Raman Kalra is the founder of The Watch Muse blog and has kindly agreed to share some of his articles with us here on Quill & Pad.
In the watch world, there is no disputing that a few brands and models stand high above the rest. They are known to almost everyone and have become icons. I believe it would be challenging to find someone that does not wish to own at least one of these iconic models. It is also no secret that watches of this stature are not cheap. They are, in most cases, a once-in-a-lifetime purchase, even if you can justify spending that amount on a watch.
However, there are alternatives out there that are as compelling in their own right for a fraction of the price.
Before getting into the list, I want to emphasize that these are not cheaper alternatives necessarily look like their famous counterparts. Instead, they are a similar type of watch that will offer you a quality timepiece fitting into the same category, often with an equally strong heritage and brand recognition. And yes, ‘affordable’ has a different meaning for all of us, but the watches below are significantly less than their famous counterparts, and that is what I mean by affordable here.
All of the below should be on your radar when you are looking for your next purchase! Let me know if you think there are any I have missed out for next time!
Rolex Submariner | Seiko Prospex SPB143
In any list that includes iconic watches, you will find the Rolex Submariner. Diving watches are an extremely popular category thanks to their versatility and wearability. It’s no surprise that the affordable diving watch option comes from Seiko. Seiko is the king of affordable divers watches and has built a reputation for extremely capable pieces without the price tag. The specific model I want to call out is the Prospex SPB143. It is at the higher end of the Prospex lineup, but there is a reason for this choice.
What helps make the Rolex Submariner so popular is its modest size for a divers watch, clean dial and solid bracelet. This is something that the SPB143 offers in comparison to other Prospex models. The Seiko features a 40.5mm case diameter, a beautifully proportioned grey sunburst dial, and a “DiaShield” coating on the bracelet to help protect it from minor scuffs. If you get tired of the bracelet aesthetic, it comes with drilled lugs making strap changes easy. The finishing lives up to the standard we have come to expect from Seiko, with a nice mix of polished and brushed surfaces.
Finally, inside the SPB143, the Seiko Caliber 6R35 automatic movement powers the watch. It has an average accuracy rating of +25/-15 seconds a day, but a solid 70h power reserve and will be a reliable companion for your everyday. Seiko has put all the positive qualities from their Prospex lineup into a timeless design, which is unusual for Seiko when you consider their turtle cases and bold designs. It really makes the SPB143 an extremely compelling package. And it’s all yours for around USD $1,350.
Further reading: Why I’ve Never Owned A Rolex – And Why I Might Yet (Update: I Do Now!) and Real-World Diving With The Seiko Prospex The 1968 Automatic Diver’s Modern Re-Interpretation Limited Edition SLA055
Omega Speedmaster Moonwatch | Bulova Lunar Pilot “Moonwatch”
The Omega Speedmaster Moonwatch needs no introduction. It arguably has one of the coolest stories behind the watch, and knowing that the modern-day version is extremely close to the actual watch worn on the Moon makes it that much better.
But, there is another watch that ventured into space – the Bulova Lunar Pilot. The history of this watch is still not fully known, but in 1971 the crew members of Apollo 15 were allowed to take personal items with them into space. Dave Scott, a crew member, took a Bulova-provided backup watch and ended up wearing it on the Moon after his Speedmaster crystal popped off.
In 2015, after the auction of the actual Bulova from 1971, Bulova re-launched the model with the name Lunar Pilot. The Lunar Pilot is a faithful recreation of the watch worn on the Moon and has a very distinct aesthetic that looks similar to what Omega produced (they were going after the same NASA contract after all!). It has a deep black dial with white text, hands and indices. It is a slightly larger watch at 45mm diameter, and this did initially put some off, but thanks to its fluid design and nicely positioned chronograph pushers, it wears well. It is offered on a bracelet and strap.
There is even a black PVD version so you can find the look that suits you. Inside, it is equipped with a quartz movement, however, it is not just any quartz, it is a direct descendent of Bulova’s Accutron technology. It operates at 262Hz and is more accurate and reliable than a standard quartz movement. Let’s be honest though – you are buying this watch for the story. You are buying a watch that was worn on the Moon. RRP $675 with a bracelet, but it is cheaper on the strap and you can find offers from various retailers.
Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso | Oris Rectangular
The Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso is a unique watch first created back in the 1930s. Understandably it is not possible to find a watch that offers the “Reverso” case, however, there are some convincing alternatives. The one that should be on your radar is the Oris Rectangular (I’m surprised they couldn’t come up with a better name).
There are several rectangular watches out there, but the Oris stands out with its strong art deco dial and range of colors. It offers the classic rectangular watch look with a well-designed dial accentuating the shape of the case, and the colors ensure that you can find one for your style. It is not a completely original look, but Oris has managed to build a lot of charm into the watch.
What is not instantly noticeable are its dimensions, and size is significant with rectangular watches as they can be too long or too wide, the lugs can be too thick, or it can sit too tall on the wrist. The Oris manages to get this all right. There is even some extra complexity in the case with a step along each side and subtle curves.
This is a watch that won’t be for everyone, but if you are after a dressier timepiece or something vintage-inspired, the Oris Rectangular is a good start. RRP around $1,900.
Further reading: 90 Years Of The Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso
IWC Pilot’s Watch | Hamilton Pilot Pioneer
IWC is synonymous with Pilot’s watches and much of the brand is built on them. The IWC Mark series is the purest form of a Pilot’s watch, but comes at a cost given the build quality and heritage of the brand. There are, however, several options out there when looking for a Pilot’s watch, so when it comes down to picking an affordable alternative, it comes down to a few factors. Brand heritage, build quality and of course, looks. The Hamilton Pilot Pioneer fits the bill perfectly.
Hamilton has been around since 1892 and was originally founded in Lancaster, Pennsylvania (it moved to Switzerland in 1969). Hamilton has had its fair share of technological achievements, but what we care about here is its affiliation with the military. Hamilton first supplied the US Navy in 1942, however, the Pilot Pioneer takes inspiration from a 1970s watch issued to the British Air Force.
The modern re-issue retains the same dimensions as the original (33x36mm) and is very focused on being a true, purposeful Pilot’s watch. The case is fully brushed, and the dial is a textured black with minimal text and white Arabic numerals. The hands and indices are filled with an aged white lume, giving it a true vintage design.
The result? Extreme legibility – a defining feature of the category. It doesn’t stop there. The mechanical movement, surprisingly, is very similar to the original used in the 1970s although you do now get an 80-hour power reserve. Oh, and 100m water resistance! It fulfils on the brand heritage, build quality and, in my opinion, looks as well. The best part is, it is available for around RRP $900. That is a fraction of the cost of the IWC.
Rolex Daytona | Seiko Speedtimer SBDL085
The Rolex Daytona. I don’t need to say more. When it comes to finding an affordable alternative, it is a similar situation to the IWC above as there several alternative chronographs. That means we need to find an alternative that has strong build quality. Luckily, Seiko has us covered with the Speedtimer SBDL085. Seiko needs no introduction and appears on this list multiple times, building great quality watches across their collection. What might not be widely known is that Seiko launched the Speedtimer in 1969 with an automatic movement (cal. 6139).
This is the same year Zenith and Tag Heuer launched their own automatic chronograph movements, widely known as the first ever. Despite this, the new SBDL085 uses a solar-powered quartz movement housed in a 39.5mm case. Similar to other Seiko’s, the Speedtimer has a high level of finishing with the top of the case brushed and the sides polished. The finishing continues to the dial, which is a classic “Panda” dial (other colors are available) featuring a delicate texture across the white surface.
The recessed subdials are navy blue, though initially they appear black, but interestingly, if you look at the 6 o’clock subdial, Seiko has even included a power reserve indicator denoted by F and E. In addition, Seiko has added lume to the hands and at the 12-3-6-9 position in square markers that resemble the original 1969 Speedtimer. Here you get the whole Seiko package. RRP around $730.
Audemars Piguet Royal Oak | Tissot PRX Powermatic 80
I don’t believe there is any watch that has gained in popularity in the last 5-10 years like the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak. It is understandable as to why this has happened given the iconic design. There is only one affordable watch out there that should be considered if you are looking to get those iconic 1970s aesthetics. The Tissot PRX. I don’t know where to begin with this watch. I have written a full review of the PRX Powermatic 80 and the biggest compliment I can give it is that I own one and wear it more than any other watch. The PRX is a faithful reintroduction from Tissot of their PRX released in 1978. It follows the same formula – a stainless steel sports watch with an integrated bracelet.
There are several brands that have jumped onto this fashion in the last few years, but Tissot was fortunate enough to have a model in their back catalog they could rely on. The difference with Tissot however is they have achieved such a great package with this modern PRX. The case and bracelet are fantastic and the quality punches way above the price range. There are contrasting finishes across the case and down the bracelet creating depth and wonderful light-play. The bracelet has a good taper and hugs the wrist well.
The Powermatic 80 movement is a solid movement with an 80h power reserve and can be seen through a sapphire caseback. The watch is obviously sporty, but there are hints of elegance with slim hands and indices on the tapisserie dial. It is an extremely solid watch and I would recommend it to anyone. RRP around $600.
Rolex Datejust | Citizen Tsuyosa
The next on the list is a newer watch as an affordable alternative to one of the oldest Rolex models still on sale, the Datejust. The Citizen Tsuyosa was launched in 2022 and it isn’t their first entry to the luxury stainless steel watch category. Citizen previously launched the Caliber 0200 and Citizen 8 collection, although neither has been affordable like the Tsuyosa.
Citizen is a household name and is best known for its Eco-Drive quartz movements. It is no stranger, however, to more accessible automatic watches as Citizen is the founder of Miyota – the movement manufacturer that many now rely on. The Tsuyosa comes in a 40mm tonneau case with an integrated bracelet.
It is not a secret that the Tsuyosa has taken inspiration from the Datejust and also the Rolex President bracelet, but it has done so with an integrated look to appeal to the current fashion. It has led to a very good-looking watch. The finishing, similar to the Tissot PRX, punches above its price with a nice mix of beveled edges, a brushed case top and a polished bezel.
The watch comes with a sapphire crystal and a date magnifier, as well as a mineral glass caseback so you can see the calibre 8210. The dials are extremely legible with the indices and hands featuring Natulite (Citizen’s proprietary lume), and come in four colors so you can decide how formal/fun you want the watch to be. With a RRP around $350, it is hard to go wrong!
Breitling Navitimer | Glycine Airman No.1
Another Pilot’s watch, I know, but the Breitling Navitimer is arguably THE Pilot’s watch. This is one of the cases on the list where the affordable suggestion does not replicate the functionality but is a great Pilot’s watch alternative with history. The Glycine Airman. The Airman was first shown in 1954 in the US only with a white dial, followed by a black dial variant to International audiences a year later. It was released around the same time as the Rolex GMT and was designed purely with pilots in mind. The Airman has been produced ever since with many variations, but in 2014 Glycine decided to go full circle and release the Airman No.1.
This was a re-issue of the original found in the 1950s and it oozes with a ton of charm and emotion. The Airman No.1 follows the exact proportions of the original so it comes in a 36mm case with a small dial and engraved metal bezel. I understand this might be on the small side for some, but there are many other Glycine Airman models to choose from and all come with the Glycine heritage and design. The interesting design cues don’t stop there with the No.1.
The case is fully polished, again something you would expect to find in watches from the 1950s, and the bezel is a friction bezel locked into place by a crown at the 4 o’clock position. There are two versions of the No.1 on offer, with one being a “purist” version that has a 24-hour time scale so the hour hand only rotates around the dial once a day. This was one of the reasons it was so popular with pilots, especially in the Vietnam war. Inside there is an automatic Sellita-based movement (cal. GL293).
Overall, a unique offering and one that is a true Pilot’s watch. RRP around $2,200, although after a quick browse online, there are many retailers that look to offer them for less!
Further reading: You Are There: Breitling Launches The Limited Navitimer B02 Chronograph 41 Cosmonaute And Collectors Strut Their Stuff
Grand Seiko “Snowflake” | Seiko Presage SARX055
If we were to do this list 10 years ago, the Grand Seiko SBGA211 “Snowflake” would not have been on it, such as the rise to icon status the model has had. Now that more are looking into Grand Seiko and appreciating the levels of quality on offer, prices have slowly been creeping upwards. However, Seiko once again offers an affordable alternative – the Seiko Presage SARX055 “Baby Snowflake”. Considering it is a Seiko, much like the other models I mentioned above, quality and value for money come as standard.
The Presage SARX055 was launched in 2017, and given its looks, quickly gained the nickname it is now known for. The watch allowed Seiko to show off its abilities in watchmaking at a lower price point, taking several design cues from its big brother. The Presage is a true daily wearer. It comes in a 40.8mm case, only 11mm thick but here is the catch, it’s fully titanium. Yes, a titanium case and bracelet, again akin to the Snowflake. Here, Seiko uses its “DiaShield” process to help the scratch resistance of the titanium (similar to the Prospex mentioned earlier). Then we reach the dial. Seiko knows how to execute dials extremely well, and here is no exception.
The silver dial has a light “frosted” texture across it with small details such as mirrored indices and hands on every side, all visible under the AR-coated sapphire crystal. The movement inside is the Seiko 6R15 caliber which is a practical and durable movement that is visible through a display caseback. Trust me when I say I could write a lot more about the detail of this watch.
Despite all those extra finishing touches, this can be bought for less than $1000. Unfortunately, Seiko no longer makes the SARX055, but they are available on sites like Chrono24, starting at around $850.
Panerai Radiomir | Nomos Club
This one might not be as clear, especially given the Panerai Radiomir was initially designed to be a dive watch. It still technically is. However, what sets Panerai apart is the beautiful design and legible dials. On top of this, one of the most iconic dials on the Radiomir is the California dial. This is where the Nomos Club comes in. It might not be as large as the Panerai and therefore, it has less of a sports feel (even though it has 100m water resistance), but a lot remains.
The Nomos Club is the entry point into the brand but that does not mean you are missing out on the brilliance of Nomos. There are a few different case sizes and colors on offer, but for the Panerai effect, the “Nacht” darker dial is the one I would go for. It is in a very interesting shade of grey and features the California dial where indices are surrounded by a green outline. To finish the dial off you have a small seconds subdial at the 6 o’clock position with an extra dash of color for the seconds hand.
Inside you have a fully in-house mechanical movement from Nomos (Alpha movement), and as standard, the caseback is a solid blank canvas, although there is the option for a sapphire caseback for a small surcharge. Where the Nomos and Panerai cross paths, apart from the California dial, is that both are beautifully designed. Every last detail has been thought about, even if at first glance they both look simple.
That is why it is so good. You are getting a lot of quality for the money given how much Nomos prides itself on creating everything itself. RPP $1,200.
Ten iconic watches and ten equally great, affordable alternatives. Writing this has left me completely unsure as to which I would have at the top of my list. Genuinely, they are all great! It has just reinforced to me that we are so lucky to have so many choices on offer. Finally, it opened my eyes that you could potentially own all ten of these alternatives and it would be cheaper than a Rolex Submariner on the grey market – crazy!
This is all my opinion, and I would love to hear yours.
You can read more articles by Raman Kalra at www.thewatchmuse.com.