Bringing Back the Dress Watch: 4 Brands Dressing Down Dressy
The enduring appeal and subtle elegance of a dress watch
This week’s newsletter is Presented By Subdial, the trading platform for watch enthusiasts and collectors. We’ve been partnering with Subdial since the beginning of the year, and since we feature a watch from their weekly drop every week, it has been fun to follow the diverse weekly selection of vintage, independent, and pre-owned watches they curate.
Call it a vibe shift, if you want. But the dress watch is back. From Cartier to Timex, the dress watch is having a moment. And it’s about time. You may not have noticed it thanks to the hyper-focus on a few sporty hype watches, but it’s never been a better time to be into dress watches — new, old, or in between.
Whether it’s increased interest in neo-vintage watchmaking from independents and big brands that focused on classic styling or just Tyler The Creator making Cartier cool again, everyone seems to be adding a dress watch to their collection. And it’s not just dressed-up Pateks, either. Sure, a simple Calatrava or perpetual calendar (reference 3940 if you’re asking) always plays, but interest in dress watches has reached far and wide.
Even Hodinkee’s vintage trend spotter (trendsetter?) said that gold dress watches are gaining momentum. Our attraction to gold and other precious metals is innate, presumably ingrained since the early days of cavemen and cavewomen collectors: “Me like gold watch, it shinier, it heavier.”
An anecdote, if you’ll allow me: walking around the Miami Beach Antique Show (watch spotting here) earlier this year, the watches that caught my eye weren’t the in-demand Submariners or Royal Oaks, but those little, weird dress watches. Gold watches with integrated bracelets from Patek. Vintage Piaget with dials made of rare stones I’ve never even heard of. And so on. I thought to myself: self, I could build up quite the collection of little dress watches for the price of a single steel Rolex. Unfortunately for these little weird dress watches, often they need to be held to be appreciated.
In a collecting hobby seemingly devoid of value or bargains, the value proposition of dress watches is self-evident. While a modern Rolex Day-Date in gold will run you $34k, you can still find a great vintage example for around half that.
“Many gravitate towards complications, or robust sports watches from yesteryear. However, the refined timepieces from the mid-20th century showcase what my father would always describe as ‘understated elegance,’” Charlie Dunne, denizen of dress watches, told me about the appeal of dressed-up timepieces.
“The subtle details to the watch might go unnoticed, but when they finally catch your attention, it’s embedded in your mind. I’ll always appreciate being surprised by a watch that’s beauty is hidden in its simplicity,” Dunne said.
In collecting, I tend to believe there are no hard-and-fast rules, but when it comes to dress watches, there is one: the correct size for a dress watch is no larger than 36 millimeters. Charlie agreed, adding, “few modern timepieces offer the ‘classic proportions’ collectors desire.”
Perhaps it’s also partial cosplay, as most watch collecting is. I might not go to the office much anymore (or outside at all), but let me make Don Draper proud by wearing this Calatrava with sweatpants. It could also be practical. It’s impossible to get a steel Rolex, and those vintage ones are expensive. But hey, gold Rolex of any era is available.
Or, it could just be the natural growing up of a generation of collectors. One collector I know has a saying that goes something like this: a time-only watch on a strap is the first and last stop in collecting. For collectors that started out with stainless steel sports watches over the past decade, they’re now beginning to come around to that “subtle elegance” of a simple dress watch.
Whatever the case, I’m here to welcome back dress watches, whether it’s in a three-piece suit or sweatsuit. Let’s take a look at four brands making dress watches cool again.
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Lange & Sohne
Perhaps no brand is hotter than A. Lange & Sohne right now. Interest in Lange — especially early Lange — has skyrocketed over the past year or two. Collectors have taken particular notice of the flagship Lange 1, the brand’s most iconic model.
The Lange 1 was one of four families introduced in October 1994 when Lange re-launched. Sure, you can walk into a boutique and get a modern Lange 1 today, but it’s these early versions that are most exciting to me (and often, to other collectors too).
In those early years, the Lange 1 collection featured variants with different dial colors and case materials, often only in production for a short time. As Lange matured, it moved away from these references, sticking with the classics instead. Technically speaking, very early models also featured a Breguet overcoil — this might not mean much to you or me, but say it to a true watch nerd and watch their eyes roll backward into their skulls, eliciting the kind of pleasure typically reserved for more intimate passions.
The Lange 1 isn’t the only dress watch I love from Lange — the Saxonia is also criminally underrated.
When Lange relaunched, the Saxonia was another of those four models it used to reintroduce itself to the world. It’s pure Lange, featuring the outsize date that the brand is known for (and of course, a beautifully-finished movement and hand-engraved balance cock). Like early Lange 1, early Saxonias are fun too. At just 34mm, it’s the type of subtle, exquisite watchmaking that’s made early Lange so desirable.
Lange might be as hot as any brand, but Cartier’s been hot for a while. It started a couple years ago with the Cartier Crash, but has trickled out to almost every other model. And with Cartier it’s all about dressy. Time-only, precious metals, crazy shapes.
For most, Cartier is mostly the Tank, and that’s fair enough. Full disclosure: I’d always been a Santos-Dumont guy until I traded one in for a Tank earlier this year. It’s a little more romantic and less rigid than the Santos-Dumont. To me, the quintessential Tank is a vintage yellow gold example with the word “Paris” somewhere on the dial.
Sure, the sharp lines and exposed screws of the Santos-Dumont have a place in watchmaking — just ask Audemars Piguet — but I prefer softer lines on my dress watches. Even though the Tank Louis is all right angles, it’s still got that. The lugs have gently sloped corners, kind of like the soft, inviting edges of your iPhone that you’re not sure why you keep reaching for, but you do.
Speaking of curves. If you want to get a little crazy, Cartier’s got that too. Take the Baignoire and Baignoire Allongee. Just last week, Bonham’s sold a gorgeous Cartier London example for $176,775. This is the type of design that makes vintage Cartier so fun. It’s dressy, but never boring or conservative.
Maybe it started with President Joe Biden. But the Rolex Datejust — both vintage and modern — is having a moment that not enough people are paying attention to. “The epitome of the classic watch,” as Rolex itself calls it, has also become modernized over the past couple of years. Whether it’s the 2020 Dankjust — the Rolex with ganja-like palm leaves on the dial — or this year’s floral Datejust 31, some of Rolex’s most exciting recent releases have come in the Datejust (brightly-colored Oyster Perpetuals be damned).
It makes sense Rolex would stay committed to the Datejust. Launched in 1945, it laid the groundwork for an entire generation of sports watches that would be released over the coming decades.
On the vintage side, collectors have fled in particular to these early 1940s and 50s Datejusts. Sure, prices of classic 1960s-70s references (like the reference 1601 or 1603) have steadily climbed, but it’s these early Datejusts in particular that command the attention of collectors. Last fall, Monaco Legends sold a couple of new-old-stock Datejusts for healthy six-figure hammers.
While sports Rolex might get most of the attention, its elegant dress watches are worth another look too. Results like those at Monaco show that savvy collectors are already looking.
Okay, the first three brands are admittedly expensive propositions. But dress watches don’t have to be. Look at Timex. They’ve rebuilt their mechanical offerings on the back of the Timex Marlin, a $200 hand-wound dress watch that, honestly, looks like something your grandfather would wear. But that’s what makes it great. A perfect dress watch is never really in fashion or out of fashion — it’s just style, plain and simple.
And besides, I’m at the stage of my life where I look back at photos of my grandfather playing golf or wearing cardigans and think “d*mn, grandaddy could dress.” And his watches weren’t bad, either. It’s exciting that one of the best entryways into watch collecting is a classic, time-only dress watch.
Dress watches are the epitome of understated elegance. Smaller diameters, less hype, less likes, and less complicated. Simple, but never boring; subtle, but never lacking detail.
This week’s newsletter is presented by Subdial, the ultimate trading platform for watch enthusiasts and collectors. Every week, we feature one of the watches from their weekly drop.
I’ve mentioned before that Subdial has become my go-to destination for Lange, and what better week to illustrate that than a ‘sletter where the feature happens to be about dress watches? This week’s drop from Subdial features no fewer than four watches from Lange & Sohne. My favorite is this Lange 1 ref. 101.033, a reference produced from 2003-2010. Sure, it’s a classically-styled Lange, but its rose gold case and slate grey dial feels downright edgy, a perfect modern twist to the prototypical dress watch from Glashutte.
📦To see this Lange 1 and the rest from Subdial’s drop this week, check out their website.
THROUGH THE WIRE
😎 The G-Shock CasioOak gets a colorful update. From Hodinkee’s Logan Baker:
“G-Shock will soon be releasing an updated and improved version of its contemporary cult classic, the "CasiOak." The releases will be outfitted with two of G-Shock's key 21st-century developments – Bluetooth connectivity to the G-SHOCK Connected smartphone app and Tough Solar charging, which will allow a watch to run indefinitely in the presence of light, without the need for a new battery.
Five color alternatives are teased in the announcement – we've got black/grey, black/black, blue, green, and yellow – and the watches are scheduled to be released in the United States in June 2022.”
🏗️ Aldis Hodge talks horology, design, and launching his own brand. A fascinating conversation with the actor/entrepreneur/watchmaker:
“I need to see design that tells me right off the bat ‘this is you’. If you make a watch 20 years from now, that person buying the watch in 20 years needs to see that same DNA in the first watch you made.”
🛀 The full story on that Cartier Lond Baignoire Allongee that sold for $176,000. Like that bathtub-shaped Cartier above? Here’s the full story on it.
🇨🇳 Next ‘sletter, we’re going hands-on with the new Perception from Atelier Wen, “proudly made in China.” Until then, have a good week!
"the correct size for a dress watch is no larger than 36 millimeters"...........naw fam that aint it