About Time

10 Starter Watches That’ll See You Right

The copper-bottomed mechanicals for first-timers that will garner instant respect from the in-crowd

Along with plaid shirts and moustaches, there’s one unfortunate trope of the much-maligned “hipster” that refuses to budge: the ironic Casio digital watch. For a tribe so in thrall to artisanal, authentic and sustainable craftsmanship, it seems a shame that when it comes to telling the time, their default choice is a piece of mass-produced plastic. In the defence of the humble hipster, the Casio is perhaps the most affordable watch out there. But know this: once you get older and start saving a little cash (but don’t fancy defaulting to an Apple Watch like everyone else), a “proper” wristwatch isn’t beyond your reach.

In fact, for little more than a grand or two, you’re not only entering the realms of Switzerland’s esteemed Jura Mountains – watchmaking’s original Silicon Valley – but also gaining access to some of the best brands populating its rolling foothills. Oris, Baume & Mercier, Bell & Ross… all familiar names whose current marketing campaigns might boast of highfalutin complications, gold-cased limited editions and the like, but with catalogues founded on a core range of time-only automatics. Beyond the Swiss horological heartlands, you’ll find watchmakers of note – Bremont of England, NOMOS Glashütte of Germany – also offering serious timepieces at very accessible price points. These are invariably powered by third-party, industry-workhorse mechanics from ETA or Sellita and encased in stainless steel rather than precious metals. But as a first step into the world of watches, you will never look back. Nor, for that matter, be looked down upon.

01. IWC Schaffhausen Pilot’s Le Petit Prince Chronograph

Inside this ultra-legible pilot’s chronograph ticks IWC Schaffhausen’s calibre 79320, which is based on the same self-winding Valjoux 7750 movement powering the Briton (only rotated 90-degrees to make way for the day-date read-out). As for those bold vintage numerals and the fast-orientation triangle at 12 o’clock? Both derive from IWC’s wartime history, not only supplying massive chronometers to the Luftwaffe’s bomber crews, which its navigators would strap around their thighs, but – Switzerland being neutral, of course – also supplying the British with standard-issue infantry watches. The WWII-era styling is still sublimely on-point, only improved furthermore against that metallic cobalt dial – a signature of IWC’s “Le Petit Prince” editions, which since 2013 have paid tribute to the pioneering aviator and author Mr Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.

02. Baume & Mercier Classima Automatic

Clean, classic, with a centuries-old pedigree of Swiss innovation at heart, it’s hard to fathom how Baume & Mercier manage such a low price point here, especially given the automatic movement inside can be found powering watches three times the price. After a redesign in 2015, Classima’s taut, starched lines, stately Roman numerals, plus that central “guilloché” motif pulling everything together, make this the ideal “transition” watch, effortlessly straddling office formality and weekend smart-casual.

03. NOMOS Glashütte Metro Datum Gangreserve

It’s difficult to overstate the sheer cool of this particular cat, not to mention its almost baffling affordability. For a start, there’s the Metro’s delightfully eccentric dial, the Bauhaus minimalism of which is typical of NOMOS, but benefits here from its east Berlin design studio helicoptering-in a fresh set of eyes – those of designer Mr Mark Braun. Venture beneath the dial and you find a beautifully hand-finished, hand-wound movement, which comes from NOMOS’ other premises in Glashütte, three hours’ drive south – the sleepy, spiritual home of fine German watchmaking. For under £3k, in-house-made mechanics of this quality are unheard of, let alone packaged so handsomely. But here we are.

04. Zenith Chronomaster El Primero

You’re looking at a stone-cold, connoisseur classic of Swiss watchmaking, with a price tag as head-scratching as the NOMOS. When Zenith unveiled its El Primero movement back in 1969 it was nothing less than every mid-century watchmaker’s Holy Grail: a stopwatch “chronograph” that self-wound. Up until then, adding the bulk of a winding rotor to an already substantial set of mechanics was insurmountable. But not only did Zenith’s boffins manage to integrate everything masterfully (albeit five years later than planned), they cranked things up to a ticking frequency of 36,000 vibrations per hour, or – more simply – 5Hz instead of the usual 4Hz, allowing more precise stopwatch measurement and better stability after a shock. Half a century on, El Primero remains Zenith’s poster boy, barely altered since. And for just over £5k, it’s an incredible bargain to boot.

05. Montblanc Heritage Automatic

Perched overlooking the chocolate-box valleys of Villeret, Switzerland’s Minerva facility crafted some of the finest hand-wound chronographs of the Jazz Age. Saved from obsolescence back in the mid-2000s, its current custodian, the fine German pen maker turned Swiss watchmaker Montblanc has not only brought back Minerva’s gorgeous chrono calibres, but has made them more affordable while channelling the brand’s rakish old styles via the entry point of its new “Heritage” collection (albeit sporting Montblanc’s outdoorsy logo). The clean white dial, with luminous rhodium-plated markers, signals the toil of a rock-solid, ETA-based movement inside. Flip it over and you’ll find a steel case back intricately engraved with a view of bucolic Villeret.

06. Breitling Superocean Heritage II B20 Automatic 42

With a colourway described irresistibly as “Volcano Black”, Breitling could teach Farrow & Ball a thing or two about naming colours. It’s just part of its diving watch’s formidable spec. Designed in tribute to 1957’s original Superocean, the similarities end with its volcanic looks. What you’re getting otherwise is nothing short of the ultimate go-anywhere tough guy of modern watchmaking. Ticking inside is a precision movement adapted from Tudor’s in-house MT5612 – arguably the most future-proof chronometer of our time, as you’d expect from the little brother of Rolex. Outside, the stainless-steel case construct, rated to 200 metres’ water resistance, is as precision-engineered as 21st-century CNC milling machinery permits. Forget about future-proof: this is the life-proof all-rounder that will take you from the watercooler to the ends of the Earth and back.

07. TAG Heuer Formula 1 Indy 500

The racing circuit is TAG Heuer’s church. No other Swiss watchmaker can claim such a visceral connection to the world of motorsport, one forged when Mr Jack Heuer invented the driver’s chronograph back in the 1960s and had racing legends such as Messrs Jo Siffert, Steve McQueen and Jacky Ickx all wearing Autavias, Carreras and Monacos. These modern classics still head up TAG Heuer’s catalogue, and TAG’s own logo continues to be found on the race suits of F1’s finest. But for a whiff of authentic high-octane horology at the start of the spectrum, the watchmaker’s Formula 1 range affords copper-bottomed (albeit quartz-driven) craftsmanship, plus – in this chronograph’s case – the knowledge you’re wearing something endorsed by none other than the drivers of IndyCar, the US’s own F1. If it’s good enough for the 230mph mavericks of the Indianapolis 500, well…

08. Oris Divers Sixty-Five Automatic

Back in the 1960s, the arrival of new-fangled scuba technology caused a boom in amateur diving, which in turn created the market for specialist diving watches. Oris – along with just about every other Swiss watchmaker – was getting in on the act, creating its own take on the now industry-standard dive watch, fitted with a clearly legible dial and a rotating bezel to time your oxygen supply. Despite being lost in the wash at the time, Oris’ typically affordable and typically under-the-sonar answer got a long-overdue 50th-anniversary revival back in 2015. The Sixty-Five has proved to be no rose-tinted whim, and has since expanded into a hugely successful collection in its own right: a sepia rainbow of chronographs, bronze editions etc. At its most basic, however, a tad over £1,000 buys you one of the best-value, life-proof watches on the market, now with a scratchproof crystal dome and good to 100 metres underwater.

09. Bell & Ross BR S-92 Golden Heritage

Here’s a particularly discerning first rung on the watch-collecting ladder, both in terms of looks and brand cachet. Bell & Ross was only formed in the early 1990s – a veritable spring chicken compared to the 19th-century maisons that Swiss watchmaking tends to be known for – but strong investment from Chanel and chic designer nous that could only stem from a brand based in Paris means this military-inspired watchmaker has moved up the ranks fast. Its BR S range retains the square utility of Bell & Ross’ “Instruments”, drawing from the shape of a cockpit’s slot-in, screw-down read-outs. But by exchanging numerals for batons, and strapping on a 1940s-style vegetable-tanned leather strap, they created a highly sartorial number, more suited to the officers’ mess than the cockpit.

10. Bremont ALT1-C Cream

Like Bell & Ross, Bremont is another spring chicken (even springier in fact, at just 17 years old). Its military-spec pilot watches are kitted out with predominantly Swiss tech, yet benefit from a non-Swiss outlook. Despite the Francophone name, Bremont is, in fact, British, founded in Henley-on-Thames by the English brothers (no really, they’re Messrs Nick and Giles English). This was their launch chronograph back in 2007 and its design has barely needed a tweak since. Powered by the rock-solid Valjoux 7750 movement, which Bremont fine-tunes to “chronometer” levels of precision, losing or gaining no more than four or five seconds a day, the biggest change has been to the steel case. It’s still toughened to a hard-as-nails 2000Hv, but now engineered and finished at Henley, in a workshop packed with priceless machinery and – more valuably – a British workforce with the requisite skills. Thanks to Bremont, watchmaking is coming home.