Just because James Bond wore a Submariner with a dinner jacket doesn’t mean you should. A dress watch is the most elegant of watches. It has one purpose and that’s to tell time. It need not have complications.
A dress watch needs to be simplistic. Elegant. And above all, minimalistic. It isn’t some gaudy watch that’s bejeweled with diamonds or a chronograph that is so big it looks like a clock. It is subtle, understated and charming. They aren’t intended to be worn with jeans and a t-shirt; to the gym; or bowling on Saturday night. It pairs with your business suit, your dinner jacket, and in some cases, a tuxedo.
Why some cases? Because a watch should never be worn when you don’t have to check the time. Events such as funerals, dates, anniversaries and important meetings are best attended without a watch on your wrist. It shows that you have no other engagements and that the people you’re with are the only important people you’ll be with all night. Checking the time would indicate you have somewhere else to be, or worse, are bored. At events such as these, I highly recommend wearing a pocket watch if you are so inclined to have access to the time. Any event that demands your utmost respect, deserves to have you there without the time attached to your wrist.
With that said, we proudly present our list of the top dress watches for the modern aristocrat.
Patek Philippe Calatrava Ref. 5119
My second favorite watch ever made, this is the quintessential dress watch. It’s understated and yet completely refined, with silky black roman numerals on a creamy white lacquered dial. If you open the case, you’ll find the hand crafted Caliber 215 PS movement that made the Calatrava the pinnacle of Patek Philippe’s family of watches. The watch is sublime with the only embellishments being the Clous de Paris guilloché which is the hobnail pattern that accentuates the bezel. This truly is the perfect dress watch for any gentleman.
For those seeking a classic and elegant dress watch without the price tag of a Patek Philippe, one option that is worthy of your consideration is the exquisite Nomos Tangente. At just a fraction of the price of the Calatrava, this German designed timepiece is one I had the pleasure of testing a few months ago. I compare this watch to a woman’s little black dress as it’s the kind of timepiece you can wear anywhere and it will always look in place. The 17 jeweled, Nomos caliber α (Alpha) movement has a 43 hour power reserve with stop-seconds mechanism. For the price, it’s a powerhouse of a movement that’s made exceptionally well. This serves as a great entry level dress watch or an incredible daily wear timepiece that pairs beautifully with everything from jeans and polo shirt to your finest business suit.
Probably the most iconic dress watch ever made, the Cartier Tank is a sophisticated, yet simple timepiece that deserves your attention and your praise. It comes with a wide variety of movements based on how much you’re willing to pay in quartz, automatic and manual movement. This particular watch is one that’s graced the wrist of more high profile world leaders than any other watch in the world. It’s a timeless classic that’s been popular since the 1920s and regardless of whether you spend a little or a lot on your Tank, it will look flawless on your arm. Take my word for it.
Frederique Constant Slim Line
There aren’t many horologists who often praise this line of watches, but I personally think they’re exceptional for the price. An entire line of thin dress watches, Frederique Constant is one of the few Swiss watch makers who sell their automatic and manual movement watches for such a low price. What’s really terrific is the quality of the movement inside each watch. I for one can’t understand why they don’t charge more money. Regardless, this is a great, minimalistic timepiece that’s ideal for people with smaller wrists. A great watch in my opinion.
Jaeger LeCoultre Master Control
Jaeger LeCoultre has long been one of my favorite watchmakers, beginning with my love of their Reverso line, which makes an exquisite dress watch as well. It’s a great price for a dress watch that isn’t entry level and that’s made with such precision and craftsmanship. It holds the Caliber 899 automatic movement in it which is an absolutely magnificent machine that uses ceramic ball bearings which is fairly new to the watch industry and quite neat in my opinion. Overall, this is an outstanding timepiece and one that can be paired with almost any attire from casual to formalwear.
From one of the most well known and respect watchmakers, comes this rarified and absolutely stunning timepiece. The beauty is in the details and it has many of them. It houses one of the most precision movements you’ll find in the market and has crisp, elegant lines that accentuate its radiating beauty. This is a watch people will notice on your wrist and one that they’ll come back to for a second look.
A Lange & Sohne The Richard Lange
Another watch from Germany, A Lange & Sohne is actually one of my favorite watchmakers in the world. They’ve managed to make Glashutte the new Geneva and have absolutely pursued perfection in their watchmaking. Every watch they put out is extraordinary and I would happily compare them to companies such as Vacheron Constantin, Breguet and Audemar Piguet as far as quality goes. This particular watch is a little less known than the Lange 1 or Saxonia. I especially like it because it’s a little more subtle, yet features the same powerhouse movements as their other fine timepieces. Inside is the Calibre L041.2 manual wind movement with a 38 hour power reserve. It’s an exceptionally well made movement for an absolutely stellar watch. For those with a little more money to spend who want something a little out of the ordinary; this is the watch for you.
Vacheron Constantin Patrimony
Next to the Calatrava, this is my favorite dress watch on the list. The watchmaker has been around since 1755 and has enjoyed a rich history steeped in tradition. Their timepieces are some of the best made watches you’ll find in the luxury watch market and the craftsmanship is really second to none. This watch comes in a wide variety of styles and is one that even the most discerning watch collector can be proud of. It is another truly quintessential dress watch that is worthy of any gentleman’s attention.
Parmigiani Tonda 1950
This is a watch that really focuses on minimalism and subtlety. It’s a refined and elegant timepiece just 7.8mm thick using an exceptionally thin in-house movement that’s significantly smaller than most. The watch is as pure as it gets and that’s exactly what you should be looking for in a dress watch. For the understated gentleman who isn’t looking for attention, this is a great choice.
Chopard L.U.C XP
For those looking for something a little more stylish than the classic dress watch, this might be the pick for you. Chopard won some significant awards for this timepiece and for good reason. It’s exceptionally thin at just 7mm with the timepiece being handcrafted with a front skeletonized display that allows you to view the working movement as it sits on your wrist. This is an extraordinary timepiece and manages to remain classic even though it’s slightly more embellished than the average traditional dress watch.
If you’re looking for a less expensive option, the Intra-matic line by Hamilton is one that you might want to consider. It uses the ETA 2892-2 automatic movement which isn’t terrible by any stretch of the word. It’s lines are clean and it’s small enough that it passes the cuff test (meaning it can slip under the cuff of your shirt easily). It’s a slightly contemporary watch with retro details and for the price you really can’t go wrong.
Rolex Cellini Prince
If you’re a fan of Rolex don’t let their oversized diving watches intimidate you. They also have a fairly broad line of dress watches called the Cellini line. The first of which was the Prince which is quite a refined dress watch in a strikingly bold rectangular case. It’s very art deco but still maintains a classic appearance that defines the role of the dress watch. For a more contemporary take on the classic dress watch with the name of Rolex on the dial, this might be the timepiece you’re looking for.
Girard-Perregaux Vintage 1945
Another exquisite art deco inspired timepiece, Girard Perregaux is one of the most acclaimed watchmakers out of Switzerland and one worth watching. This particular timepiece is an elegant take on the more modern and contemporary dress watch with the markings of sophisticated grace. It’s a really incredible timepiece that looks as good with a business suit as it does on the golf course. I highly recommend this timepiece for the theatre goers as it will look extraordinary on your wrist as you wait for intermission to finish at the opera.
Arnold & Son TES
Completely different than any watch on this list, this particular timepiece uses an exquisite tourbillon movement that gives this watch the most uniquely elegant appearance you’ll find next to a few of the classic Breguet skeleton watches. If you’re looking for a distinctive watch that blends grace and courage this might be the timepiece for you. It’s a modern take on what could possibly be described as a traditional English appearance. This watch is one that will get noticed. It’s daring for a dress watch but will work perfectly for formal events such as the symphony or opera. It truly is a strikingly beautiful timepiece.
Many people view Stührling as nothing more than an average fashion brand, but in fact Max Stührling was the protege of Louis Audemars, of Audemars Piguet in 19th century Switzerland. He was an exceptional watchmaker who could have easily continued to make watches that cost more than most of our salaries, but instead he decided he wanted to design watches for the average gentlemen. Ones that every man could afford. That’s what gave birth to Stührling and this particular watch is a prime example of an inexpensive watch that deserves at least a bit of attention. Now, I’m not going to start saying it compares to many of the other watches on this list. Quite frankly, it doesn’t. It’s an inexpensive watch and its quality matches the price. But, if you’re in the market for something that’s exceptionally reasonable and you’re simply looking for an aesthetically pleasing timepiece, this might just be the watch you’ll want to consider.
Where to Buy a Dress Watch
Buying the actual dress watch is probably the most difficult task you’ll have when trying to find the perfect timepiece. Authorized retailers will have a basic selection to choose from, online will have a bigger selection and resellers will vary. In the end if you choose to purchase your dress watch from anyone other than an authorized retailer, you run the risk that a) it could be a fake, or b), the condition may not be exactly as advertised. My first recommendation when buying an expensive dress watch is to always buy from the authorized retailer. Most luxury watch manufacturers have corporate owned boutique stores in major metropolitan areas such as New York, Los Angeles and London. If you don’t happen to live in one of these cities you can still purchase your watch from them over the phone or via email. Of course, you’ll end up paying slightly more for it than you would if you buy it second hand or from an unauthorized seller, but the risk goes out the window. The other big benefit of buying from the boutique store is that they’re exceptionally well trained on the timepieces they have in stock. The service level, in most, but not all cases, will surely exceed the level of expertise you’ll get if you buy it from Joe’s Watch Company. Finally, and most important, is the ongoing service you’ll receive. By purchasing your dress watch at the authorized retailer or boutique store, you’re guaranteeing that you get full warranty coverage on the watch, which can be important since the repair costs can get quite expensive. Obviously, you hope that by purchasing a high quality dress watch from a company such as Patek Philippe or Vacheron Constantin that your watch will last, and it should, however, there’s always the odd exception that you don’t want to be caught with.
If you do decide to buy online, unless you know what to look for, I encourage you to avoid websites like eBay and Craigslist. When it comes to high quality dress watches, the amount of counterfeit timepieces for sale is astronomical. With some, it can be difficult to determine its authenticity until you actually open up the case and look inside at the movement. Therefore, it’s incredibly important to buy from websites you can trust such as Gemnation.com or JamesEdition.com
Of course you still run a risk of it not being exactly what you expected. Unless you’re handling it personally in a brick and mortar store, you can’t expect it to arrive in flawless condition. However, you can mitigate that risk by buying from recognized and reputable dealers.
A third option is purchasing it from a store that isn’t an authorized retailer. Many people argue that you’ll get a better deal by shopping at these stores than you would at the authorized retailer. It’s possible. However, what you have to take into consideration is that the vast majority of these watches are preowned. In most cases, the store clerk has no idea of the level of care the watch received from its previous owner, and unless the store happens to specialize in the brand of the watch you’re buying, odds are they have limited knowledge of the brand or the specific timepiece. Consider this: Many watches that are listed in this article are made up of hundreds of tiny pieces put together by hand by men and women who only work on that type of watch. Anytime that watch is opened or the movement is handled by someone who isn’t well trained on that watch, you run the risk that the watch could potentially be damaged. That’s why it’s always so important to make sure it’s an authorized repair facility that fixes your watch. The risk isn’t worth the reward in my opinion.
Dress watches are simple. They’re understand. They’re elegant. While they may look simplistic for the price remember that it’s what’s inside that counts, and with most of the watches on this list, there is nothing simple about what’s making it tick. Most of these watches are examples of horological ingenuity at its best. They’re works of art and they deserve the same attention and respect as any Picasso on the wall of a museum. A good watch will last many generations to come. It is a testament to your life story. The fly on the wall as you live your life. In the end, a dress watch is the perfect watch to hand down to the next generation in your family. Have you inherited a watch? What’s your favorite dress watch?