If you are just at the start of your watch collecting journey, it is perfectly understandable to be a little anxious (if not flat-out terrified) about some of the price tags you will have seen. Sophisticated luxury watches have never been cheap, and it is true that there are a number out there which sell for the price of a pretty decent house – but not all.
Virtually every brand produces a catalog of models which range in value; extraordinarily expensive at the top end, surprisingly affordable at the other. Of course, that term ‘affordable’ is open to interpretation. You won’t be finding anything under the four-figure mark, but it might be a pleasant revelation as to how low into that territory you will be venturing.
The other thing to remember is that these manufacturers have garnered the reputations they enjoy today, most of all, through an obsessive dedication to quality. Just because an entry-level watch removes a zero or two off the end of the asking price compared to the flagship pieces, it doesn’t mean they have been thrown together halfheartedly. They will still have been designed and built by the same people, in the same facilities, and (generally speaking) with many of the same materials as models costing thousands of dollars more.
So, with all that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the industry’s most tempting and accessible watches from the top brands.
Rolex Oyster Perpetual
Oyster Perpetual Key Features:
Case Diameter: 28mm; 31mm; 34mm; 36mm; 41mm
Materials: 904L Stainless Steel
Functions: Three-Hand Time Only
Bezel: Smooth. Fixed
Dial: Wide Assortment of Colors. Stick Hands, Baton Hour Markers
Water Resistance: 100 meters / 330 feet
Price Range: $5,100-$5,900
Click here to learn more about the Rolex Oyster Perpetual.
In many ways, the Oyster Perpetual is the very essence of Rolex. The name is taken from the company’s two groundbreaking innovations; the waterproof Oyster case and the self-winding Perpetual movement, invented in 1926 and 1931 respectively. Between them, they did more to popularize the wristwatch as an essential accessory for both genders than anything before or since.
Technically, everything Rolex makes now (except for the Cellini series) is an Oyster Perpetual, as their entire portfolio is both water resistant to at least 100m and driven by an automatic caliber. The Submariner’s full name is actually the Oyster Perpetual Submariner, the Datejust is the Oyster Perpetual Datejust, and so on.
However, since the 1930s there has also always been simply the Oyster Perpetual range, typically the most modest, minimalistic group of watches the brand offers. That has carried on today, with a compendium of more than 30 models, split across five different sizes, which are the most inexpensive new Rolex models you can buy.
The Oyster Perpetual’s role in the grand scheme of things is pretty obvious. Between its broad scope in dimensions (28mm, 31mm, 34mm, 36mm, and 41mm) and its wide assortment of different dial designs – from the understated to the outrageous – Rolex’s entry-level piece is set up to appeal to any man or woman looking for that one good watch to go with anything and last a lifetime.
However, just because it represents the gateway into Rolex ownership, it doesn’t mean the Oyster Perpetual is in any way lacking. While there are no precious metal versions anymore (although you will find plenty on the vintage market) the steel the brand uses is the same extremely tough and corrosion-resistant 904L alloy you will find in every other stainless steel watch in the collection.
Similarly, the movements across the board are the very latest calibers to emerge from Rolex’s industry-leading workshops. The 41mm and 36mm models are both powered by the next generation Cal. 3230, with its Chronergy escapement, 70-hour power reserve, and proprietary blue Parachrom hairspring. The smaller three versions all contain the Cal. 2232, another superb mechanism, which gives a 55-hour reserve but benefits from the Syloxi silicon hairspring that, if anything, slightly improves upon Parachrom.
All in all, the Rolex Oyster Perpetual is just about as good as a three-handed, time only daily wearer can get. Handsomely robust and hugely versatile, it is one watch that never looks out of place. And perhaps best of all, it is a steel Rolex you have at least half a chance of being able to find at an authorized retailer.
Other Rolex options to Consider:
Datejust: the quintessential all-rounder.
Explorer: an Oyster Perpetual with iconic dial and cool backstory.
Tudor Black Bay Fifty-Eight
Black bay Fifty-Eight Key Features:
Case Diameter: 39mm
Materials: Stainless Steel
Functions: Three-Hand Time Only
Bezel: Rotating Dive Bezel
Dial: Blue/Black Matte Grained
Bracelet: Riveted Steel Bracelet, Leather or Cloth Strap
Water Resistance: 220 meters / 660 feet
Price Range: $3,425-$3,625
Click here to learn more about the Tudor Black Bay collection.
Few manufacturers have thrived in recent times more than Tudor. The sister company to Rolex was absent from the U.S. market for 10-years until they came storming back in 2012 with an all-new group of watches, split between contemporary and vintage-inspired models.
While the likes of the North Flag, Ranger, and Pelagos were all well received, it was the decidedly retro-looking Heritage series which really captured the imagination. Drawing on traditional divers from their own archives, the original Black Bay was such a success that the collection has now grown to include scores of different watches in numerous styles and with various complications.
The Black Bay Fifty-Eight is the most recent addition, debuting in 2018, and it has become possibly the most popular model in the range. It is also the least expensive among the dive watch models.
Vintage style watches have been all the rage for a few years now, with many brands dipping into the back catalog and re-issuing favorites soaked in nostalgic touches, with varying levels of success. Some have been accused of overdoing it, with the use of heavy-handed fauxtina and artificially aged components, but Tudor’s Black Bay Fifty-Eight has walked that delicate line between old and new just about perfectly.
Everything, from the size (39mm), to the lack of crown guards, the no-date gilt dial, the red triangle at the 12 o’clock and the Snowflake hands leaves you thinking that you are looking at something from the 1950s. The no-nonsense brushed steel case has beautiful thick bevels and the aluminum insert in the bezel has an appropriately matte finish.
On the inside though, everything is quite up-to-date. The MT5402 is from a new breed of movements crafted by the brand themselves. In the past, Tudor has relied on third-party calibers from ébauche maker ETA. Since that company was swallowed up into the Swatch conglomerate and it was announced they would stop supplying non-Swatch companies with movements, many manufacturers have had their hands forced and have turned to building their own. The MTA5402 replaces the ETA 2824-2 Tudor once used for many of its smaller, time-only pieces.
The creation of in-house calibers is a major step for any watchmaking house, and is perceived as a coming-of-age. It has also seen Tudor close the gap with Rolex in many fans’ eyes; domestic versus outsourced engines has been the most significant gap between the two brands for many years.
The MT5402 is an excellent movement which follows the usual Rolex decree of function over form. What it lacks in decorative finishing it makes up for in strength and precision. Like the other workhorse calibers in the stable, it will just keep on ticking, accurately and reliably, helped along by a silicon hairspring of its own.
The watch is available with either a black dial and bezel or (new for 2020) an all-blue version. Bracelet choices take in a wonderfully period-correct riveted steel bracelet or color-matched leather and nylon straps. As a classic that gets everything right, the Black Bay Fifty-Eight is almost unbeatable value for money.
Other Tudor Options to Consider:
Black Bay GMT: the dual time zone model with iconic Pepsi bezel.
Black Bay Chrono S&G: larger, two-tone chronograph with plenty of presence.
Omega Seamaster Professional Diver 300M
Seamaster Professional Diver 300M Key Features:
Case Diameter: 42mm
Materials: Stainless Steel
Functions: Time & Date
Bezel: Rotating Dive Bezel
Dial: Black, White, Blue, Grey Ceramic w/ Laser-Engraved Wave Pattern
Bracelet: Color Matched Rubber Strap
Water Resistance: 300 meters /1,000 feet
Price Range: $5,200
Click here to learn more about the Seamaster Professional Diver 300M.
These days, Omega is just about the only company in Rolex’s price bracket which can give its oldest rival cause to check over its shoulder. The brand is another manufacturer enjoying a real resurgence at the moment, finally getting back on track after years languishing in the doldrums brought on by the quartz crisis and its aftermath.
Arguably the watch that started that fight back was the first of the Seamaster Diver 300M series, released in 1994. Not only was it a good-looking and capable timepiece, but it also received an unmatchable marketing boost when the blue version appeared on Pierce Brosnan’s wrist in his debut outing as 007 in Goldeneye the following year. (A quartz model, ironically enough).
The Seamaster name goes back a lot further than that of course, initially used on a dress model in the 1940s before the original Seamaster 300 arrived as part of Omega’s 1957’s Professional Collection, alongside the inaugural Speedmaster and Railmaster. The modern day Seamaster Professional Diver 300M (to give it its full and often confusing title) is positioned as a full-on Rolex Submariner killer – and in more than a few areas, the Omega has it beat.
Perhaps its most convincing win is on price. At around $5,200, it is nearly $4,000 less than the cheapest comparable Submariner (the ref. 126610LN). It is also bigger (between 42mm and 43.5mm) and comes with a helium escape valve, something you have to go up to the Sea-Dweller for over at Rolex. Will you ever need it? No, but it’s there anyway!
As well as that, it has a ceramic bezel like the Submariner, but also a ceramic dial, with an appealing laser-etched wave pattern. The water resistance is identical and most importantly, even though it is the entry level model, the 300M has been fitted with the Omega Master Chronometer Caliber 8800, complete with the revolutionary Co-Axial escapement.
There’s also more variety. The current collection houses 20 pieces, as opposed to the Submariner’s eight, and while there are no solid gold models, the two-tone pieces with either yellow or Sedna gold are definite eye-catchers. All things considered, it’s hard to think of anywhere else you get quite as much watch for the money. Certainly worth a look.
Other Omega Options to Consider:
Railmaster: exactly the same price as the 300M but a more understated aesthetic.
Speedmaster Moonwatch: just about the most famous chronograph ever made.
Panerai Radiomir Base Logo PAM00753
Radiomir PAM753 Key Features:
Case Diameter: 45mm
Materials: Stainless Steel
Functions: Two-Hand Time Only
Bracelet: Leather Strap in a Choice of Three Colors
Water Resistance: 100m/330ft
Click here to learn more about the Panerai Radiomir.
Another dive watch, but of a very different style, the Radiomir Base Logo marks the entry point for legendary Italian brand Panerai. Although the manufacturer has been around since 1860, the availability of their watches to the general public is a relatively new thing. It wasn’t until 1993 that the first trio of civilian models arrived – the Luminor, Luminor Marina, and Mare Nostrum -after the brand spent most of the 20th century fulfilling only military contracts.
Those three all took their inspiration from the watches Panerai had been creating for the Italian Royal Navy since the end of WWII, but the Radiomir predates even those. That particular piece can trace its lineage back to 1936, when the prototype was built for the frogmen of the First Submarine Group Command, using a waterproof housing and movement supplied by Rolex.
Fast forward to today, and many of the same elements remain in play on the Base Logo, released in 2018. The signature cushion-shaped case is a faithful recreation, although this version’s dimensions have dropped to 45mm from the original’s 47mm, but it has kept the distinctive wire lugs – a throwback to the very earliest style of wristwatch, which were simply pocket watches with wire lugs soldered to them to hold a strap.
As for the dial, while it might not be one of the ‘sandwich’ style faces of the brand’s more expensive offerings, it is still just about as readable as you could hope for. A mix of stick batons and huge Arabic numerals at the 12, 3, 6 and 9 o’clock, all finished with plenty of lume (and given a nicely judged cream color for a bit of vintage nostalgia) ensure supreme legibility.
There is nothing else on the dial to distract attention except for a small Panerai logo, a stylized ‘OP’ (for Officine Panerai) with one arrow pointing up and another pointing down, signifying the company’s underwater products and those they made for landing aircraft. Inside, the homegrown caliber P.6000 replaces the Unitas ETA 6497-1 of earlier examples. The in-house, manually-winding movement is an especially large unit (38mm), hardy enough to survive some real punishment and gives a 70-hour reserve.
To many collectors, a sub-$5,000 Panerai is something they thought they might never see, but the brand has been expanding its range in more customer-friendly directions over the last few years. No longer just known for making physically enormous and highly expensive models, they have become more all-encompassing and the Radiomir Base Logo is the most accessible of them all. A beautiful watch with real presence, it is a definite contender.
Other Panerai Options to Consider:
Luminor 40mm PAM1048: the 40mm version of possibly the most recognizable silhouette of them all, with ‘that’ crown protector.
Submersible 42mm PAM 683: for when you want your dive watch to really get noticed.
Breitling Superocean Automatic 42
Superocean Automatic 42 Key Features:
Case Diameter: 42mm
Materials: Stainless Steel
Functions: Three-Hand Time and Date
Bracelet: Black Rubber Strap
Water Resistance: 500 meters /1650 feet
Click here to learn more about the Breitling Superocean.
Probably better known for its ties to the world of aviation, Breitling’s historical links with the sea go way back as well, with the Superocean line starting back in 1957. It was launched to go into battle with Omega’s debut Seamaster released around the same time, as well as the Blancpain Fifty-Fathoms and the Rolex Submariner from a few years before. It was obviously a tough ask for Breitling to challenge that trio of industry legends, but the Superocean’s 200m water resistance rating matched that of the Omega and Rolex, and more than doubled the depth rating of the Blancpain.
The Superocean range has been with us ever since, frequently tweaked and updated, with the latest round of refreshments coming in 2019. These days, the series covers five case sizes (36mm, 42mm, 44mm, 46mm, and 48mm) as Breitling’s recently-installed CEO, Georges Kern looks to revamp the brand’s entire portfolio to appeal to a more unisex audience. With the 36mm marketed as a ladies watch, the entry level model for men, and the cheapest men’s mechanical Breitling you can buy, is the 42mm Automatic.
Styling-wise, this new breed of the Superocean enjoys a much cleaner, more discernible look than the generation it replaced. Whereas the dials on the previous models were extremely busy-looking affairs, with large Arabic numerals for all but the 3 o’clock, four lines of text squashed in under the center spindle, an encircling minute track and inner 24-hour scale, this latest version tames all that unruliness.
Now, the Arabic numbers, although still enormous and easy to read, are confined to only the 6, 9 and 12, with attractive, lume-filled trapezoidal indexes everywhere else but the date window at 3. The hands follow roughly the same shape as the hour markers and are similarly drenched in luminescence, with a red arrow-tipped seconds hand. One line of text has also been removed (the ‘Automatic’ designation) which makes a lot more of a difference than you might think.
The bezel has changed too, with a slimmer, more grown up font compared to the previous models. Additionally, it has a luminous dot at the zero market – something that was missing from certain previous iterations. Inside is the trusty Breitling 17 movement, again based on the ETA 2824-2. A perfectly reliable, no-frills engine, it gives a 38-hour reserve and has a 28,800vph frequency. Perhaps best of all is the water resistance, which is an impressive 500m – and you will struggle to find anything that goes deeper for less.
The Breitling Superocean Automatic 42 on a rubber strap, the least expensive option, is available with either a black or vivid orange dial, both with black bezels. On a steel bracelet, which comes in at an extra $500 at retail, you can choose between a white or two kinds of blue dial, all with blue bezels. A tempting alternative to the usual dive suspects, the Breitling Superocrean 42 is a highly accomplished and good-looking model.
Other Breitling Options to Consider:
Superocean Automatic 44: a bigger watch for not much more money, the 44 has a water resistance of an incredible 1,000m.
Superocean Heritage B20 Automatic 42: a tribute to the original references, the B20 has an in-house movement and still comes in at under $5,000.
*Additional images courtesy of Omega, Panerai, and Breitling.