The Best Watches Under $500, According to the Watch Illuminati

This originally appeared in Box + Papers, GQ staffer Cam Wolf’s watch newsletter. For more stories like it, hit the link and subscribe.

Last week, I was perusing celebrity wristwear, as I’m wont to do, and came across Denzel Washington and his trusty $380 G-Shock. I thought about Jack Nicholson and his Timex Easy Reader that costs a lot less than what a good meal out goes for nowadays. And I thought about you, dear reader, out here in the watch wilderness trying to put together a collection that doesn’t require a side deal with a guy who can give you a good price on your kidney, spleen, or first born. One of my driving beliefs, aside from my firm conviction that Honey Bunches of Oats with almonds is the GOAT cereal, is that watch collecting can be much more accessible than it appears on the surface. Much of my own collection is a hodgepodge of eBay finds and pieces from microbrands. But don’t take it from me. Here are six big-time collectors on their favorite pieces, ranging from vintage finds to modern fare, that cost less than $500. 

“Modern, simple takes on proven classic models is what I love from the Unimatic team. Their classic core U2 and U4 lines are all great pieces that are under $500. I find the U2 model especially appealing: its simple design and the oversize crown makes it stand out to a seasoned watch lover with a trained eye for cool details and perfection of balance in design.”

“My MoonSwatch Mission to Jupiter is my favorite watch under $500. It’s a watch that pays homage to a timeless classic, the Omega SpeedMaster Professional, but also introduces a new fun element to the watch with the various colorways. With some of my more expensive pieces, I’m typically a bit more conservative with dials so this watch is the most exciting piece in my collection for sure. I decided to throw it on the Perpetual Straps digi cam strap and it’s a party on the wrist.”

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“This is a Hoga Directime. My much older half-sister told me that my father back in the 1960s used to love this watch. She showed me a photo of him wearing it and thanks to eBay I tracked a decent one down for $250. It’s a very cool bit of design. It looks tiny from the front but it’s actually a normal-sized movement housed in a case that is mostly obscured by a wide strap, leaving a sliver of a display on the front. I had The Armoury‘s strap maker, Jean Rousseau, fabricate a new strap using much better leather and production quality and it is easily the most fun and quirky watch I own. I really appreciate the connection to my old man, too!”

“As soon as I saw this partially metal version of the “CasiOak,” I knew I wanted one. The metal and rubber in all black gives it a stealth, badass look. It’s a tool watch I wear mountain biking but also throw on to hang out with friends. It’s got that perfect easy coolness—it’s definitely way cooler than I am. There’s a reason everyone loves G-Shocks!”

“In the year 2023, TAG Heuer’s Formula 1 watches from the mid-1980s seem to be having a “moment.” [Ed note: Indeed! I wrote about loving the very same watch earlier this year.]  Bright, colorful, inexpensive quartz watches are credited with saving the Swiss watch industry in the 1980s, and the Moonswatch has shown that the category can be hugely popular today. The early TAG Heuer Formula 1 watches are historically interesting, being the first collection to carry the TAG Heuer logo, after Techniques D’Avant Garde acquired Heuer in 1986. 

The name “Formula 1” celebrated Heuer’s historical accomplishments in motorsports, as well as TAG Heuer’s sponsorship of the very successful McLaren Formula 1 racing team in the mid-1980s. It’s amazing how many of today’s collectors tell you that a Swatch or Formula 1 was the first watch they loved. As a practical matter, finding the right Formula 1 watch is good fun.  With over 3,000,000 of the watches produced by TAG Heuer in the 1980s, the watches are abundant in today’s market, with a fantastic variety of sizes and crazy colors available in the $200 to $500 range.”

“If there is one affordable and infinitely varied watch that I absolutely love, it has to be the Bulova SeaKing “Whale.” I first fell in love with it because of the quirky little Whale logo, and it evolved into a Pokemon-style catch-them-all frenzy. From elegant varieties to the most funky 70s-style cases, and infinite dial variants—this kind of watch is the perfect mix: something unique, well-made and affordable. You can find these on Ebay for the price of a couple of drinks in NYC. Here is one from my collection I particularly love. The blue minute track has oxidized into the deepest of purples.”

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