Pretty much every brand in the industry runs a pricing spectrum, from their drool-worthy upper register down to their “gateway drug” releases, designed to draw in a new generation of collectors and brand-loyal enthusiasts. Every brand needs a starting point, and at the top end of the watch world, these entry-level watches are anything but “budget friendly.”
The Patek Philippe Nautilus 5711 is a prime example, having once been the point of entry in their catalog (though technically the Aquanaut claimed that title since it launched in 1997). In recent years, massive demand and limited supply have pushed the piece to absurdly high secondary market values, to the point that it isn’t even close to being the entry-level offering from the brand any more. There’s no such thing as being able to walk in the door of a Patek Philippe retailer and buying a Nautilus without having a history of previous purchases (and then sitting on a waitlist for an eternity).
Though not to the same level, the Aquanaut is in the same boat these days, as its secondary market values are also climbing and stock is becoming more difficult to track down. For the sake of this story, we’re going to ignore the Aquanaut, and focus in on the entry-level watches from brands that you can actually buy today.
At one point the stainless steel Nautilus represented an entry point into Patek Philippe ownership.
Rolex Oyster Perpetual 39
The Rolex Oyster Perpetual 39 is a rock-solid option among the entry-level watches from top-tier luxury manufacturers.
Simple, understated, and timeless in design, the Oyster Perpetual 39 is a great steel-cased underdog in the Rolex collection. Bridging the gap between the dressier Datejust models with fluted bezels, and the brand’s casual icons (Sub, Explorer II, etc.), the Oyster Perpetual is a solid daily-wear candidate that is available in both understated and vibrant dial configurations.
On one end of the spectrum, you have the classic black and white models that launched in 2018; and on the other, blue and purple dialed examples with contrasting 5-minute intervals on their minute tracks. Priced at a modest (by Rolex standards) $5,700, it’s one of very few stainless steel Rolex models that isn’t an absolute nightmare to try and get your hands on these days.
A. Lange & Söhne Saxonia Thin
Priced at $10k less than its larger counterpart, the 37mm Saxonia Thin collection represents a new entry-point for the brand. (Image: A. Lange & Söhne)
Simple and austere, the entry-level Saxonia Thin is designed with the essence of the brand at heart. A modest 37mm in diameter and only 7.3mm thick, the piece is powered by the same hand-wound caliber that powered its predecessor – which is where this story gets interesting.
When the piece hit the market in 2016, it just looked like a smaller version of what Lange had made previously, however its sticker price had been cut by nearly $10k. A clever ploy to draw new buyers (and a bit of a kick in the pants to owners of the 40mm version), the piece is priced at $14,800. Still not inexpensive by any stretch, but for Lange-level finishing, it’s well worth it.
Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso Classic Medium Thin
The Reverso collection is hokme to a wide variety of different watches, with the Classic Medium Thin occupying an entry-level position in the lineup. (Image: Jaeger-LeCoultre)
I’m still floored that Jaeger LeCoultre isn’t more prominent in the marketplace when compared to some of the other “big box” luxury brands. I always say that the Reverso is one of very few watches that I think every collector should own (at one point or another); and as it stands, the Reverso Classic Medium is the most affordable option out there (excluding quartz and undersized pieces).
At $5,500 you’re looking at the classic hand-wound one-sided Reverso in a steel casing, fitted with a well-executed silver dial that features a radial guilloche center portion and vertically brushed outer perimeter. Ticking away inside is the JLC Caliber 822A/2, a compact hand-winding caliber good for a power reserve of 42 hours.
Vacheron Constantin FiftySix
While entry-level watches from a member of the ‘Holy Trinity’ are anything but cheap, they still make ownership significantly more accessible. (Image: Vacheron Constantin)
A recent addition to the “entry level” space, the FiftySix collection is a completely new series from Vacheron that starts with a simple 3-hand and date model in steel, and continues through to things like a tourbillon and a complete calendar, both cased in pink gold.
At the entry-point of the series, you’re looking at $11,600 for either a silver or a muted navy dial variant. The case design on this model range is just fantastic overall, coming in at 40mm across with stubby lugs and a huge amount of attention paid to its design and finishing. Though slightly more classic/traditional in design, the Vacheron Constantin FiftySix can certainly be enlisted for more casual daily-wearing.
Breguet Type XX Aéronavale
Not necessarily on the same level as the other entry-level watches from top-tier manufacturers, the Type XX Aéronavale represents fantastic value for the money. (Image: Breguet)
Though not regarded as an equal to the top-tier of our list, I felt the need to throw in the Type XX on account of the simple fact that it’s so often forgotten. More commonly known for their elaborate dress watches that approach complex watchmaking with a very traditional eye, people seem to miss the fact that Breguet was very heavily involved in the production of military pilot chronographs as of the ‘50s.
The 3-register flyback chronograph is an absolute classic, and the original version has been in production since 1995 – just before the Swatch Group acquired the brand. Coming in at $9,500, the Type XX is one of those great “sleeper” watches that’ll impress just about any collector or enthusiast out there.