Rarely is the term “affordable” used so subjectively as it is in discussions of watches. Timepieces costing several thousand dollars routinely get grouped into the affordable segment, while others might consider the term “affordable” to mean something that costs a matter of hundreds, rather than thousands of dollars. However, if you were to tell the average person on the street who isn’t a watch enthusiast that the $900 timepiece on your wrist is affordable, most would adamantly disagree and tell you that it is actually quite expensive, especially considering that it costs more than twice as much as the current series of Apple watches. For my new column Actually Affordable, I want to bring things back to reality a bit and discuss some of the standout watches that can be appreciated by die-hard enthusiasts, yet are also attainable by virtually everyone.
It is often said that the GMT complication is one of the most useful features a watch can have, yet the price of entry for this travel-ready functionality still remains surprisingly high, considering that quartz technology has made other types of watches like chronographs and complete calendars affordable to the point that they cost less than a few rounds of drinks at a local dive bar. Quartz GMT watches can often cost at least a couple hundred bucks, and the Seiko 5 Sports GMT made huge headlines earlier this year in 2022 when it finally made it possible to get a mechanical GMT watch with independently adjustable hour hands for less than $500. Considering that most quartz GMT watches will cost you at least a couple hundred dollars anyway, the Seiko 5 GMT immediately became the go-to option for the traditional watch enthusiast who wants GMT functionality at a bottom-dollar price.
However, if we simply leave the topic there, we run the risk of deterring people from this hobby, as we are essentially saying that someone needs to go out and spend a minimum of $500 on a watch, which, for many people, can be a significant amount of money for a non-essential item. At the same time, there simply aren’t all that many options for decent analog GMT watches at rock-bottom prices, and even the ones powered by quartz movements can sometimes cost more than what some may want to spend. If you are already going to be spending a few hundred dollars, there’s an argument to be made that you might as well stretch your budget a little and just get the Seiko 5 GMT (unless you specifically want a quartz watch). However, if your primary concern is simply getting your hands on access to multiple timezones, there is a perfect travel watch out there that costs less than dinner for two at Olive Garden — provided that you don’t mind the semantics of having a world timer instead of a traditional GMT watch.
When it comes to getting access to the maximum number of timezones for a minimal monetary investment, a digital world time watch from Casio is virtually impossible to beat. Categorically speaking, these travel-ready timepieces are not technically GMT watches, but they are actually far better suited to monitoring and moving between multiple timezones than any traditional GMT model. Some variation of digital world time functionality can be found on many different Casio models, but one of the flat-out best implementations of this highly practical feature exists within the absolute least expensive option currently available: the classic Casio World Time AE1200WH-1A.
Largely constructed from plastic with a digital LCD display, the Casio AE1200WH-1A is the antithesis of traditional horology, yet it is also distinctly not a smartwatch. Most of Casio’s other budget-friendly world time models have the appearance of traditional plastic digital sports watches, and while there is absolutely nothing wrong with this aesthetic, it is rather ubiquitous in everyday life and simply doesn’t feel all that special. Rather than looking like a watch suited for running a marathon, the Casio World Time AE1200WH-1A offers a unique appearance that can best be described as a retro-looking spy gadget, with its whimsical digital representation of an analog dial and a small map of the world adjacent to it. While the map may initially sound like a pure gimmick, it saves you from having to remember the 48 different three-letter city codes, and it turns the world time feature into something that can easily be used since the selected timezone will show up highlighted on the watch’s digital map.
The reference AE1200WH-1A is the classic black version of this particular Casio World Time model that is paired with a simple black rubber strap. While there have been numerous different colors and configurations produced over the years, including even a few versions with silver-painted cases that are fitted with stainless steel bracelets, the AE1200WH-1A is the most understated option, and it also represents the least expensive variation with an official retail price of $24.99 USD. It’s important to maintain perspective and remember that we are talking about a plastic digital watch. However, from a strictly functional standpoint, the Casio World Time AE1200WH-1A is an undeniable bargain within the world of horology, and it is also undeniably “affordable” by all definitions of the term, offering users 100 meters of water resistance, 10 years of battery life, and 31 different timezones — all for less than $25.
Simply put, the Casio World Time can’t be beat when it comes to flat-out practicality. It’s durable, highly capable, and its ultra-affordable price point means that it is guaranteed to not make you a target for local pickpockets and muggers during your travels. Although the included strap and its plastic buckle leave a bit to be desired, the watch itself features standard 18mm lugs, meaning that third-party strap options are readily available. Additionally, given its 10-year battery life, you can toss a Casio World Time on an inexpensive NATO strap and simply keep it packed away in your travel bag as a grab-and-go backup watch. Realistically speaking, the only problem with the Casio World Time AE1200WH-1A is that it just doesn’t offer the same horological intrigue as a traditional analog GMT watch powered by a mechanical movement. For those with an itch for a GMT watch that only a balance spring can scratch, we must look to the Seiko 5 GMT that we first mentioned at the very beginning of this article.
When it comes to the most famous Seiko case designs of all time, the one featured on the Seiko 5 GMT is easily on the shortlist of top options due to its prominent use on the discontinued range of SKX dive watches, along with the current Seiko 5 Sports lineup. Simply put, there is a reason why this specific case design holds such a special place in the hearts of collectors: it just works. While the variation fitted to the GMT model does not feature a screw-down crown and therefore has 100 meters of water resistance (instead of 200 meters), it does offer a display caseback, drilled lugs, and an overall wrist presence that is very similar to Seiko’s fan-favorite discontinued diver’s watch. Given its official retail price of $475 USD, you still aren’t getting a sapphire crystal above the dial, but the bezel now features an insert made from Hardlex mineral glass rather than aluminum, and the included Jubilee-style bracelet now offers a solid-link construction, which provides it with a significantly more substantial presence on the wrist.
Although the level of aesthetic finishing on the Seiko 5 Sports GMT certainly exceeds its budget-friendly price point, most people are interested in this particular model because it is the least expensive way to get your hands on a mechanical GMT watch with independently adjustable hour hands (at least from a major brand). The Caliber 4R34 movement powering the Seiko 5 GMT allows for independent adjustment of the 24-hour hand rather than a jumping local hour hand like what you will find on GMT watches from brands such as Rolex and Tudor, although a similar statement applies to many of the mechanical GMT movements available on the market right now. Additionally, while Seiko produces all of its own calibers in-house, the company also provides movements to countless different other watch brands, and things will really start to get interesting within the affordable mechanical GMT watch segment once the generic version of the Seiko 4R34 starts making its way into the hands of various microbrands.
Even still, with an official retail price of $475 and the possibility of additional savings available on the open market, it may end up being rather difficult for smaller independent brands to compete with Seiko within the bottom-dollar mechanical GMT segment. Considering that no independent brand even comes close to enjoying the same economies of scale with their production quantities, the Seiko 5 Sports GMT may end up representing the bottom-dollar price for a mechanical GMT watch from a big-name manufacturer. With that in mind, even if the price floor for mechanical GMT watches never gets too much lower than where it is right now, there will still be a wonderful option for a truly budget-friendly travel watch in the form of the Casio World Time series, and unlike an entry-level Seiko that costs more than the latest generation of smartwatch, the Casio AE1200WH-1A is a timepiece that is actually affordable.