By sheer production volume, the dress watch can easily be considered the most popular timepiece.
In fact, the trademark sleek profile has made them quite fashionable even in very casual settings.
Yet, what most consider a dress watch is not, by definition, a dress watch.
Consequently, within this guide we will be laying out some guidelines as to what differentiates a true dress watch from “dressy” watches. We’re also touching on what case sizes are appropriate, and then bringing you our favorite men’s dress watches.
- What Are Dress Watches
- How Big Should A Men’s Dress Watch Be?
- The Best Dress Watches
- An Affordable Dress Watch Option
We’ve also hunted down a more accessible option that will help you look the part without breaking the bank. You can skip straight there via the links above, or continue scrolling for the full read.
Best Dress Watches For Men
- Cartier Tank Louis Ref. WGTA0011
- Patek Philippe Golden Ellipse Ref. 5738P
- Vacheron Constantin Patrimony Manual-Winding Ref. 81180/000R-9159
- Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso Tribute Small-Seconds Ref. Q397846J
- A. Lange & Sohne Saxonia Thin Ref. 205.086
The list of our favorite dress timepieces is, of course, not intended to be all inclusive nor final.
The goal is to present a broad sample of what a true dress watch can be. We’ve also selected specific models that highlight how different luxury watch brands employ some latitude in their designs without falling outside the category.
See Bespoke Unit’s Watch Reviews
What Is A Dress Watch?
If one were to qualify a timepiece as a “dress watch” by its ability to match with a suit, there would be a large spectrum of watches that would fall within the category. Fortunately, there are some specific characteristics that help narrow the selection down.
We must preface this with the disclaimer that, in present-day, the lines between formal and true dress watches are significantly blurred. For this reason, you should take our points as guidelines rather than strict rules.
First and foremost, a men’s dress watch should really only possess a time complication. In this regard, a sub-seconds register, and even a constant seconds hand at center, can be considered informal.
This is likely the protocol most commonly violated, so much so that it’s become almost obsolete. Even one of our highlights below includes a small seconds complication.
A seconds subdial often adds delicate and attractive details to otherwise lacking dials, so it’s hard to knock brands for implementing these on their dress timepieces. In this instance, we concede that the ends justify the means.
Another characteristic of a dress watch is its band, though this rule is pretty simple: leather or nothing. More specifically, alligator or crocodile leather. Bracelets, however smooth and shiny they may be, are just not elegant enough.
This rule has been challenged recently by the meteoric rise in popularity of steel sports models like the Nautilus or Royal Oak. The exuberant price tags have made the timepieces so revered that they’d even get a pass in black tie dress codes, but these are not traditional dress watches. In fact, black tie generally dictates the complete absence of timepieces.
With these two points in mind, we tackle another topic that has troubled even the boldest of men – size…
What Size Should A Dress Watch Case Be?
…Size of your dress watch, that is.
Whereas in other styles of timepieces, bigger has often meant better, this is exactly the opposite with dress watches. The average case size of 40mm is probably as large as you’d want to go, even for a gentleman with a big wrist.
The watch is intended to subtly complement the entire ensemble, not draw all the attention away from it. It should also slip comfortably under your dress cuff, given that checking the time at a formal event was traditionally considered rude to the hosts.
This previous point has led dress watches and thin watches to be confused as a single style – they are not.
They do overlap in their characteristics, but modern horological technology has seen amazing complications packed into the slimmest watches.
Truth be told, ultra-thin watches are truly beautiful. They are also impressive marvels of engineering. But as mentioned previously, anything past a time function is a step away from a classical dress watch.
You may be thinking that with all these rules, dress watches are doomed to be boring and dull for all of eternity. Yet, trust that they are not. We’ve got the list of the best men’s dress watches to prove it, coming up next.
Best Dress Watches For Men
1. Cartier Tank Louis Ref. WGTA0011
- Brand – Cartier
- Model – Tank Louis (See on Cartier’s site.)
- Price – $12,400
The brand name Cartier carries with it a centuries-old legacy of fine jewelry and timepieces. It’s no surprise that we’ve chosen their historic model, the Tank, as our top dress watch.
For the events that call for the most refined accessories, it’s hard to go wrong with Cartier. With regards to classic men’s timepieces, it hardly gets any better than the Tank.
Beginning with the historical icon that is the Tank and its hallmark rectangular case, there’s not much of a physical presence to inspect. Yes, it’s a small timepiece, but by now it should be evident this is what a classic dress watch is supposed to be. Small and delicate; luxurious yet restrained.
The dial is equally chic. It’s silver in color with a guilloche inner dial and black roman numeral indices. The center hands are heat-blued, designed to match another trademark of the model, the cabochon-set crown.
The movement must be slim enough for the case, and is therefore hand-wound. In total, the case is 25.5mm in diameter, a size sure to test the boundaries of anyone accustomed to 40mm Rolexes.
Yet once more, the virtue here lies in what’s not there. Notably, a large and bulky case.
Cartier has arguably done the dress watch better than any other. A timeless design reigns king once more.
2. Patek Philippe Golden Ellipse Ref. 5738P
Patek Philippe is a brand renowned for their grand complications, namely perpetual calendars and minute repeaters.
Therefore, it’s certainly interesting to see their name on a list of the simplest style of watch there is. Let’s see what makes their Golden Ellipse such an ideal men’s dress timepiece.
Most prominent on this watch is its irregular case shape. The platinum case’s dimensions are intended to closely match the Golden Ratio, and impart an overall harmonious aesthetic.
The watch’s face is an astonishing sunburst blue deftly decorated with white gold indices and hands. The crown, like in the case of the preceding Cartier Tank, is similarly gem-set with an onyx stone.
Patek goes a step beyond with a self-winding movement, though this convenient quality is known only by he who sports the watch. Binding together the whole look, as well as the watch to the wrist, is a premium navy alligator strap.
A pure dress watch in every sense of the term, Patek Philippe’s Golden Ellipse absolutely defines what a dress watch should be. Sophistication in its most simple form triumphs at the hands of Patek once more.
3. Vacheron Constantin Patrimony Manual-Winding Ref. 81180/000R-9159
- Brand – Vacheron Constantin
- Model – Patrimony Manual-Winding (See on Vacheron’s site.)
- Price – $18,200
The Vacheron Constantin Manufacture has been producing beautiful timepieces since the times where all that existed were formal timepieces. Subsequently, it should come as no surprise that they’re quite apt at making a modern dress watch worthy of praise.
The Patrimony Manual-Winding is the brand’s contemporary take on a classic design. As a result, the watch successfully meets all the criteria that would qualify it as a classic dress watch.
The watch’s case is 40mm in high-polish 18K pink gold. Though it leans towards the larger side, the ultra-thin nature of the watch diminishes the effect while also ensuring modern tastes are satisfied.
The dial is silver with thin rose gold indices and minimalist minute markers in the same metal. The hands at center are, of course, a matching rose gold touting a refined shape. The only other presence on the dial is marked by the brand’s printed marquee and applied logo at 12 o’clock.
This Patrimony is presented on a dark brown alligator strap which pairs amicably with the gold case. It also conveys a warm rosy hue to the overall appearance of the watch, making for pleasing sights whenever this beautiful dress watch may happen to peer out from under a cuff.
4. Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso Tribute Small-Seconds Ref. Q397846J
This Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso Tribute Small Seconds is as far from the guidelines as we’ve dared to stray with our picks. Nevertheless, it’s evident by looking at this outstanding JLC that this watch is pure class.
Our 4th favorite dress watch also marks a deviation from traditional colors with its sunray-brushed Burgundy red dial. One which also possesses polished hour indices, a printed minute track, and small seconds subdial at 6 o’clock.
Some may say that the dial is too busy to be an authentic dress watch. The Reverso’s rotating case has an answer for them. A quick flip renders the dial invisible, replaced in turn by a polished caseback.
Originally a function designed for polo players who would often break their watches, it also transforms the timepiece into a premium bracelet as needed.
When it comes time for the strap to shine, JLC has this part covered. They’ve used a supple burgundy calfskin strap, styled after previous Reversos with Casa Fagliano leather bands.
This JLC Reverso Tribute represents yet another instance where simple details, potentially frivolous design choices, have produced a distinguished timepiece worthy of the most formal occassions.
5. A. Lange & Sohne Saxonia Thin Ref. 205.086
- Brand – A. Lange & Sohne
- Model – Saxonia Thin (See on Lange’s site.)
- Price – ~$23,950
Essentially all of A. Lange & Sohne‘s timepiece offerings sit comfortably within the real of traditional timepieces. Nevertheless, the brand’s affinity for and experience in producing complications sees them implemented frequently to great success.
In the case of the Saxonia Thin, the brand has refrained from complications but expressed their creativity in a different way. We’re talking about the focal point of this piece, the solid silver dial with copper-blue gold flux.
The intricate process by which the dial is made produces the look of a shimmery night sky, and a resulting face that is absolutely beautiful. Also present on the dial are white gold hour indices, white gold hands at center, and the brand’s printed name.
Cased in 18K white gold and accompanied by a shiny blue alligator strap, the Saxonia Thin offers a subtle twist on tradition while ticking all the boxes that make it a dress watch.
Affordable Dress Watch For Men
Seiko Essentials Ref. SUP880
The Japanese watchmaker Seiko can always be counted on to offer high-quality watches at accessible price points. This Essentials SUP880 possesses the traditional design cues of a dress watch, is solar-powered, and can be had for less than $200.
For those who just want a simple watch to match their formal outfit, and who are not to concerned with “horological importance”, this is an ideal option.
More Watch Guides
Let us know in the comments what you thought about our picks, and if you believe our guidelines for formal timepieces are too strict.
As with this guide on dress watches, we’ve also created many others that dive into other styles and countless complication. You can check them out below:
- What Makes A Field Watch + Top Field Models
- The Best Pilot & Aviator Watches For Men
- Guide To Thin & Ultra-Thin Wristwatches
- What Is A Mechanical Alarm Watch & How Does It Work?
- Bespoke Unit Watch Homepage
"I used to think that any watch on a leather strap could be considered a dress watch. Bespoke Unit comes through once again with an enlightening guide packed full of beautiful watches."Rating: 5.0★★★★★