The more you get into Chinese watches, the quicker you realize how the industry is fooling us. You're used to paying hundreds of dollars to get a sapphire crystal, and you usually don't see ceramic bezels on sub-$1000 watches.
What if the huge price associated with these high-quality components was a result of smart marketing rather than actual material cost? Chinese watchmakers have proven time and time again that 90% of what you pay for is marketing rather than material.
Fortunately, those of us who can see through the watch industry's marketing scheme can get incredible bargains from Chinese websites such as Aliexpress.
1. Pagani Design Sub
100m /10 bar
With over 3000 orders on Aliexpress, the Pagani Design Submariner is undoubtedly the most popular Chinese dive watch. Selling for around $80, the amount of high-quality components you get is astounding.
Usually, most Rolex Submariner homages simply recreate the styling without having the components to back it up. However, the Pagani Design Sub has a ceramic bezel, a sapphire crystal, a solid stainless steel bracelet with solid end-links, and much more.
The only disappointing feature is the 100m water resistance, which doesn't allow for diving. However, it's very possible that it actually has 200m of water resistance, but Chinese watch brands always try to understate the WR rating to avoid complaints or returns.
Also, it's important to note that the case diameter of 43mm is almost 10% bigger than the Rolex Sub, so small wrists should steer clear from this piece. If you have 6.75'' and below wrists, Pagani Design also sells a 40mm model, but it's only available in two colors.
Indeed, one of the greatest selling points of the Pagani Design Sub 43mm is the wide range of color schemes available. My personal favorite is the Hulk layout (green dial and green bezel).
2. Cadisen Automatic
50m / 5 bar
Solid 316l Stainless Steel
Although every watchmaker marks up its prices heavily, dress watches are even more subject to these inflated prices. Indeed, marketers know that our brain is wired to spend a lot of money when shopping for formal wear (suits, shoes, belts, etc. are always very expensive).
This means that by taking out the marketing factor, you can get an incredibly good watch, such as the Cadisen Automatic, for the price of a gas tank. This ≈$50 Chinese dress watch has everything you need, and much more.
The sapphire crystal means you can be pretty clumsy with your Cadisen and the glass will probably look flawless for years. Also, the Seiko NH36 movement is reliable, accurate, and even has hacking and hand-winding functions.
Not only does the Cadisen Automatic uses high-quality components, but it's also exquisitely finished. For instance, both the black or white dial share a sunburst finish that's reminiscent of $500+ dress watches.
Additionally, the 316l stainless steel case and bracelet have a nice finish, with sold links and end-links for the bracelet.
3. Steel Bagelsport
30m / 3 bar
Let's be honest, most of us don't have $100,000 in our bank account, let alone to spend on a watch. However, this doesn't mean that you can't enjoy the simple minimalist look of the Patek Nautilus. Fortunately for you, there's a way to get this iconic styling without remortgaging your house.
The Steel Bagelsport is amazing in every way possible, including its hilarious name. This watch replicates perfectly the essence of the Patek Nautilus for 1/1000th of the price. Everything is aesthetically the same, from the very simple baton hands & indices to the teak dial texture.
However, the Steel Bagelsport isn't as much of a "Specs Monster" as other Chinese watches. For instance, the DG2813 movement is a replica of the Miyota 8215 so it won't be as reliable, and quality control is always worst than the Japanese counterpart.
Also, the 30m water resistance means you can't take your Bagelsport for a swim, and the mineral crystal is sure to get scratched to a certain degree during its ownership.
Nonetheless, this is still a beautiful watch that fills its purpose: replicating the Patek Nautilus's styling without costing an arm and a leg.
4. Parnis Seamaster
200m / 20 bar
It's damn-near impossible to write a "Best Chinese Watches" article without mentioning Parnis. It is one of the most well-established Chinese watch brands around the world, and there's a reason for it.
The Parnis I chose for this list is the Seamaster Homage. It's one of the most underrated watches from the whole Parnis lineup in my opinion, so I want to shine a bit of light on it.
The Seamaster homage highlights every single reason why Parnis got so huge. For instance, the 120-click bezel is extremely crisp, and most examples have few misalignments. Also, the wave pattern of the dial is well-done, and so is the finish of the brushed case & bracelet.
This Seamaster homage uses the Japanese Miyota 8215 automatic caliber, which is a "tested and proven" workhorse. Although the second-hand can be a bit jerky, the movement itself is extremely sturdy and you can count on it to run for decades.
Finally, it's great to know that the Parnis Seamaster has a 200m water resistance and a fully functional screw-down crown. This means that you can take this timepiece for recreational diving without a problem.
5. Haiqin Chronograph
Haiqin 21 Jewels
30m / 3 bar
Moonphase, Day, Date
At only $40 for such an amazing styling, it's not surprising to see that the Haiqin Chronograph is in the top 5 selling Chinese watches on Aliexpress. This is the kind of piece that will get compliments every single time you put it on.
There's a lot to unpack on this amazing but crowded dial. First, you will probably notice the big tourbillon window at the 6 o'clock position. This is a very rare feature that's usually found on extremely high-end timepieces.
Next, the two sub-dials are used to tell the day and date. I think this is a great distinguishing feature compared to the usual boring day-date window. Finally, the moon phase complication at the top of the dial is gorgeous, but it isn't that useful.
Haiqin isn't vocal about the movement they use in this chronograph timepiece. However, we can see that the Rotor is signed by the company, but this doesn't necessarily mean it's an in-house movement. Like most sub-50$ Chinese timepieces, quality control will be a hit or miss, so be ready to send it back if it fails within a couple of months.
6. Guanqin Moonphase
30m / 3 bar
If you're a fan of the moon phase complication of the Haiqin but found the dial to be a bit overcrowded, the Guanqin Moonphase is perfect for you. This one has a moon phase complication at 6 o'clock, a 24-hour subdial at 3 o'clock, and a skeleton tourbillon at 9 o'clock.
The mineral crystal and 30m water resistance are easy to overlook when you consider that this timepiece can be had for $20. This is a chronograph mechanical watch for the price of a restaurant meal, which never ceases to amaze me.
Of course, quality control isn't great, but I've heard that the customer service is surprisingly responsive (which explains the 99% positive feedback of the Guanqin store).
It's good to know that the Guanqin Moonphase can be bought in 9 variations with different bracelets or leather straps, case and dial colors, etc.
7. Heimdallr SKX
200m / 20 bar
Back when Seiko released the SKX007 in 1996 for under $200, they probably never would've guessed that somebody would make an SKX homage someday. Now that the SKX is discontinued and prices keep climbing, an SKX homage makes more and more sense.
Moreover, almost every single owner end up modding their SKX007 to upgrade the very basic (and underwhelming) OEM components. Heimdallr saves you time and money by giving you a near-identical homage of the SKX with the upgraded components already built-in.
For instance, you get the same hand-wound and hackable Seiko NH36 movement that's often swapped in place of the original 7s26. Also, you get a sapphire crystal with anti-reflective coating as well as a ceramic bezel (two staples in the SKX modding world).
It's also good to note that the hands, indices, and bezel are coated with a thick layer of Swiss Superluminova. Heimdallr uses the C3 application, which is the brightest and most durable lume of Superluminova's collection. This one will definitely be brighter than Seiko's Lumibrite.
For under $200, the Heimdallr SKX certainly packs a lot of punch.
In conclusion, here's a table with the 7 best Chinese watches of the year, and their best selling point:
best Chinese watches
Pagani Design Sub
Dressy Styling, Very Affordable
Best Patek Nautilus Homage
200m Water Resistance, Gorgeous
Neat Dial, Dirt Cheap Price
"Turnkey" Modded SKX