Anyone who gets serious about collecting watches quickly learns one thing: it’s an expensive hobby. Once you get into the realm of iconic luxury watches that every enthusiast wants to add to his collection — your Rolex Submariners, your Omega Speedmasters, your Audemars Piguet Royal Oaks — you’re looking at tens of thousands of dollars worth of merchandise. Naturally, a lot of us don’t have that kind of money to spend on watches, but luckily there are plenty of iconic watches that are actually affordable.
What makes a watch iconic? Typically, it has to have something remarkable about it. Maybe it gained notoriety by appearing in a movie or on the wrist of a famous person. Some watches achieve iconic status by being innovative and bringing something new to the world of watches. And some watches become icons because, well, they’re cool and they develop a following among enthusiasts. You’ll find iconic watches that fit into all of these categories in the dozen timepieces that we’ve rounded up below. And the best part? Each of them can be had for under a grand.
Casio Databank CA53W
The classic ‘80s calculator watch, straight from the wrist of Marty McFly, remains the ultimate nerd watch more than 30 years on. And since it can be had for around 20 bucks, it’s also one of the best bargains in all of Watchdom. This Back to the Future co-star features a load of functions, including a stopwatch, alarm, perpetual calendar, and best of all, a fully functioning calculator.
Also emerging from Casio in the ‘80s was the first G-SHOCK watch, built to be the toughest watch on the planet. In the four decades since, G-SHOCK has established itself as a major brand in its own right with a slew of models ranging from utilitarian tactical timepieces to several-thousand-dollar luxury fashion statements. This model belongs to the 5600 series, which was born in 1987 of the original 5000C model G-SHOCK from 1983. It may lack the bells and whistles of newer, pricier G-SHOCKs, but any 5600 is still going to be tough as nails.
Most pilot’s watches may look cool, but they don’t bring a whole lot of utility to modern-day pilots (looking at you, Fliegers). Citizen’s Nighthawk, however, is a different story. One of Citizen’s best-known watches in its vast catalog, the Nighthawk is beloved by innumerable actual aviators thanks to its combination of a crown-operated slide rule bezel and Eco-Drive-powered dual-time function. The watch’s famously busy dial may seem intimidating at first, but the large and brightly-lumed indices and sword hands are remarkably easy to read at a glance.
Seiko’s roster is full of iconic dive watches, from the Monster to the Samurai to the Tuna. And while the SKX is undoubtedly the most iconic of the bunch, the series is sadly no longer in production. Thus, we went with our backup, the “Turtle,” and few would be disappointed in such a choice. Known for its rounded cushion case and 4 o’clock crown, the Turtle was an everpresent diver in the ‘70s and ‘80s, showing up in films like The Abyss, and it was recently resurrected by Seiko as a fancy new Prospex model.
We know we already mentioned that Fliegers aren’t really indispensable tools for modern pilots, but that doesn’t make them any less cool. The German pilot’s watch from WWII has become the archetype for all aviator watches that followed, and its symmetrical design and easy-to-read layout are the definition of timeless. German watchmaker Laco was one of the five original makers of Flieger pilot’s watches during the war, and they’re the only one who currently makes them for under a grand.
Hamilton Khaki Field Mechanical
While today a Swiss-based manufacturer and member of the Swatch Group, Hamilton was an American watchmaker for much of the 20th century. During that time, it pioneered the field watch with its tough timepieces that were worn by American soldiers in World War II. The Khaki Field of today is both the evolution of those early field watches and the archetype of the genre as a whole. Its design has inspired countless other field watches, and it remains as versatile, stylish, and robust as ever. It’s Hamilton’s flagship watch, and when you consider the brand’s other iconic offerings (one of which we’ll get to in a bit), that’s saying something.
Like the “Turtle,” Seiko’s “Arnie” was a popular watch in the ‘80s that eventually became discontinued only to be reborn in recent years as a modern, upgraded Prospex model. Unlike the “Turtle,” the “Arnie” didn’t get its moniker from its case shape, but rather from its most famous wearer. Actor Arnold Schwarzenegger wore the watch in a series of ‘80s action films, including Commando and Predator, and it’s been associated with toughness ever since. Known for its ana-digi dial and imposing presence, the modern iteration adds solar power to the mix.
Bulova Devil Diver
Bulova has no shortage of memorable watch designs in its catalog, but our favorite — and by far the cheekiest — has to be the Devil Diver. Originally known as the Oceanographer upon its initial release in the 1970s, the watch colloquially gained its Satanic nickname thanks to its proudly printed depth rating of “666 feet.” This year, Bulova re-released the watch in a modern guise and leaned into its hellish heritage, doing away with the formalities and straight-up calling the watch the Devil Diver.
Admittedly, this isn’t a pick that will get many watch enthusiasts excited, but Movado’s Museum remains an all-time classic design and is probably one of the most famous watches in existence to your average person on the street. Known for its blank black dial that’s broken up only by a circle at 12 o’clock, the original watch was designed by Nathan George Horwitt in 1947 for Vacheron & Constantin-Le Coultre Watches and is part of the permanent collection at MoMA. We’d say that warrants icon status.
Among today’s collectors, mechanical watches reign supreme, and many watch enthusiasts will turn their nose up at anything with a battery. But in the mid-twentieth century, it was a different story. Back then, before the invention of cheap quartz technology, everyone wanted to get their hands on the next high-tech way to track time. And Hamilton provided it with the Ventura in the 1950s. The first-ever electronic watch when it was released, it quickly became a must-have item for the jet set, famously gracing the wrist of Elvis Presley. Its maintained its fame in more recent decades thanks to its abundant use in the Men in Black film franchise, but the Venturas of today are powered by quartz or automatic movements rather than Hammy’s original electric tech.
Junghans Max Bill Hand-Winding
One of the most famous designs to ever come out of the Bauhaus has to be the Max Bill, the archetype for minimalist watch dials. First designed by Max Bill for German brand Junghans in 1961, the hand-winding model of the watch has been in continuous production ever since, and it’s barely changed since that time. Sure, some of the materials have been updated (and upgraded), but the modern Max Bill remains as close to its vintage progenitor as any current watch on the market today.
Rolex gets a lot of press for releasing the first GMT watch in 1955 with the GMT Master, but there was actually one two-time zone watch that beat Rolex to market. When Pan-Am put out the call to watchmakers in their search for a pilot’s watch that could simultaneously track two timezones, Glycine and Rolex answered, but the former was first to market. The Airman debuted in 1953 as the first watch to simultaneously track two time zones, which it did via a 24-hour dial and 24-hour rotating bezel with no need for a fourth hand (the Rolex used four hands, a 12-hour dial, and a 24-hour rotating bezel). Now owned by Invicta, Glycine still makes very faithful renditions of the original Airman.
The 24 Best Affordable Alternatives To Iconic Luxury Watches
Still have the itch for a luxury watch icon… and still without the cash to obtain one? Then have a look at our rundown of 24 affordable alternatives to 8 bona fide luxury watch legends.
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