Best Watch Brands under $500: Affordable Timepieces Made with Actual Craftsmanship

“The best or nothing.” — Mercedes Benz

These are powerful words when put behind a product, and every watch you buy should be made with that passion – even if it costs less than $500.

Here, you will find my list of the best watches under $500, including models, pics, and prices and organized by categories (large brand, micro brand, and vintage) as well as my reasoning for choosing these watches and the characteristics that make a watch great. Think of this article as a summarized review of all of the best watch brands under $500.

Warning, don’t read this post if…

  • You only care about the way a watch looks.
  • You just want the cheapest watch possible​
  • You don’t like well-researched opinions.​

I love high-quality, mechanical watches with incredible design made by great brands, and I don’t make any exceptions for watches under $500!

I am not a watchmaker or horology expert, but I’m extremely passionate about timepieces. I also know what I don’t like, and I will try to prevent you from making some popular mistakes. If you are easily offended, stop reading.

My Collection

I want to share my watches with you so you can decide if my taste is similar to yours. I have a very small collection. I plan on adding more eventually, but I have to love everything about a watch before investing in it. And yes, every watch is an investment to me, not necessarily in the sense that I plan on selling my watches for a profit, although that is a possibility with some of them; instead, it’s more about buying well-rounded pieces that offer long-term value.

Currently, my collection consists of the following watches:

  • Rolex Explorer II 16570 Polar
  • Rolex Air King
  • Krieger Tide
  • Bernhardt Sea Shark
  • SISTEM 51

Again, my collection is on the smaller side, but I put a lot of time and effort into researching and reading reviews before I make a purchase. Finding and learning more about watches online is fun, and it’s more cost effective than buying everything I like. It also makes every watch I own more meaningful, because I can wear them more often.

For the stories behind my watches, go here: Interview: Rob McNelis, Watch Judge

Watches Represent Ambition

I’ve always loved watches primarily because I consider them functional pieces of art. The stories they tell about their makers, previous owners, and the people that wore them are fascinating. I also enjoy the fact that a nice watch makes you feel great wearing something as casual as a t-shirt and gym shorts. That might sound ridiculous, but the more I learn about these tiny machines the more I appreciate the effort that went into creating them. With luxury items, it’s about the final product and the process – and I enjoy supporting the ambition behind those two things. #WatchNerd 🙂

Finding the Most Popular Watches under $500

Because of my interest in timepieces, I found myself regularly Googling things like “best watch brands under $500.” Most of my searches came up with forum discussions, and eventually, I got tired of scanning threads for suggestions. I just wanted a running list, and I noticed that my questions were pretty common.

I also found that some of the best watch bloggers chose not to share their favorite watches, maybe because they were afraid that giving subjective opinions would hurt their credibility. But personally, I want advice from other knowledgeable enthusiasts. Who better to judge the quality of a watch?

Because I couldn’t find the list I really wanted,  I created WatchJudge.com, a place where anyone can submit, vote, and comment on their favorite watches (categorized by price).

Great Watches Have One Thing in Common, Especially If They Are Under $500

If watches are functional pieces of art, then what is good art? In the article, How to Recognize the Best Art, the author interviews well-respected people in the art industry, and from their answers, I find that good art is unique, well-executed, high quality, and makes you feel something.

Good art is about visual aesthetics, but  many other tangibles go into a great watch: manufacturing methods, materials, hand labor, accuracy, etc. are equally important. In fact, it’s the combination of the tangibles and good art that makes a watch special. That’s why an authorized watch dealer can tell the difference between a real watch and a fake. The final products and build processes are vastly different.

We all know the large luxury brands like Rolex mainly because they have huge marketing budgets to build awareness. Rolex is an amazing company, and my personal favorite, but there are also some incredible new micro-brands out there. New technologies like rapid prototyping, Kickstarter, and social media are making it easier than ever for independent founders to keep costs low and reach more people.

These new innovations and increased competition are great for the financially-conscious consumer. We have instant, unlimited access to high quality products. Now, companies can go back to focusing on the most important aspect of watch making, craftsmanship! My definition of craftsmanship is the artistic passion that goes into making a product great. The micro-brand trend in watches reminds me of the current trend in craft beer, and both are ironic. With the growth of technology, our culture is seeing a resurgence of retro/vintage products because we know that quality comes from craftsmanship, not efficiency in manufacturing or cost-cutting.

3 Crucial Aspects of Any Quality Timepiece

With a budget under $500, you can buy a truly great watch. But what makes a watch great?

  1. Craftsmanship – Passion translated into effort. The focus placed on durability, accuracy, functional features, and materials.
  2. Design – Simple, consistent, and functional aesthetics. Less is more. Classic lines that will remain timeless and beautiful. What is good design? See the work of Jony Ive, Chief Design Officer at Apple. He was influenced by Deiter Ram’s “Ten Principals for Good Design.”
  3. Brand – The narrative that explains the passion and answers the question, “Why do we make watches?”

Physical Traits to Look For under $500

  • Sapphire Crystal – If you want the watch to have any longevity, this is a must. A sapphire crystal is basically impossible to scratch and is easy to find in well-made watches under $500.
  • Swiss or Japanese Movements – The best and most common movements in this price range are the Swiss ETA and Japanese Miyota. Both are accurate, durable, and offered in mechanical watches.
  • Watch-Maker Design – For the most part, fashion watches (Michael Kors, Gucci, etc.) or watches designed by companies that aren’t primarily focused on watches, suck! Even most of the high-end designer brands fail at making great watches because they are more focused on appearance than quality. Again, both are equally crucial.
  • Signed Crown or Buckle/Clasp – The logo or company initials in these areas is a good sign that the brand is proud of the product. It’s a detail that poorly-built watches commonly don’t have.
  • Good Lumination – This feature is more of a bonus but it’s definitely nice when properly executed. It also comes down to your needs. Some of the best dress watches don’t have any lume because they weren’t intended for low-light situations.
  • Functional Features – On a great watch, everything should make sense and work as intended. Try to stay away from things like foe vintage, over-sized cases (larger than 44mm), carbon fiber, and, God forbid, crown chains (I’m looking at you Invicta).

Best Type of Movement in a Watch under $500 - Mechanical vs. Quartz

If you don’t know the main differences between a quartz and mechanical movement, watch this quick video.

What is most important to you – accuracy, durability, aesthetics, complications, price range, etc.? Your answer will determine if you should buy a watch with a mechanical movement or a quartz movement.

Quartz utilizes battery power and is the most accurate and affordable. Conversely, mechanical watches contain no electronics and are generally made with more complexity and craftsmanship. Most high-end timepieces are mechanical, and most watches under $500 are quartz. However, there are plenty of mechanical watches under $500, so I almost always eliminate any watch that isn’t fully mechanical. More specifically, I only consider automatic or hand-wound movements.

However, I do make exceptions. For example, Shinola comes to mind as a brand that currently only offers quartz movements, but they do everything extremely well. Their watches are made in the U.S., have a lifetime case warranty, use Swiss parts, include leather straps from the oldest tanner in the US, feature gorgeous designs, and are affordable. If they ever release a mechanical watch, I’ll buy it the second it comes out, and I’m currently considering their chronographs.

Top Mechanical Movements, In Order of Quality

In the under $500 price range, you will be hard-pressed to find any in-house movements, with the exception of Seiko watches. All of their movements are technically in-house, although most of them are mass-produced, thus negating the specialness usually associated with an in-house movement. Swiss ETA and Japanese movements will be easier to come by, and can be just as capable.

  • In-house – Developed by the watch brand “in-house.” If a brand invests the time and money to fully customize and manufacture a movement, then it’s very likely high quality. Examples include Rolex, A. Lang & Sohne, Patek Phillipe, and Nomos.
  • Swiss – ETA movements, mass-produced by Swatch Group, are a common example in this category.
  • Japanese – Mostly cheaper than Swiss movements because they focus on manufacturing efficiency. Seiko, Citizen, and Miyota are all examples. Miyota is one of the best in class and is known for its workhorse characteristics of good performance and dependability. It’s also commonly used by microbrands.

No Seiko Dive Watches

UPDATE: Part of the risk in stating your opinions is they are subject (and likely) to change. A couple years after writing this post, I’ve since taken a softer stance on Seiko dive watches; specifically, the SKX. I even get (somewhat) the appeal of an inexpensive sporty Monster on a NATO. And I flat out love the new retro Turtle. So much so that I bought one.

If you search Google for the “best watches under $500,” you will undoubtedly run across the suggestion of a Seiko Monster dive watch. I truly believe in the saying “to each their own,” but I find the design of this watch average at best. I know I’m in the minority here, but for me, this watch provokes more questions than answers.

Seiko Dive Watch - Not Recommended

The design is busy, unbalanced, and space age. Maybe that’s part of the appeal for some. It’s definitely unique – I just prefer something more classic and traditional. I wanted to like it, and the utility is hard to beat for the money; but after doing some research, I found several dive watches that were more inspiring. Sure, the Monster is one of the cheapest automatic dive watches you can buy, but why not pay a little extra to have something more attractive?

In this price category, you will also come across the suggestion of the Seiko SKX007. While not quite as harsh looking as the Monster, the steel band has been known to break. This isn’t the end of the world considering its low price point. Also, you can get one with a rubber strap instead, and most people will just swap out the band for a Nato strap. But again, you can do better at this price point.

Seiko SKX007

Buy something special! Be a connoisseur of quality, and don’t settle. Life is too short to wear cheap watches. (By cheap, I don’t mean affordable – I mean substandard quality.) There are a large variety of thoughtful, inexpensive timepieces available today. Find something that was made by an artisan with a passionate narrative. Or find a watch by a large brand that was well-executed all around.

Again, if you are a diehard Seiko dive watch fan, that’s okay. It’s never wrong to like a watch. I’ve included quite a few other Seiko watches in my under $500 list below. Also, I must admit that I am very intrigued by the more premium, Hi-Beat Grand Seiko line; however, it’s not my first choice for a luxury brand. It’s also substantially more expensive than $500.

What about Homage Watches?

Personally, I have never owned an homage watch and don’t ever plan to. For me, the story of the brand and the design are equally important to how it looks on my wrist. Having said that, I will reiterate my philosophy of “to each their own.” If you love everything about a watch, buy it, unless it’s a fake with the intent of posing as something it’s not. There’s never a good excuse to buy an unethical piece.

Some homage watch companies produce high-quality, affordable timepieces, many with Swiss ETA movements that are excellent (accurate, durable, easy to repair by local watchmakers, etc). Steinhart comes to mind as a popular choice. The watch below is the Steinhart Ocean 1 Black, a replica of the Rolex Submariner.

Steinheart Ocean 1 Black

My only issue with this watch is that I prefer unique vision, story, and design to a replica, and it’s not hard to find something great (under $500) that checks all of those boxes. If you want a Rolex, work hard and save your money to get one eventually. In the meantime, enjoy original watches that are great for their own reasons.

UPDATE: Steinhart just released a more unique watch, the Steinhart Ocean Titanium 500 Premium, and I love it! It’s a little over $500 new, so I can’t include it on this list. But you should definitely check it out if you would consider something slightly above $500.

Steinhart Ocean Titanium 500 Premium

Examples of the Best Watches under $500

Large Brands

Seiko SNZG – 40mm, $109.99

Seiko SNZG

Hamilton Khaki Field – 42mm, $359

Hamilton Jazzmaster Viewmatic – 40mm, $449.99

Hamilton Khaki King – 40mm, $339.99

hamilton khaki king

Seiko SARX015 – 40mm, $439.95

Seiko SARX015

Seiko SARB (SARB065 Cocktail Time) – 40mm, $380

Seiko SARB (SARB065 Cocktail Time)

Seiko SARG011 – 40mm, $338

Seiko SARG011

Seiko SNK809 – 37mm, $62.48

Seiko SNK809

Shinola Runwell – 41mm, $467.50

Shinola Runwell

Swatch SISTEM 51 – 42mm, $108.34

swatch sistem 51

Tissot Visodate – 40mm, $430

tissot visodate

Micro Brands

Anstead Oceanis – 44m, $499

Anstead Oceanis

AVI-8 X worn&wound – 42m, $399

AVI-8 X worn&wound

Bernhardt Binnacle Diver – 42mm, $259

Bernhardt Binnacle Diver

Bernhardt Binnacle Anchor III – 40mm, $259

Bernhardt Binnacle Anchor III

Bernhardt Binnacle Anchor II – 40mm, $259

Bernhardt Binnacle Anchor II

Bernhardt Corsair II – 42mm, $339

Bernhardt Corsair II

Bernhardt The Captain’s Watch – 38mm, $279

Bernhardt The Captain’s Watch

Chris Ward C5 Malvern Automatic MK II – 39mm, $376.01

Chris Ward C5 Malvern Automatic MK II

Deep Blue Sea Ram (Automatic) – 45mm, $499

Deep Blue Sea Ram (Automatic)

Maratac Mid Pilot – 40mm, $279

Maratac Mid Pilot

Maratac SR-3 Mid Diver – 40mm, $329

Maratac SR-3 Mid Diver

Melbourne Watch Company Flinders – 40mm, $409.17

Melbourne Watch Company Flinders

Panzera Breuer B44 – 44m, $495

Panzera Breuer B44

Panzera Flieger 47 – 47mm, $425

Panzera Flieger 47

Ridley Watkins Auto Chronograph with Ceramic Bezel – 43mm, $168

Ridley Watkins Auto Chronograph with Ceramic Bezel

River Watch Company Tiber Diver – 42mm, $378.03

River Watch Company Tiber Diver

Vertigo Diver One – 42mm, $192.24

Vertigo Diver One

Vintage

Girard Perregaux Gyromatic (Pre 1970) – 34mm, $400

Girard Perregaux Gyromatic (Pre 1970)

Hamilton Thinomatic – 34mm, $500

Hamilton Thinomatic 14k (Circa 1960s)

Longines 14k (Circa 1950s) – 34mm, $500

Longines 14k (Circa 1950s)

Omega Seamaster Cal 550 (Pre 1970) – 35mm, $500

Omega Seamaster Cal 550 (Pre 1970)

Zenith Bumper (Circa 1957) – 35mm, $400

Zenith Bumper (Circa 1957)

I’m sure my list is missing some great watches under $500. If you have any additional suggestions, please submit them here.