In his “Plea for the Dress Watch” published in Forbes magazine, Jack Forster, US editor in chief of Revolution Magazine, says, “The true gentleman’s dress watch is very thin (whether self-winding or manually wound) and in its purest form, eschews any additional ornamentation or functions — the most pure examples dispense even with a seconds hand.” His definition is important; the blueprint for a dress watch has always been as muddled as the rules of cricket. The rest of Forster’s lecture — which reads exactly as you’d imagine a plea for a dress watch would (“To understand what the dress watch is, and why it is, is to consider the pleasures of formality itself”) — luxuriates on the history of the style, which was born of slimming style trends and thin pocketwatches in the late 18th century, and on why the dress watch is still viable. Important stuff, and the man is right: you should own one.
The article prances around another issue, though — price. “The dress watch proper, like the tuxedo, should be donned with a sense of both enjoyable connection to tradition, as well as with an appreciation for the minute niceties which distinguish a good one from a merely adequate or outright inappropriate one”, Forster intimates, presumably from deep within the folds of a vintage leather armchair; the exact “minute niceties” that make a watch “inappropriate” are never defined. His examples make it pretty clear, though: he points out the Vacheron Constantin Historiques Ultra Fine 1968 ($30,000+) and the Vacheron Constantin Historiques 1955 ($25,000+) as the “purest” versions ever made. (In Forster’s defense, his magazine does occasionally write nicely on affordable timepieces.) Gear Patrol’s own list of the best dress watches doesn’t have quite the same thickness of billfold, but it isn’t far off. This repeated litany has created a paradigm in which the dress watch’s only concrete requirement is a lavish price tag.
This is all a problem (1) because most people do have to go to formal events but can’t spend car-buying money on a watch and (2) because the dress watch actually only has one requirement, and it’s simple: to look good with a suit, or even just a dress shirt and slacks. (GQ calls it “keeping time, not flashing it.“) A sparse dial, thinness, an automatic movement and a simple black leather strap all work toward this end, but a lack of one or several of these traits doesn’t mean a watch necessarily falls short. Today’s trend of sporty watches and the potential for competitors that can make calls and alert you to the day’s weather have changed the playing field, anyway. The dress watch is ebbing because in the pure sense — Forster’s sense — it only does one thing well, and it’s been priced out of the everyman’s wallet since forever. Not that the dress watch should, or will, go extinct. It just needs a new definition, one that jives with both formal wear and greasy fast food binges.
Take, for instance, the Skagen Ancher. Traditionalists will scoff at it, because it’s made by a “fashion brand”, and has a quartz movement and a big ole orange second hand. And yet it exudes both classicism and a certain modern simplicity at 40mm, and slots in at the extremely thin, comfortable thickness of 8mm. If you can stand its alternative style and its weird square hooded lugs, you’ll look sharp and have a conversation starter with the Swedish supermodels down the bar. (If you can’t, Tsovet’s SVT-CN38 ($225) runs in a similar vein and comes in a wide range of color options.)
Though it has none of the modernity, slimness or quartz movement, the Orient Bambino is a brother to the Skagen in price. The big hurdle here is its size: 40.5mm wide isn’t a problem for most men, but its 11.8mm thick domed crystal is; still, it passes the ever-important cuff test (take that iWatch), though it wiggles underneath tighter ones begrudgingly. But it nails a simple pie pan-style dial that evokes the version of your grandfather that bagged your grandma. Its white and silver dial with wide dauphine hands and simple hour markers is legible and handsome. With an automatic movement and this price, it’s the gateway mechanical dress watch; D.A.R.E. officers would dread it, if timepieces were narcotics.
Where the Orient is all quiet confidence, the Victorinox Alliance looks like a well-dressed military man who’s ready to brawl at the hint of a slight. This really is an officer’s watch; its design drinks deep from the well of functionality while its outer crust is mostly black tie. The model with the black face and silver hour markers is somewhat illegible in poor light, but looks sporty with its blood-red seconds hand and its 24-hour military time pressed into the dial; its dagger hour markers look formal, but its thick case and hints of a field watch’s toughness make it the perfect watch to wear under a suit, then swap over to a NATO strap (the leather one has a deployment clasp that unclips easily when tugged) for a weekend in the woods. With this bent, the quartz version for $450 seems a better buy than the mechanical.
Tissot Heritage Visodat
To give some credit to those watch guys whose fundamentalism I’ve been knocking: their ideal of the traditional dress watch is fantastic, if it can be separated from its ball-breaking price tag. Tissot’s Heritage Visodate is sleek and confident on the wrist, with the dial markings — especially its handwritten “Tissot” badge — sharply angular case (11.6mm thick and 40mm wide) and an arrow-counterbalanced seconds hand to prove its 1950s intent. The white day/date window is stark on the black-dialed version; unfortunately, it’s the most legible thing about the watch, which has bad glare in some light. (For this reason, get the white and silver version.) A significant other claimed that its style was cartoonish and it “looks like the watch Buzz Lightyear would wear.” That wasn’t meant as a compliment, but it should be taken as one: Buzz Lightyear is cool.
And there is the rare watch that accomplishes Forster’s purity guidelines without breaking the bank. Hamilton’s Intra-matic comes in two sizes (38mm and 42mm), though you should opt for the smaller, both for comfort and to match tradition. It’s clearly meant to recall ’60s style, and does so with a nicely finished panache: silvery sunburst dial, slim hour and minute hands, even skinnier hour markers. The 10mm-thin case is similarly all business, with a simple crown and simple lugs, and the thin leather strap makes it just as comfortable as the Skagen, and the perfect fit under a shirtcuff (and maybe a few inches behind your fingers holding a cigarette). It’s a great watch at a good price, though that’s not to say it refutes the new definition of the dress watch. Let’s call it a pleasant outlier.