least £3,000 - i.e. there isn't much difference between what you can buy for £2,000 and what you can buy for £3,000. This is a very interesting budget as you can begin to afford some heavy hitter vintage and modern pieces.
Looking at reputable second-hand dealers such as Watch finder and Goldsmiths, one can regularly find Pilot chronographs for around £3,500-£4,000. Although ETA based movements, these are very iconic and recognisable watches suitable for all occasion. Complete with design steeped in heritage and exuding typical IWC class and finishing, this is a lot of watch for this price range. Moreover, some older Portuguese models can be found for around £5,000. Again an extremely famous, recognisable and iconic design that can be obtained for less than a submariner at retail. Finally, and maybe more controversially, you can find the older IWC Ingenier series based on the original case shape designed by Gerald Genta for around £5,000 second hand. Although again ETA based, these are high end watches designed by an extremely important figure in horological history. For me as a big F1 fan, the idea of wearing the poster boy watches for the Mercedes AMG F1 team for £5,000 excites me greatly.
It is ridiculous that a vintage steel Rolex Datejust 1601 is in this category but the sad reality to get a decent one these days you are looking at just over £3,000. I remember when you could find pieces with a full original oyster bracelet, box and papers for about £1,500! None the less these Datejusts are exceptionally timeless and beautiful watches that are effortlessly versatile and seem to still be going up in value.
Along similar veins are the original Rolex Air Kings. An exceptionally good looking watch that is the piece of choice of Ryan Gosling, these can be found for just under £3,000. Exuding similar qualities to the Datejust, these tended to have a bit more variety in their dials and bezels as well as being slightly smaller.
Now the vintage Rolex Explorer 2 is one of my favourite watches of all time and they almost can't make this list due to the astronomical increase in price over the last few years. Once around £3,000 for a good one, these are now regularly around and over £5,000. However, an awesomely versatile but solidly constructed, utilitarian, oyster sports watch with a GMT function, this is a watch that is held in high regard by serious collectors and Prince Harry alike.
Similar with the Explorer 2, the Explorer 1 basically won't make this list in another year as they are regularly going for over £5,000. However, I can confirm there are a number of pieces on Watchfinder for sub £5,000. This is much more money than they used to be but you are still getting an iconic, recognizable and important watch that is probably, in my opinion, the most versatile watch ever made. The smaller and thinner case size, with extremely flat and balanced case and bracelet this watch looks perfect on a beach and in a board room.
Finally, the modern Rolex Oyster Perpetual 39mm is probably one of my favourite modern Rolex and is conveniently one of the cheapest! As Rolex's entry-level piece, the 39mm version is perfect. It is a well balanced versatile watch with all the modern amenities such as glide lock clasp and the 25 coatings of antireflective coating Rolex now put on their glass essentially making it invisible over the dial to the naked eye. Also, they come in such a range of colours from the standard black and white, to Grape, Grey, Blue and Green. My personal favourite is the 39mm White dial which I think is perfect in every way retails at just below £5,000.
Omega is the undisputed king of this price bracket, boasting two of the most famous sports watches in history: The Seamaster and Speedmaster. In this price category, you can actually get both at retail price, brand new, for under the £5,000 budget!
Although I prefer the former iteration of the Seamaster, of which you can get second hand for around £2,500, the new model houses the new movement displayed through a case back. Which is awesome. Furthermore, there is a new white dial version, PVD version and Titanium and gold version which have never appeared in the modern lineage of the Seamaster. I am fairly certain all new models come in under £5,000 which is exceptional value for a brand new Omega Seamaster with brand new materials and chronometer movement.
The Speedmaster. There isn't much to say here really. It is widely considered the best watch you can buy for under £5,000. Pretty simple. Versatile as hell. So much history and achievement behind it. A very famous in-house manual wind movement. One of the most famous watches of all time. For under £5,000 I cant honestly recommend anything else. Furthermore, when bought at retail you get a nato strap and a strap changing tool, actively encouraging you to switch it up and make it even more versatile.
So here are a few ideas but the best advice I can give is to thoroughly take your time and hunt around. It all comes down to personal preference and you should never buy anything to simply impress your mates/ girls in Mayfair bars. The point of this article was to give some jumping off points and get the juices flowing. It was also to show that there is much more out there other than Rolex and Omega.
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