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What Makes a Dress Watch a Dress Watch

by Frank Chuo on April 20, 2020
The Collector's View

What Makes a Dress Watch a Dress Watch

“Just as people’s faces are different, so are their opinions different”. This Hebrew proverb rings true even within the niche circle of watch enthusiasts. Not everything is black and white in horology. There is not one clear-cut answer to ‘the best sports watch bracelet’, or ‘the best watch for under $5,000’, or even on issues like ‘is buying a replica watch OK?’ (no, the answer is no).

In this season of pestilence and quarantine, I’ve been doing some thinking at home and am going to posit one more to the list: what is a dress watch? Rather, what makes a dress watch a dress watch? A straightforward question, but one that only leads to more questions. Just as death and taxes are certainties in life, no two watch geeks are going to have the exact same criteria for what makes a dress watch. That said, unless you are a total prude or maverick, there will be some level of consensus.

The Cartier Tank Cintrée was first introduced in 1921, a few years after the original Tank. The Cartier Tank was one of the earliest examples of the dress watch, coming years ahead of the famous Patek Philippe Calatrava.

The way I see it is fairly simple: it comes down to 1) design, and 2) size, which could be considered as an aspect of design but warrants a separate discussion.

Design

Classically, dress watches are considered to be watches that you would wear with something more formal, especially a tuxedo. Interestingly, people used to think that one shouldn’t even be wearing a wristwatch with a tuxedo because it implies that you have somewhere else to be; it is therefore seen as being rude to your host and guests. This school of thought is now antiquated, perhaps for the better. The only argument against wearing a wristwatch with a tuxedo that I could sympathise with is that ‘it looks out of place’. The solution to this is simple: just don’t wear a wristwatch – you have your iPhone anyway if you need the time. But for those who choose to wear a watch, it goes to highlight how paramount the design of the dress watch is so as to complement – not clash with – one’s formal or semi-formal wear. Elegance is the name of the game. The key is to have a dial that is as simple and demure as possible. A two-handed, time-only watch on a legible white dial with only the company marquee and the hour track printed onto it is perhaps the ultimate expression of a true dress watch. At a stretch, a seconds hand may be allowed. No Superluminova, no meteorite dials, no Thunderdomes; just classical simplicity with minimal frills.

The prototypical dress watch? The A. Lange & Söhne Saxonia Thin has a minimalist dial – no complications, no seconds hand and no minute track. Just the hours and minutes on a silver dial with baton appliques. It doesn’t get more elegant that this.

But, what of dress watches with complications, displays, or dial decoration? Are they not dress watches anymore? A wise Jedi once said, “only a Sith deals in absolutes” (which, ironically, is an absolute statement). If you’re not attuned with Star Wars, what I’m trying to say is, the dressiness of a dial – and therefore watch, by extension – lies in a spectrum. No one would dare claim that the Patek Philippe Ref. 5396 with annual calendar display ISN’T a dress watch just because it doesn’t have a barren dial. The watch is still elegant in design – just not as elegant as a time-only piece born of the same style could be. In the spectrum of dress watches, a two-handed piece would sit at the conservative end while the blue-dialed perpetual calendar with tourbillon at 6 o’clock would lay closer to the liberal end. Forget not as well, that dress watches can also be worn with a business suit or polo and jeans – this is where liberally designed dress watches (burgundy Reversos, anyone?) should thrive, not when you’re about to greet the Queen in your morning suit.

Patek Philippe Annual Calendar Ref. 5396. The highlight of the watch is undoubtedly the Breguet numerals.

Moving outboard of the dial, we get to the case. Traditionally, dress watch cases tend to be in precious metals, be it gold (yellow, rose, or white) or platinum. Playing the accessibility game, many high-end manufacturers today also offer dress watches in a more affordable stainless steel casing. Historically, stainless steel wasn’t exactly first choice when it came to making fine dress watches. Even today, it is still perceived as a more ‘utilitarian’ metal and used more in casual, sports or tool watches. But let’s be honest, its fairly difficult to tell apart polished steel from polished platinum, white gold, or even titanium unless you get a feel of the case in your hand. Gatekeeping others from calling their dress watch a dress watch just because it’s not rendered in precious metal is an exercise in pettiness. But there’s a limit to how far you should go with material of course. Most would understandably draw the line at exotic materials like ceramic or sapphire crystal – that’s entering casual watch territory.

The Jaeger-LeCoultre Grande Reverso Ultra Thin 1948 in stainless steel. The Reverso was originally made for polo players but today it is accepted as a dress watch.

Of course, material isn’t the only consideration when it comes to dress watch cases. The design itself has to be elegant. You wouldn’t call the Calatrava a dress watch if it had the case design of the Hublot Big Bang Sang Bleu II. This inevitably means leaning towards old-school design cues. Some adornment on the case – such as hobnailing, relief engraving, or even gem-setting – is usually acceptable. But nothing beats a simple case design in achieving elegance. Remember, the key is to be understated, and for the timepiece to complement the gentleman.

The Patek Philippe Calatrava Ref. 5119 and the iconic hobnail pattern on its case. Many consider the Calatrava to be the benchmark for all dress watches.

Last but not least, dress watches tend to come matched with alligator leather straps. Personally, I feel that this is non-negotiable. Calf skin and cordovan straps just feel too casual for even a business suit. A refined bracelet, like Milanese mesh or beads of rice, could work if you have the charisma but is far from ideal. Needless to say, rubber straps and sports bracelets are out of the question – they just don’t go well with dress watch heads no matter what the dress code is.

The Milanese mesh strap is one of the most elegant form of bracelet for the wristwatch. This particular example is paired with a Longines diver.

Size

In watchmaking, size is as much a design consideration as material and dial layout. However, I felt that it deserves its own segment because it is a huge talking point and a polarising subject when it comes to dress watches and even watches in general.

Unless you’re new to the world of watches, you’d be aware that the average size of a wristwatch has grown over time. Today, we accept 41 mm cases as the norm where a century ago, it’d be almost unheard of. Watches don’t tend to go far beyond 35 mm back then. I figure this is why dress watch purists believe that anything larger than 35-36 mm in diameter is not a true dress watch. I don’t really subscribe to this way of thinking myself, though I can sympathise with the sentiment. There is hardly anything more off-putting than a grossly oversized dress watch. But here’s the caveat: ‘oversized-ness’ is different for every wrist and dress code.

The Vacheron Constantin Ref. 4261 was produced in the mid-1900s in limited quantities. Measuring 36 mm in diameter, the watch is perfectly sized to serve as a dress watch on the average wrist. Interestingly, in the 1950s, the Ref. 4261 would have been judged to be a rather large watch. Not shown in the photograph is the minute repeater slide located on the left side of the case.

Let’s start with the wrist. If I were to wear a 45.9 mm A. Lange & Söhne Lange 31 on my average Asian wrist, I would not only look like a clown – I’d be the entire circus. On the other hand, a 34 mm watch would look fine on my wrist. Does this prove the purists right? Considering that the Lange 31 would look rather dressy on someone like the late André René Roussimoff (André the Giant), and that a 34 mm watch would like a charm bracelet, I’d say it doesn’t. The point of a dress watch, again, is to be a discreet accessory that complements a gentleman’s outfit. Apart from having the lugs NOT overhang from the wrist (which is a big no-no for any wristwatch), in the context of a suit, the watch would have to be small and thin enough to slide under the sleeve. Otherwise, the sleeve would scrounge up and the scone-of-a-watch would be exposed – an unsightly outcome. So, my take is that if it slides under your sleeve with ease, it’s an appropriate size, whatever that may be.

At 46.6 mm in diameter and 15.9 mm in height, the Lange 31 is one of A. Lange & Söhne’s largest wristwatches ever. Its design is clearly dressy albeit in a more contemporary style. On the average joe, the watch will overpower the wrist. However, not everyone is average in build. For instance, a 2 metre tall, 200 kg man with trunk-sized wrist would be able to wear the Lange 31 as a dress watch.

As you make your way down towards the casual end of the dress code, your choice of dress watches can become more liberal. The expectation to slide your watch under the sleeve in discretion becomes optional or inapplicable when we’re dealing with business casual, smart, or casual wear. Ultra-thin, dainty dress watches can still be worn with panache, but so can technical behemoths like the Tourbograph Perpetual “Pour le Mérite”. There is no fear of snagging the dress cuff when there is none.

At a height of 16.6 mm, the Tourbograph Perpetual “Pour le Mérite” isn’t sliding under most dress cuffs. Is it a dress watch? Yes. Is it a good watch to wear with a tux? No.

Summary

Here’s what a purist sees as a dress watch: white/silver dial, two hands, hour track only, 35 mm case, thin case profile, alligator leather strap, overall classic-elegant design. To me, that is a perfectly valid dress watch. The problem is when you say that anything else isn’t a true dress watch. Design is the most important factor in determining whether a watch is a dress watch. If it isn’t elegant, it’s probably a casual watch – like any Urwerk – or a sports watch – like a Rolex Submariner. Also: breaketh a dress watch, complications and coloured dials do not, but maketh it less formal, they do. Size shouldn’t be a fixed variable because one size does not fit all. It is highly dependent on one’s wrist size. The right size is one that allows the dress watch to look elegant on the wrist and slide under a sleeve for discretion.

The Dufour Simplicity is one of the most coveted watches today. A stunning dress watch through and through, it boasts a lacquered dial, a pocket watch-inspired time display, flame-blued hands, and one of the most beautiful movements ever to exist.

This is how I see the dress watch. On one hand, I don’t agree with the purist’s myopic definition of the dress watch, and on the other, I definitely don’t think that an Omega Seamaster is a dress watch (though Mr. Bond would disagree). Therefore, I would like to think that my views are ‘moderate’. If you asked around the watch community, everyone would have a different view of what makes a watch a dress watch, even if that difference is minor. And that’s okay. At the end of the day, what matters most is that we wear what makes us happy – even if it’s a diver with a tux.

The Omega Seamaster 300 SPECTRE Limited Edition. Not a dress watch.
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