A Beginners Guide To Buying An Affordable Watch
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Ok, so you’re thinking about buying a watch.
Maybe it’s for you or intended as a gift for somebody else, nice move. As you’ve probably found out though, choosing which one to buy can be trickier than expected. There are all these sizes, styles, materials and brands…it’s difficult to know where to start.
In this post, I’ll go through everything you need to know before buying a watch as quickly as possible, to help you make a better purchasing decision. After all, you don’t want to end up with a piece of garbage right? To be clear, we aren’t covering smartwatches here, just the classic ones.
Let’s begin with arguably the most important factor, the movement.
The movement is the mechanism that powers the watch. The engine or heart of the watch, if you will. There are three types worth knowing about quartz, mechanical and automatic. 99% of watches will feature one of these three movements or a variant of them.
Quartz movements are the most common among entry-level watches. These are mini electrical circuits, powered by a battery and as the name suggests, they involve a tiny piece of quartz. This crystal vibrates at a very specific rate when a current is passed through it and other parts of the movement convert this vibration into a single pulse per second. You’ll notice that the second hands on analogue quartz watches tick once every second for this very reason. Neat, eh?
Digital and solar pieces rely on modified versions of this same technology and essentially have the same pros and cons. Quartz movements are more accurate than mechanical ones, despite costing far less to produce on average. They also require less maintenance due to the lack of moving parts and will keep ticking until the battery eventually runs out of power, whereby it can simply be changed. Therefore, quartz watches are a good choice for those in manual jobs, where the watch may be susceptible to impacts or where accurate time is a necessity.
In some instances, the ticking noise of a quartz movement can be audible and the second hands are known to often miss the markers due to misalignment, both of which can be a little annoying.
Well, this is the way all watches used to be made, using a complex combination of gears and springs. The term mechanical movement is really more of an umbrella term that incorporates any watch that uses a clockwork mechanism to tell the time. Mechanical movements rely on you, the user to provide the power for the watch, as this technology pre-dates batteries.
When you see this word used on product listings, it typically refers to hand-wound movements. These require the user to manually wind the movement by rotating the crown several times, which in turn tightens the mainspring. This mainspring gradually unwinds over time, transferring its accumulated energy through gears to the rest of the parts. The watch will keep telling the time until the mainspring has fully unwound. Different movements last for different durations between winding; this is the ‘power reserve’ figure that you’ve probably seen on some product pages. A watch that has stopped and fully depleted its power reserve will need winding and resetting to start operating again.
This is where automatic movements come in.
Automatic movements are essentially a type of mechanical movement that features an additional rotating-weight mechanism; allowing the watch to be wound using the natural motion of your wrist throughout the day. Many automatic movements still allow you to hand-wind the movement should you see fit, but for the most part, the convenient self-winding rotor eliminates the need for this, so long as the watch is worn regularly.
What type of movement should you buy then?
If you or the recipient would like something practical and low maintenance, then quartz watches are the way to go. Some of these also come with additional functionality that could be useful depending on your use case. They’re no-fuss but for the most part also no-frills.
If you’re after something that looks and feels classier, like a watch for special occasions or as a reward, then it’s probably worth considering some sort of mechanical offering. Automatic watches in particular are a good gateway, as they don’t require any fiddly bits to work and the user can continually charge the watch as they wear it.
Both types of mechanical watches offer sweeping actions, where the second-hand glides along, rather than juddering once per second. This is far more visually pleasing and together with the increased weight, it gives the impression of a higher quality product. You can sometimes get these smooth motions in quartz watches, but they are rare, to say the least.
While impractical, hand-wound movements are usually slimmer than automatics given the fewer parts, resulting in a quartz-like slimness that is difficult to obtain via automatic means.
If you or the intended recipient already relies on their smartphone to tell the time and the watch would be relegated to a solely aesthetic purpose, then some type of mechanical watch is probably the better choice as I think the smooth sweep looks much more graceful.
It is to be noted that due to the intricacy of the production process, mechanical watches will generally cost you more than comparatively-specced quartz pieces, but we’ll discuss pricing later.
Before then, we need to mention materials. What are watches normally made of? Well, there are two main components, the case and the crystal. The case is the main housing of the watch and is usually constructed of metal, whilst the crystal is the transparent glass-like substance over the dial. The worse these parts are, the more susceptible the watch is to being damaged.
The lower end watch cases are often made of either resin (aka plastic), brass or zinc alloy. Resin watches, like many Casios or G-Shocks for instance, are very light, stand up well to impacts but do scratch rather easily.
Chromed brass and non-steel alloys are sometimes used as cheaper alternatives to stainless steel. These do offer increased weight versus plastic, giving the impression of higher quality, but aren’t as hard or durable as steel. Any plating used will likely wear away or crack over time, meaning these watches aren’t particularly future-proofed. I’d personally avoid these and opt either for resin or steel if possible.
316L stainless steel is the industry standard above the £50 mark at the time of publishing. This metal offers good corrosion resistance and is more durable, though will still accrue some scratches over time. Some brands ram this down your throat as if it’s an exclusive miracle metal and while it is decent, it’s far from a unique feature that’s worth fawning over.
There are other grades of stainless steel that see use in wristwatches, including the inferior 304L and the Rolex-preferred 904L.
Other exotic materials include ceramic, bronze and a personal favourite of mine, titanium; which offers super-lightweight performance. Steel is what you’re most likely to see at retailers.
There are 3 main types of crystal or glass. That being acrylic, mineral and sapphire.
Acrylic, aka hesalite or plexiglass, is just domed plastic. This type of crystal scratches very easily and is the cheapest to produce. Some brands opt for this as it’s more malleable and can be heavily domed at a low cost. It’s also shatter-resistant.
Mineral glass is next up the chain and is comparable to the glass in your windows. This copes with scratches a little better but isn’t top-tier. Some brands offer hardened versions of this under a variety of brand names. If it’s not labelled acrylic, mineral or sapphire, it’s probably a hardened mineral with gimmicky branding.
Sapphire is generally considered the most desirable crystal in watchmaking. It’s the most expensive to produce, but gives by far the best scratch resistance, only able to be damaged by diamonds or huge impacts that may shatter it.
You have raised or domed versions of all of these three crystals out there. These don’t offer any performance benefits and are simply an aesthetic choice. In most cases, the more scratch resistance you can obtain, the better. If you want a more in-depth look into types of watch glass, check out my watch crystal guide here.
Another metric to keep an eye on is water resistance. This is a measure of how well-sealed the watch is against water and is normally displayed in one of three ways - ATM, bar or metres. These are all different pressure units but they’re quite simple to understand. 1 bar is approximately equivalent to 1ATM and 10 metres respectively. So, a 5bar rating would be roughly the same as 5ATM or 50m and a 10bar rating would be equivalent to 10ATM or 100m.
As you can guess, the higher the designation, the better the watch is at keeping water out. These ratings are calculated with static pressure leakage tests in controlled environments straight out of the factory and therefore aren’t representative of real-world use. Take a 3ATM watch for example. On paper, you’d think that 30m of water resistance would be more than enough for swimming; when in reality, the rapidly changing water pressure and dynamic stresses during motion would quickly result in water penetrating the innards. Therefore, here’s what you need to know.
If the person in question wants to go swimming, your best bet is to opt for a watch with a minimum of 10bar or 10 Atm or 100m of water resistance. This is a sweet spot that should keep you covered. Anything under that is essentially splash resistant or may be temporarily submergible but shouldn’t be exposed to water for very long. If it’s a dress watch then this really doesn’t matter much.
Please be aware that many random Chinese brands are stamping all sorts of water resistance claims on their watches, likely without having these ratings vetted by the ISO. If you really intend on scuba diving, I’d avoid any brand that isn’t well-known in the industry.
Finishing & Quality Control
Unfortunately, specs only tell half of the story. You see, it’s not that hard to inexpensively cram a bunch of tick list components into a watch. Such a strategy would look great on paper but would result in a piece that still looks incredibly cheap. That’s where finishing comes in. This is the overall fit and finish of the watch, including how accurately and precisely any brushing or polishing has been executed, as well as how much craftsmanship has gone into the finer details.
Low-quality watches tend to have generic markers, hands with basic shapes and will usually look rudimentary upon closer inspection. Their cases, for example, usually feature a single type of finishing with a basic structure that’s easy to mass-produce.
Higher-quality watches will be done to a better standard that involves more time and effort being spent on specific parts of the watch, rather than a reliance on a load of off-the-shelf parts. This can mean proper custom shapes and parts, varying textures across surfaces and neater inking of text and logos. There is of course more nuance to it the higher up the chain you go, but I don’t want to stretch this post for too long.
Without the experience of handling multiple watches, such factors can be tricky to judge, so it might be worth comparing several options in the flesh and keeping an eye out for any quality control issues, which can be more obvious. Such problems are plentiful on rubbish watches and can include misaligned markers, hands and text as well as dirt and dust underneath the crystal.
Of course, a watch may perform well underwater, but what if it looks ghastly on the wrist? Well, there’s always going to be an element of subjectivity to sizing. Technically, you can wear whatever you want, regardless of whether it is proportionate or not. Nevertheless, here are some tips for those after a watch that visually suits their wrist size or that of the recipient.
There are two important measurements. The main one you’ll notice on product listings is case diameter. This is the width of the watch, not including the crown that juts out of the side.
Arguably more importantly, and often absent from these pages, is lug to lug size. This is the measurement from one set of lugs (the area that sticks out holding one end of the strap), to those on the opposite side. When the watch is on the wrist, this measurement will determine whether it lies correctly or overhangs the edges of your arm.
If the watch is for yourself, there’s a useful chart on theslenderwrist.com which I’ll put below.
If the watch is for someone else and you can’t measure their wrist size without giving the game away, then here’s my advice. Watches marketed towards females tend to come in at 36mm or less, which is a sensible size due to their inherently smaller build. Ladies tend to be able to pull off oversized stuff better than guys anyway, so the next bit will be sizing for men exclusively given that’s what I’m familiar with.
If the recipient is a skinny guy, I’d aim for something between 35 and 39mm in diameter, with a sub-48mm lug to lug. If they appear to have a fairly standard size wrist, you can probably opt for something anywhere between about 37mm to 42mm in diameter and about 42 to 52mm lug to lug size. If they have thicker arms, I’d go for something with a diameter of 41mm to about 45mm, and a lug to lug of 45mm to 58ish. If they’re a true giant and would appreciate something flashy, then you could always go bigger than this.
Thickness is also another metric you might be wondering about. I’d say this is of lesser importance, as even my super-thin wrist can even take some pretty chunky watches, provided that the previous two measurements are well-tailored. Watches with domed crystals are often given a thickness stat that includes the glass height, so in reality, they tend to wear a bit thinner when on-wrist.
The biggest mistake I usually see is men wearing watches that proportionately look too large for them. Therefore, if you’re torn between watches of two sizes, I’d lean on the side of caution and opt for the smaller one. A watch rarely looks too small.
You’ll notice that there’s a huge variety of watches out there. If the watch is intended as a gift, you’ll likely have some idea of what style they’d probably prefer, though I’ll cover a few of the most popular and versatile types that should be easy pleasers.
First up, there are the retro digitals. I know these are super popular from the view counts on YouTube alone. The silver versions in particular can be worn with just about everything and some are surprisingly good looking. Luckily for you, I did a full blog post covering the best options which you can view here. These also have the benefit of being extremely low-cost, so if you’re on a tight budget, it’s a no brainer.
Alternatively, there are dive watches and chronographs. Divers are those sporty looking models with a rotating bezel atop them. Because of the styling and durability, these have become very popular go-to's in recent years and they’re ideal for those into water sports as well.
Chronographs, with their multiple subdials, are often considered the best-looking watches by non-watch folk; at least from my experience. I think there’s a correlation between the complexity of the dial and perceived quality by non-collectors. As such, they are a consistently good gift choice. Just be aware that chronographs are typically larger than other types of watches, so most won’t be optimal for skinny wrists.
By now, you’ve probably got an idea of what you’re looking for but…what brand do you choose? After all, there are thousands of companies out there. Well, I don’t have time to run through all of them in this post. Therefore, here are some general guidelines.
First up, if the brand is being rammed down your throat by paid social media influencers, it’s most likely garbage. I’ve reviewed a bunch of them in the past and the vast majority have been overhyped and overpriced junk; relying on aggressive marketing tactics to make sales, as opposed to quality products.
From my experience, you’re better off sticking with brands that focus on watch production as the core part of their business and have a proven history in the industry.
Over the last couple of years, I’ve found that Japanese brands have tended to offer consistently good bang-for-buck products, so it might be worth scouting them out as a safe starting point. This includes the likes of Casio, Seiko, Orient and Citizen, as well as their subsidiaries.
Where to Buy
As always, I’d stick to well-known websites and avoid dodgy-looking listings that seem too good to be true. Obviously, a plethora of fakes are floating around on the likes of wish.com. Avoid that site at all costs unless you fancy scamming yourself or a loved one. If you’re planning on spending a significant amount of money on a luxury watch, most commenters seem to recommend opting for an authorised dealer so you can access a manufacturer’s warranty. You can save a bunch of money on grey market sites like Jomashop, where you get a warranty from the retailer instead; which works fine for me on more affordable watches.
Buying used pieces on sites like eBay or through forums can be risky if you’re unsure of what you’re looking for, so I’d recommend against it for beginners.
Something else to note is that some websites prefer to use renderings in their product listings. These digitally-created images can look quite different than the watch does in person, so I’d certainly track down video footage of the watch in question. Some often look better whilst others can look much, much worse.
How much do you need to spend to get a good watch? Ha…good one! No seriously, this is always going to be a highly debated topic. It’s a little like saying how much do you need to spend to get a good car, a fast computer or tasty pizza. A lot depends on your preferences.
I’m going to attempt to address this by recommending the average price of a watch that’s probably enough to please most people; provided that you’ve taken on board the previous points in this post.
Outside of those, if you want to play it safe, I’d probably recommend spending no less than about £60 on a steel quartz watch and about £100 on an automatic if you’re in the UK. I’d say the real sweet spot is the £150-£250 range if you can stretch that far; after which point you begin to get diminishing returns. I think most recipients would be very impressed with a £200 watch if you choose wisely.
From my experience, when you start going past the £1000 mark, you’re primarily paying for branding and prestige, rather than a notable increase in build quality. You basically need a microscope to see the finer details, which most people aren’t carrying in their back pocket. In the US and some other countries, you tend to be able to get better deals, so you can probably convert the prices I just mentioned and reduce them by around 20% to get a more accurate figure.
Be aware though, there are plenty of massively overpriced watches out that offer awful quality for high prices, so watch some unpaid reviews first if you’re unsure.