The best automatic watch under $100
GQ’s “Best Stuff” loves it. There are YouTube videos after YouTube videos declaring it the “best automatic watch under $100.” There’s even a subreddit dedicated to shitposting about it. But I can’t seem to find a single Hodinkee post about it, which made me want to write about it even more.
I’m talking about the Seiko 5, specifically the SNK805, SNK807 and SNK809 (Seiko 5 is a broad line of budget watches from Seiko; for example, the SNZG series has a similar pilot/military inspiration, but in a 42mm case. This article focuses on the SNK because it’s perhaps the cheapest and most popular in the Seiko 5 line). Like many budding watch enthusiasts, the SNK807 (the blue reference) was my first foray into mechanical watches and I haven’t looked back since. The field- and pilot-watch inspired dial never really goes out of style and has an immediate appeal even to those without intimate knowledge of watches and their history
In the mechanical watch world, there’s an unfortunate tendency to assume that “you get what you pay for,” and that, for example, a nearly $200,000 Patek 5270 is by default a more lustworthy than a simple watch at an attainable price.
The Seiko 5 line was launched by Seiko in the 1960s as the market increasingly demanded do-it-all tool watches. While vintage Seiko 5s from this era obviously don’t fetch the sky high prices that Rolex tool watches do, you can still spot fun, vintage Seiko 5s on Chrono24.com or eBay, usually under a couple hundred bucks. They’re called Seiko 5 are named such because the brand demanded that all watches under the moniker carried five key attributes: (1) automatic winding, (2) day and date display in a single window, (3) water resistance, (4) recessed crown at 4 o’clock, (5) durable steel case.
The SNK line has all these: it’s got a 7S26 movement with 40 hours of power reserve that drives a day and date window at 3 p.m. It’s got Seiko’s “Magic Lever” winding system inside, which means the watch’s rotor winds the movement extremely efficiently. It’s not the prettiest movement, but most Seiko 5s came with a skeleton case back which allows new enthusiasts a glimpse of how entrancing a mechanical movement can be. These movements have been known to run for decades without service, and when you do need service, it’s easy to find because it’s such a ubiquitous caliber. Some complain that there’s no manual winding of the movement, but give the watch a few shakes before you strap it on your wrist, and it’s off and ticking.
The stainless steel case is water resistant to 100 feet (and Seiko is known for underestimating the water resistance of their timepieces), with 37mm diameter and 11m thickness.
The only real complaint I have is the canvas strap the watch comes with: it’s a cheap canvas that just doesn’t feel comfortable or look good. I swapped it out for a seatbelt NATO of the same color, and the watch instantly felt and looked better on the wrist.
When we write about watches, true value propositions like this are too often overlooked. For some reason, finding a good horological value isn’t respected the same way it is in other consumer categories. And while other large brands and microbrands offer value propositions in the $1,000-$2,000 category, Seiko is perhaps the only brand offering a true piece of watchmaking under $100.