Entry-level mechanical watches

A guide to the starting tier of Swiss mechanical watches

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13 December 2012

Which are the best watches to enter the fascinating world of mechanical watches? This is a question that we often get asked here at LUXOS magazine.

We want to go Swiss, of course. This is a guarantee of quality. The great divide is between watches with in-house movements, and watches with movements manufactured by a third party – principally the company ETA, owned by the Swatch Group.

The watches with in-house movements are more expensive. A good example of a Swiss brand that manufactures quality entry-level watches is Zenith, a company founded in Le Locle, Switzerland, in 1865. The Zenith Elite Captain central second is a classic men's watch, with a 40-millimetre case, almost thin enough (8.15 millimetres) to be a dress watch, an automatic movement with 50 hours power reserve, central seconds hand, and date at a window at 6 o'clock. Buckles are in stainless steel or alligator. The sapphire caseback enables the oscillating weight driving the mechanism to be seen, with its Côtes de Genève decoration. A beautiful piece. The retail price is around €3,700. As functions are added, the price goes up. For example, the model with small seconds and GMT time retails at about €4,500, the chronograph at €5,800, exposed movement at €6,800, and calendar (date, month, year) at €7,200. In the photo below, the version with small seconds and power reserve.

A fine alternative is Jaeger-LeCoultre and its Master series. The Master Ultra Thin (shown below) has hours and minutes functions, and an automatic mechanism, and a price tag of about €6,500. The Master Ultra Thin Moon 39 (the title photo above) has a lovely extra in the form of the phases of the moon, as well as a central seconds hand: €7,250. The Master Series includes the Master Memovox, which includes a mechanical alarm with excellent acoustic performance. The brand was actually the first to offer this function in an automatic watch, in 1956. The Master Memovox retails at about €7,900.

If you opt for a watch with a Swiss-made third-party movement, you'll be spending much less. For example, Hamilton is an interesting brand for entry-level mechanical watches. Their payoff is 'The American brand since 1892,' but in fact they are a combination of American design – which often incorporates a military or aviation look – and Swiss-engineered movements. Hamilton is now owned by The Swatch Group, and so logically its watches house ETA movements (since 2010, ETA has been selling its movements exclusively to Swatch Group companies). By way of example, the Viewmatic Auto (shown below) is a smart, classic watch, with a 40 millimetre stainless steel case, a modern dial design, central seconds, and date window at 3 o'clock. The watchglass is in sapphire, and likewise the the caseback, revealing the oscillating weight. It is completed by a dark brown alligator strap. With a retail price of around €500, it is a good watch with which to start adventures in mechanical watches.

Of course, you can go cheaper. Hamilton also offers 'The Khaki Field,' a military-style mechanical watch, at about €350. The lower price is because the ETA movement is hand-wound. The khaki dial coordinates with the canvas khaki straps (as shon in the photo below). Other versions available include a black dial-beige strap piece, and another type with brown leather strap. But I would urge you to go for the automatic. After all, it's precisely this that is the Swiss watch dream: an object that has the possibility of running for ever, without having to wind it up, or change a battery.

Beyond Hamilton, there are other Swiss brands that use ETA movements in their automatic watches. For example, Longines make some beautiful classic watches, such as the Conquest Heritage series: steel case, fairly small at 35 millimetres, with hours, minutes, seconds and date. Price is around €850, with other similar versions available from €700. The Longines Conquest chronograph with ETA Valjoux 7750 movement retails at about €900. Shown below, the Longines Conquest:

Below, the Longines Conquest chronograph:

Other Swiss brands utilizing third-party movements include Tag Heuer (prices start from €1,200) and Baume & Mercier (from €1,000).

There you have it in a nutshell. Just head out to a good high-street multibrand boutique and take a look for yourself.