All great watch collections have to start somewhere. For those at the beginning of their journey into the world of luxury timepieces, taking the path of least expense first time out is usually the wisest choice.
Every manufacturer has models at various price points – flagship pieces stuffed to the gills with flamboyant complications and precious metals at one end, and the simplest, most unassuming creations at the other.
However, these latter so-called entry-level watches still carry the weight of their particular marque’s reputation on their shoulders. Names like Rolex, Omega and Breitling don’t really do half measures, and so many of the features found on their far more expensive brand mates are also poured into the base pieces as well.
Below, we will take a look at three watches ideal for the budding collector.
The Rolex Oyster Perpetual is a watch that is highly desirable for its aesthetic and price point.
The Rolex Oyster Perpetual
The humblest model in the Rolex canon actually has the most confusing title. With very few exceptions, everything to emerge from the world’s leading watchmaker since the 1930s has been an Oyster Perpetual Something-or-other. So the creations we know more commonly as the Submariner or the Daytona or the GMT-Master are, officially, the Oyster Perpetual Submariner or the Oyster Perpetual Daytona, etc.
The two words refer to the waterproof case Rolex founder Hans Wilsdorf introduced in 1926 (Oyster) and the automatic, self-winding movement he perfected in 1933 (Perpetual).
But there has long been a range of watches simply called the Oyster Perpetuals; straightforward, ageless, three-hand timekeepers which mark the entry into Rolex ownership.
As well as being the least expensive offering from the brand, and having the lengthiest unbroken production run, the modern-day Oyster Perpetual range is also one of about the most varied out of the entire catalog.
There are a total of five different sizes, the largest standing at 39mm and ranging right down to a ladies 26mm.
In addition, the choice in dial colors remains extensive, from the sober shades of black and grey through to more extravagant reds and purples.
Power is provided by Rolex’s in-house family of no-date calibers, all based around the industry-leading Cal. 3135. The movements have been in an almost constant state of improvement for the last 30-years, with elements such as the Parachrom Bleu hairspring being included, along with the latest Paraflex shock absorption system. Far from being cut-price mechanisms for the lower orders, these are the same engines as you will find in legends such as the Submariner and Explorer.
The only compromise is in metal; the current range is exclusively cast in Rolex’s Oystersteel, what we used to call 904L stainless steel. Insanely tough and able to hold a polish like no other, it ensures the watch will last more than one lifetime. If your tastes run to the more showy, a dip into the archives will throw up a host of gold and Rolesor pieces as well.
As a first step into luxury watch collecting, there is very little out there which offers more than the Oyster Perpetual for the price. A beautiful, versatile and highly wearable model, all backed up by Rolex’s unsurpassed expertise.
The Omega Co-Axial Sea-Master is another great choice for beginners or those on a budget.
The Omega Seamaster 300M Co-Axial
While the Omega Seamaster Aqua Terra 150M might officially be the cheapest watch in Omega’s stable, for the purposes of this article I’ve decided to unleash my inner snob and banish all quartz offerings from the stage.
So that leaves us with the most attainable of the mechanicals, the brand’s almost universally adored Seamaster 300M which, let’s face it, is not a bad place to be.
The Seamaster name is all-encompassing these days, but it first appeared in 1948, on a range of dressier styles launched to celebrate Omega’s centenary. In 1957, it was given to the first of their professional diver’s watches, released at the same time as the Railmaster and Speedmaster.
The first 300M didn’t arrive until 1994, hitting the ground running with both its eye-catching aesthetics as well as just about the greatest celebrity endorsement it is possible to get. When James Bond donned the distinctive blue washed ref. 2541.80 in Goldeneye (a quartz model, by the way. Really 007?!) the model and the series became instant hits.
It has since been through numerous evolutions, with upgrades in caliber to Omega’s revolutionary Co-Axial movements coming in the late 90s, followed by jumping on the ceramic bezel bandwagon soon after.
One of the most identifiable elements of the ‘Bond Watch’, the emblematic wave pattern dial, was briefly retired, much to the chagrin of the faithful. But at this year’s Baselworld it made a triumphant comeback, sitting in a new case that has added an extra millimeter to the time-honored 41mm original.
The 2018 range, all 14 of them, are also the first 300M models to receive a Master Chronometer certification, Omega replacing the previous ETA-based Caliber 2500 with their own in-house 8800. Much like at Rolex, Omega subject their movements to tests far exceeding those required by the COSC, leaving them with some of the most reliable and accurate engines in the business. Rightfully proud of their work, and of themselves for putting such a premium feature in an entry-level watch, the latest 300M debuts a display case back to let you see all that goodness ticking away.
Waterproof to 300m (duh), with the helium escape valve still present and correct, peeping out of the case at the 10 o’clock, this is a huge amount of watch for the money.
Omega is just about the only brand at this price point to give Rolex cause to glance over their shoulder. A genuine luxury dive watch with a fantastic power plant, the Seamaster 300M remains a classic.
A Breitling is a great alternative to other brands if you’re on a budget.
The Breitling Chronomat Colt Automatic
Like Omega, Breitling’s actual entry-level model is quartz. And just like last time, I’m going to get all superior about it.
So the Colt Skyracer is sidelined and we can instead concentrate on the Chronomat Colt Automatic.
This, powered by the Breitling 17 movement (based on the ETA 2824), is the brand at its most reserved. Available as either a 41mm or a 44mm, they are still on the large side, as you would expect considering the make, but are by no means overpowering.
Breitling are renowned for their hyper-masculine, military-inspired pieces, with a particular association with the world of aviation. The Colt range was actually developed in the 80s for the armed forces and the base model was awarded an update this year as the manufacturer continues its mission of revamping the lineup under new CEO Georges Kern.
Kern seems to have one eye firmly on the past and some other famous names have received significant overhauls recently too. The scaled-back Navitimer 8 is one example, the first in the series to arrive without its signature slide rule bezel.
The Chronomat Colt Automatic retains many of the brand’s trademark styling cues, most notably the bezel rider tabs at the cardinal points to aid turning, but it has one of the cleanest dials of any in the catalog. No numerals but rather applied batons, it manages to stay nicely balanced even with its unobtrusive but easily legible date display at the three o’clock. The long, straight handset is typically no-nonsense, with a welcome splash of color on the red-tipped seconds hand.
With its chunky surround and short, brawny lugs, there is no mistaking this for a dress watch, but as an all-round, sturdy everyday wear it has some great credentials.
Dial color options are pretty good too, the latest Silver and Tempest Gray joining the existing Mariner Blue and Volcano Black (even their colors sound manly).
Curiously, the 41mm and 44mm models are priced identically, and both come fitted with either a leather strap or Breitling’s excellent Pilot steel bracelet.
The Chronomat Colt Automatic has been aimed at a more youthful, dynamic audience and, like all Breitlings, looks like it was built to withstand anything. The brand is coming out with some wonderful products these days, and this entry-level piece is no exception.