From Audemars Piguet to Rolex, there are a lot of top-notch watchmaking brands available on the market — and each of them has a deep catalog of tremendous timepieces, some more recognizable than others. However, those big names and the watches with which they are associated often also come with an extremely high price tag, making purchasing one something of a herculean obstacle for most normal, everyday folk.
Barring the possibility that you are a celebrity, genuine royalty, a trust-fund kid, or one of those rare self-made wealthy folks, there’s a pretty good chance you aren’t going to be able to drop the kind of money necessary in order to wrap a Patek Philippe around your wrist. But that doesn’t mean you can’t find a watch that’s oozing with the same style and substance — you just need to know where to look. And that’s where we come in; we’ve rounded up eight of the most iconic watches of all time and scoured the watchmaking world for 24 suitable alternatives you can buy for far less than their ultra-premium counterparts.
What Makes An Icon?
Only A Few Watches Make The Cut
Not many watches get to reach iconic status, as it usually takes something extraordinary to propel a simple wrist-worn timekeeping device into an intrinsic piece of high culture. But such events do occur. Many times, a watch will become famous due to who wore it. Sometimes, this can be a real person with an outsized influence, like Steve McQueen, while other times it’s an aspirational fictional character, such as James Bond. Other watches reach iconic status due to events that they were involved in, with the most obvious example in the Omega Speedmaster being the first watch worn on the moon. Finally, some watches are able to reach iconic status based solely on their own merits, usually due to introducing something new to the world of watches.
Why Are They So Expensive?
They Certainly Don’t Give Them Away
The reasons why iconic luxury watches cost so much money are similar to why any luxury products are expensive. They are made using expensive, high-quality materials. They are built with precision and high levels of craftsmanship. They are typically produced in limited quantities, which increases demand and therefore increases the price. Luxury watchmakers are also spending a lot of money outside of their production costs, with massive budgets allocated to research and development of new watches, as well as marketing to luxury clientele. It’s also worth noting that many iconic luxury watches are produced in Switzerland, a nation with centuries of watchmaking history that also happens to have one of the highest standards of living in the world. The average fast-food worker in Switzerland makes around $40,000 a year, so what do you think an experienced case-finisher at Patek Philippe brings home? One shudders at the thought.
What Is An Homage Watch?
Imitation Is The Highest Form Of Flattery
One term you’ll hear bandied about in watch circles is the controversial “homage watch.” Unlike replica watches — shameless fakes that try to pass themselves off as the real McCoy — homage watches don’t pretend to be something they’re not. Sure, they may look exactly like a Rolex Submariner, the most-frequently homaged watch, but they don’t say Rolex on the dial. Instead, they’ll have their own company logo, company name, and model name. Sometimes they’ll even add little tweaks to the design to keep it from being a straight copy. Now, homage watches aren’t necessarily bad, and not everyone has a problem with them. Indeed, companies like Steinhart, Squale, and MKII produce very high-quality Swiss-made homage watches. But many in the watch community dislike them, considering their designs to be nothing short of corporate thievery. And because they’re so controversial, you won’t find any homage watches in this guide.
The Seamaster has been around in various guises since debuting back in 1948, but it wasn’t until the ’90s and the debut of the Professional Diver 300m variant with the blue wave dial that it achieved iconic status. The watch was worn by Pierce Brosnan as James Bond in 1995’s Goldeneye, and remained on the wrist of 007 all the way through Daniel Craig’s debut in 2006’s Casino Royale. To a whole generation of watch guys, this is the timepiece that started it all for them.
Orient is a Japanese watchmaker that’s been around since 1950. They’re mainly known for their divers, and the Kamasu is especially regarded. With a sapphire crystal, 200m of water resistance, and an in-house automatic movement, the Kamasu makes a great stand-in for the Omega — especially in blue.
Seiko Prospex SRPC93
Speaking of Japanese dive watches, Seiko makes some of the most-beloved dive watches in the world — and they make a ton of them. This model is from their premium Prospex line, and it boasts a blue gradient wave dial that some might even say is more striking than the Omega’s. A true ISO-rated diver that’s good to 200 meters. It also includes Seiko’s Caliber 4R35 automatic movement as well as the brand’s notoriously-bright LumiBrite illumination.
Christopher Ward C60 Trident Pro 600
Often touted as a budget Seamaster, the C60 Trident Pro 600 is arguably the best dive watch available under $1,000. Where else can you get a ceramic bezel, AR-coated sapphire crystal, quick-adjust stainless steel bracelet, and a Swiss-made automatic movement? OK, you can get all of those things on the Seamaster, but the Trident also adds a fully-lumed bezel and doubles the Omega’s water resistance to 600m.
Omega Speedmaster Professional
The beloved, NASA-approved “Moon Watch” is quite possibly the most historic watch model in history. Recently refreshed for 2021, the latest model includes Omega’s newest in-house movement, finally outfitting the Speedy with the brand’s co-axial escapement and extremely high-demanding METAS certification. Available in a number of variants, the original black dial with the hesalite crystal and solid caseback is the one preferred by purists.
Dan Henry 1962
Dan Henry is a world-famous watch collector, and his budget-friendly brand creates quality watches that were inspired by some of his favorite vintage models from his stockpile. The 1962 was inspired by watches from its eponymous year, giving it some truly spectacular retro vibes (the first Omega Speedmaster debuted in 1957). The 1962 features a tachymeter bezel like the Speedy, and it’s powered by a meca-quartz movement that pairs battery-powered timekeeping with a mechanical chronograph module, giving the chrono-seconds hand a pleasing sweep.
Bulova Lunar Pilot
There’s a reason why this watch looks so much like the Speedy. Back during the Apollo 15 mission in 1971 — the fourth manned mission to the moon — a NASA astronaut wore a specially-designed moon pilot chronograph from Bulova on the lunar surface. This watch is based on that historical model, but it’s been updated with Bulova’s extremely accurate 262 kHz high-performance quartz movement and a sapphire crystal.
Junghans Max Bill Chronoscope
Junghans is a German watchmaker and is one of the most associated with the Bauhaus design movement. They’re especially noted for their collaborations with designer Max Bill, which includes this mechanical chronograph — a design icon in its own right. The Chronoscope features a reworked Valjoux 7750 automatic chronograph movement and, like the Speedy, possesses the hazy warmth of a hesalite crystal.
Tag Heuer Monaco
This iconic square-shaped racing chronograph adorned the wrist of style icon Steve McQueen in the film Le Mans, and even though the movie didn’t end up becoming a hit, the watch certainly did. Named for the Monaco Grand Prix, today’s version of the watch maintains the unique styling of the original while incorporating a sapphire crystal and Tag Heuer’s in-house Calibre 11 automatic chronograph movement.
Brew Retrograph Technicolor
Although it may look like a racing chronograph, Brew’s watches are actually inspired by coffee culture, and the unique color of the chronograph seconds track is calibrated to time the perfect espresso shot. The Technicolor variant of this meca-quartz chrono comes in a beautiful retro color combination that isn’t too dissimilar from the Monaco’s lauded layout.
Straton is an automotive-themed microbrand that specializes in vintage-style chronographs, and the square-shaped Speciale is the closest you’ll find to the Monaco’s trademark look. Available in a number of different colors, including the Heuer-esque blue, orange, and white combo, this watch can be fitted with either a meca-quartz movement or a Swiss-made Valjoux 7750 automatic chronograph.
REC Watches P-51 Green Hornet
Watches don’t get much more connected to automotive history than this. Made in limited numbers, this REC model has a dial that was crafted from the 1968 Shelby EXP500 prototype, Green Hornet. That nifty car connection combined with its cushion case, sapphire crystal, auto-inspired design touches, and Swiss-made construction all make it a worthy rival to the Monaco.
Luminor was a little-known Italian watchmaker outfitting militaries until 1993 when they began showcasing their massively-sized watches to the public. They found a fan in Sylvester Stallone, who wore a 44mm Luminor in the 1995 film Daylight. Not to be outdone, fellow action star Arnold Schwarzenegger donned a Luminor Marina in Eraser the following year. Soon, the Luminor became a major Hollywood status symbol while also helping to kick off the oversized watch trend of the past two decades.
Spinnaker Hull California
At 42mm in diameter, this Spinnaker doesn’t quite live up to the Luminor’s gargantuan proportions. But it’s still a large watch, and when combined with its cushion case, military-inspired numerals with vintage-style lume, and automatic movement, it’ll scratch a similar itch.
Longines is one of the most historically important Swiss watchmakers — they’ve been around since 1832 — and they’re a luxury brand in their own right. The Conquest is one of their more affordable models, but you’d never know it judging from its black lacquered dial, AR-coated sapphire dial, and 300m of water resistance. There’s also the prominent 12 and 6 on the dial and distinctive oversized crown guards that give a certain Italian watch a run for its money.
Hamilton Khaki BeLOWZERO
Another well-established Swiss-made brand with loads of history, Hamilton is renowned for being one of Hollywood’s favorite watch brands thanks to the frequency with which its models appear on film. This particular watch appeared on the wrist of Matt Damon in The Martian and it features an eye-watering 46mm case in a very Luminor-like shape along with a whopping 1,000m of water resistance. The black PVD coating also helps this guy stand out in a crowd.
Widely considered the most-iconic watch in the world, the Sub has pretty much everything going for it. Released in 1954, it was one of the first modern dive watches and was the first to combine professional underwater capabilities with everyday good looks. Its universal style has resulted in it being popular with countless celebrities and historical figures — including Sean Connery’s James Bond — while also making it the most-imitated watch on the planet.
Glycine Combat Sub
Glycine is a Swiss watchmaker with a notable history of its own — their Airman was the world’s first GMT watch, beating the Rolex GMT Master to market by a year. But today, we’re looking at Glycine’s diver model, the Combat Sub. It houses a Swiss-made automatic movement, AR-coated sapphire crystal, and 200m of water resistance — not to mention a crowd-pleasing style that isn’t just aping Rolex’s look.
Mido Ocean Star
Yet another storied Swiss brand, Le Locle-based Mido has been making watches since 1918. They’ve learned a thing or two over the past century, like how to make an outstanding dive watch. The Ocean Star has similar specs to the Glycine — a sapphire crystal, 314L stainless steel case, 200m water resistance, and an ETA-based movement — but has a more polished look and finer levels of finishing commensurate with its higher price point.
Monta is a St. Louis-based microbrand that draws heavy influence from Rolex, but not in a derivative way. Like Rolex, Monta produces Swiss-made sports watches with professional capabilities and luxury-level finishing. The Oceanking has a ceramic bezel, rhodium-plated hands, a lacquered dial, 300m of water resistance, blue-glowing BGW9 Super-Luminova, and a micro-adjust bracelet that they claim is the world’s most comfortable.
Rolex GMT Master II
Though it may not have technically been the first GMT watch — that is, a watch that tracks a second timezone on a 24-hour scale thanks to the use of a fourth hand — the GMT Master is the one people think of when they hear “GMT.” Released in 1954 after a request from Pan-Am to make a pilot’s watch that could track two different timezones, the “Pepsi” bezel variant of the GMT remains the most iconic, having appeared on the wrists of countless film and TV characters, from Pussy Galore to Magnum P.I.
Timex Q Timex Reissue
While it may not be a GMT, and it certainly isn’t a luxury watch, the Q Timex reissue is still a heckuva lot of fun. Based on a Timex model from the ‘70s, this battery-powered quartz watch has a Pepsi-colored bi-directional 12-hour bezel that allows the wearer to track a second timezone without the use of an expensive GMT movement, as well as a retro bracelet.
The latest and greatest model from this New York-based microbrand is one of the best GMTs around for under a grand. The Hyperion adapts the same vintage-style design language that’s present across Lorier’s line into a travel watch that looks like it’s from the ‘50s. That’s due to its use of old-school plexiglass not only for the crystal but also for the bi-directional, fully-lumed, Pepsi bezel, recalling the bakelite bezels on the very first Rolex GMT Masters.
Certina DS Action GMT
Though they’ve been around since 1888 and have the same parent company as Omega, Longines, Hamilton, and Mido, Certina just doesn’t get all that much attention. And that’s a shame with offerings like this DS Action GMT. The watch’s automatic movement is something special, as it has an 80-hour power reserve and an independently-adjustable hour hand, a feature that’s known as a “true GMT” and one that few brands other than Rolex offer.
Audemars Piguet Royal Oak
Legendary watch designer Gerald Genta changed the watch world forever when he unleashed the Royal Oak in 1972. Until then, luxury watches were made of precious metals — gold and the like — but Genta proved steel could become just as luxurious if it were finished to an unfathomably beautiful level. The result was the world’s first luxury steel sports watch, a genre that completely dominates the space today. And it wouldn’t have been possible without this octagonal icon.
Already dubbed the “Tissoak” by some fans due to its integrated bracelet design and flashy finishing, this affordable new model from 168-year-old Tissot is already a smash hit. With a utilitarian quartz movement inside, you’re paying for the quality of finishing here, and you’re definitely getting your money’s worth. And if the quartz movement offends you, fear not, as Tissot is releasing an automatic version housing a Powermatic 80 movement this summer.
Victorinox I.N.O.X. Mechanical
The Royal Oak may be a sports watch, but let’s be real: Nobody’s going to be doing anything athletic with a $20,000 accessory on their wrist. But you practically can do whatever you want to the I.N.O.X. without worrying about a thing. These watches are built like tanks (and they’re nearly as big as one), but they still feature attractive finishing and a textured dial that reminds one of the A.P.
Maurice Lacroix Aikon
It’s tough to imagine a better-finished watch at this price point anywhere. A newer Swiss brand, arriving on the scene in 1975, Maurice Lacroix has found a hit with what has quickly become their trademark model. The five-link integrated bracelet, tapisserie-adjacent dial, and adorned bezel all recall the Royal Oak while still displaying its own unique — and very attractive — style.
Patek Philippe Nautilus
The Royal Oak wasn’t the only integrated bracelet steel sports watch that Genta designed. In 1976, he designed the Nautilus for the world’s most prestigious watch brand, Patek Philippe. With its unusual porthole-style case and striking vertically-brushed bezel, it slowly built a following that has exploded in recent years. The ref. 5711, first introduced in 2006, has waitlists that are decades-long and routinely sell second hand at several times the retail price. The watch is so popular that Patek recently announced they’re discontinuing it, as they don’t like the idea of a single watch defining their 182-year-old brand.
D1 Milano Ocean
A newer brand on the scene, this budget-oriented brand may market itself as a fashion watch brand, but their watches can claim some legitimately good finishing, especially for the price. Every watch D1 Milano makes has the same Nautilus-inspired silhouette, with an integrated bracelet, vertically brushed bezel, and two polished “ears” on the sides. But hey, they do it well, and not everyone has 90 grand lying around to drop on a Nautilus.
The Swiss microbrand Formex has been around for a couple of decades, but they didn’t gain much fame until recently when people began discovering their Essence line. Essence has, as you should expect by now, superior finishing for its price, as well as a vertically-brushed bezel. It also hides other goodies, like a patented case suspension system you won’t find anywhere else.
Frederique Constant Highlife COSC
Another Swiss newcomer, relatively speaking, Frederique Constant has only been around for a little over 40 years, but they’ve already managed to produce a number of in-house movements, including a tourbillon perpetual calendar. That’s impressive stuff, as is their new Highlife line. Naturally, it sports an integrated bracelet, as the Nautilus run has seemingly inspired every brand to produce integrated watches, but it also stands above its competitors by offering a COSC-certified chronometer movement that’s good to
The 10 Best Men’s Rolex Watches For Every Budget
If you’re dead-set on getting your hands on the real deal, you can never go wrong with a classic. And it simply doesn’t get more classic than the timepieces on our list of the best Rolex watches for every budget.
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