Skip to main content

Great Watches That Anyone Can Afford

Walter Shillington is an avid collector of mechanical watches. His reviews focus on inexpensive but often intriguing Chinese timepieces.

This group includes an Aatos, Parnis, Skmei and a Franck Muller replica

This group includes an Aatos, Parnis, Skmei and a Franck Muller replica

Affordable Watches Review

When it comes to quality and originality, most will agree that the finest watches are manufactured in Switzerland. If you purchase a Swiss timepiece, the odds are good that your timepiece will remain within the family for generations.

On the opposite end of the scale, Chinese assembly lines slap together tens of thousands of cheap watches. Quality control is usually nominal and, when it comes to sourcing components, the cost is often the determining factor.

Chinese manufacturers aim to provide a timepiece with as many functions as possible and deliver it at a rock-bottom price. Their watches tend to inhabit the mediocre to the pathetic range and, on occasion, these timepieces are delivered dead on arrival.

There are exceptions and, as a writer whose specialty centers around the Asian watch industry, I have reviewed a number of timepieces that fared far better than their price would suggest. To honour these manufacturers, I am introducing the Dunn Awards. The following reviews focus on the best watches available from China.

Dunn Award for Original Design: Parnis 523

If you could purchase a luxury watch from China — and you can’t — Parnis would be the company most likely to oblige. This manufacturer produces timepieces utilizing premium components and exceptional quality control. Parnis designs their own watches and assembles them at their manufacturing facility at Tong De Wei, Guangzhou. The various components are contracted out from companies such as Seagull and Miyota. Fu Yuan Xin manufactures their cases.

Many of these timepieces are intended to resemble those of their Swiss competitors. Other designs are fresh and original.

Parnis P523

Parnis P523

Parnis P523

Parnis P523

The Parnis P523, which retails for about 120 dollars, is quite heavy, weighing in at 149 grams (5.3 ounces). Its diameter measures 48mm and this unit is 15.6mm thick. The P523 comes with a thick, 24mm PU leather band.

The case is composed of stainless steel and plated with gold. Its stainless steel backplate is attached by six tiny screws and slotted in a manner which allows accommodation of the accompanying strap.

A flat, mineral glass crystal hovers above a sandwich style dial. The lower dial supports four subdials which can be set to display the time in differing zones. One of these is equipped with a date display.

Four circular openings pierce the jet-black upper dial, revealing the subdials and promoting a three-dimensional effect. Gold-plated crowns jut out from the rim of this timepiece.

This watch includes four separate movements. A defiant Citizen (Miyota) date movement guards the right-hand bottom of the dial. It is surrounded and outgunned by three Seiko (Epson) Al35E’s. Expecting an imminent and bloody battle between these bitter Japanese rivals, I quickly replaced the black plate and screwed it tight.

Parnis P523 displaying movements

Parnis P523 displaying movements

Scroll to Continue

Read More From Bellatory

Parnis P523 PU leather strap

Parnis P523 PU leather strap

The sandwich style is quite effective, adding depth to the timepiece. I also appreciate Parnis’s use of different colors for each individual subdial.

Gold plating was applied to the case but not to the backplate or the strap’s buckle. While normally I dislike two-tone timepieces, this approach certainly accentuates Parnis’s sandwich motif.

The strap fits into slots cut into the baseplate. This provides a touch of elegance without sacrificing comfort.

As expected, considering the reputation of the original manufacturers, all four movements react smoothly while being adjusted.

Parnis utilizes conventional machine processes in the construction of their watch cases. In addition, this manufacturer makes use of 316L marine-grade stainless steel. If you desire a stronger case, your sole option is Rolex.

The P523 is fitted with the same backplate as the H2110 chromometer. This does not affect operation or durability but the model number, engraved onto the bottom, is incorrect and might lead to confusion.

The fitted strap is of high-quality PU leather. It is thick and very well built. Considering the overall quality of this timepiece, however, a PU leather strap seems out of place.

While few people have an actual need for a watch presenting the time in four different zones, this timepiece features fresh and innovative styling which is bound to attract attention. The P523 and its siblings are intended for those who crave a luxury watch but, financially, are not in the position to purchase one.

Dunn Award for Best Automatic Watch: Aatos G-JzakkoSSBD

Aatos burst upon the scene in 2009, offering for sale the first sub-one-thousand-dollar tourbillion timepiece. They followed up with a large selection of well-built, accurate and freshly designed watches.

They were attempting to follow Parnis’s example, building a reputation for luxurious quality. Unfortunately, it appears that Aatos has failed. The vendor’s name has changed, suggesting ownership has as well, and their timepieces are available only through eBay and, in some areas, Amazon.

Aatos watches are manufactured in China and sold out of Germany. I am unsure as to whether these timepieces are still being produced or if the vendor is simply selling off inventory.

Prices are low, considering their quality. If a purchaser is willing to forgo a warranty, many Aatos timepieces are designated slightly used and sold for even less. If you live in Europe and desire an automatic, Aatos is the first brand you should check. For the rest of us, these watches still offer value despite the nineteen dollars shipping fee.

Aatos automatic

Aatos automatic

Aatos automatic with stainless steel strap

Aatos automatic with stainless steel strap

At 174 grams (6.15 ounces), the Aatos G-JzakkoSSBD is no lightweight. It measures 45.5mm across and is 16.5mm thick. The strap measures 22mm in width.

The case is composed of glossy stainless steel. Two knurled pushbuttons, separated by the crown, protrude from the right edge. Another pushbutton and identically designed knob are situated to the left.

The dial is black. Silver colored roman numerals denote the nine, twelve and three o’clock position. Eight tiny diamonds are placed strategically around the dial. The hands are easily detected against the black backdrop.

Two windows at the top allow a view of the date. A pair of subdials points to the day of week and month.

Twenty-four-hour time is indicated along the dial’s outer rim. This rim is actually a component of what we professional watch reviewers refer to as a rotating whimsical ring. The knob located on the upper left edge of the timepiece is used to revolve this ring in either direction. This ingenious feature clearly demonstrates Aatos’s compassion for the compulsive knob-twisters and button-pushers among us.

Aatos automatic

Aatos automatic

Aatos displaying automatic movement

Aatos displaying automatic movement

Aatos automatic

Aatos automatic

A cut-out at the bottom of the dial reveals the rapidly oscillating timing wheel and the rear of the moment is visible via a transparent window. The rotor is nicely etched and branded Aatos.

The strap is composed of stainless steel links and I’ve found it to be the most comfortable watchband in my collection.

Despite the military-like knurled pushbuttons and rapidly whirling timing wheel, this watch presents an overall impression of elegance. The tiny diamonds and well-designed subdials show well against their black backdrop.

During my week-long test period, the date indicator and both subdials worked correctly. The timepiece lost an average of five seconds per day, which is considered excellent for a watch in this price range.

The crown snaps in and out nicely and I did not detect sloppiness in the operation of the crown, pushbuttons or knob. Water resistance is listed at 5 ATM. Consider this timepiece splash resistant only. The overall appearance of this Aatos automatic suggests above-average robustness.

If you dislike heavy watches, you should avoid this timepiece. In every other respect, the Aatos G-JzakkoSSBD ranks at or near the top of my collection. It is elegant, comfortable and incredibly accurate.

Dunn Award for Outstanding Value: Skmei 1064 Men's Sports Watch

To compete for this award a timepiece must perform well in four categories. It must be stylish, accurate, durable and inexpensive.

My shortlist included Skmie’s 1064 and Winner’s budget skeleton watch. I really like the Winner. It’s a great-looking timepiece and, despite its low price point, includes a reasonably accurate mechanical movement. Sadly, it loses on durability. Its watchstrap is crap.

The 1064 is manufactured by the Guangzhou SKMEI Watch co., Ltd. which is located in Guangdong, mainland China. Unlike most Chinese watch brands, Skmei actually designs and manufactures many of their timepieces.

The brand first appeared in 2010, featuring imitations of Casio’s G-Shock series. Since then Skmei has introduced a wide variety of inexpensive timepieces.

Skmei 1064

Skmei 1064

Skmei 1064 Dual movement

Skmei 1064 Dual movement

I purchased the Skmei 1064 for seven dollars. This watch weighs in at 99 grams (3.49 ounces). It is 47mm in diameter and 13mm thick.

A black plastic bezel is attached to the watch’s stainless steel case. Some manufacturers provide a bezel which can be rotated to allow the purchaser to measure elapsed time. Skmei considers this practice frivolous; so much so that they have used six shiny screws to secure this device firmly in place.

The dial is gray. Silver inserts mark off the hour and a white outer ring provides the ability to keep track of minutes and seconds. The hands are attractively designed and time can be easily determined in limited light.

A solar cell occupies the top half of the dial and a digital display is located below. This display can be backlit at the touch of a button.

This watch contains a dual movement. The analog clock is adjusted by pulling out and turning the crown. The digital movement provides both time and date. Four buttons protruding from this device allow the user to check the date, utilize the backlight, set an alarm, and run the stopwatch function. The push-buttons feel reasonably solid and should last for the lifetime of the watch. This timepiece emits a distinctive tic as the second hand rotates. I quite like that.

The Skmei 1064 boasts a water resistance rating of fifty meters. Considering its price range and the number of protruding buttons, you might not want to test this feature.

The watchband is composed of rubber. It is thick at the point where it attaches to the watch, thinning and becoming very flexible throughout the remainder of its length. The buckle utilizes two pins. For those of us with dubious hand and eye coordination, it is slightly more difficult to attach than a normal band.

The Skmei 1064 is equipped with two batteries. Another storage unit—probably a capacitor—can be charged by either sunlight or the CR2016 battery which normally powers the digital section of this watch.

The analog section is powered by an SR626 1.5-volt battery. It is hidden within the depths of the movement and not considered replaceable.

The digital section of the movement is powered by a CR2016 3-volt battery. This cell is not rechargeable. The CR2016 is concealed beneath a cover at the top of the movement. It can be replaced but, because the cover is glued down, the process would not be easy.

I ran a series of tests to determine the usability of the rechargeable storage unit. Unfortunately—due to testing methods best described as unsatisfactory—the results of my procedures proved contradictory.

My best guess is that fully charged, the internal energy storage device will allow digital operation for up to forty minutes. Once the display fades away, there remains sufficient energy to power the internal clock for a limited period of time. I don’t expect this grace period would extend beyond a couple of hours.

I doubt the average customer will bother using this watch after the battery fails. It wouldn’t be practical. On the other hand, solar power will probably augment the energy provided by the battery. This could very well extend the life of the SR2016 cell.

The manufacturer has managed to jam an analog display, a digital readout, and a solar cell into the dial without noticeable clutter. They’ve even provided a wrist strap which exhibits a degree of flair. The Skmei 1064 is an appealing watch.

The Skmei 1064 is solidly built and should provide yeoman service over a lifetime of one to two years. Then it can be replaced for less than ten dollars. You can’t beat that.

Best Replica: Fake Franck Muller Casablanca

Most professional writers avoid covering replicas, referring to their manufacturers as little more than pond scum. Why pond scum? These companies earn their money by copying timepieces of legitimate manufacturers. They even steal their branding information.

The profit margin on a replica is far higher than that of a normal Chinese watch and the manufacturer concentrates more on replicating style than on durability and accuracy. When you purchase a replica, you normally receive a watch that appears to be worth thousands but falls apart within weeks.

The manufacturer doesn’t care. They’ve been paid. The purchaser, however, feels cheated and the reputation of the company that originally designed this watch is tarnished.

Replicas comprise a major portion of the timepieces produced by Chinese manufacturers. Because of this, I must reluctantly cover these watches. While it is but a pale shadow of a genuine Franck Muller Casablanca, the watch discussed below is the best of those I have reviewed this year.

Replica Franck Muller

Replica Franck Muller

Replica Franck Muller

Replica Franck Muller

Replica Franck Muller caseback

Replica Franck Muller caseback

At DHgate I found a listing for a no-name watch that copied the barrel shape favored by Franck Muller. I liked the design and, since it was on sale for forty-five dollars, submitted an order.

The timepiece arrived on schedule, packed snugly inside a Styrofoam box. Eagerly I pulled off the lid and withdrew my new purchase.

This no-name watch was branded, after all. Across the face was printed FRANCK MULLER. I winced and dropped it back into the box.

This Tonneau-shaped timepiece is 17mm thick. It measures 55mm from top to bottom and 43.4mm across. The timepiece weighs in at 101 grams (3.56 ounces).

The case is gold colored and very shiny. Its silhouette is described as Cintrée Curvex which does not translate well to English.

The dial—thanks mainly to Franck Muller’s original design work—is beautiful. Black numbers of varying size line the edge of a nicely patterned white dial. Two windows positioned near the top of the dial display the date. Sunken, gold rimmed subdials indicate the day of week and month.

The hands are gold colored and coated with very effective luminous paint.

Several models produced by Franck Muller incorporate a tourbillon. This highly sophisticated device is used to increase accuracy. The dial of this copy is of open heart design, simulating the presence of a tourbillon by providing a view of the rapidly whirling timing wheel.

Two plastic pushbuttons located on the right edge of this watch allow adjustment of date and month of the year. A sunken pushbutton on the left edge is used to adjust the day of the week.

The bottom plate is secured by four screws. Beneath this plate, sits an unbranded automatic movement. The rotor emits an unusually loud—almost irritating—rattle when the watch is shaken. This does not affect the replica’s operation.

Replica Franck Muller with plastic pushbuttons

Replica Franck Muller with plastic pushbuttons

Buckle of replica Franck Muller

Buckle of replica Franck Muller

The watchstrap is 22mm wide, reasonably thick and composed of PU leather. The buckle is larger than normal and designed to match the watch case. In this particular strap the color patterns, representing grain, appear faded and washed out. After one year of occasional use, however, this band has proved remarkably sturdy.

The huge, and well-curved silhouette of this watch reminds me of the hull of a submarine; I suppose that’s my naval background rising to the surface. Large numbers circle the edge of the dial, squeezed in typical Franck Muller fashion along the left and right side of the watch. Sunken subdials add to the charm.

I normally admire the open-heart design. This watch, however, would attract a more sophisticated clientele if this treatment were omitted.

On each end of the case, between the lugs, there is a series of short, scratch-like marks. These are positioned where the end of the leather strap butts against the case. I expect these marks were made during the manufacturing process.

I tested this watch for a week. During this period, the date function and both subdials worked perfectly. Over seven days this replica gained an average of four seconds per day.

A word of warning. Watches in this price range are not routinely adjusted for super-watch accuracy before leaving the factory. In this instance, I won the lottery. Still… give the Devil his due; this replica is the most accurate automatic I have ever owned.

Plastic pushbuttons are utilized to adjust two of this timepiece’s functions. I question the use of plastic buttons on any watch sold for more than fifteen dollars. The lower button sits loosely in its socket. Its action reminds me of when I was a child; probing a tooth that wiggled distressingly, signaling impending lose. While the button remains seated, I realize it eventually will drop from the case, causing all sorts of grief.

The watchstrap is composed of PU leather. While it is of decent quality, lifespan is limited.

This replica is an attractive and reasonably lightweight calendar watch. I am impressed with the movement which, after a year of use, has proven highly accurate. Sadly, quality control is poor. The lifespan of this timepiece will be limited to the length of time its faulty plastic pushbutton remains in place.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2017 Walter Shillington


Fantastic reviews Walter on May 25, 2017:

I really enjoy your watch reviews, especially mechanical watches. Hopefully you will review a Kinyued automatic, and a Parnis power reserve watch in the near future. keep up the great reviews my friend.

Maribel Taleghani Asl from Philippines on May 21, 2017:

It declined, indeed. Nonetheless, some creative business-minded people found a way to sell more watches - they merged it with fashion and accessory.

Louise Powles from Norfolk, England on May 21, 2017:

They are beautiful watches. I wonder if the sale of watches have fallen as so many ppl tend to look at the time on their mobile phones these days? I need to get myself a new watch.

Related Articles