If you're in the market for a mechanical watch with a strict budget and don't know where to start -- you're not alone. When I first began watch collecting, my impression was that a good watch required an investment of at least a few thousand dollars. Fortunately, I was wrong. The truth is, there are several brands that produce high quality mechanical watches that you can proudly purchase without breaking the bank. Of all the mechanical watches in the sub-$500 price range, there are a couple models that I consider to be of superior value - the Seiko 5 and Hamilton Jazzmaster.
Both Seiko and Hamilton are proven brands that routinely produce high-quality timepieces made with very cost-effective automatic movements. The automatic movements used by Seiko and Hamilton - the Seiko 7S26 and ETA-2824-2 - add value to the overall product by striking the perfect balance between cost and performance. For a fraction of the price of an "in-house movement", these Seiko and ETA movements are impressively accurate; and because of how widely used each movement is, any reputable third party watch repair shop will be able to provide servicing when the time comes.
The perfect first mechanical watch
Because of the price, the Seiko 5 is perhaps the ideal first mechanical watch. Seiko 5s can be purchased for $100 or less, depending on the configuration. When I bought mine here on Amazon, I paid $73.14 after tax. It continues to impress me that Seiko is able to deliver so many features at such a price. Of course, the Seiko 5 derives its name from a list of five "essential" wristwatch traits, each of which Seiko makes sure to provide. These are: 1) a high-quality mainspring that doesn't break, 2) shock-resistance, 3) automatic winding, 4) date and day-display, and 5) water-resistance. I do not know of any other legitimate watch companies with movements made outside of China that acheives these standards at this price point.
As for appearances, most, if not all, Seiko 5s fall into the 36mm to 37mm range for case width. This means the watch is relatively small, and that works out well for people with slim wrists like myself. The back of the case is fully transparent, so you can see into the movement which is a nice feature. I really like the simplicity of the overall design. As cool as dial complications can be, for a watch like this which aims to provide the basics I appreciate the plain dial.
You can check out some pics of my own Seiko 5 below. I bought a blue dial configuration with a blue fabric strap but enjoy it enough that I may go for a bracelet configuration like this one sold on Amazon in the near future.
The perfect "entry-level" swiss watch
The "Jazzmaster Viewmatic" series is a line of automatic watches by Hamilton that, in my opinion, takes the cake for best value on the market. As previously mentioned, Hamilton Jazzmasters contain a widely used ETA model movement making the watch extremely serviceable and allowing for competitive pricing. MSRP on these watches can be upwards of $750 but on Amazon or other sites, you can acquire them for under $500. Here is an example on Amazon.
As for features, the Jazzmaster, like the Seiko 5, has an exhibition case-back which provides a nice view of the movement. Depending on the exact model, you may or may not have a date window. The version I own has an "open heart" (partially skeletonized) dial, and so there is no room for a date complication. The one constant between all configurations as far as I can tell is the case design which is actually my favorite part of the whole package. The Jazzmaster case is stainless steel and has a very nice mix of polished and brushed finishing. The case dimensions, in my opinion, are perfect. 40mm case width is the sweet spot for most wrists including my own.
Overall, the craftsmanship and attention to detail that go into producing Hamilton Jazzmasters is phenomenal for the sub-$500 budget. My Hamilton spends as much time on my wrist as any of the watches in my collection and I would consider adding a second in the future. Below are some pics I took of my own watch. I purchased this open heart variation on Amazon for around $600 last year but you can check out the current price here.