The Best Dress Watches, From Affordable to F*ck You
By Oren Hartov
Or, to misquote the Haggadah, “What makes this watch different from all other watches?” While there aren’t any hard and fast rules, a dress watch is generally something thin — possibly due to the presence of a hand-wound movement, though it could be quartz-powered — simple, elegant, possibly of the precious metal persuasion, and paired to a leather strap. Think of the Patek Phillipe Calatrava, or a Rolex Cellini, or a Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso (though, to be sure, the latter was invented as a tool watch). A big, thick, burly tool watch on a metal bracelet is large and noticeable — this is not the purpose of a dress watch. A dress watch is for telling the time in the most unobtrusive way possible — namely, by barely doing it. Many dress watches even lack a second hand, because who needs this kind of precision whilst exchanging pleasantries with the chargé d’affaires at the French embassy whilst nibbling canapés whilst in white tie? (And yes — this is how I imagine myself “dressed up” despite the fact that the closest I’ve come to this situation was being the guy serving the canapés.)These 10 options, from the Air-King to the Cellini Danaos, are the easiest way into the CrownThe fine leather band is to keep the watch beneath the cuff, where it belongs, and the precious metal is to introduce a little elegance into the equation to pair with your dinner jacket — though stainless steel is perfectly acceptable. Certain watches admittedly play with the aforementioned codes a bit and are still often considered dress watches, the Rolex Datejust on its steel Jubilee bracelet being a fine example. (Still, I would be reluctant to wear one of these with a tux. Suit? Absolutely.) Hare, we’re going to examine some of the best dress watches currently on the market from brands big and small, at prices both affordable and, um, not. Your mission, should you to choose to accept it, is to pick one for yourself and impress that chargé d’affaires at the next embassy gala. And if you find one you like better that’s not on this list? More power to you! We’re just here to offer some suggestions. (And also to suggest ridiculous, fictitious situations in which you might wear said suggestions.)
Materials: Dress watches are very often offered in precious metals, but this isn’t exclusively the case — no one in his or her right mind is going to knock a steel-cased Calatrava worn with a tuxedo, for example. Buy something that compliments what you wear when you’re at your dressiest.Water Resistance: Dress watches typically don’t boast a ton of water resistance — think 30m or 50m — due to their remit, which doesn’t generally include diving, driving, shooting, skiing, and mine-laying, unless one’s last name is Bond and one has a license to kill.Bezels: Dress watches often have a fixed, polished bezel for simplicity’s sake — there’s no need to time laps, measure decompression stops, etc when in black tie. (Again, unless you’re James Bond.)Hands: If you don’t see a second hand on your dress watch, don’t panic! There’s no need for one. Admittedly, this can make it more difficult to tell if your watch is running, but not to worry — just hold it up to your ear to see if it’s ticking, either mechanically or quartz-ily.Lume: There’s a healthy chance your dress watch might not be lumed, or it might not be lumed to the degree that your dive watch is. This really depends on the make and model of the watch, but don’t expect lume on something like a vintage Patek Philippe Calatrava reference 96, for example. Thickness: A dress watch is meant to be thin to fit under a cuff, and to that end many feature either hand-wound movements — which are thinner than their automatic counterparts — or quartz movements. Some specialist, ultra-thin automatic dress watches do exist, however. Diameter: We recommend keeping dress watch diameter small such that the watch doesn’t interfere too much with your cuffs, but there are plenty of 40+mm dress watches, even from the likes of top-tier makes such as Vacheron Constantin. Straps: Again, most dress watches tend to feature fine leather two-piece straps, though there are exceptions — especially those on fine, precious-metal bracelets. Many leather dress straps are either reptilian or reptilian-lookalike, though if this doesn’t agree with you, there are calf-leather options or vegan options.
When this baby hit the shelves a few years back, it caused an utter sensation. Not only is the Marlin Hand-Wound virtually a one-for-one recreation of a vintage Timex model, but it maintains the original’s 34mm size and features a hand-wound movement. (Chinese-made, but still — and whaddya expect for under $200?) Playful, stylized typography, a highly legible dial design, and a two-piece leather strap with steel hardware rounds out a highly versatile release from a brand that’s been hitting it out of the park time(x) and again lately. (Should you desire, the Marlin is also available in a larger automatic version.)Diameter: 34mm Case Material: Stainless steel Bracelet: Leather strap Water Resistance: 30m Movement: Hand-wound
General watch-world tip: If you’re ever looking for the best possible watch at any given, relatively affordable price point — try Seiko. The SRPB43 from the Presage line is a perfect example: Where else are you going to find a watch with an in-house, automatic movement, a beautifully balanced dial, and a leather strap with a deployant clasp for under $500? Its 40.5mm diameter makes it perfect for medium-to-large wrists, while a stainless steel case and a Hardlex crystal lend it robustness with a sense of vintage style. And best of all? You can routinely order ‘em on sale on Amazon for well under the $425 list price. Diameter: 40.5mm Case Material: Stainless steel Bracelet: Leather strap Water Resistance: 50m Movement: Seiko Caliber 4R35 automaticThese high-performance timepieces look great and won't break the bank
Max Bill, the famous Swiss industrial engineer, designed this Bauhaus masterpiece of a watch for German brand Junghans back in the early 1960s. With its simple dial, minimal branding, hand-wound movement, and smallish, 34mm diameter, it’s a masterpiece of minimalist design. Conventiely, the Max Bill line is available in multiple colors, movement types, diameters, and designs, so should you prefer, say, a 38mm automatic version, you can find one. The hand-wound types are so close to the originals, however, that you might have a hard time telling them apart — which is pretty neat.Diameter: 34mm Case Material: Stainless steel Bracelet: Leather strap Water Resistance: 30m Movement: ETA 2801 hand-wound
We’re going to break our “look out for hand-wound or quartz movements” thing in this particular case, as Hamilton has not only managed to beautifully revive a vintage design in a contemporary guise, but it’s managed to sneak in a Swiss-made ETA 2892-A2 automatic caliber without making the watch too thick. We recommend either the 38mm version in gold-toned steel, which features a handsome, silver sunray dial, black hour and minute hands, and a matching, black leather two-piece strap — or the “salmon” dial version in steel. Diameter: 38mm Case Material: Stainless steel with or without PVD coating Bracelet: Leather strap Water Resistance: 50m Movement: ETA 2892-A2 automatic
Based in Glashütte, Germany’s famed watchmaking town, NOMOS has been making beautiful, Bauhaus-inspired timepieces for over 30 years. That they can craft their products and outfit them with in-house movements at such competitive prices is a boon for watch aficionados, who love them for their clean aesthetics and innovative complications. The Orion 38, with its stainless steel case, long lugs, simple baton indices, stick handset, and sub-seconds display, could easily pass for a design from the 1940s or 1950s. This one, however, features a sapphire display back to show off the hand-wound Alpha caliber and a black Horween shell cordovan leather strap. At under $2,000, it’s one of the watch world’s great secrets. Diameter: 38mm Case Material: Stainless steel Bracelet: Leather strap Water Resistance: 30m Movement: NOMOS Alpha hand-wound
In 2021, Cartier revived its Must de Cartier line from the 1970s and ‘80s in the form of several new Tank Must watches. The coolest — in our humble opinion — uses a photovoltaic cell to power its quartz movement for a wildly long 16 years. How does it do this? It takes in light via several small perforations in the classic Roman numerals. (So dope.) The SolarBeat model, as it’s called, is available in both small and large versions, though you might have a harder time finding one in the States than in Europe, as demand has been super high. The black strap, by the way, is vegan!Diameter: 22mm Case Material: Stainless steel Bracelet: Vegan leather strap Water Resistance: 30m Movement: Cartier quartz SolarBeat Originally positioned as an affordable alternative to Rolex, Tudor is now a force to be reckoned with in its own right
If you’re the type of person who appreciates a classically styled object with left-of-center aesthetics, then Grand Seiko’s SBGW series is for you. Housed in one of the watch industry’s most perfectly sized cases — 37mm x 11.7mm, for those who are counting — it features beautifully polished surfaces, razor-sharp edges, and the high-end, manually-wound Grand Seiko 9S64 movement with 72 hours of power reserve. However, the star of the show is the frosted blue dial adorned with highly faceted indices, GS’s signature handset, and the GS logo. More adventurous than your standard black or white dial, it’s a breath of fresh air in a same-same world. (A forest green version is also available.)Diameter: 37mm Case Material: Stainless steel Bracelet: Leather strap Water Resistance: 30m Movement: Grand Seiko 9S64 hand-wound
JLC’s Reverso was designed for polo players in India who were destroying the crystals on their watches — the Reverso’s flip-over case design meant that the dial could be protected during play. These days, however, the Reverso is a fine choice for a dress watch, with the best part being that you can engrave the back. We’re taking the “go big or go home” approach with your money and opting for the 18K pink gold Monoface model in the brand’s smaller size. Powered by the Jaeger-LeCoultre Calibre 846/1 hand-wound movement and featuring a gorgeous, brushed silver dial with black Arabic indices and gold feuille hands, it’s a choice that will simply never go out of style. Diameter: 21mm Case Material: Pink gold Bracelet: Leather strap Water Resistance: 30m Movement: Jaeger-LeCoultre Calibre 846/1 hand-wound
While many will no doubt mourn the demise of the simple, reference 96-inspired 5196, that watch is out, and the 6119 is in. The 6119 is the contemporary expression of what is perhaps the platonic ideal of the dress watch, the Patek Philippe Calatrava — albeit in slightly more decorated form. A hobnail (Clous de Paris) bezel draws the eye immediately in, while the classic Calatrava elements — simple, faceted indices, sword hands, sub-seconds — are joined by an outer “railroad” minute track. Measuring a highly contemporary 39mm across, it’s powered by the new, hand-wound Patek Philippe Calibre 30-255 PS, which boasts a 65-hour power reserve. The rose gold version is fetching as hell, though you certainly can’t go wrong with the white gold version with a charcoal gray dial. Diameter: 39mm Case Material: Rose gold Bracelet: Leather strap Water Resistance: 30m Movement: Patek Philippe Calibre 30-255 PS hand-wound
Vacheron Constantin has been making some of the finest watches in the world since roughly the time that men in powdered wigs were musket-ing one another over who would rule America. The American 1921, part of the maison’s Historiques collection, is a contemporary take on a model from, well, 1921, that was made specifically for the American market. Angled such that the crown and 12 oclock face the upper right corner of the case, it provides the perfect viewing angle for someone who happens to have his or her left hand on the steering wheel of a fine automobile. (Extra points if it’s a 1920s Bugatti.) Vacheron’s hand-wound Caliber 4400 AS, finished to the nines, provides 65 hours worth of timekeeping.Diameter: 40mm Case Material: White gold Bracelet: Leather strap Water Resistance: 30m Movement: Vacheron Constantin Caliber 4400 AS hand-woundThis article was featured in the InsideHook newsletter. Sign up now.
Vacheron Constantin Historiques American 1921 ($36,800)