In this introduction to the world of formal timepieces, we’re rounding up our top picks for dress watches.
If the name didn’t already make it clear, a dress watch is not the kind of watch you’re buying for advanced utility and frills. Aesthetics are everything here: watches in this category are often less concerned with complications or specific tool capabilities and more about simple, straightforward timekeeping via time-only and time-and-date styles. Think of them as that final touch to making an outfit feel complete. They’re the understated, elegant accessory for work, a wedding, or any other occasion calling for a little bit of *refinement.*
Now, what makes a dress watch the “right” one for you? In a very general sense, the classic dress watch has a timeless quality to it, with an uncomplicated dial design and an elevated, often polished finishing. From there, it really comes down to case material, size, silhouette, and price to determine which specific model makes the most sense for you. To help narrow it down, we’ve crafted this guide to the most popular dress watch styles.
Patek Philippe Calatrava
Omega De Ville
A. Lange & Söhne 1815
Rolex Datejust and Day-Date
Cartier Tank and Santos
Patek Phillipe continues to hold a reputation as one of the most luxurious watchmakers in the industry, historically favoring elegant simplicity over excessive grandeur. The Calatrava collection is perhaps the best example of this, having arguably perfected the design of a classic round dress watch.
A recent example is the Calatrava ref. 5227R-001, a versatile rose gold watch measuring 39mm. The ivory dial features plain indices made in a similar rose metallic tone and a date window in the 3 o’clock position. Separating this particular reference from others in the Calatrava catalog is the officer’s style caseback that allows for some exposure of the internal movement. The caseback opens on a hinge and the exhibition window reveals the self-winding caliber 324 S C.
Omega has undoubtedly perfected performance-based design, with several models inspired by extreme displays of human accomplishments like space travel. But when it comes to dress watches, the De Ville collection is all about simplicity, proving the depth of the brand’s design capabilities. Its name a nod to metropolitan style, these watches are subdued and modern, commonly using precious metals in case designs and neutral colorways or rich hues like deep maroon and taupe for dials.
Paying homage to the German brand’s original debut, A. Lange & Söhne’s 1815 collection features a similar kind of classy round design to the Calatrava collection from Patek Philippe. Like most watches in the dress category, the collection forgoes flashy design in favor of thoughtful, rich details.
Perhaps the most opulent reference in the collection is the 1815 Tourbillon ref. 730.032. The 39.5mm rose gold watch features all fundamental dress watch components from simple numeral indices to a plain silver dial. What separates it from the standard 1815 is the inclusion of a tourbillon — an addition to the escapement of the watch that requires an immense amount of skill and craftsmanship to produce — in the 6 o’clock position.
Of course, the Rolex brand name inherently carries a reputation of sophistication. But among the brand's many collections, the Datejust and Day-Date families each offer versatility without sacrificing a luxurious appearance. The Datejust reference 178274, for example, features a minimal case diameter of 31mm, opting for steel as its main material and adorned with a deep blue dial and simple indices. Similarly, the Day-Date reference 228239 is larger and uses precious metals, featuring a 40mm white gold case and monochromatic slate gray dial.
The strongest design element of both the Day-Date and Datejust is their use of a precious metal-fluted bezel. The fluted bezel was initially designed for utilitarian purposes, to improve grip when screwing the bezel onto the crystal. In contemporary models, Rolex creates its fluted bezels exclusively out of gold and the bezel is used for aesthetic reasons.
If you’re looking for an alternative to the classic round style…
Perhaps best known for its quadrilateral watch designs, Cartier has built a catalog of refined, unmistakable timepieces with tons of historical references. Today, it’s a staple of the retro-chic design aesthetic, with vintage-looking timepieces that rethink the traditional square and rectangular watch silhouettes.
There’s really no weak link in Cartier’s expansive catalog, but if you’re looking for the true embodiment of a dress watch, you’re looking for the Tank and Santos collections. The Tank Américaine Large 1740 is presented in a 44 x 27mm yellow gold case with roman numeral hour markers and a small date window in the 6 o’clock position. The reference was initially released in the mid-90s, channeling an Art Deco style from seventy years prior. The vintage-designed and retro-crafted look is just as relevant today, channeling heritage-inspired sophistication and classic dress wear. The Santos ref. 1566 is yet another nod to vintage Art Deco design, with a 29 x 41mm white gold case that houses a square white dial, contrasting nicely with a yellow gold bezel.
A sense of understatedness is often considered necessary for dress watches, as statement pieces can be harder to transform into dressy staples. But for Bulgari the opposite is true, with the Serpenti collection pairing distinct style with formal versatility. Case in point: The ref. 103144 sports a two-toned 33mm case in the shape of snake head (housing a sleek and unobtrusive dial) with a snake-skin inspired bracelet. It’s the perfect balance of chic elegance and edgy design.
Born from the Art Deco design era like the leading models from Cartier, the Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso collection is all about timeless design with a hint of playfulness. The entire collection opts for a rectangular case shape adorned with clean lines and a subdued dial design. But don’t let the sleek design of the case fool you, the namesake element of its design is the unique swiveling case.
As the case swivels within itself, it reveals a wide inner caseback and can be entirely reversed to hide the dial. The design originated as a mechanism for protecting the watch crystal, but it’s now made the watch one of the most distinct dress models from Jaeger-LeCoultre. The open caseback acts as a blank canvas, where the brand often experiments with unique engraving and other adornments to compliment the streamlined design of the case and dial. As far as rectangular dress watches are concerned, the Reverso not only looks refined but also experiments with doubles as a party trick.
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