The dress watch is an endangered concept nowadays, if not an endangered species. The whole idea of a dress watch has embedded in it the idea of dressing, which wasn’t happening all that much before everyone started working from home. But the idea remains deeply ingrained in the DNA of fine watchmaking and, for all that many of us don’t have, or feel the need to have, something you could specifically put in the category of “dress watch,” watchmaking firms continue to make watches that would fit the bill. Our editors looked back at this year’s releases to see which timepieces fit the definition, but also to use the watches as a way of talking about the larger notion of the dress watch as a category, and what it means to each of them.
Jon Bues: The IWC Portugieser 40mm
For a long time, I was all about sport watches. The truth is, I’ve only ever owned two dressy watches. The first of these came pretty late into my collecting career, a 37mm rose-gold IWC Caliber 89 with fancy lugs (circa 1960), which I purchased in 2012. Six years later came my automatic Grand Seiko SBGM221 GMT, from the company’s Elegance collection, which I bought in early 2018. While both are appropriate to wear with a suit, only the Grand Seiko has proven to be a go-to daily-wear watch as well. I remember wearing it casually the day before my wedding nearly two years ago and then wearing it with a suit on the morning of my wedding day – it didn’t skip a beat. While I’m sure there are all kinds of opinions out there about what makes a dress watch a dress watch, I think that versatile watches are the best kinds of watches to own, certainly for those starting out collecting.
Don’t get me wrong, I love both of my IWC and my Grand Seiko, and I have no intention of letting either of them leave my collection. But should I find myself in a position to add another watch for dressing up, it’s going to be one that has potential for daily wear. And for that reason, when I survey the dress watches that have so far been presented in 2020, I think that the IWC Portugieser Automatic 40 is a watch well worth looking at. Somewhere between an everyday watch and a dress watch, and priced under $ 8,000 in steel, the Portugieser 40 is a watch that one could get a lot of mileage out of. This is a modern automatic watch, and the cal. 82200 inside features IWC’s highly efficient Pellaton winding system and 60 hours of power reserve. It’s a robust caliber, but it’s also a visually interesting and, I would go so far as to say, a quite beautiful one as well.
For those with a medium-to-large-sized wrist who are not of the mind that all watches must always be sub-40mm in diameter, the Portugieser Automatic 40 is a dress watch / everyday watch hybrid that’s definitely worth knowing about.
$ 7,250 in steel; $ 16,900 in 5N gold; IWC.com.
Jack Forster: The Zenith Elite Moonphase, In Steel
The whole idea of a dress watch is up in the air these days, and whether or not it’s even relevant anymore (as you can see from my colleagues’ comments) is a fair topic for discussion. A dress watch presupposes that one is dressing, and in a year in which dressing below the torso for a Zoom meeting, or not, has become a running joke, and pretty much the only clothing company that’s recording robust revenues is one that pivoted early on to sweatpants, it’s hard to imagine a situation in which a dress watch would ever need to come out of the box or off the winder, at least for the time being.
Still, I think there is some comfort to be taken in thinking back on traditions and the circumstances which gave rise to those traditions. I have always loved the notion that dressing well, and hewing a bit to formality especially in a business setting, is a way of showing not just pride in oneself, but also respect for one’s colleagues and partners. A so-called dress watch is very much part of that philosophy of attire. A dress watch in this, very traditional sense is not a formal watch – you can get away with a very simple watch with a tuxedo (which is not formal, but semi-formal), but the real formal dress code (which for men is a morning coat or white tie) forbids a wristwatch. Rather, a dress watch is one you would wear with semi-formal or business formal attire, and it would be thin, relatively simple, elegant, probably although not necessarily gold, and would in fact steer clear of overt ostentation as inappropriate for any serious, adult enterprise.
In these narrow, traditional terms, may I present for your consideration what I think is an extremely nice, eminently non-ostentatious, and surprisingly affordable dress watch, new for this year, that you have probably forgotten about since it launched in January. That watch is the Zenith Elite Moonphase, and it is just about the prettiest honest-to-betsy, not-insanely-expensive dress watch you could ask for (for which you could ask?). It’s a great size, at 40.50mm x 9.35mm; it has a lovely dial and a beautifully executed moon-phase complication just to keep things from being too clean and classical for their own good; it has that nifty running seconds at 9:00. The latter betrays the movement, which is an in-house (which everyone also seems to forget) Elite caliber 195, 3.97mm thick, with a crown-settable moon-phase and a 50-hour power reserve. In steel: $ 6,800 smackeroos, and if you can find a nicer in-house caliber moon-phase at that price, I’ll eat it – without ketchup (no, not really, but you know, still).
$ 6,800; zenith-watches.com.
Danny Milton: The Breguet Classique 7137
For me, a dress watch is the ringer on the sideline, coming into the game when its number is called and scoring the winning points. There’s a certain mythical quality to it in that way. Of course, everyone has their own ideas of what a dress watch should be, but I subscribe to the viewpoint that we might all be right in our own way. In the words of The Dude, Jeffrey Lebowski, “That’s just like… your opinion, man.” I think we can all agree, however, that a dress watch is special. I could see a “one watch guy” making an exception for a dress watch, and still considering himself a “one watch guy.” We wear a dress watch for special occasions, and because of that, we only wear them occasionally. It is with that idea in mind that I landed on the Breguet Classique 7137 as my favorite of the new releases this year. Its design just feels special in almost every way.
The dial is based on a pocket watch design, with the multiple types of engine turning across its surface (a staple trait of Breguet dials). At 39mm, it probably hits the ceiling of dress watch sizing in many ways, but – again – that’s all a matter of opinion. The white-gold case, the age-old watchmaking heritage, and the shape of the lugs make this a choice option for me. It has the sort of complicated layout which could very well catch someone’s eye and spark a conversation. I doubt any of us needs an excuse to talk about our watches, but it’s surely a bonus to have one.
$ 40,000; Breguet.com.
Cole Pennington: The Grand Seiko Elegance Collection SBGW262 With Lacquer Dial
About a year ago, I attended a black-tie dinner on the eve of IWC’s “The Longest Flight” departure. It was hosted by the 11th Duke of Richmond, Charles Gordon-Lennox, at his estate. In the days leading up to the dinner, I was frantically searching for a tuxedo. I found one, bought it, and thought I was all set – but the day before I left, I realized I almost forgot the most crucial piece of equipment for a black-tie event: A watch.
The only problem? I didn’t own a dress watch. Not a single one. I ended up borrowing one from a colleague for the dinner, but the situation highlighted a very real need, and I eventually settled on the Grand Seiko SBGK007.
My top dress watch pick for 2020 is the SBGW262, an über-watch in Grand Seiko’s Elegance line, the same family the SBGK007 comes from. The slim case is fashioned from yellow gold, the dial is made using the urushi lacquering technique, and the markers applied using the traditional maki-e craft. There’s a whole lot of “Japanese-ness” going on here, and that’s why I like the watch. It takes what makes Grand Seiko Grand Seiko, and puts it on full blast. It’s a little “extra” for a Grand Seiko, but hey, I’m probably only going to wear it to black tie events, and I have a strange hunch those will we be few and far between in the coming days.
$ 30,000; grand-seiko.com.
James Stacey: The Lange 1 Time Zone
Given the impetus to both stick to 2020 models and our favorite dress watch, I hope you’ll allow me to dream a little. Actually, given that my select is a dress watch (not my usual scene), a travel watch (and both my bed and my couch are, regrettably, in the same time zone), and a watch that I simply cannot afford – I’m tripling down on pure aspiration. And, in many ways, that’s what dress watches are to me: aspirational. While my world (like most) has become an increasingly casual affair (TGN’s Canadian HQ has a very lax dress code), I still aspire to be a dress-watch guy. While in many ways, it’s the raw cost that has kept me in mostly dressed-down sports watches, I have a deep love for a smooth gold case, a warm brown strap, and a bit of old-world titan-of-industry charm. With options like the Grand Seiko SBGW252 or a larger Cartier Tank in yellow gold falling outside the brief for this post, it doesn’t get a whole lot more aspirational than a complicated Lange 1.
Updated this year with a new movement, the Lange 1 Time Zone remains a distinct favorite, as I see it as being both useful and decidedly dressy, but also incredibly versatile. From a suit and tie to jeans and a t-shirt, while a Lange 1 certainly has a zone (or many, once travel resumes), I think that with a strap swap and some intent, this is a watch that will always feel special and always suit a fancier mood. To my mind, that is the key: A dress watch should be a balanced mix of subtlety and splendidness. It should be quiet enough to stay under the radar in most scenarios while still ensuring that you feel something special whenever you push back your sleeve to check the time.
I want a dress watch to make me feel dressy, even when my fit would suggest I’m a part-time model for The Gap. That’s not to say that I don’t understand having watches that match with your various codes of dress, it would just be such a shame to have a watch like a Lange 1 and then only break it out when I’m dressing up. Should I ever have the pleasure of owning such a thing, I’d wear it whenever I’m feeling fancy, and not just when the dress code calls for it.
$ 56,100; alange-soehne.com.
Stephen Pulvirent: The Cartier Tank Asymmetrique Skeleton
Considering that I’ve been living almost exclusively in t-shirts and chinos since quarantine began in New York City back in March, it’s kind of funny to think intensely about dress watches. I’ll admit, I find the idea of a special, jewel-like watch only worn on special occasions more appealing than ever right now. There’s something so wonderful about strapping on a special watch, one that feels like it begs you to live up to its quality and intricacy and elegance, and if we’re looking at watches released over the last few months, nothing even comes close to the Cartier Privé Collection Tank “Asymétrique Skeleton” in my book.
Nobody does shaped wristwatches like Cartier, and the Asymétrique is one of my all-time favorite variations on the classic Tank. For this latest incarnation, I like that Cartier went with the slightly unusual three-lug case design (there have been both two-lug and three-lug Asymétrique models over the years), and the watch’s already funky vibe pairs perfectly with a barely-there dial anchored by cut-out “12” and “6” numerals at the corners. I’m a big fan of wearing simpler, dressier watches with more casual clothes, but it’s tough to imagine a yellow-gold Asymétrique without a sport coat or at least an obscenely soft sweater framing it on the wrist. When I fantasize about throwing on a jacket and ordering a martini at a classic New York bar when things start to go back to normal, this is the watch on my wrist.
In yellow gold, $ 61,000; in platinum, $ 70,000; cartier.com.