Solar-Powered Watches: An Overview
One famous watch brand once made the claim of having “no limits”. This frequently proved to be too good to be true, however.
And one of the most irksome limits of watches has always been their need to be charged. Mechanical clockwork requires winding. Automatic watches need wrist movement. Quartz-based movements need a battery to work. Having a watch that does not need to be regularly charged would be a sort of boon, wouldn’t it?
Somebody should really invent that, right?
Well, let us tell you that someone has, using one of the most ubiquitous ways to capture energy in nature: solar power. Through the development and miniaturization of solar panels, watchmakers have started to tinker with solar technology, tweaking it to propel our tick-tocking friends.
It started in the 1980s, right after the Quartz Crisis. Some companies, especially those from Japan, such as Seiko and Citizen, started to introduce their first solar powered watches, which were mostly LCD-based. For these early models, the solar cells were most often set on the top of the case, as it was not possible to integrate them into the display.
However, technology has advanced steadily, and this limit does not hold true anymore. While you will now find both digital and analog watches using solar technology, their dials won’t reveal their solar cells at first sight. This is good news for those who are more into design.
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The good news is that the technology is here. It’s tested, true, and quite affordable. Plus, it has become more transparent, allowing watches to look like their more traditional counterparts.
The Best 12 Solar Watches
1. Seiko PADI Special Edition Prospex Solar Diver SNE499
If you have a passing interest in diving, take note that Seiko has long been famous for its diving watches. So much so, that it has partnered with PADI, which is the international association of divers, to create some models specifically designed to meet its expectations.
The Prospex SNE499 is one result of this cooperation. It is a lovely “tuna-style” diving watch, with blue and red accents over a textured black dial, which speaks quality from afar.
This timepiece is ISO-compliant to be water resistant to 200 meters, making it perfect even for professional diving. It mounts a rendition of Seiko’s very precise caliber V157, made in Japan, tucked inside a 47 mm stainless steel case with a screw-down crown.
The dial and hands are very legible. They employ a generous amount of Lumibrite allowing them to be visible in the dark, and are protected by a Hardlex mineral crystal and a one-way rotating bezel. The watch band is made of heavy-duty rubber or a stainless steel bracelet.
All said, it feels sort of lightweight. However, this may not be an issue, especially since wearing a heavy watch can be cumbersome. Although not slim at 12 mm thick, it’s not too bulky either and can be worn in formal occasions without too much fuss.
2. Citizen Eco-Drive Titanium Chronograph CA0265-59E
This sleek black chronograph from Citizen features an Eco-Drive movement. It has a sexy appearance, with its 43 mm brushed black titanium case. Additionally, the case has been enhanced by Duratec, Citizen’s proprietary surface hardening technology, which makes the material up to five times harder than regular stainless steel.
Forty percent lighter than stainless steel, titanium has taken a lead role in many high-tech niches. It has a cool, industrial-style look when worn. and offers a fitting material for this watch and its integrated bracelet with fold-over clasp.
This watch features a honeycomb-patterned center dial, featuring date window and trio of chronograph subdials. The timekeeping subdials part features a 1/5 second chronograph, 12/24-hour time, as well as a date window at three o’clock. Additionally, the Lumibrite-applied indexes and hands are very legible. The glass is an anti-reflective sapphire crystal.
It sports a water resistance of 100 meters, enough for casual snorkeling and even most scuba diving. Nonetheless, we are sure that it will also fit perfectly into the meeting room.
3. Casio G-Shock Tough Solar GW-M5610BC-1JF
Everyone knows about Casio and its distinctive G-Shock line of survival/sports watches. The original G-Shock has morphed in so many ways and shapes that it is really hard to keep track of them all!
More recently, solar power, which was not an original option for the G-Shocks, has been introduced. Casio’s model, called the Tough Solar, is quite efficient: it just needs five minutes of exposure to light per day, and there you go.
This G-Shock closely follows the original shape and design, unlike many of its brethren. The 47 mm case is made from black rubbery material. The strap is a resin and metal combination, where the outer segments are resin and the inner ones metal. This combination creates a lightweight, strong, comfortable band that strengthens the watch’s presence and wearability.
The watch is extremely accurate, as it is atomic-controlled. It connects daily with one of six radio towers in the world, and syncs itself. No hassles anymore, ever! It sports an inverted display with white digits over a black dial. While this somewhat improves readability, it might not be everybody’s piece of cake. But in our opinion, even under direct sunlight, it’s not much different from a regular black-on-white dial.
4. Seiko Prospex Solar Drive Stainless Steel Chronograph SSC017
If you love diving watches, Seiko has all it takes to satisfy your needs. This great-looking chronograph from the Prospex line looks tough and masculine. It’s not huge, at 44 mm diameter, but with a thickness of 14 mm, it has the look and feel of a solid, reassuring watch. This timepiece has presence and will get you compliments everywhere you go.
The stainless case is excellently made, as is the solid metal, matching bracelet. Definitely heavy-duty stuff. The band has a fold-over clasp and double-push-button safety. The rotating bezel is a silky-smooth operation. The hardlex mineral crystal protects its very legible black dial. The white indexes look visible even underwater, with the possible exception of the small date window and the blue hand.
The watch recharges very well in sunlight, needing just a brief exposure – five hours of sunlight will get you a six months charge. It is water resistant to 200m (660 ft), making it generally suitable for professional marine activity and serious surface water sports.
5. Casio Wave Ceptor Analog-Digital Stainless Steel Solar Watch WVA-M640D-1ACR
Among Casio’s offerings, we find this very affordable and beautiful stainless steel analog-digital watch, which receives multi-band time-calibration radio signals to maintain its perfect accuracy. Once set to your home city, the watch syncs through a radio-controlled connection and keeps amazing time – all the time.
It features a 43 mm stainless steel case and matching bracelet, with a deployant-clasp closure. This provides a light-weight but very robust well-made feel, at less than 100 grams.
The black dial and white indexes feature traditional hands and an LCD display that are all very legible. You can control its several functions easily, including world time, support for twenty-nine time zones, city code display, daylight saving mode, day-of-week display in five languages, five daily alarms, hourly time signal, 1/100-second stopwatch, countdown timer, full auto calendar, and 12/24-hour formats.
Additionally, for low-light situations, there is a handy LED light mode.
The solar charging on this model is excellent, and it displays on the screen with a five-step indicator. The timepiece is water resistant for up to 100 meters, so you can even wear it while diving and snorkeling.
6. Seiko Stainless Steel Solar Watch SNE329
Well, we can’t be sporty all the time, can we? To make up for it, and solar powered watches are there to accompany us in the more mundane tasks of our daily life.
This model from Seiko is a living (or beating?) proof that solar powered watches can look just about perfect. Its no-nonsense design sports a definite military vibe. It captures you with simple, sleek aesthetics and very legible numbers spaced around the dial, together with a (tiny) indication of the date.
The stainless steel case is 43 mm, and mounts a nylon wristband with leather backing, secured by a 22 mm wide tang buckle. However, this buckle can easily be switched out with other standard clasps to give to this timepiece more character or make it a bit more formal if needed.
The case and its finishings deserve special praise. The top of the bezel and lugs are made of brushed steel with a shiny stainless on the sides. This creates a very nice combo with a classy look, which you don’t often find in watches of this price range. Also, the face of the watch looks great: it is of an extremely captivating dark midnight blue color that appears black in most lighting situations. With a good dose of sunlight or bright lights you can see the dark blue tint.
And as an added bonus, it is also 100 meters water resistant, which makes it perfect even for casual water activity.
7. Bering Slim Solar Collection Dress Watch 14639-307
Uh-oh. There’s a stranger lurking here! And yes – apart from the Japanese, who are the most prominent pros of this peculiar field, we find another brand making solar watches: Bering brings classy, minimal Danish design to the solar powered crowd.
The Bering 14639-307 looks extremely sleek in comparison with the others. It’s thin (at just 9 mm thick), understated, and it is characterized by the use of the blue color everywhere. The timelessly elegant 39mm case is made from polished, silver-toned IP plated stainless steel. A blue-toned dial with matching indices and hands is housed under its sapphire crystal anti-scratch glass.
The bracelet is a Milanese stainless steel mesh strap made from a delicate, blue-toned IP plated with a tang buckle, which completes the look of this beautiful timepiece. The Japanese-made quartz movement of this timepiece runs on a rechargeable battery, which is charged by any form of light and lasts for 6-12 months on a single full charge. All in all, this is an amazing watch which you could wear even in the most formal occasions without fear of finding yourself underwatched.
8. Tissot T-Touch Expert Solar Analog-Digital Titanium Watch T0914204405100
This is a rather big watch with a 45 mm diameter. This timepiece, coming from the world-famous Le Locle-based brand, shows that the Swiss still have their say in this field.
The Tissot Expert relies on the T-Touch technology. This is a fairly uncommon technology, introduced in 1999, which allows finger inputs on the watch by touching its sapphire glass. This model of the T-Touch has many functions to control, including multiple time zones, which you can easily switch between while automatically altering the analog display, countdown timer, stopwatch with laps, altitude, and barometer.
The materials used are top-notch and finished with the usual Swiss workmanship: The case is made of titanium, as is the integrated bracelet, which closes by a deployant clasp and push button closure. The glass is a sapphire crystal, and the quartz movement contained inside is a high-end Swiss ETA model (not surprising, considering ETA is part of the Swatch group together with Tissot).
9. Seiko Recraft Series Solar Stainless Steel Watch SSC667
This Seiko Recraft series watch is a delightful re-edition of a design style which was in vogue in the 1970s. It’s a tricompax chronograph with stopwatch functions (1/5 sec to 60 minutes with split time measurement), and also has a handy 24-hour sub-dial.
Its iridescent silver and radiant blue dial, fitted with LumiBrite hands and markers, andsmall date calendar absorb energy from the sun (or any light source) to power the watch. When fully charged it gives it a hefty six-month power reserve.
The stainless steel case measures 43.5mm in diameter, and the timepiece comes with a sporty black nylon strap with blue and orange stripes which complement its details. However, if you would like, you can easily substitute the strap with another 22mm replacement.
The watch is 100 meter water resistant, making it suitable for casual water use.
10. Casio Pro Trek Solar Powered Silicon Watch PRG-650 Y-1CR
With the Pro Trek line of watches by Casio, it’s all in the name. These watches are designed for advanced trekking, so they’ve thrown in every function that would be useful for walking in the wilderness and finding your way home safe and sure. As such, the one we have picked has some nifty features which we think you will appreciate. First of all, it’s temperature-resistant to protect it from very low temperatures.
For a solar watch, this timepiece excels in night activities! The PRG-650 Y-1CR belongs to the so-called “night safari concept” line. This means the outside of the band and the face are both black. This model has a stylish and subdued design, which doesn’t sacrifice the readability required for nighttime activities. It comes with Dura-Soft bands that incorporate silicon materials to improve durability. The inside of the band is luminescent, allowing it to emit a faint glow at night.
Function-wise, the watch is equipped with a double LED Illuminator that allows easy reading of the time and function modes, even in the dark. The functions include everything that you will ever need: the patented Triple Sensor, including a compass, altitude barometric pressure gauge, and temperature reading, a one-touch measurement button, a countdown timer, five daily alarms, an hourly time signal which can be snoozed, a battery level indicator, and a full auto-calendar.
Plus, the Tough Solar system equipping them is now so efficient that even the weakest light sources are sufficient to operate the watches, while also featuring an advanced power-saving architecture. And as an added bonus, these watches are also 100 meters water resistant, which makes them perfect for water activity.
11. Seiko Coutura Stainless Steel Radio Sync Solar Watch SSG020
The Seiko Coutura is an imposing watch with a 44.5 mm diameter. It features a beautiful stainless steel case and integrated bracelet. It closes with a fold-over clasp and single button safety, adorned with gold accents.
The striking blue dial, covered by a sapphire crystal glass, is what sets this timepiece apart from the rest. It displays a second subdial at six that displays a second time zone. The bevel has indications for the 25 world time zones. The face is textured with a guilloche pattern and has applied gold markers and Lumibrite-covered hands. This timepiece looks luxurious, and will gain attention from onlookers, you can bet on it!
Moreover, this solar powered watch is atomic-controlled, so once you program it for your exact location, it automatically sets itself. From then onwards, it connects to the emitting source three times per day.
Additionally, the timepiece is water resistant for up to 100 meters, so you can even do some snorkeling with it.
12. Timex Expedition Ranger Solar Watch TW4B15000JT
From its launch, the Timex brand has always meant affordable but durable no-nonsense watches that do exactly what they’re meant to, and this Expedition Ranger confirms that rule 100 percent.
This watch definitely looks sharp with its retro-inspired aesthetics. Behind its very legible deep blue dial with white and orange highlights, it mounts a Japanese-made watch movement. Its solar-power cell gives it a reserve charge of two months with just five hours of sunlight exposure.
But the best part of this timepiece is its price. You can buy it for less than three figures, making it a very good deal. As you might expect, though, you will not get advanced features and top-level materials in this model. So, if that’s what yo’re looking for, check out some of the other alternatives above.
The Expedition Ranger is a three-hander featuring only the date and time. It has a 43 mm case, which is made of brass with a stainless steel back. The bezel, is painted brass and does not rotate. To upgrade the design, we recommend substituting the provided leather wristband with a higher-quality one, but this could get a bit tricky, as it is a nonstandard 22.5 mm size.
Despite its shortcomings, there is solid value here, which makes it worthy of placing on our shortlist.
A Brief Guide to Watch Solar Technology: How It Works, and Is It Dependable?
Typically, a solar-powered watch is fitted with a special solar cell located behind the crystal, which absorbs sunlight and artificial light (yes, you do not need direct sunrays on your watch to recharge it). This cell can either be incorporated with the dial face, or remain just under it.
Once the solar energy is absorbed by the cell, it is then converted into electrical power and stored inside a rechargeable power cell.
Some of the mechanisms, like the famous Eco-drive by Citizen, store the energy in a high-potential power cell, which can power the watch for several months without being exposed to an additional light source. This long power is possible because the Citizen engineers have created a power-saving mode, which stops the watch’s hand movements while it is “hibernating”.The timepiece will remain perfectly on-sync, but the hands will just stop moving until they are exposed to a light source again.
The problem is that older models – which used older technologies – have had issues. The biggest problem was the effectiveness of the solar cells, which used to worsen rapidly with age. These watches would eventually stop cold if not constantly exposed to the sun rays. Fortunately, we can tell you that this is not the case anymore.
Modern advances in solar technology have improved the efficiency of the solar panels, which nowadays have a much higher output. Currently, the only problem is that the rechargeable power cells of the watches degrade with age. Companies like Seiko suggest that users change them every ten years, which seems a reasonable amount of time between maintenance to have a perfectly working watch.
So, in the end, technological improvements have rendered solar powered watches just as reliable as quality quartz watches.
About the Author: Franz Rivoira is a Chartered Journalist and Marcomm Professional operating internationally in the world of high-end and luxury products, mainly watches and design objects.
He lives in Italy, but frequently travels the world, especially to Asia. He is a regular contributor to www.ddnblog.it, a reference for everything design-oriented. He is also very active on Quora, the most read Q&A portal in the world, where he has been nominated as one of the Top Writers for 2018.