- Andrew Hildreth is a Liveryman of the Worshipful Company of Clockmakers and a watch consultant to Christie’s and Christie’s Education.
- He recommends these five watches that anyone can confidently wear in any situation, from a challenging 8 a.m. work meeting to a glamorous evening cocktail.
- A dress watch should be timeless, fit with both formal and casual wear, and be both clean and elegant, he says.
- From the original Patek Philippe Calatrava to the presidential Rolex Day-Date, these watches have adorned the wrists of greats.
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A watch is as much a part of a well-dressed man’s attire as his shoes or tie. It should complete the ensemble without drawing attention to itself: always in style, with any choice of formal or casual wear, suffering none of the vagaries of fashion. It should look as appropriate now as it would have 20 years ago or two decades from now.
Not surprisingly, the style and design codes of the dress watch haven’t been altered to any great extent over the last few decades – or for that matter, the last century.
I should note that in this ever-increasing informal age, the list below is very much a personal choice: I favour a clean and parsimonious approach to the dial, with only hours, minutes, and perhaps seconds, so the time of day can easily be read. The watch should slip easily below the shirt cuffs of your favourite formal shirts, but also look equally good with your less formal wear.
In short, the ideal dress watch should be timeless. And while it’s not a requirement for it to be mechanical, the five selected below all are.
1. Patek Philippe Calatrava, $US22,680 recommended retail price
The Patek Philippe Calatrava (reference 5196) is arguably the quintessential dress watch. The original Calatrava, the reference or “model number” 96, was created in 1932 when the Stern family, long-time dialmakers, acquired the business. The reference 96 and its current direct descendent were always intended to be simple and elegant, right for any occasion.
Over the decades, Patek has introduced an array of Calatrava models remaining true to the same design codes since inception. It could be argued that its style is the ultimate expression of a dress watch. From its first 1930s earnest elegant form, through the teardrop lug (the term of the case element connecting the watch to the strap) and modern expression cases of the 1940s and 1950s to the futuristic ergonomics of the following two decades, the Patek Calatrava kept simple, balanced, and legible dials where you could tell the time at a glance.
The current model represents the sublimation of all its previous iterations: a slim, erudite case design, a clear and legible dial with baton markers representing the time (for the gold-cased versions), and Breguet numerals (a font named after the famed watchmaker, see below) for the platinum case. The Calatrava fulfils everything you would want to see in a dress watch.
2. Cartier Tank, $US9,750 recommended retail price
First among equals would be the Cartier Tank – as avant garde today as it was a century ago. Although the design has been around for almost as long as the wristwatch itself, the number of watches actually produced has always been small, making the use of the Tank as a dress watch relatively rare.
Using the new instrument of destruction in WWI, the tank, as his muse, Louis Cartier integrated lugs and the near ideal dimensions of the rectangular case. That, coupled with the history of one of horology’s most long-lasting and celebrated designs, make the Cartier Tank an ideal dress watch.
Over the years, changes to the original design have been minimal. Recently, with Marie-Laure Cérède helming their watch design department, Cartier’s classics have made a telling comeback. In the current line-up, the Tank Louis Cartier watch (ref. W1529756) stands out with its sublime elegance; the design and dimensions being almost the same as the original.
This model has never looked so good or provided better value for your money. And if it was sufficiently sartorial to grace the wrists of Rudolf Valentino and Andy Warhol among many others, I’d dare say it’s good enough for yours.
3. Vacheron Constantin Patrimony, $US18,100 recommended retail price
On equal footing with the Patek Philippe Calatrava is the Vacheron Constantin Patrimony (ref. 81180). Founded in 1736, Vacheron is the oldest continuous name in horology. Although a modern design – the Patrimony was introduced in 2004 – its dimensions and aesthetics have their origin in their watches from the 1950s, proof that good design is never out of style.
A large, simple marked dial with slim baton hands – only hours and minutes – the Patrimony embodies the very definition of frugal elegance in design.
4. Breguet Classique, $US18,800 recommended retail price
Breguet is possibly the most famous name in horology. Much of what we know about watchmaking can be traced back to the Frenchman who, in the words of watch expert and author George Daniels, took horology from “the slave of science, [and] lifted it to a new dimension of visual and technical excellence.”
Modern-day Montres Breguet (acquired by the Swatch Group) continues to create watches in the same instantly recognisable style. Breguet’s Classique (ref. 5157) is the modern iteration of the timepiece that Abraham Louis Breguet himself championed: a round case, termed by the man himself a savonette, a patterned silver dial with lacquered Roman numerals, and thin “Breguet style” blued hands.
This aesthetic was pioneered by Breguet two and a half centuries ago; it looked good then and still looks good today. Classic, as the name suggests and as history bears witness, is timeless.
5. Rolex Day-Date, $US39,250 recommended retail price
The final choice is not strictly a “dress watch” for suits and special occasions as some might argue – but hear me out: The Rolex Day-Date, otherwise known as the “Presidential Rolex,” was introduced at the Basel Watch Fair in 1956. It gained that moniker because President Dwight D. Eisenhower wore one and it was thereafter spotted on the wrists of other presidents and world leaders, such as John F. Kennedy, Gerald Ford, Martin Luther King, Boris Yeltsin, and Fidel Castro. It is rumoured that even Mao Tse-Tung wore a Day-Date.
The watch does boast a complication: Both day and date simultaneously move at midnight, and the mechanism features a quick set for months that do not contain 31 days (there are only five times in the year when an adjustment is required).
This Rolex reference has never been produced in anything other than precious metal. Over the years, it did so with a variety of dial colours and materials, garnering a number of different titles along the way. The modern white gold form of the Day-Date (ref. 228239) comes with a white meteorite dial and diamond baguette markers. It’s the elegant side of bling: eye catching enough while not gaudy with adornment. Not your usual dress watch, but if that’s what you like, a worthy contender to consider.
Ultimately, it all depends on your style and taste. The watch you choose to wear should match and reflect your style. Elegance is very much in the eye of the beholder, and while dress codes and tailoring have changed over the decades, Honouré de Balzac’s requirement still stands: “The boor covers himself, the rich man or the fool adorns himself, and the elegant man gets dressed.” The watch you choose should fulfil that mandate.
Dr. Andrew Hildreth is a Liveryman of the Worshipful Company of Clockmakers and a watch consultant to Christie’s and Christie’s Education. Over the past two decades, he has contributed to a number of publications including GQ, Vanity Fair, Hodinkee, Financial Times, and The Wall Street Journal.
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