5 of the best Roman numeral watchesTom Austin
The most elegant and sophisticated watches out there are likely to sport Roman numerals on the dial, as they ensure a touch of cultured refinement, having been in use as far back as the 14th century on early clocks such as the one gracing the Wells Cathedral. It may surprise you to know that on most Roman numeral dials, there’s technically a typo, with the 4th hour marker being represented as a IIII instead of a IV. This is known as the clockmaker’s four, and there are many whimsical theories about why it exists. Ask a watch designer and they may tell you it makes for a more balanced dial symmetry, but ask a 14th Century historian, and they might tell you that it was because King Charles V of France considered the IV to be an unlucky omen. The truth is, nobody knows.
One thing is for sure – Roman numerals appear not only on some of the most horologically important watches of recent times but also on a wide array of traditionally styled dress watches – here’s our list of five of the best for all budgets.
Longines Master Collection
Roman numerals don’t have to be reserved for the most expensive wristwatches around: they also perfectly suit something more affordable. The Master Collection is the best-selling collection in Longines’ entire range, and with good reason. There are a number of iterations available, with different dial treatments and furniture, but this sunburst black dial model features delicate applied Roman numerals which give the watch a characterful edge.
The case is a 40mm stainless steel affair, with a clean, thick bezel that makes the watch appear a little thicker than it is, as it sits on the wrist at 9.35mm. This, combined with the short lugs, means it wears that 40mm size well. The case is closed off with an exhibition caseback, displaying the ETA 2892-base L888.5 self-winding movement that features a simple date function. The black dial, Roman numerals, and classic leaf hands make the Master Collection 40 a superb choice as a daily wearer or a watch for special occasions. It’s a stylish and simple watch, which is faithful to Longines’ history, but also has a modern twist with the case design to appeal to different audiences. It can make a great gift for someone’s 21st birthday.
Cartier Tank Louis Cartier
We couldn’t have this list without the rulers of the Roman numeral dials, Cartier. It was difficult to choose from such an illustrious catalogue of incredible pieces, all of which are very much defined by those signature hour markers. There is one watch that overrules all in the Cartier range for me, and that of course has to be the Tank Louis Cartier. A cultural icon, it was created in 1917 by Louis Cartier himself, with its shape inspired by the French military tanks of the First World War. It’s gone on to adorn the wrists of some of the most influential figures in history, such as Princess Diana, Andy Warhol, and Muhammad Ali, to name just a few, and as a result, it is now one of the most iconic watches of all time.
In its current form, there’s a mid-sized yellow gold case, blued-steel sword hands, and a beaded crown with that all-important cabochon. Over the years, there have been multiple iterations of the dial, but the most popular is indeed the famous Roman numeral version, and if you look closely at the 7 o’clock marker, you’ll see the secret Cartier logo. It’s just one of those watches that will never go out of style.
A. Lange & Söhne Lange 1
The A. Lange & Söhne Lange 1 does something remarkable, appearing both contemporary and traditional at the same time, expressing the German brand’s creativity and respect for history. If you look at the Lange 1 and initially think the offset dial is somewhat scattered and doesn’t make sense, but then for some unknown reason it actually does the opposite, you’ve just been ratioed. Golden ratioed, that is. The dial layout with the oversized date, time wheel featuring those all-important Roman numerals, and running seconds dial, are all actually placed in positions based on this natural phenomenon.
So it’s no surprise that the Lange 1 has gone on to become one of the most influential watches of the modern era, and that’s before we’ve even talked about the finishing. The Lange 1’s impeccable casework houses the L121.1, a visually striking, manually wound movement, which is hand-finished to a breathtakingly fine level. Even each balance cock is engraved with the Lange-style floral pattern that makes each watch unique. The Lange 1 is a glorious example of A Lange & Söhne’s capabilities, and with each piece featuring Roman numerals on that dial of “divine proportion”, it deserves a place on this list.
Laurent Ferrier Classic Tourbillon Black Onyx
It’s said that Laurent Ferrier’s preference is “subtlety and discretion”, and nothing in their range represents this more than the Classic Tourbillon. Upon first glance, it just looks like a minimal time-only, black-dial watch. Hell, if you don’t get to handle it you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s stainless steel – that is until you look a little closer. The 41mm pebble-shaped case is lovingly crafted from 18k white gold, featuring Laurent Ferrier’s signature soft lines and curves. Centred within is a dial made from black onyx, a stone that the ancient Roman army would carry into battle, engraved with depictions of Mars, the god of war. This is a very subtle connection with the finely painted Roman numerals adorning the dial.
Hiding behind the dial is a complex manually wound movement: a double spiral tourbillon with opposing double balance springs, beautifully decorated, and only visible through the caseback. There’s something very cool about knowing you have something akin to a Formula 1 engine under the hood of your understated, stylish sleeper. The Laurent Ferrier Classic Tourbillon is a beautifully finished contemporary watch with classic elements and beautiful finishing. What more do you need?
Philippe Dufour Grande et Petite Sonnerie
First unveiled in 1992, the result of decades of development, and more than two years of craftsmanship for each watch, the Philippe Dufour Grande et Petite Sonnerie is widely regarded as one of the most important wristwatches ever, and its maker one of the finest watchmakers ever. One of the most important aspects of the watch is the miniaturisation of the minute repeater movement, which was once the reserve of much larger pocket watches. Although in 1992 this would have been considered rather large at the time, I think we can forgive its brawny, yet refined proportions today.
With its wide domed bezel and tapered lugs, the case doesn’t draw in too much attention and retains a balanced look. The dial is a stunning example of craftsmanship, a two-level fired enamel affair, with a running seconds dial at 6 o’clock, Breguet hands, and of course, Roman numerals. Underneath the hinged hunter case back, sits the magnificent grande sonnerie calibre, with a twin barrel arrangement, consisting of one to power the timekeeping aspect, and the other for the striking. Every single component has been honed and finished by hand, with every surface bevelled, polished and crafted to perfection. It’s simply awe-inspiring to see such craftsmanship, and it makes absolute sense as to why these pieces give Philippe Dufour such a reputation. Dufour’s Grande et Petite Sonnerie No. 1 went on to set a record in November 2021, for the most expensive independent watch ever sold, when it achieved $5,182,109 at Phillips’ Geneva Watch Auction XIV, run by Bacs & Russo.