7 of the best dress watchesBorna Bošnjak
As our classification of what formal attire consists of keeps changing, our definition of what constitutes a dress watch is changing, too. This was an arena once dominated by exceedingly slender, leather-strapped pieces and pocket watches. Thankfully, there’s been a loosening of the “dress watch” term, resulting in Panerais, Richard Milles and Greubel Forseys struggling to fit under a dress cuff – sorry Mr Hodge! While I don’t agree with the precious metal two-hander formula completely, I do concur that dress watches should be minimal, slim and trend towards being smaller than average sizes – you’ll quickly pick up on this theme as you read on to discover our picks for the best dress watches around.
Baltic MR01 – A$1,025
Starting off at the affordable end of the spectrum, Baltic’s micro-rotor equipped MR01 was designed after some of the greatest dress watches ever made. If you’re a lover of the Calatrava 96 (spoiler alert) like myself, you’ll find that there is much to like with the MR01, including the Breguet numerals, feuille hands and stepped case design. Measuring in at 36mm in diameter and just under 10mm including the 2mm tall domed crystal, the MR01 has the Hangzhou CAL5000 to thank for its slimness. Admittedly, it’s far from the haute horlogerie stuff you’ll find in the back of a Calatrava, but costing nearly 50 times less, I don’t have much to complain about. My pick of the bunch is the on-trend salmon dial, though both the grained silver and deep blue will do just as good of a job in a dressy scenario. What’s even better is that you can find all three models in the Time+Tide Shop.
Cartier Tank – A$21,200
Next up is one of those rare watches deserving of the iconic moniker. The Cartier Tank, regardless of iteration, is just about everything you need in a luxury dress watch, though I’d most likely opt for the Tank Louis Cartier for its stark, minimalist dial and gold case and accents. The fun thing with Cartier’s most recognisable Tank, however, is that you don’t have to fork out A$21,200 for the yellow gold version, as the steel and black dial Tank Musts are even more stealthy and affordable. The 6.6mm thin case measures in at 25.5mm across and 33.7mm lug-to-lug, and is just about the ideal size for a timeless dress watch.
Breguet Classique Extra-Plate 5157
While by no means overtly designed, Breguet’s Classique 5157 is the perfect example of how a simple watch can feature elaborate finishing without being flashy. Circled by brushed rings engraved with the brand’s secret signature, the silvered dial blank is hand-engraved with an intricate guilloché pattern, the only highlight coming from the flash of blue of the heat-blued steel Breguet handset. The 38mm size is perfectly suited for a modern dress watch, though it wears very flat thanks to its 5.45mm tall case and welded lugs that offer little curvature. This fantastic slimness is thanks to the 502.3 calibre, a full-rotor automatic that despite its construction somehow measures in at an astounding 2.4mm in height. Naturally, the movement is very finely decorated too, though none of this comes particularly cheap, as the 5157 is priced at A$28,800. While the 5157 is certainly suited to a dressy scenario, both it and its 40mm cousin, the 7147, could be worthy inclusions on a list of best stealth wealth watches exuding old money vibes.
Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso Tribute Small Seconds
You’re most likely familiar with the story of the Reverso – a sports watch turned quintessential dress watch. Despite its numerous red carpet appearances and long-time Mad Men tenure, I’ve always felt that a lot of its current offering suffered from excessive thickness, and found it best-suited for smart casual scenarios. This, however, has been rectified, as Luke Benedictus found out when checking out the Reverso Tribute Small Seconds, now with re-profiled lugs and thickness of just 7.56mm, making a world of difference on-wrist. While all of its colourways are substantially dressy, the pink gold and black seems to be calling my name the loudest, especially considering its paired with two Fagliano straps for peak versatility. Price: A$35,600
Patek Philippe Calatrava 6119G
No dress watch list would be complete without a Patek Philippe Calatrava, the best current example of which has to be the 6119 Clous de Paris variant, recently featured in an edition of Versus. The dial is an exercise in proportional perfection, made all the better with razor-sharp dauphine hands and arrow indices. The hobnail bezel surround adds a bit of pizzaz, though does not endanger crossing the “dressy everyday” watch line. Just as pretty as the dial, the manually wound cal. 30-255 PS sports fine anglage of the bridges and wheel spokes, while the contrasting Geneva stripes are interrupted only by polished screw and jewel countersinks. At 39mm, however, it is a bit too large for my personal tastes, though I can easily see it as the ideal dress watch for those with average or larger-sized wrists. It isn’t the most basic currently available Calatrava, however, which is reflected in its A$46,650 retail price at the time of writing.
Vacheron Constantin Historiques American 1921 – A$56,000
Vacheron Constantin’s Historiques American 1921 seemingly ticks all the boxes for the most traditional of dress watches. It’s time-only, with a small(ish) precious metal case, slim at 7.41mm and even manually wound. Its design, however, is unexpected to say the least. Initially released exclusively for the American market during the Roaring Twenties, the Historiques American would’ve featured on hands fiercely gripping oversized wooden steering wheels of Model J Duesys and Bentley 3-Litres – and then the Great Depression hit. This 36.5mm modern re-release remains faithful to the slanted dial of the original, making sure to attract at least some puzzled looks peeking out underneath a cufflink-fastened shirt sleeve. At A$56,000, you better be a fan of its design as it commands a 30% premium over a precious metal Vacheron Traditionnelle with the same movement.
The secret is in vintage
Is this kind of cheating? Yes. Yes it is. But it’s for a very good reason, so hear me out. While there’s plenty of modern watches out there at all kinds of price points, nothing beats the true value proposition and understated appeal that a vintage watch has, in my own, (somewhat) humble opinion. How about a stunning condition, white gold Audemars Piguet, with a Spillman case and hobnail guilloché dial, powered by an automatic AP 2120 movement – for less than US$7k?
If you prefer Patek Philippe, a Calatrava 96 that inspired both the Baltic and 6119 on this list, but in one of its most iconic forms is one of the best vintage watches around, period. Admittedly, it is a fair bit dearer than the AP that preceded it, but there are few watches out there with the same kind of history behind it.
At many thousands of dollars, the previous examples are hardly value-oriented, I hear you say. So instead of spending thousands, how about a couple hundred? The world of vintage Seikos once again comes to the rescue, this time in the form of a 3mm thick, super-hard alloy-cased Credor tank, ref. 6730-5090, and one of my most worn watches of 2022. Having snagged it for just over A$300, there is a wide margin between it and the vintage holy trinity pieces and one that’s filled to the brim with excellent options – Omega Constellations, Universal Geneve Silver Shadows, Girard-Perregaux Gyromatics, not to mention the overwhelming number of Seiko, King Seiko and Grand Seiko variants.