The Death Of The Dress Watch: Is It Time To Write Its Obituary?

As the resident gentleman of Quill & Pad, I feel that the time is soon approaching to write an obituary announcing the death of the dress watch.

It is not that we didn’t see this coming, nor is it an isolated event. But it still hurts.

What was long the cornerstone of the watch industry is no longer a hotly desired model. The dress watch has been overtaken, surpassed, and in some cases even downright forgotten as new generations splurge on steel-encased icons, the latest Apple watch, or forgo a watch all together.

As the downturn of the watch industry marches on, the dress watch, once a proud general leading the troops, is now becoming the first casualty.

A variety of Patek Philippe Reference 5196 Calatravas

A variety of Patek Philippe Reference 5196 Calatravas

The dress watch itself has always been somewhat of a contradiction, one that thrived on overstating its understatement. Although encased in gold – preferably yellow – it had to look sober, have two hands (three at most), and be thin and mechanical as well as small in diameter.

Bracelets? Sorry, they are frowned upon, so a dark-colored leather strap it was: calfskin is okay, but alligator is preferred.

The result is a surprisingly simple-looking watch, which stands in sharp contrast to the considerable effort and craftsmanship needed to create it, not to mention the financial investment required to wear one.

Icons with anniversaries

Despite (or maybe because of) their understated appearances, some dress watches haven’t gone unnoticed and have become icons. Two of them are celebrating important anniversaries this year: the Piaget Altiplano turns 60 and the Cartier Tank celebrates its centennial.

Piaget Altiplano 60th Anniversary 38 mm on the wrist

Piaget Altiplano 60th Anniversary 38 mm

While these watches are still highly respected within the tight-knit community of watch connoisseurs, they are not being bought – at least in sufficient quantities – to command the prominent position they once had.

Gold-cased watches, in general, are far less popular than they once were. Steel is now considered equally noble, bronze has gained a loyal following, and ceramic and carbon fiber are the next big thing.

Vacheron Constantin Historiques American 1921 Small on the wrist

Vacheron Constantin Historiques American 1921 Small

This has hurt especially the watch manufactures that specialize in exquisite gold dress watches such as Piaget and Vacheron Constantin.

But even other brands seeming to do just fine face challenges when selling their dress watches.

When you say the words “Audemars Piguet,” everyone instantly thinks “Royal Oak.” Few bring up the Millenary, but how many know of the Jules Audemars collection, which contains several exceptional dress watches?

At Patek Philippe, even the mighty Calatrava has been eclipsed by the ongoing success of the Nautilus. Here the brand’s famous tagline – that you merely look after it for the next generation – might even work as a disadvantage as possible clients may wait to receive one of Patek Philippe’s dress watches as an inheritance rather than purchase one of their own.

Patek Philippe Calatrava Reference 2508

Patek Philippe Calatrava Reference 2508

Perhaps I’m putting this a bit bluntly, but why invest in something you would only wear occasionally if at all?

Has the dress watch drifted out of fashion?

The cause of death for the dress watch is a complex one, but can mostly be described as becoming out of sync with modern-day style.

Or should we say that modern-day style has gotten more out of sync with the dress watch?

Comfortable clothing reigns in most closets, and events for which we once dressed up we now dress down. This is not the atmosphere in which a dress watch is at its best.

But there is one big “c” in fashion that puts a long nail in the coffin of the dress watch, and that is the c in “connected.”

Apple watch by Hermés

Apple watch by Hermés: the new dress watch?

Professional life was often where the dress watch was in its natural habitat. Here technology is taking over, and many professionals now prefer an Apple Watch or another connected device on the wrist real estate where once the dress watch proudly resided.

It helps professionals stay on top of things, or at least that is what they tell themselves.

In this ever more connected world, I find peace in a watch with no visible motion as I glance at it. The hands move, of course, but I am not haunted by them as they set the pace of the rat race that we make out of life. This is yet another contradiction toward the demise of the dress watch, as many of us need to certainly have achieved some favorable results in that rat race in order to be able to afford to buy one of them.

Is there any hope for survival for the dress watch?

While it’s on life support, I doubt the dress watch will fully cease to exist as I expect it to become a niche.

Pocket watches went down the same road dress watches are heading down now, yet they are still being made in smaller numbers for an appreciative group of dedicated enthusiasts.

Manufactures that now greatly depend on dress watches will need to find a new direction for their collections as clients for their dress watches are just not as plentiful as they once were.

Cartier Tank à Guichets (left) and Louis Cartier XL (photo Geo Cramer)

Cartier Tank à Guichets (left) and Louis Cartier XL (photo Geo Cramer)

The status of the Cartier Tank and the Piaget Altiplano will ensure to some extent that they remain in production as icons of the industry.

That is at least some good news because as resident gentleman of Quill & Pad, and an avid collector of dress watches, this is one obituary I hope never to write.

40 replies
  1. John
    John says:

    Nicely written, especially coming off the big watch trend and recently how vintage chronographs are getting all the press.

    I see the gentlemens’ dress watch as a heirloom timepiece, on no particular price point or brand, one that is more personal today then yesteryear. With todays body conscience clothing, tapered shirts, the average chrono won’t fit (you shouldn’t wear one with a suit anyway, but that’s another conversation), Omega’s Speedmaster Professional barely does, unless it’s bespoke and the tailor compensates; forget wearing one with cuff links off the rack.

    Most baby boomers I know are wearing a Movado, Bulova or Whittenhauer of sorts. A Rolex Datejust is the popular choice for those with a bit more scratch. All good choices, wearing for style, not fashion.

    The dress watch is and should be a staple in any gentlemen’s or ladies sock drawer. You don’t need to be a collector either.

    When a niece or nephew graduates it’s the dress watch as a gift that I give. Timeless, goes with everything in this digital world. It’s soft and on that first job interview, big date, (maybe) getting married or buying their own watch, it will probably be the only gift that they still have and use from that day.

    I sold my blue Cartier Tank Basculante a few years back, though I wish I didn’t.

    • Martin Green
      Martin Green says:

      Thanks for your comments, John! So great that you give dress watches to your nieces and nephews! That is indeed a gift that will last.

  2. Tomas Jonsson
    Tomas Jonsson says:

    I think you’re spot on. People don’t need a wristwatch for practical reasons anymore as everybody can just quickly glance at their smartphone or smartwatch instead.

    Just as you wrote, traditional dress watches are sadly going to be more of a niche.

    • Martin Green
      Martin Green says:

      Question is of course, is it going to be such a bad thing when the traditional dress watch becomes a niche? It might actually be for the better as it allows brands to focus more and prevent the concept of the classical dress watch to dilute.

  3. Tom
    Tom says:

    I think it’s a cycle and the inundation of technology will become so heady that it will be rejected to a degree – and disconnected mechanical pieces will be en vogue again. I hope.

  4. Alex
    Alex says:

    You could easily say the same thing about the mechanical watch in general, with the arrival of said Apple Watch or connected watches, but they could unwittingly be the saviours of the industry.

  5. Rumi
    Rumi says:

    Dress watch is here to stay. New trends come and go but the fact that dress watch is still popular (even in Hollywood:) is a good indication. There is some charisma about dress watch, difficult to put in words, easier on the wrist.
    Thanks for an interesting article.

    • Martin Green
      Martin Green says:

      The dress watch indeed has a charisma that is very difficult to put into words. I guess it is the combination of purity in design, combined with incredible craftsmanship and the use of precious metals.

  6. John konstantinidis
    John konstantinidis says:

    All life is about is pictures and postures. Any dress watch in high quality and style will mix and match with any stylish outfit. Now and forever I believe. I own several vintage pieces of them and I see the reflection they make to any eye, relevant to watches or not.

    • Martin Green
      Martin Green says:

      I agree, but will it be enough for people to make the investment into one? For some it probably will, for others, it might not.

  7. Alex C
    Alex C says:

    Great write-up, Martin! Thanks for the thoughts and I agree with most of your arguments. However, I’d just push back a little on the general hypothesis and point out that the popularity of affordable, classically-styled watches like Dan Wellington is evidence that dress watches are in fact not of vogue and the mass-consumer still has wrist-estate for such timepieces. I think the crux of your argument really applies to the luxury-end of the market where it is becoming ever-harder to justify the purchase of a dress watch (as you have defined it above), which is all honesty, is fast becoming an occasional item against a good GADA for lesser money.

    It certainly is true of myself where, as much as I love dress watches like a good Piaget Altiplano, will unlikely part with the money for a piece that I might realistically wear only 1-2 days a month over my steel-bracelet and robust Rolexes.

    Equally, I would argue that part of the problem is that a lot of the traditional manufacturers have been very slow to recognise and adjust to the demands of the market. As previously mentioned, DW is probably a case-in-point that these watches are still popular to the general public, but I think the success Nomos or the Junghan’s Max Bill lines also speaks to the enthusiasm for this segment of watches done at the right price.

    I’ll be all ears if some of the “very serious” brands come into the market with ~US$5000 dress watch offerings in stainless-steel, much like what JLC are doing in their Reverso and Master Control lines. We can all wish and hope!

    • Martin Green
      Martin Green says:

      Thanks for your comments, Alex. The term “dress watch” is, like most terms in watchmaking, quite fluid. For me, a dress watch is always made of precious metal as I consider this an intricate part of the proposition. That is why I aimed at the higher regions of the watchmaking world with this article. Based on your personal viewpoint this can indeed be extended or narrowed down. I guess this is also part of the appeal of the watch world, as we never run out of interesting discussions! 🙂

  8. Lauri
    Lauri says:

    While I would agree people are not investing in high quality dress watches, I wouldn’t say that the whole genre is dead.
    Here in the Nordics, at least, everyone and their mother are wearing a Daniel Wellington, or something similar. While I’m not comparing a DW to a Calatrava and dislike the whole brand, it is basically still a dress watch. Thin case, and simplistic dial, two hands.
    These are much more commonplace than sports watches in the same price range, like the SKX.

    • Martin Green
      Martin Green says:

      I see your point, yet in my personal opinion a dress watch has to be made of precious metal, and the DWs are target more the minimalist watches like those made by Nomos, Stowa, and Junghans, which follow Bauhaus, and other design movements that focus on making an impact with less. These watches do indeed have quite a following, yet the watches encased in precious metal with high-end manual wind movements, which demand a far more imposing investment, seem to decline in popularity.

      • JD
        JD says:

        Of course they do. Think about brass cases, so in vogue at the grassroots level. Intended to oxidize and develop patina, even before purchase. If a dress watch is only true when made of precious metal, then of course a slimmer and slimmer fraction of the populace will bother spending their disposable income on glimmers metals which don’t complement their environments. As for me, I’m contemplating a Max Bill hand winder. But I guess I should not call it, with its steel case, dressy…


    I respectfully disagree. I’ve been in the watch business for 50 years and even owned a celebrated SWISS watch brand. The onset of LED followed by LCD digital watches supposedly signaled the death of analog watches. Like the mythological phoenix, digital watches flourished and then died. And if you’ve got the time, I can explain why this occurred.
    Dress watches exude elegance. They’re jewelry and part of what contributes to ones’ image.

  10. Milhouse329
    Milhouse329 says:

    Very good article however every time I open the app there is another article about a dress watch released so how can you say they are on their way out?

    • Martin Green
      Martin Green says:

      Because the deep passion we have for this type of watch, unfortunately, doesn’t reflect the state of the market for this type of watches. 🙂

  11. Nextgengentry
    Nextgengentry says:

    I discovered Quill & Pad recently trough watchville, and i love your style and the articles you do, not only watch reviews ( wich i also love). As a Y generation guy, i find this hoby relaxing and stress relieving, because i won’t have to be worried about a mechanical watch being obsolete. The greatest problem of mech watches between the teenagers and 30 is that many people doesn’t even know what a mechanical watch is. If people kneew how cheap are DW, michael kors, the 5th, mvmnt… and fot that price they can get a bambino, a citizen, a seiko… but if no one tells them, they won’t lose time with investigations, it’s a gen that always has been aproached to buy, so brands need to work in that direction.

    • Martin Green
      Martin Green says:

      Welcome to Quill & Pad! Yes, a great mechanical watch can be had at very low prices. I even once made the case that the Seiko 5 is the cheapest high-end watch one can ever purchase as it is a true manufacture watch made by a company whose CEO is still from the founding family, and all that for less than $100.

  12. Kunal
    Kunal says:

    Great Article. I think people who take interest in watches will – sooner or later – look into dress watches, whether as a purchase or inheritance / heirloom. I think a bigger problem is the execution of the so-called dress watches today.

    PP has let the Calatrava line stagnate. It has not focused on this line at all. The Calatrava line for simple time only and time date only has far greater potential than what PP is currently offering.

    Vacheron Constantin in my opinion makes the most beautiful dress watches. I own a Traditionelle, and I do not get bored of this.

    Lange 1815 line is handsome, but the Saxonia could be worked on a bit more. I find it a tad boring.

    AP has completely neglected its dress watches range.

    Dress watches do not have to be plain and boring. If executed well, it could attract new younger customers.

    • Martin Green
      Martin Green says:

      You hit the nail on the head, Kunal! A lot of brands have indeed neglected their dress watch collections, but there is also a reason for this, as they don’t make enough money to warrant further investments. Most revenues come from (steel) sports watches these days, and so there is more a focus on those types of watches. Vacheron Constantin and Piaget are in my opinion still leading in this category, and I am still very sad that AP has almost completely departed from this segment as their lineup in the past was so nice!

  13. Vinay
    Vinay says:

    I feel that the added durability and ruggedness of a sports watch is the reason why people prefer them. Generally speaking, watches are mostly are perceived as durable depending on their water resistance rating. If manufacturers start providing around 10 bar water resistance on dress watches, then maybe it would appeal to the younger generation. This is the advantage Datejust has. Modern lifestyle demands watches to be more rugged.

  14. Han Thomas
    Han Thomas says:

    Indeed for a watch that’s worn not very often it may make sense to get a more affordable dress watch, there is no shortage there, for example anything by Frederique Constant, Tissot LeLocle, Hamilton Jazzmaster or Intra-Matic. Or go Bauhaus with Nomos or a handful of other brands.

    And then chances are that people will appreciate the comfort in wearing something not sized like a brick, on a nice worn in leather strap.

  15. Michael Friedberg
    Michael Friedberg says:

    I think the dress watch is and will not be dead. It appeals primarily to a different market — mostly those who wear suits daily— than us guys who hang out on the Net discussing watches. Years ago I referred to a “TimeZoners view of the world” and a similar phenomenon occurred when I moderated a watch forum. It’s not wrong, but it’s not overall reality.

  16. Jack Freedman
    Jack Freedman says:

    Mark Twain once quipped: “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.”

    History repeats itself and many who follow watch trends either weren’t around in the 1970’s or simply forgot when there were about 100 tech companies in the U.S. which introduced solid state LCD/LED timepieces. There were widespread fears back then that the day of mechanical timepieces were all but over. Instead, in a few short years, nearly all the tech companies involved with producing watches went out of business or refocused on their core businesses outside of watch manufacturing.

    While there may currently be an excess of mechanical watch brands and/or number of timepieces produced annually, rest assured that they will not be replaced by smart phones or smart watches made by Apple or others. There will always be an interest in traditional analog timepieces crafted in a wider variety of appealing taste suited to the individual.

    To paraphrase Mark Twain, the reports of the death of the dress watch is grossly exaggerated.

  17. Anthony Snook
    Anthony Snook says:

    Thank you for this interesting piece. In the 70s I bought day-to-day watches for my wife and myself: white gold/steel Rolex Datejusts, and Pateks for smart occasions: a Calatrava on a black strap for me and a yellow gold Ellipse on a gold bracelet for my wife. Now that I’m seventy I hardly ever wear my dress watch and have recently bought a steel Patek Aquanaut as an all-occasions watch so I can pass on my two earlier watches to grandchildren. Times change. For me the definitive everyday and dress watches are a Rolex 1016 Explorer and a Patek 3940.

    • Stephen A
      Stephen A says:

      You are a man of impeccable taste! After years of flipping watches, I’ve arrived at a similar conclusion: Rolex Oyster Perpetual in black or white and a PP Calatrava are the quintessential daily/dress combo. However, for those of us who rarely don a suit, it’s hard to justify both the initial expense of a Calatrava and the ongoing maintenance fees.

  18. Paul
    Paul says:

    My first nice watch was a 36 mm Lange 1815. I didn’t even know it was a dress watch when I purchased it. Times have changed, but there is no reason why a watch like that can’t be worn proudly every day. I think people will get tired of wearing huge chunks of metal on their wrists.

  19. Chris Malburg
    Chris Malburg says:

    Hi Martin,
    As always, a beautifully written piece, well considered and presented. I love wearing my one and only dress watch–a Frederique Constant. Classic, beautiful, and understated. Tho like so many others I don’t see it as working with short sleeves. Here in Los Angeles short sleeves are a year-round option. Finally, I see other style watches worn with suits and jackets, but not the other way around for dress watches worn with less formal attire.

  20. Davidson
    Davidson says:

    The offerings from fashion brands like Daniel Wellington, Armani, MVMT, Fossil, etc. show me that the market for the medium sized dress watch is strong. All of the mall brands are selling a wide variety of smaller dress watches now. I think the bigger watch companies and the community of watch enthusiasts are slow to catch up to the trend that average consumers are already well aware of.

  21. Davidson
    Davidson says:

    The offerings from fashion brands like Daniel Wellington, Armani, MVMT, Fossil, etc. show me that the market for the medium sized dress watch is strong. All of the mall brands are selling a wide variety of smaller dress watches now. I think the bigger watch companies and the community of watch enthusiasts are slow to catch up to the trend that average consumers are already well aware of.

  22. David Miller
    David Miller says:

    Not sure if I agree on dress watches being dead. I own 2 JLC watches. Would you consider the Master Reserve De Marche a dress watch? I think it can go either way since it has subseconds and a power reserve and a date, pure elegance. Have it in stainless steel. Do you consider the Master Ultrathin with the subsecond dial in stainless steel a dress watch? I have this as well. It has a subsecond dial 38.5 mm.
    Thank you

  23. Ted
    Ted says:

    I find it interesting that people pull there iPhone out of their pockets to look at the time…wouldn’t that make the iPhone a “pocket watch”?…

    it seems even with technology we have a tendency to resort to convenience which is what the wrist watch provided over the pocket watch. The dress watch will always be around for the convenience of wearing it with cuffs and suit jacket….


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