5 Classic Watches and Their Frugal Alternatives

5 Classic Watches and Their Frugal Alternatives
These handsome, budget-friendly timepieces will have to hold you over until you're pulling in the big bucks.

If you’re at all into watches (and you should be), then it’s very likely that you have a grail watch in mind. That’s the one that’s financially in the stratosphere for you right now, but one day…

If you’re going to spend that kind of money some day, upwards of several thousand, then it’s wise to choose a classic watch — one that has stood the test of time and spanned generations. There are a handful of timepieces that are considered classic by virtue of design, build quality, movement, timekeeping ability and reputation.

But those grail watches, for now, remain seriously out of reach based on your take home pay and your begrudged lack of old money inheritance.

But there are options out there that pay homage to your coveted grail, and for less money than you think. We’ve chosen a handful of the icons and picked frugal alternatives that are incredibly well made. Any one of the alternatives would be a wise choice for a budding watch collector, and they’re not cheap Chinese knockoffs that are right twice a day. Some of them even boast Swiss movement and the kind of quality materials the big boys use.

Whatever you choose, know that you simply can’t go wrong with our selections. Just don’t wear them while driving a Pontiac Fiero that’s been clad to look like a Ferrari.

The Classic:

Rolex Oyster Perpetual Submariner – $7,975

Rolex Submariner

There’s a reason why the the Rolex Submariner is an icon. In basic steel with a black dial and bezel, it’s iconic, as well as truly classic. The Submariner was introduced back in 1953 and keeps its aesthetic largely unchanged despite the increase in case diameter over the decades, now at 40mm. Rolex meticulously crafts each watch in robust 904L steel, a much higher grade than ubiquitous 316L steel found in most high quality watches today, and its Cerachrom and ceramic bezel has a platinum coating on its numbers and markers. The interior is just as impressive as the exterior. The in-house 3135 automatic movement is nearly flawless and Chronometer Certified (COSC), and the Triplock triple waterproof system ensures its 1,000 foot dive rating. The fact that Submariners rarely depreciate in value (vintage versions command top dollar at auction) is all the more reason to get your hands one on, that is, if you can afford it.

The The Frugal Alternative:

Invicta 8926OB Pro Diver Automatic – $85

Rolex alternative - Invicta

There are a lot of Rolex knockoffs out there, but Invicta only copies it in spirit. The 660 ft water resistant diver is full stainless steel, a more than manageable 44mm diameter and fully automatic with no need for a battery, ever. Even the screw down crown exists to keep water out, and the mineral crystal face means you can punish this beauty without worrying about scratching. The fact that it passes for a Submariner from a distance for well under a $100 means it’s a keeper.

The Classic:

IWC Portugieser Chronograph – $5,795

IWC Portugieser

One look at the Portugieser, and you know it’s an icon. With its small, simple numerals, gold  hands, crisp inner bezel ring with minute markers and 30 minute and 60 second north-south subdials, the Portugieser Chrono is sophistication and class embodied. There’s not a single thing on the timepiece that’s overdone from the elegant stainless steel case to the perfectly selected black crocodile leather strap, it’s a timepiece that will look good pretty much forever.

The The Frugal Alternative:

Skagen Holst, $93

IWC Portugieser Chronograph frugal altnerative - Skagen Holst


​It may lack the panache of the Portuguieser, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t classy. No one will guess that you paid under a hundred for it. The quartz movement is Swiss, and it’s water resistant to 5ATM (suitable for showering and swimming), though you’re more likely to go desk diving than scuba. The soft leather band isn’t crocodile but its texture does add a beautiful dimension. If you’d like a closer design and you have the $1k to spend, check out the Hamilton Jazzmaster Maestro.

The Classic:

Panerai Luminor Marina PAM00111 – $5,695

Panerai Luminor watch

Give credit to Sly Stallone for putting Panerai’s Italian dive watches on the map in a big way. They’re manly, powerful watches with a bold and simple style. The Luminor Marina is perhaps its most classic iteration with a luminescent sandwich dial, single small seconds subdial and their iconic cushion style case in a masculine but not massive 44mm diameter. Their unique push-pull crown is protected by a guard and lever setup, and the transparent skeleton caseback allows you to stare at the mechanical hand wound movement. There are many imitators of the beautiful Panerai brand, and we can see why since its coveted status in the horological world means that Sly has some pretty good taste, at least in watches.

The Frugal Alternative:

Fanmis Black Dial GMT Automatic – $105

frugal Panerai alternative

It’s the spitting image of a more expensive Panerai and made with materials like a 44mm stainless steel case, scratch proof mineral glass and an automatic movement. It even has a Panerai-like crown protector and a contrasting brown leather band to bring you sporty opulence at a fraction of the Luminor’s price.

The Classic:

Tag Heuer Carrera – $3,375

Tag Heuer frugal alternative

You may not be a race car driver, but you can look like one with the automotive themed Carrera. Coined after the legendary Carrera Panamericana road race, this classic and sporty chronograph with motorsports heritage has been around for fifty years. And there’s good reason, with the combination of slick style and racing chrono functionality, it’s one timepiece that can easily toe the line between dress and sport. The 42mm case is crowned with a tasty black ion-plated bezel, and the triple link bracelet shines with polished facets peppered on brushed links. Triple race-minded subdials clock 60 seconds, 30 minutes and 12 hours. It’s all undergirded by a reliable Swiss automatic self-winding chronograph movement. All of it put together makes for a classic sports watch worthy of iconic status.

The Frugal Alternative:

Casio Edifice EF546D-1A1 – $99

Tag Heuer frugal alternative Casio Edifice

It’s so close to the Carrera, it might as well be a clone, and the sub-$100 asking price is almost ridiculous for a watch that looks this good. Who would’ve guessed it’s a Casio. Okay, so it’s not from Switzerland, and it’s not automatic, but it’s well made and incredibly sporty in its aesthetic. The full stainless steel 50mm case is bigger than the TAG, which bodes well for those with larger wrists, but it’s still not an oversized timepiece. The black face, bezel and triple subdials are right from the Carrera playbook, giving it the right sporty design that looks great on just about every guy. Plus, it’s water resistant to 100 meters, so it’s great for the active lifestyle. The Japanese quartz movement is super-accurate at +/- 20 seconds per month, and the mineral crystal face is impact and scratch resistant. It’s so good looking, it will easily get mistaken for a TAG unless someone gets right up on it.

The Classic:

Patek Philippe Calatrava Automatic – $17,500

Patek Phillipe frugal alternative

Patek Philippe oozes high class from just the mention of the name, and their watches are highly coveted since Patek is probably the world’s most prestigious watch brand. The Calatrava pays homage to renowned architect Santiago Calatrava. The classically designed Calatrava automatic has a stunning coin-edge 18kt white gold case, a crisp white dial with black Roman numerals, a small seconds subdial and a proprietary automatic movement with 44 hour power reserve. The 36mm size is small by modern standards, but it’s a gentleman’s watch (a rich gentleman, naturally), not a diver. Even for a dress watch, it has 30 meter water resistance, and it’s got full sapphire front and back. It’s a stunning timepiece that few of us will ever own, or even lay our eyes on.

The Frugal Alternative:

Bulova 96A133 – $110

Patek Phillipe frugal alternative - Bulova

You don’t have to have deep pockets to look high-powered, especially when it’s a Swiss Bulova with some heritage behind it. The 96A133 has the requisite elegance with Roman numerals on a clean white face, along with a full stainless steel case, accurate quartz movement and a mineral crystal face. Even the dial gets dressed up with dual raised inner rings and simple minute markers. A croc print leather strap tops it off, making you look smarter and richer than you actually are.

New to watches? Find out the best brands at any price point with our The Best Watch Brands by Price: A Horological Hierarchy

The Best Watch Brands by Price

Amos Kwon is the Editor-In-Chief for Web2Carz and has worked as the Automotive Section Editor for the popular men's digital lifestyle publication, Gear Patrol. He's covered topics such as cars, motorcycles, watches, cigars, spirits, travel, technology and style. He also has a background in real estate, telecommunications and law enforcement, which makes him oddly well-rounded. Amos is based in the Windy City, Chicago. Follow him on twitter @wrathofkwon.

  • John

    I have the Invicta…it sucks at keeping time. Generally, Automatics stink at keeping time, which is why most every company went to quartz. If my $20 watch from Target keeps better time than a $100 “luxury” watch, then I’m going w/ the $20 jobby every time. My $0.02.

    • Jeff

      I’ve had an Orient Mako (an automatic) for a little over a year and is amazing at keeping time. Pretty much my daily watch and well worth the price.

      • John

        That’s cool. You must have gotten a good one. My jeweler (he sells and works on Rolexes) told me about the issues with automatics and how they frequently aren’t calibrated properly at the factory and they are a pain and costly for him to do.

        • Jeff

          From everything I’ve read, Orient’s automatics are top notch especially considering the price, they’re done in house. I mean is not an Rolex or Omega but I’ve been really impressed with mine. There’s a cool YouTube video of Orient’s manufacturing process in Japan.

          • Michael

            Orient are well respected in the watch industry, I would also take a look at the Seiko SKX 175 (US Version of the SKX009), for under $200, you get a great, automatic watch. It has that classic “Pepsi” look you see on Rolex divers with a fraction of the price. I have one and love it.

    • http://www.primermagazine.com/ Andrew

      That’s a bummer! I wonder if it was a lemon? It has 1400 reviews with a 4.5 star avg on Amazon.

      • DaveD

        I have one and it died after a few years. Didn’t wear it daily so the next time I went to wear it I noticed it wasn’t keeping time after setting it. No amount of shaking will bring it back to life.

        • Rt1583

          Did you regularly shake it to get it started?
          Shaking it might have contributed to it’s death.
          They’re not shake weights, unless they are on that hand.

          • DaveD

            Perhaps shake was not the best word. I moved the watch to swing the counter weight a bit. I’ve got 5 or 6 other automatics (Seiko,Orient) that I do the same with as they don’t stay wound for long when off the wrist. No problems setting the watch and getting the hands moving and keeping time while on the wrist. I also had a Seiko Black Monster that died on me after a few years. I guess I should take it in for service (and automatics need somewhat regular service), but the cost probably exceeds the purchase price.

      • John

        Yeah, I bought it from Amazon on the strength of the ratings and it’s good looks. It’s possible it was a lemon, but I trust my jeweler. Se la vie! By contrast that $20 Armitron sport watch has lasted 4 years in and out of patient rooms (washing hands), swimming, in the shower, you name it.

      • Michael

        Invictas are hit and miss. There are some that have great movement, and others that are complete junk. The two quartz watches I have from them are OK, while I have heard of others stopping days after purchase.

    • Bullet Tooth Tony

      depends on one’s philosophy on the “purpose” of a watch.

      Arguably, a watch has become nothing more than jewelry for men – purely aesthetic (and often just a way to flaunt income, as a status symbol).

      If the argument is solely about objective practicality, the cheapest digital watch picked up for $10 on the streets of China Town is more accurate than a $10K Rolex…

      …but it will look like $#!t.

      a bit of a conundrum. I’ve opted out of wearing a watch, since good looking watches tend to be more expensive than I’d be willing to spend, and practical watches simply look terrible

  • Lindsay Schramm

    I bought my fella a Brathwait for his birthday after seeing it endorsed on this site. He says that it is the best present he has ever received, and never wants another watch again. Two thumbs way up.

    • http://www.primermagazine.com/ Andrew

      Nice!! I love my brathwait and wear it all the time. I always get compliments.

  • Chris Scott

    Pretty solid list. My one bit of input would be that the Casio Edifice listed as an alternative to the Carrera is absolutely massive. It clocks in at 50mm which is absolutely massive. The Carrera comes in at a much more reasonable 42mm. Only someone with some very big wrists could really pull off that Casio.

  • CryptoReporter

    I was just in a Hugo Boss factory store recently and noticed a few of their watches were “frugal alternatives” of higher priced watches. HB had their own version of a TAG Heuer Monaco Calibre 12, as well as their own version of an Omega bullhead. Im on the main Hugo site right now… they have something very close to an IWC Portuguese for under $400, not bad.

    Upgrading from an embossed croc strap to a real one will make a huge difference in appearance even on a frugal watch. If you have a nice dress watch you like, consider measuring the band and finding a real croc/alligator strap on ebay for it.

  • Brian

    How about Nomos Tangente Glashütte style watch? Sells for around $2,000-$3,000 USD. The Rodina Automatic can be had for $110. Granted, they completely lifted the design- for someone who can’t currently afford a Nomos, the Rodina could stand in… http://amzn.com/B00VUOQ9P0

    • http://www.primermagazine.com/ Andrew

      I like!! Thanks for sharing!

  • Tom Scrivener

    Alright, there’s a few things I gotta take issue with here.

    The Invicta ‘only copies the Rolex in spirit’ – are you kidding? It’s a total friggin ripoff. the bezel markings, the hand set, the hour and minute indicators, the cyclops over the date. It’s a total copy. And, “mineral crystal face means you can punish…without worrying about scratching”, um, no – are you thinking of sapphire crystal?

    For the skagen – most watch folks are not going to recommend you can swim with a 50M rated watch with a push/pull crown, and a cheap leather band. You’re going to ruin the band, and the pressure of water hitting the watch as you swim is likely greater than 5ATM. You should have at least 100M and a screw down crown to swim.

    I’ll agree with Chris on the 50mm Casio – that’s bodybuilder size only. An average 6.5 – 7 inch wrist isn’t going to bear anything over 44mm without it looking like you’re wearing a wall clock.

    And the Parnis, it’s like the Invicta I guess – all they do is ripoff other designs. Hardly original, and you’re likely to get a total lemon as their quality control is notoriously bad out of their chinese factories.

    • http://www.primermagazine.com/ Andrew

      Thanks for the comment, any thoughts on replacements for those?

      • Tom Scrivener

        For the Sub, swap out the Invicta for the new Orient Mako USA for $175-$225 depending where you look. Sapphire crystal, solid-end links on the bracelet, similar looks but second crown (quick change for the date display) makes it unique. The Casio MDV “Dolphin” is a more similar look, it’s quartz but it might be the best $50 watch out there.

        The Kenneth Cole KC1568 for $100 on amazon looks more like the Portugieser than the Skagen. Still mineral crystal, but chronograph looks. Just dont swim with it :)

        For the Tag, tough to beat that Casio for looks except the size – stick with Casio, but try the EF503D-1AV model, at 41mm. Way more reasonable for human wrists.

        The Luminor is tough because it’s such an iconic design everything close looks like a replica. If you want to copy the look that’s fine, just be aware of the very fine line between homage and outright replica/copy.


  • Vincent Adultman

    I would replace the Invcta with a Seiko 5 SKX007/SKX009 or an Orient Ray/Mako. But other than that, great list!

    • Michael

      I agree. Mine is the SKX175.

  • Butch_Zee

    Amos, I am absolutely loving that Fanmis. Now to see if they make one without a date box. (Andrew knows about me and date boxes.)

    • http://www.primermagazine.com/ Andrew

      Haha you HATE date boxes.

  • ~classics~

    Gotta tell ya, I have had the Invicta now for over 3 years and it functions great. Time never slips and it looks fantastic. Probably wear it 4 times a week. Maybe they are hit and miss. That Bulova looks fantastic though. Not crazy for the band but that is easy enough.

  • Pssshhh

    never buy a invicta they are trash, and a joke. save up a little scratch and get a tissot or hamilton entry-level swiss automatic. However, skagen has a few surprisingly good quality thin and beautiful watches that would be at home in any office. the key is, if you get a quartz, get one without a seconds hand. the ticking will drive you insane after you’ve worn an auto for a while. if you must have a quartz try out a breitling colt, that you can give your grandkids in the will.
    if you absolutely need a submariner “homage” then try out a Squale-the heritage model is a stunner. for younger/broker guys, nothin’ wrong with a seiko-5 or an orient to start your collection. get on watch-sales email lists and when your brand comes up at 50percent off, jump on it. jomashop is a good example of this.
    PS, all of my swiss autos gain a few seconds a day. so, after a month you’re a minute fast. nbd

  • Ahmad

    All of them seems nice,

    loved it,


  • Michael H

    The Bulova isn’t Swiss as stated. Bulova was an American company bought by Citizen so it has a Japanese movement. Great watch though, compared to others similarly priced.