My first memory of lusting after a watch was in 4th grade and it was over a G-SHOCK my friend had. I wanted that watch. Over the years my obsession for watches has not subsided, and I have owned many watches. Over the past two years I have really focused in on what it means to me to own the perfect watch(es). Here’s my advice for anyone starting out, or wanting to buy a watch but feeling overwhelmed by the amount of options out there.
Scroll to near the end to get yourself the listing of my recommendations, but you really should read my reasoning behind it all…
What to Spend
In general you need to spend at least $100 to get something good. To be sure of this I did test out many of the cheaper watches you can buy, and while they are not bad, you are not going to stick with them. But at $100 I think you can get something that will stick with you for quite some time.
On the flip side, you should probably not spend more than $5,000. When you start getting above that price, what you get is diminishing in returns. Yes, this limits a lot of Rolex watches, and as an owner of one, I stand behind this. Rolex watches are superbly nice, but you are paying a good amount for the name, while not getting something appreciably nicer than what you could get from another luxury brand for your money.
There is a sweet spot with watches — watches you could buy which could last a life time, start around $500 and cap out at around $1,500 on the value end of the spectrum. Spending in that range will get you almost all the quality of more expensive watches, for a substantially lower price. (Just slap Pareto’s rule on there if you would like.)
You don’t need a ton of money to get a really nice watch, but if you do want to spend a ton of money, you shouldn’t spend too much. With all things there is a balance, watches are no different.
After price you need to be looking at the watch dimensions. Most people never pay attention to this until they start getting more serious about watches. So let me first say that there is no wrong way to go here. Any man can wear a small watch, and a woman can wear a large watch. You wear what feels best to you.
But you have to determine what does feel best to you, and sense I am not a woman, I can only speak to this from a man’s perspective. Which I will do now.
For most men you want to look at a watch with a diameter measured between 36mm and 42mm. The trend for a while now has been bigger, but that is starting to pull back. Classic sizing is around 36mm, but there is so much more to it than that.
There are three dimensions you really need to look at:
- Diameter: I already touched on this, but this is not the diameter with the crown. I don’t know why people care about that, but it is dumb. That’s an objective opinion too. Diameter gives you an idea of how large the watch face is, and thus how large the watch will be.
- Lug to Lug: this is the size of the watch from the edge of the place where the watch band attaches to the other side. In other words this is the biggest part of the watch, and what will most likely determine how the watch will wear. Big lugs mean a smaller diameter watch will wear much larger, and vice versa. Measure the flat surface of the top of your wrist to get an idea of how a watch would fit on you.
- Case height: taller is bad. Seriously, this is the spot where a watch won’t fit under your cuff, or will constantly be banging into things. Keep it under 16mm. One caveat here is that the chunkier the case, the more casual the watch will wear. So a dress watch should be thin, but if you buy a casual watch which is also thin, it might look out of scale. Think of this like shoes to some extent: boots with a chunky sole look casual, boots with a sleek sole look formal.
So what should you buy? On that one, I have a pretty simple measurement for you: find a watch with a 39mm diameter case and you are golden. As that size is most widely believed to be the best all around sized watch.
I Want a Mechanical Watch, Right?
Maybe, probably. But it doesn’t really matter, and that’s the truth that most people won’t tell you. Because you might want a quartz watch. But let’s first define what these are:
- Mechanical: this means that a watch moves because a spring is causing gears to turn (mostly, whatever). There are basically two variants: automatic and hand wound. The names give them away. A hand wound watch requires you to twist the crown daily-ish to keep the watch going. It is simple, and highly durable. An automatic is what you will find in most high end watches, it is the same as hand wound, but has a rotor that swings around to wind the watch from the movement of your wrist. These are a little more delicate, but if you are wearing the watch you’ll never have to worry about powering it as it is constantly being wound, which is super fun.
- Quartz: these are the battery powered watches most people are used to. They require a battery, but some use solar power to recharge that battery. The benefits of these are that they only die after years, and they are very accurate.
Here’s the thing, you might want a quartz watch. Because quartz, even cheap ones, are more accurate. Most quartz watches will run within 15 seconds of accuracy in a month, where as the very best mechanical watches will be around 30 seconds a month. The best quartz watches meanwhile are within 2 seconds a year. So you need to ask yourself what you are wanting in a watch, because if it is accuracy, get quartz.
However, there is one big thing you get with a mechanical watch: the smooth sweep of the second hand. Some quartz watches will mimic this, but for the most part this is a mechanical watch thing, and it is seductive to watch. So where a quartz movement will “tick” and mechanical movement will sweep.
I don’t list any of the super accurate quartz watches below, but if that’s what you want, look at: Breitling, Longines VHP, and Grand Seiko’s 9F movements. Those are all top tier and should give you a lot of angst at the wide price swings.
All of the above was mostly to help you decide on what to buy when you are shopping online. But the truth of all of this is to buy the watch you like the looks of the best. You have to wear it, you have to see it the most, so you better love the way it looks.
If I have any advice here it is the following:
- Less is more: the fewer lines of text or colors. The fewer complications. Less is more and looks better and more classic. As with every rule, there are exceptions, but those are rare.
- Divers: diver style watches, with a 60 minute timing bezel are the most popular. And I personally hate them. The bezel is nearly useless (it tells you elapsed time, not a countdown timer) and the style is everywhere. I would, and do, avoid this style. This doesn’t mean they are bad, but I think they are very overrated and hard to distinguish from each other.
- You can wear any watch with any outfit: there was a great Reddit thread I have long since lost where someone asked if they could wear a certain watch with a suit. Tons of people chimed in talking about what makes for a dress watch. Then one guy chimed in and said: wear whatever you want. Turns out he once wore a G-SHOCK with a suit, and that’s just that. I agree with this. A watch is a personal statement, so wear whatever watch you want with whatever clothes you want. Don’t get sucked in to needing a specific watch for a specific thing. Lots of people think Rolex watches should only be worn with a suit because they are fancy and expensive, whereas most watch people think only certain Rolex watches should be seen with a suit. Again, I think you should wear whatever you please.
In other words: buy what you like, and worry a lot less about it.
I have written about this before, but I have changed my mind on this. It used to be that 200 meters of resistance was a bare minimum for me. I now believe that should be 100 meters with a caveat.
The caveat being that it depends on the brand. The larger the brand, to lower you can go. The smaller the brand, the closer to 200m I would want to be. I basically want to know the watch has been tested properly with proper quality control in place, and the infrastructure to quickly fix things if a seal does fail. That’s all.
For most of life you don’t need more than 30m of resistance, which is what the watches the military issues generally has (unless your profession requires actively being in the water).
Bottom line: if it is 100m resistant you probably can do anything you want in it without a worry in the world. Especially if it is from a big name brand.
There is a plethora of small brand companies that the industry calls “micro brands” which basically means they are small. These are not bad, and have some stellar designs and low prices. There are very few I would actually buy from though and my biggest concern is around warranty. Why spend money on these if they are not there to fix the product 10 years from now if it fails?
All of this is culminating here, with my guide. So instead of listing off a ton of watches, I have this in two sections. The first is two options for what I think could be your only watch, and which could last you a lifetime — two watches I feel represent the strongest value in the watch market today. The second part is a brand guide of those you can’t go wrong with if you want something a little different than the two watches I pick.
One last note: if you are buying a luxury watch, buy from only a place that is listed as an authorized dealer so you get the full warranty. For most luxury watches, this will require a trip into a physical store, but it will be worth it.
Two ‘One’ Watches
Something watch people love to debate about is what watch you could buy, and have be your only watch for everything you do. It’s a huge and ongoing debate, but here I will solve this debate for everyone out there.
The best value watch you can get, which is both luxury, affordable, will last a lifetime, and will work in any situation is to buy a Tudor watch. And, within that, the top pick has to be the Tudor Black Bay 36 with a black face and stainless bracelet. You can put it on leather or NATO to change up the look, you can swim with it and travel the world. The quality is exquisite, it is relatively easy to find, and retails for $2,900 which is a bargain.
The Tudor brand is owned by the same people who own Rolex, and the quality it right there with Rolex — I own both. This Black Bay 36 is fantastic and comes in two other sizes too if your wrist needs something smaller or larger. For most men the 36 will be small enough to dress up, but remain large enough to cover everyday wear. Simply a fantastic watch, and the very next watch I am buying.
The Black Bay 36 can be a little plain though, so my secondary pick here is a watch I already own, the watch I actually wear everyday: Tudor’s Black Bay GMT. At a retail price of $3,950 it is much more expensive, and it is also decently difficult to find one to buy. That said, it is an insane value for what it offers: primarily a true GMT movement. What that means is that you can jump the hour hand forwards or backwards in one hour increments without losing time on the seconds or minutes aspect. Which is perfect for travel.
The watch is larger at 41mm and it is thick. The blue and red color scheme is called “Pepsi” in the world of watch design. And it is timeless, and subdued well here on the Tudor. I personally think this is the perfect watch. A true GMT, with 200m resistance, a COSC in house Tudor movement, and a date window with no cyclops. The watch has a well balanced face and all the right components of many other watch designs.
But you pay a premium for it.
Like I mentioned above, I’ll be getting the Black Bay 36 to add, but with a blue face since I already have two watches with darker gray/black faces. But if I had to pare back to just one watch it would be the Tudor Black Bay GMT. It is expensive, but the Rolex equivalent could take you years to get and set you back over $12,000 — and when you look at it like that, it is a bargain at under $4,000.
That said, I would happily wear the Tudor Black Bay 36 everyday, as it is a fantastic watch in every respect.
My love of Tudor aside, I know that many people simply cannot afford watches at those prices. And I am here to tell you that you should not despair, because there are some insanely good watches you can get for low prices.
Best Overall Brand: Seiko
Seiko makes some extraordinary watches, and they range for sub-$100 watches to Grand Seiko watches over $6,000. That’s quite something, and you really cannot go wrong with the brand in general. Here’s two that I think are worth your attention:
- Seiko Dolce $416: This is a high accuracy quartz watch that is a Japan model. This is a heck of a watch. (That website is a good option for finding Japan models of watches.)
- Seiko SRPD71 $350: I know, breaking my own advice not to buy a diver. But this is a stunning looking watch, so I’ll allow it.
Best Budget Watches: Orient
Orient somehow makes some really nice watches at rock bottom prices. And if you are patient, they go on sale a few times a year for substantial discounts. The absolute best offering they have is the Bambino model, I like this one. To buy one, I strongly recommend using Drop.com as you can get them for a bargain there. I have owned a few other Orients and they are solid. You can get most off the offerings from them for about $120 if you are patient and wait for sales.
Best Outdoors Brand: Lum-Tec
Not really dive water sports watches, but if someone wanted a non-digital watch to wear into the woods, I would go with Lum-Tec. These are mostly Quartz and mostly around $500, but these are insanely good watches. They are well made, stylish, and the lume is fantastic. They are made to be worn in abusive situations, which is more than I can say for some other ‘tough’ marketed watches out there.
Best Style and Value: Christopher Ward
This is the one micro brand I will make an exception for. And I really think that the designs they offer are stellar, timeless, and modern and they are doing it all at around the $1,000 price point — which is great. I have not owned one of their watches, but I have seen very few complaints. Some options:
- C65 Trident Automatic: if you are going to get a diver, make it this diver. The thinner bezel makes it a much better looking watch.
- C5 Malvern Automatic Mk III: I mean, just look at it. And $565? Bargain.
- C65 Trident Vintage Mk II: I’d buy this, I want to buy this. It is fantastic.
The I Never Want to Think About it Brand: Casio
Yes, G-SHOCKS are great, but even better are Casio’s Oceanus line, specifically these two:
- CASIO OCEANUS OCW-S100-1AJF: this could easily be worn in any situation ever.
- CASIO OCEANUS OCW-T200S-1AJF: Same concept, slightly different look.
Other Can’t Go Wrong Brands: Hamilton, Alpina, Glycine
Because watches are about style, here’s a few other brands to consider:
- Alpina Alpiner Automatic 4 Glacier Blue
- Glycine Combat 6 Classic 36 Black
- Hamilton Khaki Field Murph Auto
- Hamilton Khaki Field
Good, But With Caveat: Steinhart
Steinhart makes some amazing watches, but most of them are strong ‘homage’ watches which is a watch term for ‘copies of other designs, but with a different brand name’. So if you want a Rolex Submariner but waiting 3 years and paying over $9k isn’t your thing, I would recommend Steinhart. They make good stuff, it just looks like Rolex.
Case in point: Ocean 1 Black Ceramic for Gnomon.
Happy watch buying, you won’t regret a good watch. And an Apple Watch is not a good watch — it’s a bad decision.
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