5 Best Microbrand Watches under $500: Affordable, Rare, and Unique Timepieces

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by  William Barton | Last Updated:  Jul 05, 2020
5 Best Microbrand Watches under $500: Affordable, Rare, and Unique Timepieces

Microbrands can get a bad rap, but they can’t all be bad, right? While there may be some bad apples, some microbrands offer style and value you just can’t find with the bigger players.

We put together a list of our favorite watch microbrands to check out right now.

Best for the Enthusiast
  • Small collection of hand wound, automatic, and sweeping quartz watches
  • Vario also makes a wide variety of unique watch straps
  • Free worldwide shipping on orders over $25
  • Get 8% off your order with code TAM8
Best for the Minimalist
  • Beautiful Scandinavian minimalist design from legendary Jakob Wagner
  • Nordgreen donates a certain portion of every purchase to a worthy cause, and you can choose which
  • Three models available, with a broad range of case, dial, and strap colors
  • Get 20% off your order with code THEADULTMAN
Best for the Collector
  • Fully customizable watches, from the dial to the hands
  • UNDONE regularly puts out limited edition pieces that are off-the-wall
  • All timepieces (three base models) are automatic
  • Get 10% off your order with code TAM10
Best for the Bargain Hunter
  • Strong field watch designs
  • Sapphire crystals, swiss movements, and USA assembled available under $200
  • Free shipping on all watches and 2-year warranty
  • Top choice for folks who want a value-packed, USA-built timepiece
Best for the Diver
  • Dive watch specialists with 13 dive watch models available
  • Value-driven automatic timepieces with a two-year warranty
  • Top choice for gents who spend their free time on the water
  • Get 15% off your order with code TAM15

As watch collectors, we pride ourselves on keeping a pulse on the best new brands. 

Sure, we’ve got love for the big brands like Seiko and Citizen—but sometimes those brands just don’t have the same personality as the little guys. 

While there are tons of microbrands out there that make intricate timepieces for thousands of dollars, we wanted to shine a light on the smaller brands that make excellent, affordable watches for under $500. 

What is a “Microbrand Watch?”

A microbrand watchmaker typically puts out anywhere between 300 and 2,000 watches per year. 

They’re the small guys. 

There are hundreds of micro watch brands, and probably dozens of excellent brands we missed on this list (if you can think of a few we missed, let us know). Though for every solid microbrand, it seems like there are two other brands buying cheap stock from China and passing it off as unique.

Usually, it’s clear whether it’s worth buying a watch from a small brand. But we built our list to “shout-out” the brands we feel bring a special value with their timepieces. 

What are the advantages of a Microbrand watch?

Microbrands typically have small teams (many even have a team of one: the owner). They don’t have huge operating budgets, so the price of their watches is often much lower, even for the same quality timepiece. 

Smaller brands usually grow by word-of-mouth, so they don’t spend on huge advertising budgets. Because their timepieces are built for the enthusiast, rather than the mass-market, microbrands often have a lot more unique flair to their designs. 

5 Best Microbrand Watches Under $500

1. Vario Watches

Vario Eclipse and Empire watches

Vario is based in Singapore. They have a collection of hand-wound watches, automatics, and sweeping quartz movements that are elegant, affordable, and a little different than any other microbrands we’ve seen lately. 

We tried out their automatic Empire (there’s only 60) and hand wound Eclipse models (only 20 available).

Vario Empire Dial Exreme Closeup

Each has an elegant 38mm case and sapphire crystal. The Empire is an art-deco inspired timepiece with a lollipop second-hand and an interesting radial dial. The hand-wound Eclipse’s minimal design, sweeping second-hand, and double-domed sapphire crystal make for an excellent and very affordable dress watch.

Vario also carries a range of watch straps. We liked their Italian pebbled leather straps, and their range of nylon NATO and even wool straps are unique and compliment several watches in our collection.

What I Like

  • The only quartz movement they have is a more complicated sweeping quartz, so you can watch the beautiful flow of time the same way you would with an automatic.

  • Vario’s watch straps are comfortable and I love how broad their selection is.

  • The domed sapphire crystal on the Eclipse is awesome. It’s rare to see this quality glass in a timepiece under $500.

  • The design of the Empire is unique, and we look forward to Vario continuing to express their own sense of style.

  • Our code TAM8 gets you 8% off your entire order.

What I Don’t Like

  • Shipping is a bit of a challenge for this small brand, but if you’re in the US or AUS, any watch you order will be shipped free via DHL, which is great.

What Other Reviewers Say

vario reviews

Vario has over 800 reviews (as of writing) and they’re rated at a 4.3-star average. Many reviewers mentioned the customer service, and that the owner himself would jump on emails to make sure everything turned out perfect for customers. 

The straps were popular among reviewers. And the only negativity we saw in the reviews was around the longer-than-average shipping times. Many of those complaints came between March and May 2020, which was an understandably arduous time for companies all over the world.

The Verdict

Vario is a hidden gem. They’ve created a small line of timepieces that speak to the collector more than they do the mass market. 

And they’ve kept their products affordable, too. Both their Empire and Eclipse fit into the dress-watch category, and they offer a solid value considering the mechanical movements under $500. 

If you’re not ready to dive into their watches, Vario also carries an excellent line of straps and accessories. 

Like many small businesses in mid-2020, Vario is having a bit of difficulty with shipping times, so expect to wait an extra week or two to get your shipment. 

If you’re looking to add a stylish automatic dress watch to your collection, Vario has you covered.

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Vario specializes in affordable hand-wound and automatic dress watches. Their extensive range of watch straps also make an excellent compliment to any watch collection.

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2. Nordgreen

Nordgreen Native Nordgreen Pioneer lined up

Based in Copenhagen, Nordgreen has been making a name for themselves as the premier affordable minimalist watch brand

They started simple with models like the Philosopher (review here) and the Native (review here). But now they’re branching out with more complicated dials like the Pioneer (review here) while still holding on to their minimalist roots.

We also like that Nordgreen has an excellent giving-back program. The brand will donate a portion of the proceeds to one of three different programs—and you’re in control. You can donate to programs that educate children in India, provide clean water in Central Africa, or protect a part of the South American rainforest.

What I Like

  • Nordgreen’s minimalist style matches well in just about any wardrobe.

  • The Native and Pioneer have domed sapphire crystals—this gives both timepieces a refined look.

  • Their giving-back program is tremendous.

  • We have an awesome discount for 20% off when you use the code THEADULTMAN.

What I Don’t Like

  • Their silicone bands have a slight design flaw in that the strap covers up the outward facing logo.

What Other Reviewers Say

Nordgreen Reviews

As you can see above, reviews for Nordgreen are overwhelmingly positive. 

Folks seem to love the minimalist style, their fast shipping, and their top-notch customer service. 

Our experience with the brand has been the same. The negative reviews mostly mention the lack of water-resistance for their Native and Philosopher models. It’s true, those models only offer light water-resistance, and we recommend keeping them away from the shower and taking your watch off if it rains or if you’re doing a round of dishes.

The Verdict

There are plenty of minimalist microbrands on the market right now. But there’s only one brand that has their watches designed by the legendary Bauhaus designer Jakob Wagner. 

You’d think it’d be difficult to make a minimalist watch “new” or unique. I’m sure it is. But you’d never know from looking through Nordgreen’s catalogue. 

With excellent customer service and quick shipping, the brand is a pleasure to shop with. Plus, every purchase goes to help a worthy cause. 

So if you’re looking for a small minimalist brand with maximum impact, check out Nordgreen.

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Created by the famous Nordic designer behind Bang & Olufson, Nordgreen’s minimalist watches are as stunning as they are simple. While we struggled with minor issues like glare, these timepieces are classic wardrobe staples.

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3. UNDONE

elongated look at undone cali

All watch lovers should check out UNDONE’s Instagram page. Their limited edition watches are hard to describe. But let’s just say that their design team isn’t afraid to go “all-out.”

Founded by one of the world’s foremost Rolex repair experts, UNDONE has a range of core watches that pay homage to the Swiss horological legend while staying affordable.

Their core lineup is fully customizable—the dial, case, strap, hands—build whatever you want. 

We built our own Killy Chronograph and Diver a year and a half ago, and had to go back about six months ago to build a special Basecamp and Basecamp Cali

If you’re looking for a unique automatic under $500, check out UNDONE. Each of their timepieces is a conversation starter. Ask me how I know.

What I Like

  • Full customization options means you can make a one-of-a-kind watch that no one else in the world has.

  • While their watches are affordable (under $500), the brand has a unique, off-the-wall look of much more expensive brands.

  • UNDONE regularly releases fun limited edition watches.

  • You can get 10% off your entire order with code TAM10.

What I Don’t Like

  • I’d like to see more than the one-year warranty.

What Other Reviewers Say

There are few crowdsourced reviews online for UNDONE, but there’s no shortage of professional reviews.

From what I gathered, the brand’s bold designs are beloved in the watch community, but the customization process can take longer than folks like. It’s true, when I ordered my Basecamp Cali, it didn’t arrive for about five to six weeks.

The Verdict

There are few crowdsourced reviews online for UNDONE, but there’s no shortage of professional reviews.

From what I gathered, the brand’s bold designs are beloved in the watch community, but the customization process can take longer than folks like. It’s true, when I ordered my Basecamp Cali, it didn’t arrive for about five to six weeks. 

That said, you can’t find similar designs anywhere else.

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A unique customization experience, attractive price points, and speed of delivery make UNDONE a formidable force in the mid-range luxury watch space.

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4. VAER

Vaer c5 field watch on model with sunglasses

VAER builds no-nonsense field watches with excellent specs at a very fair price. 

Where else can you find a timepiece with a Swiss quartz movement, domed sapphire crystal, with 10atm of water resistance, all assembled in the USA (with Horween leather straps) for under $200? 

We had a look at their C5 and S5 models a few months ago and each has become a collection staple.

What I Like

  • The C5 and S5 are sturdy, dependable, and I love the field watch look.

  • It’s rare to find domed sapphire glass, a Swiss movement, and solid water resistance under $200.

  • The C5 is assembled in the USA, and the Horween leather straps are made by a small family company in Arizona.

  • Each watch you buy comes with a second strap.

  • Free shipping and 2-year warranty.

What I Don’t Like

  • When we first reviewed VAER, their shipping took two weeks. They’ve brought shipping time down since, so we have no complaints.

What Other Reviewers Say

Vaer Watches Reviews

At the time of this writing, VAER literally ran out of watches because the brand is blowing up so quickly. 

Folks are catching on to the amount of quality packed in this timepiece. VAER boasts a 4.8-star average rating with over 1,000 reviews. 

After reading through the reviews, it seems like customers like these watches for a lot of the same reasons we do: they’re excellent for people with an active lifestyle. 

Whether you’re going surfing, fishing, camping, climbing—whatever—the scratch and water resistance mean you don’t have to worry about ruining your watch.

The Verdict

If you crave some good old-fashion American-built durability, but you don’t want to fork out a ton of cash, check out VAER.

We looked at their C5 model (Swiss movement, domed sapphire), and their less expensive S5 (Japanese movement, flat sapphire). While the C5 cost a bit more, at just under $200, I thought this was a steal. 

At the time of writing, their new watches were on pre-order—perhaps the only downside to buying from a microbrand. But if you like the look of their timepieces, it might be wise to lock in the price now. 

VAER is a growing brand and their overhead is still super-low (it’s just the two founders). With how quickly their models sold out, we can’t imagine them keeping the price as low as it is now.

Vaer Watches

VAER is a prime example of the shift in watchmakers toward quality and affordability. As a small brand, there are some struggles around shipping times, but their field watches offer killer value that’s hard to find elsewhere.

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5. Spinnaker

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Spinnaker specializes in automatic dive watches. They offer 12 different models at the time of this writing which is more than any other brand on this list. 

This Hong Kong based brand has been growing in popularity among watch enthusiasts as their designs hit a balance between vintage and modern.

What I Like

  • They offer solid automatic divers for under $300.

  • The brand has an impressive list of products—few microbrands can sustain so many models. 

  • Spinnaker’s Bradner model hits an excellent balance of style, cost, and quality.

What I Don’t Like

  • Spinnaker is a bit of a faceless brand. Part of why we love microbrands is because the customer is close to the founder, but Spinnaker is a small part of a larger brands portfolio.

  • Many of their less expensive divers have a mineral crystal.

What Other Reviewers Say

Spinnaker watches reviews

As we mentioned earlier, Spinnaker has become a darling of the watch enthusiast crowd. Customers seem to love them, too. With a 4.8-star average rating and over 2,300 reviews, most buyers seem happy with what they got. 

The major draw is for folks who want an automatic movement but don’t want to spend the $1,000-$2,000 (or much more for those who want a Blue Chip Swiss brand).

The Verdict

There are a few drawbacks with Spinnaker, like some models coming with a mineral crystal rather than sapphire, or the water resistance rating being a little low for divers (18atm). But the brand does a fantastic job balancing the quality the watch community demands with the durability needed to be functional. And they look cool, too.

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Spinnaker specializes in reasonably priced automatic dive watches. They're pushing the boundaries of what a diver can look like while still keeping it classy.

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Time to Go Micro?

There are plenty of other microbrands out there, but we kept our list to brands that offer excellent quality under $500 (there are a few exceptions for certain models, but mostly, these watches are affordable).

If you’re looking for a fantastic automatic dress watch, check out Vario

For a minimalist masterpiece that gives back to the community, Nordgreen is a must. UNDONE has the off-the-wall designs that will undoubtedly start many conversations. 

VAER is the go-to for top-quality, durable, USA-built timepieces that look great and are relatively inexpensive. 

And Spinnaker is worth taking a look at if you want an automatic diver with a nod to vintage horology. 

What’s your favorite microbrand?

FAQs

Which watches hold their value best?

Legacy brands like Rolex, Omega, and Tag Heuer hold their value well. Microbrands usually have solid resale value, but we don’t recommend you think of them as an investment—they likely won’t appreciate in value.

Is Steinhart a Microbrand?

Steinhart is a small brand, but their estimated production volume (30,000 watches) puts them out of the range of microbrand.

What makes a watch high quality?

When determining the quality of a watch, enthusiasts look at a few major factors: the “movement,” which is the internal mechanism of the watch. Automatic movements are perceived to be more high-quality than quartz. The glass is also important to consider: sapphire is more scratch resistant than mineral. Other factors like water-resistance and design features come into play as well.