Simply put, the term “tool watch” refers to a watch that’s designed to achieve a specific purpose. For example, a dive watch will have a high depth rating, a rotating bezel, and a high-visibility dial. Similarly, a pilot’s watch will have built-in tools for navigation. One thing that all decent tool watches have in common is a robust design that’s built to last.
I’ve reviewed a number of tool watches over the years, and it’s tough to pick the very best. That said, I managed to narrow the list down to five. In no particular order, here are my five favorite automatic tool watches under $500.
Seiko Alpinist SARB017
The Seiko Alpinist is a Japanese mountaineering watch that sports a rotating compass ring just inside the bezel. This is an essential element in any Alpinist watch, but Seiko did a terrific job here. They ditched their old Cyclops lens, and kept the elements customers loved, like the relatively Spartan dial. The coloring is olive green, with a metallic sheen that catches the eye, but isn’t too distracting. The bright gold Arabic numerals at even-numbered positions are easy to read under any lighting conditions, and there are triangular hashes at the odd-numbered positions tomatch. The only complication is a date window at the 3 o’clock position. Around the outside, between the main dial and the compass ring, there’s a narrow ladder index for decoration.
The hands are gold in color, matching the numerals and hashes. They’re flared near the tips, with bright lume markings down the center. This gold and green aesthetic really caught my eye, and it’s a big part of why the Alpinist SARB017 sits on this list. It’s housed in a 38mm stainless steel case, so it’s surprisingly compact for what you’re getting. It has a steep, raised bezel, and the scratch-resistant crystal is slightly recessed, so it’s fairly safe from bumps and bangs. Just like you’d want if you were scaling the mountains of Japan!
Hamilton Khaki King H64455533
The Hamilton Khaki King H64455533 is a classic field watch that’s equally well-suited for a week at the office or a weekend at the hunting lodge. The black dial has a high-gloss finish, with bold white Arabic numerals at the hour marks. On the outer edge of the dial, there’s a smaller index with tiny hashes at the five-minute marks and itty-bitty hashes at the single minute marks. There are also small numerals, but they read the five-minute marks instead of the hours. If that’s not enough for you, there’s a medium-sized, inner ring of numerals that reads as a 24-hour dial. Both the numerals and the spear-shaped hands have a lume finish, which makes the Khaki King easy to read.
The thing that really sets it apart, though, is the unique day and date display. Instead of a rectangular complication at 3 o’clock, there’s an arched complication at 12 o’clock. Instead of a 12 o’clock numeral, there’s a wide, arching complication that shows the day of the week. Underneath, a rectangular notch displays the date, right where the 12 o’clock numeral would be. All of this is housed in attractive, yet durable brushed steel case and an anti-reflective sapphire crystal.
The Spinnaker Croft is a Japanese automatic watch that’s designed entirely around high visibility. To begin with, the 12 o’clock double-hash and 9 and 6 o’clock single hashes are impossible to miss, as are the round lugs at each hour position. They’re cream in color with silver borders, a sharp contrast to the slightly textured black dial. At the 3 o’clock position, you’ll see an innovative high-visibility date window. It’s covered with a lens to make the date number look bigger than it actually is, so you don’t have to squint to read it. There’s also a high-visibility 30-minute dial between the 4 and 5 o’clock positions.
The rotating bezel is olive green or black depending on reference, with Arabic numerals at the 10, 20, 40, and 50-minute positions. Despite the bezel, the Croft isn’t overly thick, at only 12mm in thickness. At 43mm in diameter, it has a medium wrist presence, but the weight of only 110 grams is lighter than most watches in this size range. The rear of the stainless steel case has a display back, where you can see the Miyota automatic movement in action. It’s capped by a scratch-resistant sapphire crystal, which has a flat profile that won’t obscure the dial.
Bulova Devil Diver
As you may have guessed from its name, the Bulova Devil Diver is a dive watch. It comes with a rotating Pepsi bezel with white Arabic numerals at the 5, 10,15, 30, and 45-minute positions. It surrounds a matte black dial, with raised white dots at the hour positions. There are also smaller painted indices at the single minute positions, but they’re not as bold as the larger hour dots. There’s a rectangular date window at the 3 o’clock position, with a silver border that adds a touch of class. There’s also a red crosshair over the dial, giving it the appearance of a scope. To be fair, the crosshair is purely cosmetic, but it’s a feature that dates back to the original, classic Devil Diver.
The hands are broad and easy to see, with bright lume stripes down the center. The tips taper to a broad point, with just enough silver to catch the light under the right conditions. The 44mm stainless steel case is water-resistant to 666 feet, with a screw-down crown that won’t get popped out by accident. The larger sapphire crystal is scratch and glare-resistant, and has a smaller, inset magnifying crystal over the date window. This makes it easy to read, even if you’re deep underwater. You can read my full Bulova Devil Diver review if you’d like to learn more.
Melbourne Watch Company Lonsdale
The Melbourne Watch Company Lonsdale is a bit different from the last few options I chose, in that it’s not currently available. Due to supply chain shortages, Melbourne had to temporarily suspend production. The good news is that it’s coming back in November, and it’s available for pre-order.
Regardless, I couldn’t write about the world’s best automatic tool watches without including the Melbourne. This is a more formal watch than the others I’ve mentioned, with a silver-on-teal design that really catches the eye. There are multiple silver ridges around the outer edge, giving the appearance of old-school vinyl record grooves. Amidst these ridges, you’ll see the broad, rectangular lume stripes that mark the hour positions. The hands are similarly broad and bright, so it’s easy to read the time at a quick glance. Around the very outer edge, there are miniscule minute hashes, but they’re so small that they’re really just for decoration. A rectangular date window is the only complication.
The stainless steel case has a medium wrist presence, with a 42mm diameter and 12mm thickness. It has a display back that reveals the Seiko Cal. NH35 movement. Both the top and bottom crystals are made of scratch-resistant sapphire, so you don’t have to worry about them easily getting damaged. The Lonsdale also comes in a gorgeous display box, so you can show it off to all your friends.