Posted on May 29 2020
What are the best affordable vintage-style chronograph watches?
So much of watch collecting is personal.
Maybe I should sit on my cash and just buy that one grail watch. The one timepiece that is exactly what I want in a watch. It’s an idea.
It just doesn’t quite work for me.
I know what I like in a watch. Until I become unsure. My clothing is casual, so I tend to prefer casual watches. But stick several grand in my hand and send me off shopping for a Swiss luxury watch and I’d probably come back with a Rolex Explorer I. Not particularly casual looking.
Unless I didn’t buy the Explorer. Maybe I’d get a Seamaster Aqua Terra and use the change to buy a second watch.
You can see where this is heading.
I’d probably split that change in half and buy another two watches.
That’s because we all have our own personal tastes when it comes to watches. And I can’t quite pin mine down. Certainly not enough to stick to just one watch.
There are some elements that I do know I like. Tastes that have been consistent for years. I love chronographs. They seem to have the ideal blend of watchmaking complications and stylistic simplicity.
Power reserve indicators and moon phase complications are just that. A little too complicated for me. Sometimes a design is too simple. Other than Bauhaus, I’m not taken with minimalist watches.
Chronographs are somewhere in the middle. They do more than just tell the time of the day, but the additional functionality feels like something I’d use. Like my chances of using three-hundred-metre water resistance, I may be lying to myself when I say that I need it.
But Chronographs are practical. They measure actual time. Not the life left in a spring or the cycle of the moon. I could time something happening now. Something real.
And when I look at Chronographs, I’m repeatedly drawn to vintage pieces. Very often when there’s a choice I want the cream or white version. Combine that with my interest in Russian watches and you can see why the Strela above is a favourite of mine.
So pulling this all together. When I look for watches, for the most part, I want something reasonably simple and functional. And I don’t want it once. I might want a few variations. If I shop at the affordable end of the market this is realistic.
And if it’s not for me? Flip it and buy another.
Here is my current wish list of affordable chronographs that embody the vintage aesthetic I enjoy so much.
The concept, if not revolutionary, is at least distinctive.
They believe that customisation - the production of bespoke products - is the sign of luxury. Not price or brand name. Luxury is the process of having a product personalised.
What I concentrated on in that piece was the doing. The steps it took to create the watch. So much of the fun of this process was the afternoon I spent with a friend designing it. It was reasonably straightforward. In a nutshell, Undone allows you to choose the main parts of your watch - case, dial, hands and strap. And then they put it together for you.
As for the finished watch, this was my creation. A watch that closely resembles the vintage chronographs that I like so much.
There’s that slightly busy dial, with a cream background and the almost faded blues and reds. It hints at age, without any actual wear. After a little experimentation, I chose simple blue hands and a perlon strap.
Undone Urban Killy
Avi-8 is a relatively young watch brand owned by Hong Kong-based manufacturer Dartmouth. Their stable includes Ballast, Dufa and Spinnaker. They’re affordable brands, produced in Hong Kong and readily available in the UK and US.
Where Spinnaker focused on the sea, Avi-8 unsurprisingly focused on the air. Specifically, the design of aviation watches. Their range includes a series of watches inspired by specific planes or aviation eras’ There are Hawker, Mustang and Spitfire collections.
This watch was inspired by the Lafayette Escadrilles. American pilots who in 1916 flew with the French before the US had entered World War I. It’s a nice historical reference for a watch that is unashamedly vintage.
What I enjoy about this style of watch, what links a Strela, the Undone and the Avi-8, is that nothing is lost on such a busy dial. Here again, we have blue, cream, black and red, all on a dial, with sub-dials and text. Yet it isn’t overwhelming. In fact, it is almost the opposite. It’s quite simple and old fashioned.
There are touches of the modern though. It’s 43mm in diameter and has a battery-powered quartz movement. But still, when it is on your wrist an observer would have to look closely to note that it wasn’t a vintage piece.
Avi-8 Flyboy Lafayette 4054-01
American military watch brand Luminox has been producing their GTLS illuminated watches since the late 1980s. They have a very distinct styling. A mixture of rugged military aesthetics and bold colouring. My 3000 series piece, for example, has a black case, dial and strap with a bright orange dial and Tritium illumination.
Founder Barry Cohen seems to have realised that Luminox isn’t the brand to use to introduce his vintage-inspired watch models. For this, he created another US-based company, Szanto - the title taken from an old family name.
Szanto still produces military-inspired watches, but with their eyes on the past rather than on creating high performance watches to be used in the field today. The brand isn’t all military influenced watches, but it is a prominent style among their collections. Particularly the vintage-inspired chronographs, of which they produce quite a few.
This model is probably my favourite. It’s one of the simplest that they sell. The combination of the uncomplicated dial and smooth bezel really evoke the spirit of a previous era. Maybe a vintage Longines or Heuer from the 1930s or 40s.There’s a neat symmetry to the sub-dials that really appeals to me.
However, case size could be a downside for some. The 46mm stainless steel case is relatively large and there’s also the inclusion of an onion crown that adds further size.
Overall though, the design works for me. It feels authentic and hits the spot for what I’m after.
French brand Baltic describe their style as neo-vintage - modern mechanical watches inspired by the finest vintage watches. They also boast that all of their watches are hand-assembled in Besançon, France. So this isn’t going to be the cheapest watch on the list.
I’ve followed the brand for a while and previously featured a watch of theirs here.
Named after the Bicompax dial lay out - a pair of sub-dials - this is a stunning watch. The 38mm case suits me well and is just about big enough to satisfy modern tastes, without losing the vintage feel that I want.
Like the Szanto, the Baltic has a charming simplicity to the design. Only the 12 and 6 are marked by numbers and the even the indices are basic dots. The beauty here is just as much from the elements that are missing as of those that it includes.
Of course, as with any good design, there’s real quality in the manufacturing. The movement is a mechanical Seagull chronograph like the one in my 1963 Chinese Air Force watch. It’s a complex and attractive calibre. There’s also a Domed Hesalite crystal of the type that you might find on an Omega Speedmaster.
The result of this thoughtful design, produced with quality parts, is an impressive watch. It's worth a closer look.
Baltic Bicompax 001
Like Gazza’s leg, Out of Order Watches use the tagline ‘Damaged in Italy’. It’s a unique selling point, and quite apt when we’re highlighting vintage-looking watches.
OOO as they’re known, go beyond just reproducing classic designs. They manufacture their watches to look like they’ve been worn for years.
The concept isn’t far removed from that offered by Undone. There the mission is to offer the buyer luxury in the form of customisation. Create your own bespoke timepiece. Here, the idea is that no two OOO watches are the same. Each, in the ageing process, comes to the buyer with its own unique look. Where some brands will boast of handcrafting their watches, OOO boasts that each of their watches has been carefully damaged by hand. ‘Tarnished’ may be a more accurate word.
Combining this vintage styling with the forced wear and tear works well, particularly with the choice of a hand-made Barbour leather strap. Overall, it is good quality too. There are a sapphire crystal and 100M water resistance.
Out Of Order Cronografo
OOO, Undone and others are the types of companies that keep me interested in watches. There’s an appeal in the quirkiness, as there is with the microbrands that I collect. I’m a sucker for a good brand story or just buying into one man’s vision of his small business.
But as I’ve noted before with Bulova and Seiko, sometimes it’s all about the watch. Citizen is another one of those brands that I don’t set out to feature, but then they put out a watch that grabs my attention.
This time it’s the Chandler.
Citizen needs no introduction. They specialise in well-manufactured watches that you’ll see on every high street. The first thought that comes to mind when discussing the brand is ‘Eco-Drive’. This is the companies solar technology that charges the watch through exposure to light. As expected, the Chandler is a part of the Eco-drive line.
Regardless of the name on the dial, this is a great looking watch. The vertical sub-dials are in black to contrast with the cream dial. With the refined look of the case, it all works. Where the Baltic successfully presented a dial with minimal markings, the Chandler is equally as successful in incorporating the tachymeter into a busy dial that doesn’t become overcrowded.
A unique feature is obviously the Eco-Drive technology. This is the only watch on the list to use light as a power source, so the Citizen is worth your consideration for that alone.
Citizen Chandler CA7020-07A
German manufacturer Zeppelin is another brand that focuses on modern interpretations of classic designs. In keeping with their German roots, there’s an emphasis on their aviation and Bauhaus collections.
In a recent post about German watches I included a piece that would fit perfectly in this article. A vintage chronograph that I compared at the time to the Undone Killy. Fortunately, Zeppelin has quite a few suitable designs, including this 100 Years model - or 100 Jahre as noted on the dial.
Released to celebrate 100 years of the Zeppelin Air Ship, this Swiss powered Chronograph also features an alarm function. Maybe of little practical use these days, but it’s an interesting addition to an already impressive watch. Maybe of more use is the fully luminous dial.
One of the details that caught my eye was the inclusion of elegant, Breguet style hands. It really emphasises the vintage aesthetic. Like a couple of other watches here, there’s a high-quality hand-made leather strap.
Zeppelin 100 Years 8680-3
Another list of my favourite watches and another Seiko. Believe me, I’m not a Seiko fanboy. I own a couple - including the SKX007 that we all own. But again, Seiko has delivered. I wanted a tasteful, vintage-inspired Chronograph, ideally with a cream dial. The SSB273 ticks each of those boxes.
You know the drill now for Seiko. One of the world’s biggest manufacturers, producing watches with their own in-house movements. Much cheaper than similar watches from Switzerland, but higher-priced and of better quality than their neighbours the Chinese.
This model is no different. It’s a Seiko made watch with an ever-reliable Seiko movement, that still comes in at less than £100. That includes a hardlex crystal, a toughened mineral glass that Seiko developed.
And that’s why Seiko is so popular. Not only is there a lot of watch for the money, but the innovations are their own.
My only gripe with this specific model is that I have a preference for chronographs that don’t let the sub-dials cut into the numerals. But it’s not jarring here and I can overlook it due to the success of the rest of the design.
Tissot, like Seiko, can trace their watchmaking roots back to the 1800s. I’ve described Certina as an entry-level Swiss brand and that description fits Tissot too. They’re a popular high street name that targets that price point between a couple of hundred pounds and the £1000 mark.
The V8 is more sporty than the others on this list and hints a little more to modernity. The dial and sub-dials are vintage-looking, but the crown guards and bezel feel like modern touches. The V8 pulls it off though.
The case is reasonably chunky, in keeping with the sporting aesthetic. So maybe this is better as a modern watch that gives a nod to its horological descendants rather than being a faithful reproduction of an earlier style.
Accurist had never been featured on this blog until last week when we focused on the Rolex Day-Date. If we were judging this watch on its £149 RRP then it may not have made this list. But this is currently available for a little over £50 new, which changes the picture somewhat.
British brand Accurist was launched immediately after WW2 and built its reputation on Britishness. At one point during the 1960s both the Beatles and Twiggy were wearing their watches. So the brand is not without history.
This model is very similar to the Citizen in colouring, design and sizing. With a simple quartz movement, rather than solar-powered, it’s quite a bit cheaper. Indeed, it may be the cheapest watch listed here.
The dial is well laid out and manages to position the three sub-dials so as not to crowd out other features. The date is moved from the traditional position at 3, and with the 6 o’clock position also taken, it has been neatly squeezed in at 4. It all works and allows the logo to remain at the top of the dial as I prefer.
There's not much that you can buy for £50. A vintage-inspired chronograph has got to be a good use of that money.
There’s a great selection of affordable chronographs on the market. What’s particularly exciting is the variety. Just in this brief list, we’ve included mechanical, quartz and solar-powered models.
There’s an almost infinite number of dial and sub-dial combinations and colours. For the sake of brevity, I’ve just included my personal favourite, cream. But without exception, each of the models featured above comes in at least one other variation. The prices range from £50 to several hundred pounds, so there should be something for every budget.
Don’t agree with my choices or have something to add? Comment below.