Dressed for success: how to choose a winning dress watch

By Jason Swire, August 2 2018
Dressed for success: how to choose a winning dress watch

Designed to be worn on formal and black tie occasions, dress watches are the most elegant of timepieces. Their goal is at once powerful yet subtle: an understated 'classic' design which doesn't draw undue attention to itself.

When it's time to add a dress watch to your wardrobe, look for a face that's as uncluttered as possible.

Avoid any additional displays that crowd the dial; chronographs, world-timers and tourbillons are probably the worst offenders here, although even the humble date window can disrupt an otherwise elegant design.

Many dress watches go as far as omitting a second hand, or featuring a 'small seconds' sub-dial to make the second hand less prominent.

The hands and hour markers of a dress watch should not use any luminous material, to avoid the watch glowing amidst a dimly-lit dinner or a night at the theatre.

Black leather is the preferred strap option, to best compliment the black and white palette of formal attire.

Perhaps most importantly, the ideal dress watch should be small enough to look well-proportioned on the wearer's wrist, and thin enough to disappear easily under a shirt cuff or sleeve. 

But don't think this is code for 'bland' or 'boring'. Far from it: even with the above constraints in mind, it's still possible to have a bit of fun and show off the wearer's personality with a dress watch.

One great example of a dress watch with some flair is the Nomos Ludwig reference 201, priced at $2,540:

Measuring a mere 35mm wide by 6.25mm thick, the Nomos Ludwig is as svelte a timepiece as you could ask for.

The use of Roman numerals, small seconds and a railroad minute track lends this watch a 'marine chronometer' look, similar to the portable clocks used aboard seafaring vessels in the late 18th century.

The Ludwig isn't the purest dress watch Nomos makes, that title belonging to the Orion, but the added dash of old-world charm lends this watch some personality without detracting from its elegance.

The use of Arabic numerals is generally shunned for a dress watch, but one timepiece that uses them to great effect is the Montblanc Heritage Chronométrie Ultra Slim, priced at $3,050.

The Montblanc wears larger than the Nomos with a 38mm dial but measures a mere 5.8mm thick, and lacks a second hand entirely for a very formal look.

This is nicely counterbalanced by the sunburst effect on the silver dial, the Arabic numerals at 12, 3, 6 and 9, and the discreet 'Mechanique' text on the dial which hints at a clockwork heart.

These subtle design elements combine to provide some visual interest to the dial and prevents this watch from becoming boring, despite its slimness and simplicity.

If both of those models are still a tad on the plain and traditional side for your taste, take a look at some dress watch options with a moon phase display.

A moon phase is one of those features with very little practical application (unless you're a stargazer or recreational fisher, anyway) and can look quite beautiful on a simple dress watch.

An iconic model in this space is the Jaeger-LeCoultre Master Ultra Thin Moon (often abbreviated to JLC MUT Moon), in particular the reference 1368470 which is priced at approximately $13,500.

With a case measuring 39mm by 9.9mm this watch is considerably larger than either the Nomos or Montblanc. The dial is much busier as well with a centre second hand, moon phase display and pointer date.

Jaeger-LeCoultre balances this by using plain indexes rather than numerals for the hour markers, and both the moon phase and date have been executed discreetly near 6 o'clock where we'd expect to see a small seconds sub-dial on a more traditional dress watch.

The dial is finished with a beautiful black sunburst effect which also adds to the elegance of this timepiece, making it a worthy choice for formal occasions despite breaking a few of the typical dress watch conventions. 

Whichever dress watch you go for, strive for simplicity and beauty – and above all, seek out a watch that you will always love to wear.

Jason Swire

Jason Swire is a Sydney-based writer, watch collector and author of 'Timely Advice', a beginner's guide to fine timepieces. His non-watch passions include hi-fi and whiskey, in that order.

Really happy to see the Nomos here, it's my favorite watch for a delightful 'minimalist' design with a splash of colour.

10 Jul 2018

Total posts 3

I'm a big fan of Nomos as well. I recently bought one for myself, but I picked a much bolder model (I've got a dedicated dress watch already). A Nomos article might be coming up over the next few weeks... ;)

Singapore Airlines - The PPS Club

20 Apr 2015

Total posts 33

The Germans really excel at the simple dress watch. However, I'd say the A Lange Sohne Saxonia Thin would be a contender for the ultimate dress watch. Slightly too small for me (37mm) and I settled for the Saxonia Dual Time (this is a travel site after all).

10 Jul 2018

Total posts 3

@bobloblaw: couldn't agree more, the Saxonia Thin 37mm in white gold has been a grail of mine for years. You'd need to be attending a lot of formal events to justify dropping $22k AUD on a dress watch though!

24 Jan 2018

Total posts 7

I think you got your wires crossed. You dress for the watch, not the other way around. :)

23 Jul 2017

Total posts 97

A man should wear his watch under both the shirt and coat sleeves. No one should see it when it's being worn. What matters is not how it looks but how it performs as a time piece.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

13 Feb 2015

Total posts 26

IWC Portuguese Chrono cannot be wrong....

Virgin Australia - Velocity Rewards

10 Feb 2017

Total posts 4

And then, there's the Vacheron Constantin Patrimony.

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