Death Of The Dress Watch: Is It Time To Write Its Obituary?
by Martin Green
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
* This article was first published on November 30, 2017 at The Death Of The Dress Watch: Is It Time To Write Its Obituary?
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60 Years Of Piaget Altiplano: Sophisticated Style Versus Fugitive Fashion
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I think price is a huge factor here. The price of watches has increased dramatically over the last decade (I’ve still not got over the 20% overnight price hike in the uk in 2016). As a result there really isn’t much in the way of reasonably priced dress watches around. I could probably list every single dress watch available under £8000 – it won’t take long. With such a high cost of entry coinciding with a time when a dress watch has never been less necessary as the author notes I’d argue that dress watches are killing themselves.
Last 2 years I worked as manager for a big distribution center of the biggest internet company selling goods in the world. That environment has an average age of management which is around 27/29 years old (I am 45).
And they usually dress sloppy even for a logistics workplace and, apart rare cases of fews spotting the university degree Rolex present gave them from their parents, and few others with cheap Casio or some connected bands, the majority didn’t even use a watch at all.
One guy from my team bought an extremely well done Pam replica (let’s leave the polemic about these replica apart please, it’s not the centre of argument here) and the only time I have seen it on his wrist, at a team dinner, it wasn’t even set at right time and date, because who cares when you have the phone?
So basically it’s not just dress watches that are fading: among the younger generation it is the watch itself that many consider a useless trinket. And of course in a society that think it is ok to go at work or at the university (where I work now) in a gym attire, for the dress watches is even much worse…
Well I suppose we’ll live and see.
Dear Martin Green, and thank you for the disturbing appeal for the rescue of the dresswatch. I am living in Germany, and the situation here is double dangerous. Danger #1: Younger people don’t even know what a dresswatch is (gold, ultrathin, 34 mm, hand-wound, leather strap) and consider Milgausses, Aquanauts and even Datographs as being dresswatches, for whatever reason. And for that they pay higher prices than for some dresswatches. #2: The older buyers fear the grandpa image of a dresswatch, because it doesn’t match their ultra expensive sneakers, biker jackets, colorful sweatshirts and skinny jeans. A generation that simply doesn’t want to grow older doesn’t want to be seen with a dresswatch.
Nothing left to say: some day all dresswatches will die … but on all other days they will not (the philosophy of Snoopy).
What is your about watches on a leather strap? Will they go the same way as the dress watch?
Sadly, this sentiment of this article is founded in fact. But it’s not just dress watches; have a look at the footwear of everyone under thirty the next time you go out. I estimate that there will be two people wearing proper shoes, only one of which will know how to buy shoes actually which fit them. Last year a colleague who is under 21 years old looked at me in astonishment and said, “What ARE you doing?!”
I was winding my watch. I told them this. “Ah,” she said, “So you’re charging it?”
Last time I wore a grey herringbone Harris tweed jacket, some people who had just graduated from university asked me why I was “being so formal”.
I become extremely annoyed when people pretend that Black Ties is semi-formal these days. It might have been, for The Upper Classes, eighty years ago. Now wearing a sports jacket with an open shirt is considered quite dressy to most people under 40
I would state though that the assertion that there aren’t many dress watches for under eight grand is totally wrong.