In the world of watches today’s poor can put on their wrist a timepiece of such accuracy and quality that kings people of a century ago would envy. Progress is a wonderful thing. However, not all watches are created equal, and not all people are looking for a good time piece. Much like the world of firearms there are quality companies, and companies that skimp on everything they can to put out a cheap product and create profit by volume.
I don’t know if it is simply the romanticism of the old SEALs diving with Rolex submariners (or Oyster perpetual GMT watch in the case of the very popular Thomas Magnum, P.I.), or the DOXA brand dive watch used by Dirk Pitt in the Clive Cussler adventure novels (Cussler’s novels actually resurrected the DOXA dive watch into the market), but a quality Swiss dive watch has become associate with a certain level of adventurism and daring-do. Rolex managed to corner the “NAVY SEAL” side of the market, and Omega has tried to use their branding with James Bond for their Seamaster line of watches (although Rolex purists will point out that Bond did start out with a Rolex in the books and early movies, and Seiko fans can also point to their brand adorning Bond’s wrist).
The Rolex, Doxa, and Omega dive watches are really great time pieces, but they are outside the price range of someone who doesn’t need to trade their watch for the last plane ticket out of a war torn country serving Queen or Country. The branding success of those watches is irrelevant to the fact that they won’t keep better time than a cheap quartz watch. So there becomes a point where you just have to decide that you aren’t Thomas Magnum, Dirk Pitt, or James Bond and don’t need to drop over a thousand dollars on even a used premium watch. You are just a guy (or gal) who needs something rugged and reliable. Then again, if you happen to win a Rolex in a poker game, that’s cool.
Quartz, battery powered, analog format, essentially a dedicated circuit meant to precisely spin hands. It doesn’t matter if it is swiss quartz’ or not, even swiss quartz movements are incredibly inexpensive. A long lasting battery can go up to 54 months according to some advertisements. These are great watches for keeping time, literally set it and forget it for years as long as you aren’t crossing time zones. Don’t pay more than 80 dollars for a quartz watch. As far as I know, only Robert Langdon of “The Davinci Code” and “Angels and Demons” uses a “Micky Mouse” watch in his adventures, which we assume is quartz because the vast bulk of all Micky Mouse watches were quartz.
Quartz, solar powered, analog format. I think these are a step up from battery powered in that the replacement/repair time between services becomes “indefinite” as they are powered by ambient light. Seiko and Citizen put out solar powered watches in analog form. The last solar powered Seiko watch I wore was lost during a field problem because the band failed, not the movement. Don’t pay more than 150 dollars, and you can’t really go wrong with a Citizen or Seiko solar powered dive watch. Citizen hasn’t faired well as a watch for the international man of mystery in fiction, but seems to have done well for itself in film, gracing the wrist of Billy Zane in “Sniper” and Rob Lowe in “The Finest Hour.”
Quartz, digital format (battery or solar powered). Casio put out it’s excellent G-Shock in digital form. Essentially these are custom build computers you wear on your wrist with the functionality dedicated to the task of telling time. As circuits became smaller and smaller, other functionality, such as dive computers/recorders, or altimeters were added. I loved wearing a solar powered G-Shock, I eventually wore out the casing on it (plastic is not a highly durable substance for watches). I still very much recommend G-Shock because they are quite durable for their price range, and no one will mug you for your G-Shock. Don’t pay more than 80 dollars, and realize these are just throw away watches in the long run. John Goodman wore a Casio in “The Big Lebowski” and the character Kurt Weller played by Sullivan Stapleton on “The Blindspot” wears a G-Shock.
Mechanical, hand wind. These movements have been powering watches for several hundred years now, and are still available. Hand winding every day, or every other day, makes keeping time a bit of a daily routine action. I’m not a fan of hand wind watches, but they can be the base for a very rugged and long lasting watch, but since I am not a fan, I recommend you don’t buy one.
Automatic wind, mechanical. These movements came on the scene in the 1950s and have gotten better and better since then. There are really three big sources for movements; Switzerland, Japan, and China. The big name from each (for those not using in house movements) are ETA, Miyota, and Seagull respectively. There are other movements from France or Russia for example, but they are definitely not major players in the automatic watch industry. As previously mentioned, plenty of leading roles have worn automatic Swiss watches over the years.
So in the world of affordable automatic watches between 80 and 150 dollars, I recommend Invicta and Seiko. Right now you can get an Invicta with a stainless steel dive watch case, NH35 movement, and sapphire crystal for under 110 dollars brand new, and that is quite a bargain. Don’t expect an Invicta to ever appreciate in value though, no matter the quality of the components they don’t have the brand equity to appreciate, and they are priced so that it is cheaper to buy a new one that have one serviced or repaired. Other good choices, if you don’t mind going up in price a little, include Tauchmeister (often with Seagull movements) or Invicta’s Reserve line with ETA or Sellita Swiss movements. Even a new Aragon watch with a Miyota 9100 movement will be only a tad over 200 dollars new, although that price is putting you into the range of an Invicta with a SW200 Sellita movement cost.
But, no matter how you slice it now is a very good time in the mechanical watch world, and finding a rugged and reliable time piece isn’t difficult at all. And even if you aren’t Thomas Magnum or Dirk Pitt, you can still do enjoy all the quality of a good dive watch without paying the premium for “brand equity.”
Recommendations in the 80 dollar to 400 dollar range…
If you like the Doxa dive watch, consider the 2nd generation Seiko “Orange Monster” as a more affordable substitute (around 200). The original and reintroduced Doxa dive watches use ETA movements with 28,800 bph (a 2852 in the original, a 2824-2 in the new version) which is generally considered superior to the 21,600 bph Seiko movements. If you must have a 28,800 bph dive watch, the Borealis Sea Dragon and Prometheus Piranha are both available with an orange dial face and a Miyota 9015 28,800 bph movement. If you want something less chunky, the Orient Mako Orange Face (around 110 to 150) is about half the price of the Seiko “Orange Monster” and the 21,600 bph movement they use has been working out very well in dive watches for decades now.
If you like the Rolex Submariner and absolutely want a Swiss movement consider the Invicta 9973 or 18504 with the Sellita SW200 (swiss clone of the ETA 2824 movement used in older Rolex submariners), if you want a real Swiss watch made in Switzerland, the Steinhart Ocean 1 is still a fraction of the cost of a Rolex (but a bit more than my 400 dollar recommended limit for buying a watch). If you like the Rolex Oyster Perpetual Daytona, then the Aragon Divemaster 9100 is a quality analog with a Miyota 9100 movement (28,800 bph) with complications on the face.
Alternately, Orient watches start out in the one hundred dollar range with their Mako line, and go up in price (and options) from there. If you want an affordable, rugged watch with an in house movement assembled by hand, Orient is the best option you have. Where other Japanese movements are cheaper to replace than service, Orient movements are designed to be serviced. If you like modification/customization, Seiko is the best brand for that as it is something of a hobby across the world, and there are many old Seiko cases and movements out there in the used market that are ready to be retrofitted and upgraded just as you like.
I won’t recommend specific alternatives to Omega, as I think they look so much like Rolex that any of the Rolex analogs should also fill that niche. If you just want a watch that looks like an Omega, there is a specific brand called “Alpha” that is literally an homage watch line to Omega.
I also think that getting a ridiculously low depth rating on a watch is idiotic if you are only a recreational diver. Lets be quite honest, below about 80 feet there isn’t much fun stuff to see in the ocean as the light gets too dark, so even a 100M depth rating is going to cover 100% of everything a certified recreational diver is going to do for recreation. If you really are going deep diving, you can afford real dive computer. Although that doesn’t stop Tauchmeister from selling their 1000M rated watches for under 200 bucks (as far as I know, all made by Seagull in China, where a lot of Invicta watches are made too). Of course we’ll never be Thomas Magnum, Dirk Pitt, or James Bond either, but that doesn’t stop Rolex, Doxa, and Omega from cashing in on the ethos of adventurers.
So while you may not be an international man of mystery, or a private investigator living the good life on the cheap, you can get a good watch that will last you decades without breaking the bank. I hope that this has been a fun or informative read, and if you leave away from this feeling better about the watch on your wrist, good for you. In the end, all we really need a watch to do is tell time.