The Most Iconic Dress Watches To Elevate Any Black-Tie Occasion
From Sunday brunch to black tie dinners, the right watch has the power to elevate any occasion. Here’s a selection of our all-time favorite dress watches
There’s something special about the ritual of dressing ahead of a black-tie event: picking out the right pair of cufflinks, slipping on your mirror-polished Oxfords and winding your watch before setting the time. In 2023, it feels like there are fewer formal occasions that demand you to pull out all the stops, which only makes it all the more enjoyable to do it properly when the evening calls for it.
Alongside your suit and shoes, the most important part of any formal outfit is the dress watch you decide to wear. Typically, the most iconic dress watches are smaller, made from precious metal and arrive on a leather strap, but there are a few classics within the canon that break the rules. You don’t always need to follow the rules, but it’s always worth knowing the intention behind them before making your own path.
So if you don’t yet have a great dress watch in your collection, we thought it was worth taking a look at some of the most iconic timepieces that can perfectly complement any formal occasion. Because even if you don’t have a calendar stacked with gala events, a dress watch is a great detail to elevate any outfit, from jeans and a t-shirt and beyond.
Without a doubt, the Cartier Tank is the most iconic dress watch there is. With a history that dates back more than a century, its design has remained almost unchanged and has been the source of inspiration for hundreds of other watches over the decades.
The Cartier Tank is available in many different iterations today, with the French-founded watchmaker reviving one of its most popular expressions in the Tank Must, a couple of years ago. This blue dial example speaks to the vibrance of the 1970s when the Tank Must was first launched, featuring a 33mm polished stainless steel case and a long-lasting quartz movement. If you’re after the undisputed hero of the dress watch, you can’t go wrong with a Cartier Tank.
Patek Philippe Calatrava
Another legend within the world of dress watches is the Calatrava from Patek Philippe, which was born during the challenging decade of the 1930s and has since set a benchmark for uncomplicated fine watchmaking. Typically powered by either a manually wound or automatic movement, the Patek Philippe Calatrava is also offered with a wide range of different design details and precious metals, meaning there’s truly one for everyone.
There are a number of excellent contemporary references offered by Patek Philippe, but among the most special include the platinum ref. 5088P ‘Volutes and Arabesques’, with a hand-engraved and enamelled dial. For those after something a little more conservative in appearance, the ref. 5296 in white gold is another wonderful dress watch, with the practical feature of a date window for those who want to wear it every day.
For some, the Rolex Day-Date might be a controversial addition to a list of dress watches, but I’d only ask them to consider this spectacular collection from the largest watchmaker in the world. Originally launched in the middle of the last century, the Rolex Day-Date is a timepiece that’s synonymous with wealth and power and has been crafted in dozens of different variations over the years, each of which offers a slightly different perspective on what Rolex can create.
I’d concede that the larger 41mm modern Day-Date references lean towards being more sporty than dressy, but the original 36mm references remain a perfect size for any wrist and are subtle enough to pair with a tuxedo nicely. One such example is this yellow gold ref. 18038 with diamond indexes and a wonderful ox-blood tone “Stella” lacquer dial, a set of details that combine to create a watch that wants to be worn on special occasions. Another slightly more under-the-radar example is this ref. 18239 in white gold with a walnut wood dial, which is truly unlike any contemporary Rolex you might find today.
If you’re one who enjoys the clean lines and hard angles of Art Deco design, you’ll love the symmetry and structure of the Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso, which started its life as a sports watch but has since become one of the most desirable dress watch designs in the world. Its unique case — which can be flipped over — was originally created for Polo players who needed to protect the glass of their watch from errant mallets, but over time the Reverso has evolved into a watch you’ll more commonly see paired with satin-striped trousers than riding jodhpurs.
Much like the Cartier Tank that preceded it, the Reverso is available today in a number of different designs and complications, with one of the most charming being the Reverso Tribute Duoface which offers two dials (and can track two separate timezones). Arguably more precious, but slightly simpler in functionality, this Reverso Septantieme Platinum Limited Edition is another classic example of Jaeger-LeCoultre watchmaking.
Today, IWC is a watchmaker that is perhaps best known for its pilot’s watches, but the Schaffhausen-based manufacturer has a storied history of classic timepieces too. Within it’s archived, the Portugieser collection is a favourite of many watch collectors thanks to its oversized cases and nicely proportioned dials.
The Portugieser is a collection that features a number of different complications, including chronographs, perpetual calendars, minute repeaters and more, but its time-only watches have an enduring charm to them that will never go out of style. For those whose hearts beat a little quicker at the sight of coloured precious metal, this rose gold example with a contrasting slate grey dial will be appealing, but if you prefer the idea of a dress watch that’s also a technical tour de force, this stainless steel reference with an eight-day power reserve is sure to impress.
Audemars Piguet Jules Audemars
If you ask anyone on the street what watches Audemars Piguet makes, there’s little chance they’ll mention anything other than the legendary Royal Oak. However, the Le Brassus-based watchmaker built its reputation for more than a century by creating classic watches and the Audemars Piguet Jules Audemars collection is the contemporary expression of this history.
Named after one of the founders of the brand, this Audemars Piguet Jules Audemars reference is hewn from 39mm of rose gold and is powered by the automatic calibre AP 3120. Paired with its brown leather strap, you have a timeless watch design that you can confidently pass on to future generations.
While the Cartier Tank is an iconic dress watch with more than a hundred years of history, the Breguet name can be traced back nearly 250 years. Founded by Abraham-Louis Breguet (the watchmaker who invented the tourbillon mechanism), today Breguet is a brand steeped in classicism and its Classique collection is as traditional as they come.
A fine example of what the collection offers is this Breguet Classique Ultra Thin, which is cased in 38mm of yellow gold and set with diamonds around the case and lugs. Featuring a Breguet signature in an engine-turned dial and heat-blued steel hands, this is as classic as they come.
A. Lange & Söhne Saxonia
Much of the history of fine wristwatches hails from Switzerland, but Germany also enjoys a proud tradition of watchmaking and A. Lange & Söhne is among the very best in the world today. Known for an approach to the craft that embodies a pursuit of perfection, the dress watches made by A. Lange & Söhne are almost peerless in their quality, from the skill of the movement finishing to the proportions of the dial.
One such example is the A. Lange & Söhne Saxonia Thin ref. 201.033, which was first introduced in 2016 and was celebrated for its impressively slender profile that measures just 5.9mm from front to back. It features a pink gold case that measures 37mm in diameter and contains one of the most beautiful mechanical movements you can buy today.
Piaget is another watchmaker who has made a name for itself on multiple fronts, both for its sporty Polo collection and for its remarkable grasp of the technical challenges of ultra-thin watchmaking. As you’d imagine, ultra-thin watchmaking lends itself to dress watches very nicely and the Piaget Altiplano is as fine an example of this as you’ll ever come across.
The Piaget Altiplano ref. G0A33114 is one of the brand’s more well-recognized dress watches, thanks to its offset seconds subdial and the Piaget calibre 838P that powers it. This manually wound movement is just 2.5mm thick, but still delivers an impressive 50 hours of power reserve, showcasing exactly what Piaget can do when svelteness is the goal.
Omega De Ville
Last, but not least, is a collection from Omega known mostly to insiders and has brought the dress watch into the 21st century with its unambiguously modern design. The Omega De Ville range is a far cry from the Speedmaster Moonwatch that Omega is so famous for, but with its sleekly sweeping lugs and oversized Roman numeral hour markers, is a design that pairs perfectly with a tuxedo.
One of the references most deserving of wrist time on a special occasion is the Omega De Ville Tresor in stainless steel with twin asymmetric rows of diamonds, as a very tasteful approach to precious stones. It measures 39mm in diameter and when paired with its satin-finish fabric strap, is a sight to behold under the ambient lights of a banquet dinner.