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 5 minutes

What’s behind the dress watch hype?

By Jorg Weppelink

Dress watches are slowly but steadily increasing in popularity. Although nowhere near the most popular watch category, it’s still quite remarkable that the most formal of all watch types is seeing an uptick in popularity. But what actually caused this? It’s interesting to find out why dress watches are finding their way onto the wrists of more and more young enthusiasts. Today we’re taking a dive into the world of dress watches, and finding out why everyone should add one to their collection.  

You might know that dive watches are the most purchased timepieces in the world, with the Rolex Submariner and Omega Seamaster Professional Diver 300M leading the category. Other very popular timepieces include field watches, pilot’s watches, and chronographs. Dress watches also have their fans, of course. But with the world becoming increasingly casual with its dress codes, and sports watches being accepted as part of more formal wear, the dress watch has become a less popular pick for many watch enthusiasts over the last two decades or so. The last couple of years however have seen more people, especially young watch lovers, choose a dress watch over a sports timepiece. As a result, dress watches, especially pre-owned ones, have become hot property. What’s behind the dress watch revival? Has formal wear made a comeback?

The epitome of a dress watch: The Patek Philippe Calatrava

What is a dress watch? 

Let’s first briefly establish what a dress watch is. The classic definition is a simple and elegant timepiece designed to pair perfectly with formal attire. Think suits, jackets, and tuxedos. Dress watches are often the purest form of watchmaking heritage and excellence. In the most traditional sense of a dress watch, it has the following characteristics: 

  1. The case is made of precious metals like yellow gold, white gold, rose gold, and platinum.
  2. The watches have a very slim profile, allowing them to fit perfectly under the cuff of a shirt.
  3. The case size is traditionally smaller than that of sports watches, generally between 34 and 38 mm. Most people like their dress watches no larger than 38 mm, with 40 mm as the absolute maximum.
  4. Dress watches are typically time-only watches, and in their purest iterations only show hours and minutes. A classic dress watch has no seconds hand.
  5. They traditionally come on a leather strap, which is more appropriate depending on the occasion. Some dress watches feature elegant, slim bracelets.

Complications have been integrated into dress watches over the years, including date windows, moon phases, and perpetual calendars, among others. Additionally, stainless steel has also become part of the world of dress watches. Over time, a “dress watch” has become more of the overarching name for traditionally-styled watches suited for formal occasions.  

Dress watches: Changing Styles Over Time 

What we’ve also seen happening over time is that watches that may not typically be seen as dress watches in terms of style have in fact become known as dress watches. While still debatable to purists who hold steadfast to the traditional definition, the Rolex Day-Date or Datejust are often considered dress watches these days, being perfectly suited for more formal occasions. Another great example of the evolution of style is seen with the Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso. Originally conceived as a watch to be worn during polo matches, it turned into one of the most iconic Art Deco statements over the decades, becoming a perfect dress watch for any occasion. Regardless of the overall dress watch definition, they remain the stylish statement they always were. So, what exactly has changed that makes them so sought-after these days? 

Originally made for the polo field, the Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso is now also considered a dress watch.

Dress Watches: The Reasons for Their Rise In Popularity 

The first important factor is the ever-evolving styles people enjoy. Recent years have seen enthusiasts tending towards smaller watches, with case sizes no larger than 40 mm. Anything above that size is generally considered “big.” This trend helps explain the renewed attention to dress watches.  

A second reason is that personal styles have changed as well. While dress watches were once mostly tied to formal wear, this thinking has relaxed over time. If a dress watch complements, or even contrasts, your personal style, it’s going to match plenty of different formal and less-formal looks. Today’s young enthusiasts are trending away from the more traditional style conventions of older generations. Sure, there will always be style purists that love the traditional way of doing things; there’s nothing wrong with that at all. But young people are generally open to mixing things up, creating their own personal style apart from any previous guidelines about what is, or what is not, the right watch to wear. 

Rich Brand Heritage 

Many enthusiasts have started looking to the classics of the past. Dress watches from brands like Cartier, Longines, Omega, Vacheron Constantin, and Patek Philippe have become popular with a new generation. There’s plenty to choose from, because these watchmakers have a rich dress watch heritage that combines them with horological excellence. There is truly an enormous, untapped treasure trove of dress watches from the past to discover and enjoy. 

Vintage Omega Seamaster from the 1950s

There is also the advantage that dress watches are generally a lot more affordable than today’s sports and tool watches. Because dress watches have “suffered” from a lack of popularity, they can generally be bought at lower prices. You will be amazed at the brilliant timepieces you can purchase from some of the top brands without breaking the bank. Although prices have been on the rise over the past couple of years, they are nowhere near what you’ll see for some of the most popular sports watches out there. A classic Vacheron Constantin or Omega can be yours for a lot less than these brands’ sports models. 

Dress Watches Tell a Great Story 

Which brings us to our final reason: There are some great stories behind these classic dress watches. These often include unfamiliar or even forgotten stories that make dress watches a great category to get into. There are so many stories to discover and watches to explore. And over the last decade or so, watch brand storytelling has become incredibly important, especially for the younger generation of watch lovers.   

Storytelling creates a direct connection to the past, while delivering a cool “X” factor that wearers are sure to love. We know the epic watch stories of course, such as the Speedmaster’s Moon landing, the Submariner’s connection to James Bond, and Paul Newman’s Daytona. But there are so many additional, more personal stories behind the different dress watches out there. They’re a fine complement to that one person looking for a watch that fits his or her own personal story. And that’s when dress watches become the ultimate personal statement of style and heritage.  

About the Author

Jorg Weppelink

Hi, I'm Jorg, and I've been writing articles for Chrono24 since 2016. However, my relationship with Chrono24 goes back a bit longer, as my love for watches began …

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