8 High Quality Automatic Watches That Cost Under £500/$500
The brands that prove you can own a decent automatic without remortgaging your house.
It’s not so long ago in the watch industry’s past that compiling a list of automatics at this sort of price range would feel like a race to the bottom; a rifle through a bargain basement of sub-standard Chinese movements, poorly applied indices and bracelets that fall off the moment you put the watch on. However, that has changed.
One of the major factors behind this shift is both the improvement in, and re-evaluation of, mass-produced movements from China. Thanks to reasonably-priced power sources being made by respected names, such as Citizen (Miyota) and Seiko (Hattori), Japan largely escaped the demonization. China didn’t, becoming synonymous with cheapness and unreliability. Not anymore.
Names such as Seagull are now being talked about by collectors and there just isn’t the snobbery that there used to be around movements made outside Switzerland and Germany. So this list isn’t one filled with Tiger-Street Market level imitations of Swiss marques, it comprises brands and watches that prove you can own a decent automatic without remortgaging your house.
Spinnaker Hass x Marine Conservation (RRP: £325/$400)
Watch brands love a maritime hook up, though with a name like Spinnaker it’s a no-brainer. This Hong Kong-based company has been plumbing the depths of nautical watch inspiration since it first launched, using Japanese movements from respected names such as Seiko, Miyota and Hattori.
This limited edition of its Hass diver has been designed in collaboration with the Marine Conservation Society, a UK-based not-for-profit organisation that works with businesses, governments, and communities to clean and protect the oceans.
It comes in two palettes – Grey Turquoise and Blue Fade – both of which are inspired by the colours of deep sea. It’s good to 350m, has a strap made from recycled plastic and helps keep the oceans clean. What more do you want from a diver?
Swatch Sistem 51 (RRP: £207/$260)
When it first launched in 2013, it is no exaggeration to say that the Sistem51 blew the watch world’s mind. Here was a Swiss-made automatic with just 51 components, set around a central pin, assembled entirely by robots, for the price of a night out. And it worked. It really worked.
Following its much-talked-about launch the Sistem51 has slipped effortlessly into the Swatch collection. You can now have it on a bracelet, with a stainless-steel case rather than the original plastic one, or you can bring the bling and opt for the all-out, all-80s bicolour (above).
The ‘gold’ here is PVD coated steel but you still get applied indices, a date and that amazing robot-assembled movement.
Seiko 5 Sports (RRP: £280/$340)
You don’t have to flash the cash to own an iconic watch as the Seiko 5 collection proves. First launched in 1963, the Seiko Sportsmatic 5 was choc-full of innovations. It has its Diaflex mainspring, which is unbreakable; Diashock shock resistance, the Seiko answer to the Incabloc system; and impressive water resistance.
Since then, the Seiko 5 collection has grown to accommodate myriad styles and movements, but all have the five attributes that give it is numerical signature and are listed on the Seiko website as: automatic winding, day/date display, water resistance, a recessed crown at four o’clock and a durable case and bracelet.
This new iteration of the 5 Sports, which was revamped in 2019, is definitely what Bruce Wayne would use for spelunking. It’s chunky, robust and would appeal to the BASE-jumping crowd, even ones who aren’t billionaires.
Tissot Powermatic 80 (RRP: £490/$595)
The Powermatic 80 is the Swatch Group’s not-so-secret weapon. When Tissot unveiled the movement back in 2012 it was hailed as a gamechanger; evidence of how things were quietly evolving in the watch industry. It has an 80 hours power reserve – impressive even among brands charging prices with a couple of extra zeros on the tag – was highly precise and in a watch that was just over £500.
It became the Group’s go-to base calibre and now Tissot has managed to package it up in a design that just slips below our £500 plimsoll line (unfortunately due to conversion this works out to be $595 on the Tissot US site).
This is the perfect first automatic: it’s classic, so will work with whatever sartorial decisions you throw at it, comes with a variety of strap options, and you can take it off on Friday night confident it will still be accurate come Monday morning.
Timex Giorgio Galli S1 Automatic (RRP: £425/$450)
Despite being the man who has transformed Timex from maker of cheap but unrefined quartz watches into the creator of cult classics and desirable automatics, this is the first time many will discover the name Giorgio Galli.
Galli wanted to create a watch that he wouldn’t get bored of wearing and that incorporated elements of dress, sports and vintage watches that appealed to him. The 2019 version was a stunning stainless steel timepiece that was elegant enough to pair with a suit but casual enough to work with shorts.
However, the current iteration is even more desirable. The case size has been taken down from 41mm to 38mm, in keeping with the move towards smaller sizes, and the dials transformed from minimalist steel to a very industrial stone grey or slate blue.
It has all the markers of a luxury timepiece – domed sapphire crystal on the front, see-though case back, highly accurate automatic movement – but for a price that makes you wonder if an extra zero will be added at checkout.
Ingersoll Catalina Automatic (RRP: £290/$350)
It’s said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. If that’s the case, then there are certain notable Swiss marques who should be very flattered by this Ingersoll design. Ingersoll are no strangers to finding ways to give customers what they want at a price they can afford. Back in 1896 it launched the ‘dollar watch’ – the name also being the price of the timepiece.
Here you have a classic 1970s-style integrated bracelet steel sports number but at a fraction of the price charged by those Le Brassus and Plan les Ouates dwelling manufactures. The price is kept down thanks to a Chinese movement and probably due to less emphasis on finishing.
At 44mm it is slightly bigger than the timepieces it is inspired by, but if you have your heart set on this type of watch and know you’ll never be able to save up, or get on the waiting list, for one of the other options, it’s a no-brainer.
Stuhrling Professional Depthmaster (RRP £490/$445)
Stuhrling was set up in 2002 with one main aim: to take expensive luxury watch designs and reinterpret them so everyone could afford them. You can certainly see which particular design they have been inspired by here.
The brand was set up by Brooklynite Chaim Fisher and named after Swiss watchmaker Max Stuhrling. Fisher’s opening gambit was a ballsy one – rather than start small, the first Sturhling collection featured a tourbillon because Fisher baulked at the idea that only Swiss haute horlogerie names could produce one. Since then, the brand has taken every luxury watch style, from dress to pilots, and made it for a democratic price.
This diving watch is a case in point. It has all the touchpoints of a traditional diving watch – unidirectional bezel, screw down crown and 200m water resistance – only its manufactured in China (yes, the movement is stamped with Swiss made but internet sleuths reckon it’s Chinese made) so the costs are significantly reduced.
If you want something to splash about in, it’s decent place to start.
Orient Bambino V4 (RRP: £130/$135)
Green has definitely overtaken blue as the colour du jour in the watch world, from minty shades at Breitling to pine green at TAG Heuer. If you’re a fan of the retro-style fume dials made popular by certain other brands, then this Orient should be in your cart immediately.
When it comes to ridiculously affordable names that you can trust, Orient should be top of the list. Part of the Seiko Group, but owned by Epson not Seiko Watch Corporation, it has benefitted from investment – opening a technical centre in 2003 to develop more precise calibres, meaning that its prices aren’t telling the full story. It also has a reputation for being much more creatively experimental than its stablemates.
This automatic isn’t experimental by Orient’s standards, but it is fabulous to look at with real attention to detail, such as having the inside of the strap in green, in contrast to the outside’s brown – something you wouldn’t expect for the money.
In an age where anything goes when it comes to evening wear, this is just the type of watch to add some panache to your wrist. And at this price, you won’t even need to worry about the cost per wear.