The Best Tool Watches at Every Budget

And while we're at it, what is a tool watch, anyway?

March 23, 2023 10:28 am
The best tool watches for every budget
The best tool watches for every budget

What exactly does the term “tool watch” mean? For much of the history of the wristwatch, any timepiece was a tool. After all, until the proliferation of the cell phone, there simply wasn’t another convenient, portable way to tell the time. These days, however, with wristwatches largely serving a decorative, superfluous role in everyday life, a re-characterization of certain timepieces is necessary — which is how we arrived at “tool watch.” Those watches still used — at least in theory — to pursue a specific, hard-wearing purpose such as diving, flying, exploration, etc., are considered “tool watches.” 

The Tool Watch Today 

For some years, it was largely journalists who trafficked in the “tool watch” concept. Nowadays, watch companies themselves have begun to adopt the term, possibly sensing its ability to help them market to desk-bound men across the world who live out their globe-trotting, James Bond-esque fantasies through their gear. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)

The Best Travel Watches at Every Budget
And yes, we’re aware you don’t actually need one. But we still think you should get one.

The “tool watch” moniker itself is neutral — it merely described a purpose-built wristwatch that was designed for a specific job. But don’t be fooled by marketing hype, whether from watch companies or from we journalists: Mechanical wristwatches, much as we love them and peddle the hell out of them to you, dear reader, are (largely) technologically obsolete pieces of kit. As long as one accepts and understands this, we believe it’s perfectly possible to enjoy the hell out of wristwatches without a feeling of guilt (or stupidity, for that matter). 

(We’ll also add that we believe that there is a place in our lives for analog kit, as its propensity to continue functioning without the need for service/charging gives it an edge over digital variants in certain situations.)

Categories of Tool Watch

There are several types of tool watch. Here are but a few and their use cases:

Dive Watch: Used to time bottom time and decompression stops while SCUBA diving. This is generally accomplished via the use of a rotating bezel on what is otherwise a time-only watch.

Chronograph: Used to time things such as laps, intervals, production cycles, etc. This is generally accomplished via a set of pushers on the case flank that activates the chronograph, which is read via sub-dials on the watch’s main dial. These watches work well for those who consistently need to time events from 30 minutes in duration up to 12 hours.

GMT/World Timer: Used to display and track multiple time zones, whether through the combination of a fourth “GMT” hand plus a 24-hour scale or rotating bezel, or another system. These watches are perfect for travelers, or those who need to keep tabs on someone living abroad. 

Field Watch: Used to provide the time in an exacting environment — often outdoors, in inclement weather, while taking a beating. This is the classic “military” watch, with a simple, time-only configuration, and a water-resistant case. They were historically also used for exploration and scientific expeditions.

Smartwatch: Don’t be fooled — a smartwatch can absolutely be a tool watch. In fact, something like the Apple Watch Ultra or a Suunto is really the most relevant type of tool watch in the 21st century, seeing as it easily integrates into our digital lives. 

Our 10 Favorite Tool Watches

Rolex Submariner ref. 124060

Released in 1953, alongside Blacnpain’s Fifty Fathoms and Zodiac’s Sea Wolf, the “Sub” has endured 70 years as the prototypical dive watch. Robust, highly legible, and handsome as hell, it has proliferated beyond the specialized world of SCUBA diving to become perhaps the most iconic and recognized wristwatch in the world. (Once, it was possible to pick one up at a Post Exchange on your local military base, and indeed, many enlisted men and officers can be seen in vintage photographs sporting Subs.) These days, as many bankers, lawyers, marketers, and others “flying a desk” wear Subs as actual divers — but that hasn’t diminished this remarkable watch’s worth as a true, specialized tool.

  • Type: Dive
  • Diameter: 41mm
  • Movement: Rolex Calibre 3230 automatic 
  • Water Resistance: 300m
  • Price: $9,100

Omega Speedmaster 

American astronaut Jim Lovell famously timed a critical thruster burn during the near-disaster that was Apollo 13, allowing he and his crew to return to Earth safely. This, of course, wasn’t the “Speedy’s” first rodeo — the official watch of NASA’s space program, it had already seen years of action aboard the wrists of NASA astronauts, and had even walked on the Moon on the wrist of Buzz Aldrin. These days, the Speedy has never looked so good: Equipped with the fresh Omega Calibre 3861 movement and given new, vintage-inspired aesthetic cues, it’s still a reliable, hand-wound chronograph capable of timing all manner of things. And though your phone might be more accurate, a Speedy will keep on working so long as you’ve got the finger strength to twist the crown a few times. 

  • Type: Chronograph
  • Diameter: 42mm
  • Movement: Omega Calibre 3861 hand-wound
  • Water Resistance: 50m
  • Price: $6,600 (on bracelet w/Hesalite crystal)

Tudor Pelagos 39

Ever since the collection’s debut in 2012, fans of the overengineered Pelagos have been clamoring for a slightly smaller version. Finally, in 2022, Tudor obliged: While the original 42mm version was simply a gem of a tool watch, the Pelagos 39, cased in titanium and measuring 39mm in diameter, is a dream of a watch. Perfect for both serious divers and city slickers alike, it’s got a COSC-certified, in-house movement, a business-first (but decidedly handsome) dial, an awesome bracelet, and more. Though those who dive often might prefer to have the helium escape valve, automatic bracelet adjustment system, and matte bezel insert of the original model, the 39 is no doubt the more versatile of the two.

  • Type: Dive
  • Diameter: 39mm
  • Movement: Tudor MT5400 automatic 
  • Water Resistance: 200m
  • Price: $4,600

Marathon Navigator 

In the 1980s, personnel from Kelly Air Force Base in the United States put in a request to Canadian watch company Marathon: They needed a wristwatch that could safely and reliably operate at high altitudes with which to equip pilots and parachutists. The result, known today as the Marathon Navigator, is a simple, time-only watch cased in resin and finished with a 12-hour bezel. This simple, affordable design — which is powered by a quartz movement — has proved reliable for decades, and is still in production today. Available in different colors and dials, it’s a tried-and-true field watch with serious military credentials, and one of the few that remains affordable despite the explosion in popularity of military watches.

  • Type: Field/Pilot’s 
  • Diameter: 41mm
  • Movement: ETA High-Torque FØ6 quartz
  • Water Resistance: 60m
  • Price: $420+

Rolex GMT-Master II

Introduced in 1954, the GMT-Master was designed at the request of Pan American Airlines as a dual-time watch with which to equip its flight crews. Its endurance — partially the result of its unmistakable bi-color bezel — is proof not only of its utility, but of its place within the zeitgeist as a status symbol. Available in numerous colorways, bracelets, and configurations, the modern GMT-Master II allows for the tracking of three time zones via an independently adjustable local hour hand and a rotating, bi-directional 24-hour bezel. Water resistant to 100m, it’s a true tool watch through and through, even if many owners have no idea how to properly use one! If you travel frequently, there’s perhaps no better (and more versatile) mechanical wrist companion. 

  • Type: GMT
  • Diameter: 40mm
  • Movement: Rolex Calibre 3285 automatic
  • Water Resistance: 100m
  • Price: $10,900+

Hamilton Khaki Field Mechanical 

Hamilton’s long experience making military watches for U.S. forces put it in an excellent position to draw on those influences for its Khaki Field Mechanical, which was released to much acclaim in 2018. Measuring a comfortable 38mm in diameter and retailing for well under $1,000, this handsome, hand-wound field watch recalls the MIL-W-46374 and GG-W-113s produced under contract for the U.S. government during and after the Vietnam War. The “KFM,” however, features increased water resistance, a larger profile, Super-LumiNova lume, 80 hours of power reserve, and several available colorways. For those who spend lots of time outdoors and need something simple, robust, and reliable — not to mention affordable — it’s an excellent option.

  • Type: Field 
  • Diameter: 38mm
  • Movement: Hamilton H50
  • Water Resistance: 50m
  • Price: $575+

IWC Timezoner

Large and imposing, the 46mm Timezoner is nevertheless a brilliant horological innovation — indeed, one has the impression that had it debuted in the 1960s, it would have become an icon. As it is, the Timezoner features a brilliant mechanism: Push down and twist the world time bezel to one of its listed cities, and the watch’s hour hand, 24-hour hand, and date display automatically update to reflect the new time, making traveling a cinch. And if that weren’t enough, this incredible watch also incorporates a 12-hour chronograph with flyback functionality. Original, highly useful, and handsome — if a bit large! — the Timezoner is perfect for travelers, pilots, and more. 

  • Type: World Timer
  • Diameter: 46mm
  • Movement: IWC Calibre 89760 automatic 
  • Water Resistance: 60m
  • Price: $12,300

Casio G-SHOCK 6900 Series

Favored by soldiers the world over for its robustness, wide-ranging feature set, affordability, stealthy profile, and comfort, the G-SHOCK is the unofficial military watch of the 21st century. The 6900 series, with its wide complement of alarms, timers, and calendar functionality, is a contemporary tool watch through and through — and best of all, it can be found all around the globe, often for under $100. With its black resin case and matching band, it blends in  perfectly on nighttime maneuvers, yet provides a backlight strong enough to read in even the darkest of environments. Indeed, even if you’re not a soldier, it’s impossible not to appreciate the 6900’s qualifications. 

  • Type: Field (digital)
  • Diameter: 45.5mm
  • Movement: Casio quartz
  • Water Resistance: 200m
  • Price: ~$85

Apple Watch Ultra 

If you’re looking for the most relevant, advanced, impressive piece of wrist-borne kit that currently exists, it’s hard to beat the Apple Watch Ultra. Designed with athletes in mind, the newest iteration of the Apple Watch incorporates all kinds of specialized features that are readily accessible via the new Action button, as well as an 86 dB emergency siren, an SOS signal, and biometric analysis. With its sophisticated GPS, onboard SCUBA features from Oceanic, ultrabright screen, and much more, there’s no doubt that this is the tool watch of the 21st century. (Just don’t forget to charge it — right now, it’ll only last 36-60 hours at a clip.) 

  • Type: Smartwatch
  • Diameter: 49mm
  • Movement: Apple S8 chip
  • Water Resistance: 100m
  • Price: $799+


The modern take on the vaunted Mark XI pilot’s watch that debuted way back in 1948 and was in use by the British military for decades, the Mark XX is everything one needs in a pilot/field watch, and nothing one doesn’t. Measuring 40mm in diameter and less than 11mm in depth, it features 100m of water resistance, and in-house, automatic movement with an impressive 5-day power reserve, and comes in one of several dial colors (including classic black). Though it features a date window, it’s impossible to gaze upon this simple beauty without thinking of its post-War ancestor — especially on its black leather strap. Tough enough to wear in the water but dressy enough to wear to dinner, the Mark XX is contemporary tool watch royalty. 

  • Type: Field/Pilot’s
  • Diameter: 40mm
  • Movement: IWC Calibre 32111 automatic 
  • Water Resistance: 100m
  • Price: $5,250+

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