About Dress Watches
The most elegant style of all watches, dress watches are generally about restrained proportions, understated design, and discreet luxury. The dress watch category is a broad one that encompasses a range of styles and materials, but what they all have in common is a touch of formality and classic appeal.
What is a Dress Watch?
Broadly speaking, dress watches are suited to more formal attire such as dress shirts, suits, blazers, or even tuxes. Although these days its common to find a wide range of different dress watch styles, traditionally, dress watches have simple and easy to read dials and precious metal cases, elegant leather straps and are slim enough to slip under a shirt cuff.
However, that’s not to say that there aren’t some steel dress watches, complicated dress watches, or dress watches with metal bracelets. But these are often exceptions to dress watch design codes rather than the norm.
When it comes to case silhouettes, dress watches have the most variety. Cases can be round, rectangular, square, and cushion-shaped cases. Dress watch colors are typically muted, featuring neutral tones such as black, silver, brown, white, and sometimes blue.
History of Dress Watches
Men’s wristwatches have only been around for a little over a century. At the turn of the 20th Century, men still generally carried pocket watches while wristwatches (or wristlets as they were known) were reserved for women.
Yet, there were a handful of visionary watchmakers that began miniaturizing watch movements in the early 1900s to fit into smaller wristwatch cases for men. For instance, Louis Cartier created the first men’s wristwatch at the request of pioneering aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont in 1904 so the pilot could easily tell the time during his flights. In 1912, Vacheron Constantin introduced one of the first tonneau-shaped wristwatches, characterized by its barrel-shaped case.
During the First World War, military men began strapping their pocket watches to their wrists since it was far more practical to read the time that way during combat. Watchmakers also began converting pocket watches into watches to be worn on the wrist by adding lugs and fitting them with a strap. In 1917, Cartier released the Tank watch, named and designed after the newly introduced military tanks used on the battlefields of WWI.
The years between the two world wars were a boom time for men’s wristwatches, with many watchmakers making their own versions. In 1926, Rolex patented the Oyster watch as the world’s first waterproof watch, comprised of a screw-in caseback, winding crown, and bezel. In 1931, Rolex presented a groundbreaking wristwatch caliber type called the Perpetual movement, which was the world’s first self-winding movement using a rotor. These two inventions laid the groundwork for Rolex Oyster Perpetual (automatic and waterproof) watch designs, which is still at the heart of the brand’s models today including dress watches.
In 1931, Jaeger-LeCoultre unveiled the rectangular Reverso watch with a reversible case. In 1932, the Stern brothers acquired a controlling share of Patek Philippe and that very same year, the company released the Calatrava dress watch for men. In the 1930s and 1940s, Breguet also joined in with the men’s wristwatch trend with several round, rectangular, and square-shaped case models. Omega also has several men’s wristwatches coming out of its workshop with round, rectangular, and cushion-shaped cases.
The post-war era saw the wristwatch take over the pocket watch as a gentlemen’s must-have accessory. To celebrate the brand’s 40th anniversary in 1945, Rolex presented the Datejust watch with a date window on the dial. A decade later, it introduced the Day-Date “President” watch with separate date and day windows.
In 1952, the Omega launched the Constellation collection of dress watches, named after the eight stars emblazoned on its crest symbolizing the company’s eight precision records achieved at the Kew and Geneva Observatories. Although the 1950s was the decade of the development of purpose-built tool watches, watchmakers continued to make dress watches too. This was especially true of watchmakers developing ultra-thin movements such as Vacheron Constantin, Piaget, and Jaeger-LeCoultre.
Even with the advent of luxury sports watches, robust chronographs, and cheaper quartz movements, the appeal of the mechanical dress watch remained throughout the decades thanks to their classic looks and refined style.
Popular Dress Watch Models
From the first watch released under the Stern family ownership until today, the Calatrava remains as Patek Philippe’s flagship timepiece. Featuring round cases, leather straps, and straightforward dials, the Patek Philippe Calatrava dress watch is an absolute classic amongst tasteful men’s timepieces.
Cartier is well known for its wide range of elegant watches for both men and women but it is the rectangular Tank watch that is most recognized as the classic dress watch. Available in a range of sizes and materials, there’s Tank watch to suit just about any man’s style.
Part of the so-called “Holy Trinity” of Swiss watches alongside Patek Philippe and Audemars Piguet, Vacheron Constantin is a leading name in discreet luxury watches. The Vacheron Patrimony collection is especially demure, with mid-century inspired watches featuring slender cases in either gold or platinum, minimalist watch dials, and leather straps.
Along with the iconic Reverso Art Deco style watches that are still going strong today, Jaeger-LeCoultre also offers the Master Ultra Thin collection of men’s dress watches. While there are several editions of the Master Ultra Thin from the simple Small Seconds to the poetic Moon Phase to the complex Tourbillon, what ties these Jaeger-LeCoultre timepieces are their slim round cases and understated luxury. Similarly, Piaget continues with its history of ultra-slim movements and dress watches with the Altiplano lineup with timepieces offered in a variety of sizes, materials, and dial executions.
While A. Lange & Sohne is famous for asymmetrical dials and high complications, the German high-end watchmaker also makes time-only dress watches with slender gold cases within the Saxonia line. Likewise, Breguet, a company renowned for tourbillons and other complications, also has Classique dress watch models with simpler dial layouts and restrained case proportions.
Although the Datejust and the Day-Date may not sport the typical dress watch design codes given their metal bracelets and fancier dials, these two Rolex watch models are indeed some of the most popular dressier watches in the luxury watch space. It should also be mentioned that in 2014, Rolex revamped its Cellini line with watch designs that we normally associate with traditional dress watches such as slim round cases in gold, leather straps, and classically designed dials.
In today’s luxury watch market, almost all top-tier brands have at least one dress watch collection. Despite the current ravenous popularity of luxury sports watches, there is still a time and place for the elegant and formal dress watch in today’s increasingly casual world.