Remember back when you’d put in 25 years at the local Ford plant and when you retired, you’d be presented with a handsome gold watch, hand-engraved with a nice, appreciative message to you on the back?
Of course you don’t. You know why? Because that was our grandfather’s generation — these days, you get a swift kick in the ass on the way out the door and, if you’re lucky, a cardboard box in which to pile your possessions.
The realities of today’s job market aside — and my generation’s propensity to have multiple careers before retirement, let alone multiple workplaces — the gold watch is still imbued with a symbolic value that, though diminished, persists to this day. This isn’t all too complicated to understand: gold, one of the world’s rarest materials, has functioned as currency for thousands of years. Though its practical uses are few, ask any human if they’d like an ounce of gold, and they’ll invariably accept with glee.
Which brings us back to watches. A gold watch, though it’s no longer a presentation gift from an appreciative employer for decades of dedicated service, it still one of the finest (and symbolism-laden) objects a person can possess. Sure, a platinum watch is probably pricier, and a titanium watch is lighter, and a steel watch is certainly more robust — but a gold watch says something specific. It says: this watch is important. Special. (Expensive.)
Of course, there’s unfortunately no such thing as a “cheap” gold watch in the same way that there is such a thing as a “cheap” steel watch — or even a “cheap” titanium watch. However, a timepiece need not be made of solid gold to be a “gold watch,” and to that end, we’ve included a couple of gold-plated choices in the following guide. These will certainly offer less sticker shock, because once you get into solid-gold watches, the prices are enough to make practiced watch nerds blush.
It should be noted that the prices for vintage gold watches are often much more palatable than those of their contemporary counterparts. You might be able to buy, for example, a solid-gold Rolex Day-Date for less than half the price of a modern version — but you should know what you’re doing, or consult an expert. (Preferably both.)
So whether you’re gifting someone a watch for a special occasion — a graduation, wedding, big accomplishment, etc — or you’re on the lookout for a gold watch for yourself, consider the following guide your friend. We tried to offer multiple price points for different types of buyers, and of course, these aren’t the only options out there, but merely a starting point. So without further ado, come join us for a romp into Auric Goldfinger’s lair — a trip into the precious-metal wonderland that is gold watches.
Terms to Know
Gold/Pure Gold: Incredibly soft, pure gold (Au, atomic number 79) is most often combined with other metals when used in jewelry.
Yellow Gold: Includes copper, zinc, and silver; looks the closest to pure gold. Yellow gold tends to fall in and out of favor as tastes change, but its look is the most familiar and recognizable as “gold.”
Pink/Rose/Red Gold: Include copper and small amounts of silver. (Red has more copper for a deeper hue.) These hues are “hipper” these days than yellow gold, though tastes/fads tend, of course, to be cyclical.
White Gold: Includes palladium, nickel, and silver, often with a rhodium coating for color. Wearing white gold is a great way to, well, hide the fact that what you’re wearing is gold. (Which begs the question: Why? But white gold looks killer, so who cares.)
Gold-Plated: A piece of metal (or other material) that has been coated in a thin layer of gold via chemical or electrochemical plating is considered “gold-plated.” In jewelry, the gold’s thickness is measured in microns: A gold-plated watch typically features a layer of gold no less than 0.5 microns thick.
Gold Vermeil: Similar to gold plating, but generally featuring a layer of gold thicker than 2.5 microns.
PVD: Physical vapor deposition is a type of coating in which a material is vaporized and then applied to another material in the form of a film via a vacuum — i.e. gold being applied to steel. (“IP coating” describes a similar process.)
Two-Tone: A combination of gold and another metal, oftentimes steel.
Karat: A fractional measure of gold purity.
24 Karat: 100% pure gold
18 Karat: 75% gold, 25% alloys
14 Karat: 58.3% gold, 41.7% alloys
Test the precious-metal waters without breaking the bank with these gold-plated pieces.
The watch world was positively delighted when the Swatch Group’s Tissot brand dropped its vintage-inspired PRX collection in 2021. Affordable, handsome, and now available in both quartz and automatic versions, these hip, ‘70s-looking timepieces are perfect for men or women. And if you’re looking to break into gold watches, the brand offers a version with a yellow gold PVD coating. Water resistant to 100m, it could very well become an everyday companion. Pretty good for $450, no?
- Gold Type: Yellow gold PVD coating
- Diameter: 40mm
- Movement: ETA F06.115 quartz
- Appropriate For: Everyday wear; Convincing robber barons that you can hang, even if you can’t
Bet you didn’t expect to see a G-SHOCK on this list now, did you? No matter — Casio’s got something for everyone, including the person looking for a gold G-SHOCK. This otherwise steel watch features a gold IP coating, meaning it’s not only unusual by the typically resin-constructed G-SHOCK standards, but it’s also a timepiece that Goldmember could get behind. It’s further kitted out with all sorts of fancy tech, including atomic time calibration and Tough Solar charging. Plus it features a matching, full-metal bracelet.
- Gold Type: Yellow gold IP coating
- Diameter: 43.2mm
- Movement: Casio 3459 module with Tough Solar
- Appropriate For: Being the king of streetwear
This fine offering from Hamilton couldn’t be more classy or classic-looking, though its upsized 42mm case means it’s perfect for those with larger wrists. Produced in steel with a yellow gold PVD coating, the American Classic Intra-Matic Auto is a handsome, thin, automatic dress watch powered by a Swiss movement. With its black calf leather strap and mineral crystal, it definitely gives off vintage, midcentury vibes, though the inclusion of a date window at 6 o’clock is a useful concession to modernity.
- Gold Type: Yellow gold PVD coating
- Diameter: 42mm
- Movement: ETA 2892-A2 automatic
- Appropriate For: Accessorizing a suit and tie; dinners out on the town; galas
Not ready for full-on solid gold but still want those fancy vibes? Two-tone may be for you.
Certainly not all gold watches are dress watches. Just take this GMT from Tudor, Rolex’s sister company, for example: robust, highly water resistant, and supremely useful, it’s perfect for travelers who crave a bit of class out of their tool watches. The two-tone steel and yellow theme extends not only to the watch itself — the crown, bezel, and dial all feature gold or gold-colored accents — but also to the steel “rivet” bracelet with its polished and satin finish. Best of all, the bezel insert in this model is brown and black anodized aluminum, coordinating perfectly with the two-tone aesthetic.
- Gold Type: Yellow gold and stainless steel
- Diameter: 41mm
- Movement: Tudor Manufacture Calibre MT5652 automatic
- Appropriate For: Traveling the world; going to work; exploring new worlds
The two-tone Rolex Datejust holds different connotations depending upon whom you ask: For millennials and G Xers, it might be the watch that we remember our grandfathers wearing — or, worse, a watch a used car salesman might wear. However, of all the two-tone watches out in the world, the Datejust is unquestionably the most iconic. Hardy as a tank, available in multiple configurations, and undoubtedly attractive, it’s a watch that signals that one “has arrived.” We recommend the 36mm model on a Jubilee bracelet; after all, if you’re gonna spring for a classic, you may as well take it to its logical extreme.
- Gold Type: Oystersteel and yellow gold
- Diameter: 36mm
- Movement: Rolex Calibre 3235 automatic
- Appropriate For: Dinner at Dorsia
The Code 11.59 collection may be an acquired taste, but you’ve gotta hand it to one of the world’s most respected brands for not resting on its laurels — the AP folks could conceivably sling Royal Oaks from now to eternity and simply call it a day. This automatic Code 11.59 is most certainly not your typical two-tone watch: take a look from the side, and you’re greeted with a view of the 18K pink gold case with white gold bezel, lugs, and caseback, plus a stunning smoked lacquered grey dial with pink gold applied indices and hands. There’s no doubt about it — this is the two-tone watch of the future.
- Gold Type: 18K pink and white gold
- Diameter: 41mm
- Movement: Audemars Piguet Calibre 4302 automatic
- Appropriate For: Everyday wear; impressing other “watch guys”
Solid Gold Watches
The real deal. The sort of gift everyone on Earth hopes to one day receive.
Ask a “watch guy” to name the quintessential dress watch, and this is likely what he’ll picture: a solid-gold Cartier Tank. (A solid gold Patek Philippe Calatrava is also a correct answer — more on that in a moment.) Though there are myriad Tank models in production today, this small, hand-wound iteration is just about as close as one can get to the original WWI-era design. Made of 18K rose gold and outfitted with a hand-wound manufacture movement, the Tank Louis Cartier is an exercise in pure class and restraint. And though it may cost a pretty penny, it’s the type of watch that your great-grandkid could — and should — inherit someday.
- Gold Type: 18K rose gold
- Diameter: 22.2mm
- Movement: Cartier Caliber 8971 MC hand-wound
- Appropriate For: Seated, black tie dinners; being a freakin’ boss.
GS’s SBGK platform is one of the most unique watches on the market: hand-wound, fitted to an egg-shaped case and finished with a unique dial configuration, it’s simply an awesome, left-of-center choice for someone who likes his or her watches to be a bit different. This solid 18K yellow gold version is powered by the Caliber 9S63, which features small seconds at 9 o’clock and a power reserve indicator at 3 o’clock — plus 72 hours of power reserve. This isn’t quite a dress watch, but it’s not exactly an everyday piece either. We say: wear it wherever and whenever the hell you want!
- Gold Type: 18K yellow gold
- Diameter: 39mm
- Movement: Grand Seiko Caliber 9S63 hand-wound
- Appropriate For: Pretty much anything vaguely dressy.
Though I admittedly decry the demise of the ultra-simple reference 5196 from Patek’s catalog, its replacement is a simply stunning exercise in dress watch mastery: The 6119 — available in rose or white gold — is a hand-wound timepiece with a guillochéd “hobnail” (Clous de Paris) bezel, a contemporary-feeling 39mm solid gold case, and a manufacture movement with an impressive 65-hour power reserve. Measuring just 8.08mm tall, it’s perfect for slipping under a cuff when wearing a tuxedo, though if you spring for the white gold version, you could conceivably wear it with more than just formalwear.
- Gold Type: White gold
- Diameter: 39mm
- Movement: Patek Philippe Caliber 30 255 PS hand-wound
- Appropriate For: Accepting an Oscar; entertaining dignitaries; running a medium-sized nation
One of watchmaking’s “Holy Trinity” along with Patek Philippe and Audemars Piguet, Vacheron Constantin has been crafting some of the world’s finest timepieces for over 250 years. The Traditionelle collection is where the maison parks many of its vintage-inspired models, including this simply breathtaking complete calendar in 18K 5N pink gold. Measuring 41mm in diameter, it features time, day, date, month, and moon phase indicators without remotely compromising legibility. And though you could conceivably buy yourself a more sophisticated perpetual calendar, tourbillon, or repeating watch, with a timepiece this beautiful — why would you?
- Gold Type: 18K 5N pink gold
- Diameter: 41mm
- Movement: Vacheron Constantin Calibre 2460 QCL/1 automatic
- Appropriate For: Arriving at the near-apex of horological class and sophistication
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