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Feature: 5 bargain alternatives to classic enthusiast watches

There’s two ways to buy that dream watch you always wanted: one is to save up, sacrifice and spend. The other is to find a much cheaper alternative. But how do those two choices stack up? We’ve got five examples to show you what a world might look like with either.

Maen Manhattan vs Audemars Piguet Royal Oak

The Audemars Piguet Royal Oak sits at the top of the tree for many collectors, the ultimate piece in the watch box to complete the definitive selection of watches. Its popularity has driven up demand and subsequently values to incredible levels, and what was once a pricey luxury watch—but not completely unobtainable—has become myth and legend. If you want one, it’s still possible, either through the rigmarole of the new dealership network, or via pre-owned—but you’ll have to pay the market price.

The alternative is to save almost all of the budget and buy a Maen Manhattan instead. At just a few percent of the price of the Royal Oak, it’s immediately apparent that these two watches are visual comparators, but just how deep does that comparison go? Let’s be realistic: any expectation for this pair to compete in quality is simply fantasy, however the void between them may be less than the prices suggest.

Both are functionally similar, with automatic movements that self-wind with the wearer’s movements. The Maen’s Sellita SW-200 may be available in top grade, but really that’s where the similarities end. Probably wisely, the movement is hidden on the Manhattan as standard, where it’s on show in the Royal Oak. That’s because the Royal Oak features a quality of finishing that transforms it from an engine into a jewel, much like the rest of the watch.

The externals may be visually similar, but the crisp gleam of the Royal Oak is revealing of the extra attention it receives before it hits the shelves. The difference is distinct, but with the strong market price of the Royal Oak, very much confirms the law of diminishing returns.

Overall, the wearing experience isn’t too dissimilar, with the Manhattan’s sub-centimetre thickness almost identical to that of the Royal Oak’s. Its bracelet may not be as laser sharp in the details as the Royal Oak, but the shape and weight are incredibly similar in feel. If you’re expecting a visual feast from the Maen that can match the Royal Oak, you’ll be disappointed, but in the daily wearing experience, it gets closer than perhaps you might think.

Tudor Black Bay Pro vs Rolex Explorer II

The launch of the 1971 Explorer II expanded the Explorer collection to include a watch more in keeping with Rolex’s other sports watches. The addition of a GMT hand and a non-rotating 24-hour bezel pitched it squarely at adventurers whose time was spent mainly in darkness, in the underground network of caves that riddle the planet.

Whilst neither watch mimics the look of that original watch exactly—it was unusual and subsequently very short-lived—both the Tudor Black Bay Pro and the modern Rolex Explorer II borrow key details like the orange GMT hand and fixed bezel to throw a knowing nod back to that 1971 classic. Does the Rolex do it better, however?

We’re comparing a price of £3,520 for the Tudor with £8,100 for the Rolex, which is a big difference—and yet in many ways the watches are virtually on par. They both get in-house movements—hidden from prying eyes in both cases—with chronometer certification and three days of power. Both are fitted with bracelets that are well-engineered with micro adjustment, the Tudor gets 200m of water resistance compared to the Rolex’s 100m, and both are built with a similar rugged quality that feels durable but premium.

It’s surprising how dissimilar and yet how similar these two watches are. The Tudor is smaller, but thicker, and the Rolex vice-versa. It’s 39mm for the Tudor versus 42mm for the Rolex, which makes the Rolex substantially more present—although 3mm less in height for the Rolex goes a long way towards balancing that out.

Perhaps the biggest difference is that it feels like the Tudor looks back and the Rolex forwards. The Tudor’s orange is faded, its dial matte, the markers borderless. The Explorer II’s orange is vivid, the dial glossy and the markers ringed with gold. It’s not really a case of the Tudor being cheaper but not so good. It’s more about which one feels like the best fit. It’s a great example of how Rolex is using Tudor to dominate the rest of the market and presents enormously good value compared.

Seiko 5 Sports SRPD vs Rolex Submariner

What if we up the multiplier between the Rolex sports watch and its cheaper competitor? This is the Seiko 5 SRPD and it’s looking to go toe-to-toe with Rolex’s famous Submariner. Here, just for the ridiculousness of it, we’re comparing the blue Seiko 5, starting at £250, with the white gold blue Submariner Date at £35,300. Aside from one weighing substantially more than the other, how do the specs stack up?

Considering the cavernous price difference, not too badly. The Seiko has an automatic movement that’s shielded with 100m of water resistance and gets 41 hours of power reserve. The Rolex gets 300m and 70 hours. The price difference comes down somewhat if the black Submariner Date in matching steel is chosen, but we’re still talking £8,650. That’s a multiple of nearly 35.

It’s not unexpected then that the Seiko doesn’t even begin to trouble the Rolex in terms of quality and fit and finish. The Seiko feels appropriately rugged, with details coarse but appropriately so. It’s not trying to be luxurious and it’s all the better for it. It knows what it is, and it embraces that in its presentation.

By comparison, the Rolex is as much jewellery as it is a piece of timing equipment. Where it is polished it is a flat mirror shine. Where it’s brushed, it’s uniform and neat. The hands and markers gleam with the additional reflectivity of white gold and the ceramic bezel shines with an everlasting glow. This generation of Rolex sports watches was a deliberate move to step up Rolex’s game into the luxury space, and that’s very much what this does. If you simply want a mechanical watch that won’t break in the pool, then the Seiko’s got your back too.

Baltic HMS 002 vs Patek Philippe Calatrava 5296R

The classiest of watches, the time-only dress watch, harks back to the 1930s and the very advent of the wrist-worn timekeeper. Patek Philippe championed this new approach, with the Calatrava offering simplicity and discretion without sacrificing quality.

This particular Calatrava is fussier than most, featuring a brushed ring broken up into sectors, a design used by the military to add navigational communication when working with maps. It’s a design that’s existed about as long as the wristwatch itself, and so it’s no wonder Baltic have produced an affordable version alongside it.

Both watches are a very traditional 38mm. That’s small but not too small. It feels elegant and light and dignified. The rose gold case of the Calatrava is replaced with steel for the Baltic, of course, but the dials share much in common with each other. As well as the sectors, they both feature different finishes on the silvery surface to differentiate each section.

In the back, the Baltic’s Miyota performs well with 60-hours of power reserve, which beats out the Patek Philippe’s calibre 324 S C’s 45, but after that the comparison swings well in Patek Philippe’s favour. The calibre 324 S C is awash with hand finishing, gets a solid gold rotor weight and is generally one of watchmaking’s most prized mechanisms. The Baltic simply doesn’t stand a chance.

But in some ways the Baltic wins out. The domed Hesalite crystal and general build, with a solid case back especially, feel more like a vintage watch that’s been discovered, having been left unworn for almost a hundred years. The Patek Philippe is a fine example of the watchmaking mastery that’s possible today, but the Baltic carries more of the warmth of yesteryear.

MoonSwatch vs Moonwatch

The Omega Speedmaster Moonwatch is one of the greats of watchmaking, if not the greatest, and whilst it’s not one of the most expensive, with an entry price around six and a half thousand pounds these days, it’s not the bargain no-brainer it used to be. It’s not simply an issue of the Speedmaster; most watches have become a lot more expensive in the last few years thanks to material costs, supply and general inflation.

It’s a shame, because the Speedmaster used to be a watch that could be purchased for just a few thousand, and not that long ago, either. The design has been kept almost untouched all these years, and even though it’s not the same manual wind chronograph it originally had, it still has a manually wound chronograph at least. Very few watches at any price point still get one of those.

But it is what it is, and anyone looking to experience that vibe for a few hundred pounds is beyond optimistic. Or at least was—because to combat this huge price discrepancy, Omega teamed up with Swatch to make a cheap version of the famous watch. It’s a one-to-one replica in bioceramic—which is basically plastic—it features a cheap quartz movement and comes in a selection of colours, including two very similar to the original and the rest brightly coloured to theme with the planets of the solar system.

The MoonSwatch is actually a similar price to that Seiko 5 SRPD, which makes it seem like terrible value for money indeed, but can that be redeemed by the fact it looks like a Speedmaster and says both Omega and Speedmaster on it? Kind of. The watch is poor quality, and most are unlikely to survive even a few years. Parts have been falling off of them and the cases gouge even with the slightest knock. The less said about the strap, the better.

It’s a fun novelty for the occasional wear and is definitely improved with an updated strap, but of all the affordable alternatives here, it’s definitely the worst. That said, it’s also the cheapest—just—so I won’t hold it against it. It’s got enough of its own problems to deal with.

What affordable alternative to a classic watch would you recommend?

Shop pre-owned Omega watches

Shop pre-owned Rolex watches

Shop pre-owned Tudor watches

Shop pre-owned Audemars Piguet watches

Shop pre-owned Patek Philippe watches