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Feature: 5 Watches That Are Cheaper And Better Than A Rolex

Who doesn’t want a Rolex? There aren’t too many people who don’t. Unfortunately, in the land of “I want doesn’t get,” sometimes we have to make compromises. Thankfully, with the money you were planning on spending on a Rolex, you could not only get something cheaper and save a bit of it—you could also get something better, too. Don’t believe me? I’m going to prove it, five times over.

Grand Seiko Snowflake SBGA211

If you had your eye on the Rolex classic, the Datejust, you’d currently have a piggy bank full to at least a level of £6,600. That’s the most basic spec with the smooth bezel and Oyster bracelet. Fluted and Jubilee will up that sticker price to £8,550.

I’m not the kind of person who’d be so pedantic as to compare spec by spec, but … well, I am exactly the kind of pedantic person who’d do that, so let’s sit Grand Seiko’s SBGA211 Snowflake alongside it and do exactly that.

Primarily in the Datejust’s armoury is a stat that Rolex pushes hardest: it is, quote, “Instantly recognisable.” Yes, it is. It is the quintessential watch design found almost everywhere on the quintessential wrist. Maybe that’s appealing to some, to have the same thing as everyone else, but for a whole slice of people, the days of wearing the same Kickers and carrying the same record bag as all the other school kids are long past.

For those people, individuality is a desirable quality, and the Snowflake does exactly that. Not only does it go against the grain by hailing from the other side of the world to Switzerland—Japan—it’s also a quartz. Wait, wait! Come back! It’s no ordinary quartz. It’s Spring Drive.

That’s mechanically powered, so there’s no battery, but with the accuracy of quartz. Rolex boasts a deviation for its calibre 3235 of two seconds per day. Grand Seiko’s 9R65 is half that—and that’s a typically conservative Japanese estimate. Both last for three days, but with the Grand Seiko, you can see how much power’s left on the dial-side power reserve indicator.

Both are also 41mm, but where the Rolex is in steel, the Snowflake gets more exotic titanium, as Rolex recently boasted about for the first time ever in the Deepsea Challenge. Both get 100m of water resistance too, but the real ace in the hole for the Grand Seiko is the thing that earnt the nickname “Snowflake”: the dial.

Rolex dials are very classical and nice, with a few modern, laser engraved examples thrown in there too, but in comparison to the snow field inspired texture of the Snowflake, they can’t hold a candle. Grand Seiko’s Shinshu watch studio sits in the foothills of the Nagano mountains, and they’ve transported that view right to the dial.

Omega Seamaster Diver 300m Professional

Which Rolex shall we pick on next? Why not old favourite, the Submariner Date, and why not in green LV spec. Inspired by the 50th anniversary edition of the Submariner, it sports a fetching green bezel around its 41mm steel case—so it makes perfect sense to line that up right next to this Omega Seamaster 300m Professional, which also gets a green bezel.

Case size on the Omega is a millimetre bigger, and that’s going to set the tone for our pixel-peeping comparison of the two watches. Want to tickle 300m with your dive watch? Both of these will do it, no problem. The Omega, however, can decompress without the risk of the crystal firing out thanks to the addition of the helium escape valve top left.

Both are blessed with a date so you don’t have to worry about whether or not you’re supposed to be putting the bins out mid-dive, but Omega’s is better considered. Rolex has a white disk on a black dial, magnified with a glass wart. Omega’s is more subtle but no less readable, black on black with the text in a crisp white, neatly positioned at a symmetrical six, surrounded by the green, laser-engraved dial.

But only one of these two watches carries a movement designed by the greatest watchmaker of our time, George Daniels, and it’s not the Rolex. It could have been, but it ended up being Omega that incorporated the Co-Axial escapement into its calibre 8800, an improved, minimal friction alternative to the typical Swiss Lever escapement Rolex still uses.

The Omega does lose out in power reserve by about 30%, but it gains in anti-magnetism, quoting a resistance to 15,000 Gauss thanks to a silicon hairspring compared to Rolex’s non-committal stance on its alloyed hairspring.

It’s nip and tuck for sure—that is until you get to the price. Rolex wants £8,900 for its watch, a princely sum for sure, and a whole lot more compared to the £5,100 Omega is asking.

Kudoke K2

Everything so far has been very steel and sporty, so let’s dip a toe into the world of the golden dress watch. Rolex kickstarted a fascination for its gold watches in the late 60s with the introduction of its precious metal Cellini collection, and the Cellini Moonphase is the latest addition. It’s a demonstration that a Rolex can be rich and elegant—but is it the best? No chance.

If you want elegant watchmaking, properly handcrafted, head on over to Germany instead for the Kudoke K2. It’s a very different animal visually, crisp and clear and sleek, and it’s immediately noticeable that every aspect of it is punching well above its weight.

That’s because the K2 doesn’t come from a factory line like the Rolex, it comes from the home of Stefan and Ev Kudoke, the husband-and-wife duo responsible for these beautiful watches. Stefan is a master watchmaker who specialises in hand finishing, and so the work you see on the Kalibre 1-24H is done exactly like that: by hand. There’s not a retina-scanning robot in sight.

Hand-polished bevels, hand blasted three-quarter plate and a hand engraved balance cock set the Kudoke K2 apart. And if you don’t like those finishes, you can request different ones, because they’re making the watch for you, how you want it. Want the bridges engraved or even skeletonised? No problem at all. It’s all in several days’ work for Stefan.

And where the Rolex gets its moonphase, picked out in a glossy blue finish with a slice of meteorite for the moon, the K2 gets its own representation, a sun and moon disc turning once every 24 hours, hand engraved and hand plated right there in the Kudoke’s home workshop.

If you’re looking for hand-crafted, traditional watchmaking, there’s literally only one choice between the K2 and the Cellini. If you’re looking to only spend £14,000 for a gold watch like this, then the K2 remains the only choice, because the Cellini costs an extra £8,550.

Breitling Navitimer B01 Chronograph 43 AB0138241C1A1

If you’re looking for a chronograph however, that’s where things get very … well, spoiler alert, because we’re not breaking away from the pattern we’ve set for ourselves here. If you’re looking for a chronograph watch with historical significance, that dominated the aeronautical industry, that’s been into space—you’re not looking for the Daytona.

The Daytona was released in the sixties really just so Rolex had a modern chronograph in its line-up. The Navitimer came into existence in 1952 after a group of professional pilots basically hounded Breitling into making it. It was preceded by the slide-rule calculator Chronomat, a Breitling landmark that put the power of complex calculation into the convenience of a wristwatch. The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association saw the advantage of a version configured for aviation, and so the Navitimer was born.

Breitling had long been in the aviation game anyway, making a name for itself manufacturing aircraft instruments, so there was no doubting the brand’s ability in transitioning that knowhow into a watch. The Navitimer’s chronograph function around which the calculator operates was also a Breitling legacy, the brand establishing both the single and double pusher configuration that has become ubiquitous with the complication.

Makes sense then that astronaut Scott Carpenter chose a Navitimer for his 1962 mission to orbit the Earth as part of the pre-Gemini and Apollo Mercury programme. Breitling even tweaked the Navitimer into a 24-hour configuration at Carpenter’s request since orbiting the Earth was going to make discerning the difference between morning and afternoon difficult.

Okay, now it’s the Daytona’s turn. Erm… it did go into space on the wrist of naval aviator Michael McCulley, who wore his own 6263 on a mission aboard the Shuttle Atlantis, but let’s be honest, that doesn’t quite have the same feel as the pioneering, right stuff-era trips to outer space. It’s cool, but then again a stuffed Snoopy toy also went up in a Shuttle a year later, so that kind of sets the tone.

If that didn’t separate the two watches apart enough, then this will for sure. The Daytona starts at £12,150, and Rolex won’t even quote a price for the blue dial version. The Navitimer, complete with a lovely icey-blue dial, can be yours for just £7,300.

Christopher Ward Bel Canto

What’s the most complicated watch that Rolex makes? Well, that’s not really its thing, is it? But if you really have your heart set on a bit of complexity, then it’s to the Sky-Dweller you go by default. It combines GMT functionality with an annual calendar, pinned together with an unusual bezel setting system that adjusts it all through the crown.

The most surprising thing about the Sky-Dweller isn’t its complexity, however, it’s the price. At £12,800 in steel, it is probably the closest you’ll ever come to anything resembling bang for the buck from the house of Rolex, and so you can imagine that it is plenty popular.

But don’t let that disillusion you, however, because complication doesn’t have to be complicated … for your wallet. You would perhaps never think of pitching entry-level watchmaker Christopher Ward against the might of Rolex—but then again, you’d never think we’d have a global pandemic post the new millennium, and yet here we are.

An annual calendar is cool and everything, but where watchmakers really get their kicks is with chiming complications, and that’s exactly what the Christopher Ward Bel Canto has. The layered dial sports a folded gong, which, when switched on with the pusher bottom right, strikes on the hour, every hour.

Unlike the Rolex, the mechanism is on full display to be properly appreciated, sculpted in a very considered and pleasing manner. Such a thing seems like it would be incredibly expensive, and for Christopher Ward, it is, setting its customers back just under £3,000. That’s a hardly believable quarter of the Rolex’s price.

The thing these two watches share in common, however, is availability. You can imagine the price of the Bel Canto made what would have been a very popular watch even more so, and so now it’s just as sold out as the Sky-Dweller. Difference is that Christopher Ward is actively looking to change that. Watch this space.

There you have it, solid proof you don’t need to spend Rolex money to get Rolex quality—and in some cases, not by a long shot. Which non-Rolex watches would you pitch against the mighty brand?

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