A Guide to Rugged Solar and Kinetic Watches

Of course there’s nothing like a finely tuned auto and the sense that your watch is powered purely from the motion you provide. Well, stop romanticizing watches for a moment. You need at least one watch in your collection that is purely fun and functional. Many of the best solar or kinetic quartz watches today can be had for under $500 and can provide around 20 years or more of service-free watch enjoyment.

If I’m going to have a true “beater” watch then I’m going to grab a solar or kinetic watch.

To simplify, solar (or what Citizen brands as Eco-Drive) uses natural or artificial light to charge the battery. Just don’t stick it in your drawer and leave it there. That’s all.

Kinetic watches (invented by Seiko) contain a large rotor that charges the battery with the movement of the wearer. Note: It’s well documented that early Seiko kinetics contained a capacitor/battery that had issues. Modern kinetic owners are reporting solid performance, but I must warn readers that kinetic batteries are weakened when they are completely drained. That said, kinetic watches generally have a six-month power reserve, so simply wearing your watch is the simplest solution.

Of course there are some folks who will want to debate the merits of these alternatively powered watches, but this article is meant for those who want an inexpensive, accurate grab-and-go that can take on rugged activities. Planning on bodysurfing Waimea or motorcycling through Vietnam or maybe taking the kids to the local playground? Then read on for some superb solar or kinetic beater suggestions. Besides who doesn’t need an excuse to buy a new watch to experience?



In this realm, I stick with the three Japanese manufacturers who specialize in this technology: Seiko, Citizen, and Casio.

You can’t really discuss tough solar watches without mentioning Casio G-Shocks. Of course, some people will not come close to a plastic digital watch, but I think they are missing out on some feature-packed fun that is impossible to destroy.

For the exact opposite of value, but for true excessive watch nerd pleasure, I’ll introduce the Japan-only GW-5000, which is a modern tribute to the very first G-Shock model, the DW5000, which came to market in 1983. The $325 GW-5000 looks like any $40 “square” G you can buy at Wal-Mart, and that’s its beauty. Only the wearer knows it has a metal case, a DLC’d screwdown caseback, solar and atomic features and a softer resin case and band. Is it overpriced? Of course. Is it awesome in its ridiculousness? Of course. Non-watch people will think you are an idiot for paying over $300 for a plain G-Shock that you have to order from Japan. But that’s why they are non-watch people.


There are a variety of solar/atomic G-Shocks to choose from and I can’t cover them all. But if you figure that you want tons of features if you are entering G-Shock territory, check out the Rangeman series for about $300. These watches can tell you altitude, barometric pressure and direction in addition to the normal range of G-Shock utilities. It’s on the big side, but some people like that.


But if you are strictly an analog watch wearer, check out the Seiko SKA371 or its ion-plated variant the SKA427. These modern kinetic divers are nicknamed the BFK (Big Freakin Kinetic) on watch forums and pretty much live up to their monikers. These ISO-rated divers have a lot great attributes for a sub-$300 watch: killer bezel action, high quality bracelet and astounding durability and accuracy. This watch is perfect as a summer beach watch and its 20mm flat edged lugs (with drilled-through lug holes) make swaps for rubber or nylon really easy. Some don’t like the skeleton hands, but I think they are unique and are a subtle nod that this watch is a bit different. Its 43mm case size is not even considered huge by modern standards.


If you prefer something smaller and lighter in a diver, go for the titanium and solar powered SBDN001/003. This is a Japan only model has a 39mm case and is very light on the wrist so if you strap on a NATO you will barely notice this watch is on, great for swimming or paddle-boarding. For about $360 you can grab a titanium, ISO-rated 200 meter diver watch that is part of Seiko’s higher end Prospex line.


Lately, all I’ve been wearing is Seiko’s Sportura Kinetic GMT watch, the SUN015. It comes with a screwdown crown, sapphire glass, ceramic bezel insert, true independently adjustable hour hand, solid-end-link bracelet and dead-on quartz accuracy. I use it to keep in synch with my colleagues in Europe. This watch can be had for less than $500 if you shop patiently.


Citizen has become the player in solar with its Eco-Drive technology. By most accounts, reliability reports with Eco-Drive watches have been stellar. Citizen offers Eco-Drive across a wide variety of styles, but I’ll stick with the rugged theme here.

The Promaster BN0101-58E is just simply a solid, no-fuss diver. There’s not much to say besides that it’s the perfect solar watch (with a nice orange minute hand) for people who prefer more conservative looking automatics. It’s another under $400 steal that comes with a bracelet with expandable clasp and rubber strap.


On the other end of the spectrum, there’s the Ecozilla, the nickname for the Citizen BJ8051-05E. Generally, this watch can be purchased new for under $300 and it is a true behemoth with, ahem, distinctive looks. It proudly sits tall and its bezel rotates with your whole hand and works well with diving gloves on. This watch is built for pure function. It’s easy to read and has a proprietary rubber strap system that won’t fail. Certainly, it’s not a watch for those who prefer more subtle designs. If you want to trick it out with other straps, aftermarket adapters are available.


So, have you picked out your solar or kinetic watch to add to your collection? These are watches that you can buy, set and forget about. It’s just good to have something in your rotation that fulfills those needs. Besides, don’t you need an atomic G to set all your automatics against?

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Li's first watch was a $105 Seiko 5 dress watch. That purchase started his obsession, though he has since moved a bit more upmarket. Today, Li is a fanatic for Seiko divers, both vintage and new, with a special appreciation for the Seiko Marinemaster 300m.