Originally published in late November 2016, I wanted to update this post to highlight some hands on experience with two of the Dan Henry Watches and a Seiko SKX Diver. I feel these watches in particular really embody an actual value in cool watches today.
With the Holidays fully among us, I wanted to put together some great go to watches all under $300. Whether you've started to become interested in watches and are thinking about dipping your toe in for the first time, or are shopping for a seasoned collector and just want to participate in their interest or hobby, all of the watches on this list are great in the own right and really have something special to set them apart.
If everyone were to make the most logical progression into mechanical watches possible, I would have to think the Seiko 5 would be everyone's jumping off point. Starting around $55, in a variety of colors, and with an automatic movement, and day-date display, the field watch provides a basic entry, and Seiko offers a myriad of options within the "5" family from there.
The 5 even comes in an extremely classy, sub $100 option that represents what might be the best "value" in any watch available. When a publication used to covering Patek Phillippe's hammering for millions at auction waxes on poetically about this watch's merits, it's hard to ignore. "The Value Proposition: A Seventy-Five Dollar Watch that Looks Like a Million Bucks."
At 37mm, in a stainless steel case, and with a great, classic, "field dial" layout, it's hard to really even recommend much else, when this one is less than the price of a nice dinner for one.
This one might be a bit polarizing, but it cannot be denied. Let's look at what you have here: a Swiss made, in-house automatic movement, with date, and 90-hour power reserve, for under $150. The Sistem51 represents the World's first mechanical movement to be fully produced via automated assembly, and it's comprised of just 51 parts. The sheer stats and feats of this watch led many heavy-hitting collectors out to buy them strictly to be put in the safe. HODINKEE provides a nice look at its significance here.
Background aside, the watch is very wearable, playful, and fun. The plastic case is lightweight and comes in a variety of colors if you're looking to standout a bit, the dials are playful and stylized, and I find this just makes for a really fun watch. It can also be a great introduction into the world of mechanical watches with its display case back showing off a matching and highly decorated, patterned, and colorful movement. For less than $150 you really can't go wrong, it's just a fun watch.
The now five Dan Henry offerings are very interesting with everything from a post WWII era time only quartz piece to a 1970's era super compressor with an automatic movement rated to 200 meters, all under $250. The watches are really great looking, each nailing their respective period correct details from engine turned sub dials (concentric circled sub dials), to the sandwich dial on the 1963, to Tropic style strap on the 1970 model. The watches look and feel the part of something truly vintage but are updated to modern sizes (which is a bit of a negative in my personal opinion), and offer a lot of value for the level of detail that is in each one.
The 1963, for example has the beautiful sandwich dial (the top of the dial is actually cut out exposing the lumed numerals sandwiched below), the hour bezel smoothly but positively clicks into place in hour increments, and the appropriately sized pushers and crown all look the part. Speaking of those pushers, the chrono engagement is very crisp with a great feel very similar to a great column wheel movement. The one area that I think gets overlooked on these is how good the case is. The chamfered lugs are detail that vintage collectors go nuts for when looking at watches like this. They are very period appropriate and the level of finishing to nail that detail on an all stainless case at this price is impressive.
The 1939 equally nails the details, with the only thing giving away that it's not a peer to a 1930's Eberhard or Omega being the increase size. The dial finishing, font, shrunken sub registers, and blued steel hands are all in concert to really make this a charming piece that makes you forget about chasing down an original from this era. The subtle specifics such as the oversized pusher caps and knurled crown compliment the purpose driven case shape perfectly. Topped off with all of the period correct conversion scales and tables really highlighting just how instrumental these watches really were in there time engraved on period correct rounded/clamshell style caseback, I'm left yet again trying to figure out how these watches are offered at $220.
The canvas and genuine leather watch roll and strap options included with each piece alone make you wonder how DH is even able to offer these watches for such a reasonable price. All of the straps, including the NATO style strap have quick release spring bars, making it very easy for those new to watches or without strap changing tools to quickly change the look and feel of each watch. The straps are also really high quality, further making me wonder just how they can be this cheap. The brown leather on the 1963 is thick and well finished, and the black leather on the 1939 is supple and refined.
I know that four of the five DH options are quartz, but in my mind, a well thought out quartz movement with smooth rolling seconds and a killer appearance honoring something like a true pilot's chronograph is a way better option than another fashion labeled piece from the mall (i.e. Michael Kors, Fossil, Kenneth Cole, etc.). Additionally, these Miyota quartz movements should be serviceable and have some actual engineering and quality built into them. The 1/10th of a second subdial at 3 o'clock on the 1963 model is mesmerizing to watch as it flies around and around in a fluid motion for the first 30 seconds of recording. Upon stopping the chronograph after the first 30 seconds, the decimal seconds hand will rotate back to display the final, 1/10th of a second time!!! And it's just as cool to watch the chronograph reset as the smooth ticking sweep seconds hand rotates all the way around the dial to zero. The ticking running seconds register is the only indication that these watches are quartz.
I really appreciate and respect that each model was made with very specific details respecting the watches and their respective applications at that time. This might be the ultimate gateway drug for someone interested in vintage, or just a really fun and reliable watch that has the looks of something costing $8k or more for a mere $250 or less. The only slightly negative thing I can say about these, and it's probably a positive for most buyers is that they are on the larger size, with the smallest (the time only 1947) at 40 mm and the largest (the 1970 supercompressor) at 44 mm. And even at those diameters they really aren't that out of line with some of the outliers from their respective eras. Again, this is probably a positive to most modern tastes and those that aren't wrist slighted.
Seiko SKX007 / SKX009 / SKX013
The SKX007 is not only a diver's style watch, it is a true diver's watch, meeting all of the ISO 6425 certifications needed to call itself so. It has to be one of the least expensive ISO certified dive watches available, and it's fantastic twice the money. The 007 and the 009, the blue dial with Pepsi bezel variant, continue a long lineage of Seiko divers that were made for diving, and the details represent that with the large luminous markers, lumed hands, 200 meter water resistance, offset crown, the list goes on. The 7s26 automatic movement may not the be the sexiest specimen of mechanical engineering but it is known for its reliability, accuracy, and ability to take a beating.
At the end of the day, you have a good looking watch that is extremely functional, looks great on a bracelet, rubber strap, NATO, and leather, and could really be an only watch to handle pretty much any situation. The 42 mm diameter arguably handles the 13 millimeters of thickness better than the more modestly sized SKX013, which retains the 13 mm thickness but shrinks the overall diameter to 38 mm. But, 42 mm is still a bit wide for my personal preferences (and smaller wrist) so I personally ordered an SKX013 to be my go to beater and adventuring watch. There are a ton of great write-ups singing the praises of these watches so I won't add to the chorus other than to say, yet again Seiko represents a ton of value for the money with really underappreciated watches.
I bought an SKX013
And it is awesome so far. Writing this with only 3 day's wrist time, my first reaction is that I'm really surprised by the level of fit and finishing given the price tag. I really wasn't expecting a ton of attention to detail and the most refined watch, but this far exceeds expectations. The top of the lugs are beautifully brushed diagonally, with each lug's brushing running tangent to the case on each respective side. There is a very pleasant polished bevel on the lugs as seen from the top that transitions into the polished sides of the case as well. The bezel feels wonderful with distinct and firm clicks at each half minute mark, and the bracelet, though a bit rattle-y is comfortable and attractive overall.
The watch is a bit on the thick side for someone like me that usually sticks to manual wind vintage watches, but I think it suits the purpose driven look. I would very interested to wear this side by side with an SKX007, since the thickness is nearly identical and the 007's lugs are only 2 mm longer at 46 mm lug to lug. I suspect this would make the 007 wear a little wider, but not cause it to overhang the wrist more, which might actually make it feel less thick. Either way, I love the smaller 38.5 mm case of the 013, and have no doubt in my mind that I'm going to love this watch for years to come.
With all of the model variants you are left with well over 10 really solid choices for under $300 pretty much any day of the week. These are all solid watches, some of which I own or plan to own myself. Interestingly enough, I chose to stop at $300, largely because in between $300 and maybe $800 I don't often see gaining much for the additional money spent. There are more mechanical options in this segment, but typically they are improved versions of some of what we've already discussed or maybe a few have a bit more refinement to justify some increase in cost, but I think you loose some overall value with many of these options (obviously there are exceptions).
Furthermore, I really like the options on this list because any one of them would make a great first or only watch but are also "credible" enough in their own right that even hard core watch collectors would or do own some or many of them. For example, behind nearly any watch collector's collection, especially those focused on vintage, is almost always a Seiko diver. And that speaks volumes of those watches and the like minded pieces included here.
Have any questions? Curious about something not on the list or wondering where to find something in particular? Feel free to reach out via email at meticulist.net (at) gmail or via the contact page.