If you just need to know the correct time, look at your phone or get a cheap digital Casio watch. A mechanical watch will never have the same accuracy. What it does have though, is craftsmanship, beauty, and style. A nice watch is more than just a way of telling the time. It’s a functional piece of jewelry that can say a lot about you. Are you the adventurous sort? Then maybe you wear a dive watch. Spent a lot of time at black tie events? A dress watch is what you need.
There’s something incredible about an automatic (or self-winding) watch. The fast, audible, mechanical ticking, the tiny intricate parts all working together to keep the correct time, the fact that just wearing it is enough to keep it wound. Even the cheapest mechanical watches required more time and thought from the watchmakers than an expensive quartz watch. Each one is a testament to human ingenuity. You can never look inside your computer and see it work but with many mechanical watches you can. It’s a piece of technology that you don’t need a college degree to understand; it’s ceaseless sweeping hands and comforting tick are enough.
While you can spend insane money on mechanical watches—even a “basic” Patek Phillipe will set you back tens of thousands of dollars—there are actually some great, affordable automatic timepieces available.
These aren’t the watches you see advertised on Instagram where you “just pay shipping” and get a bit of tack straight from the factory in China; these are watches from quality manufacturers that plenty of true watch fans (myself among them) own.
What We’re Looking For in an Automatic Watch
An automatic watch is about a lot more than just accurate timekeeping. It’s about having an intricate mechanical machine with hundreds of years of history on your wrist. If that doesn’t interest you, you’re in the wrong place! Similarly, if you’re looking for a status symbol, you’re going to need to seriously bump your price bracket.
Before diving in to what we were looking for, let’s break down some key terms.
- A mechanical watch is a watch that literally runs on clockwork. No batteries, no electricity, just cogs, springs, and ingenuity.
- An automatic watch is a mechanical watch that winds itself just by the movements of your wrist.
- A quartz watch is a watch that uses a battery to run electricity through a quartz crystal which is used to set the time. Almost all watches you see for sale have a quartz movement.
- The movement is the mechanism inside the watch that powers it. Watch manufacturers tend to make a few different watches built around the same basic movement much like car manufacturers build different cars around the same engine.
- The case is the bit that contains the movement, the strap is what holds it to your wrist. This is pretty obvious, but straps can be changed which can totally change the look of a watch. Bear that in mind when you’re considering different watches.
When I set out to break down the best affordable automatic watches, I set some simple criteria:
- It had to be from a respected watchmaker. This means no Kickstarter watches with off the shelf movements, or rebranded Chinese knockoffs.
- It had to be affordable for real people. The absolute upper price bracket was…
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