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.
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:
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.
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:
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.
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:
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.
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:
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.
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:
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