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As men’s fashion goes, so goes the watch world. When menswear was in the thick of Mad Men mania 10 years ago, collectors couldn’t get enough of elegant, Don Draper-esque dress watches. The rise of Americana coincided with the resurgence of rugged vintage dive designs, the horological equivalent of a pair of deeply patinaed selvage jeans. And now that we’re wearing sweatpants with disconcerting consistency, casual, cool, shockingly affordable timepieces are rocketing to the top of watch nerds’ wish lists.
Today we take convenient timekeeping for granted, but it wasn’t until World War I that the wristwatch became a mass-produced utilitarian tool, thanks in part to the brand Hamilton, which had a contract to issue sturdy field watches to American troops. Now, amid our renewed interest in honest timepieces at honest prices, Hamilton is experiencing a renaissance. The Hamilton Khaki Pilot Pioneer captures the spirit of the original military design, and at $845, it’s as essential a piece whether you have two watches or twenty.
Many people think serious watches come only from top-tier Swiss labels, but there are plenty of brands—like Hamilton—that exude quality by asserting practicality.
Unlike those of the biggest names in the biz, these brands’ collections are defined not by excess and exclusivity but by an abiding chillness. Take the Longines Heritage 1945 ($1,800), which combines a killer midcentury aesthetic with the serviceability of a new watch—meaning you’re spared the hassle of caring for a septuagenarian timepiece.
For just slightly more cash, you can get a Big Crown Pointer Date by Oris, an independent manufacturer that takes a relaxed approach to the art of Swiss watchmaking, which is why you’ll often see Orises alongside Pateks in the safes of hardcore enthusiasts. And then there’s the Intereuropa by Autodromo, a young New York-based label. It’s a new creation, but for just $1,250 you get an elegant time-only movement wrapped up in a package that captures the romanticism of motorsports’ most stylish era as deftly as any contemporaneous racing piece.
Recently, even horological heavyweights like Breitling and TAG Heuer are delivering designs that are as fun and easy to strap on as a plastic Swatch. The new Breitling Top Time and TAG Heuer Carrera Montreal models feature eye-poppingly vibrant dials that seem to acknowledge how most people want to wear watches (and clothes) today. They’re limited edition, but unlike more hyped-up chronographs, both are available at retail prices ($4,990 and $6,750, respectively).
Ironically, the label that may have received the biggest boost from the #WFH lifestyle is Casio, maker of the legendary G-Shock. Perhaps the increasing ubiquity of smartwatches has opened the door for simpler forms of digital timekeeping—or maybe the chance to own a classic ’80s design in metal for only $600 is too good to pass up. Either way, G-Shock can barely keep the “full metal” GMWB5000GD-9 in stock.
You’d be surprised how many big-time collectors are wearing these watches. But it’s for the same reason none of us have been wearing our suits. It simply feels right to strap on a casual watch that fits into real life. I hope our appreciation for easygoing, accessible timepieces abides well after we put our sweatpants away.
A version of this story originally appears in the February 2021 issue with the title “Seven Affordable Watches That Even Hardcore Horologists Endorse.”