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.

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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?

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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.

* This article was first published 13 April 2017 at The Death Of The Dress Watch: Is It Time To Write Its Obituary?

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7 replies
  1. O’Neal
    O’Neal says:

    Rumors of the death of the dress watch have been greatly exaggerated many times before. Although several of the facts sited ring true, the resilience of this category of watches has been astonishingly strong. Dress watches remain a staple at both the “high end” of the price spectrum and dare I say, “at the entry point” for many beginning watch collectors. Formal wear is still popular and required in our society. Truth be told the dress watch has found its way into unexpected places, and can be spotted worn with jeans and a t-shirt. I suspect 15 years from now this same article will re-emerge and still the dress watch will be around.

    Reply
  2. Christopher Dean
    Christopher Dean says:

    Totally outdated article. At watch shows/meets I see many of the younger generation wearing dress watches. I feel collection would not be complete without one.

    Reply
    • Marc Schmitz
      Marc Schmitz says:

      I agree that a lot of collectors who currently are in their 20s or 30s wear dress watches. But, at least in my observation, those are almost always vintage dress watches – regularly Cartiers. An other question could be: Are modern dress watches too large? The smallest men’s watch in both Patek‘s and JLC’s catalogue (not counting the square Reverso) have a diameter of 39mm.

      Reply
      • stanislaw witold zolczynski
        stanislaw witold zolczynski says:

        For me dress watch beside, as you mentioned the size, is about thinness. Anything below 10mm, preferably ca 7mm.

        Reply
  3. Jeff Stein
    Jeff Stein says:

    It seems strange to republish a posting that was originally published almost seven years ago, when the intervening seven years have proven the posting to be incorrect. Dress watches seem to be doing great, with enthusiasts wearing them even when they are not getting dressed up at all. The ultra-thin vintage models and ones with stone dials and jewels seem to be doing especially well — Piaget, Cartier, Boucheron, and of course the usual — Patek Philippe, Audemars Piguet and Vacheron Constantin. It would be interesting to see an update of this posting to reflect these recent trends!!

    Reply
  4. Mark Hammerschmidt
    Mark Hammerschmidt says:

    Failing to see the point of regurgitating a six year old article that didn’t amount to anything at the time?

    Reply

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