My grandfather was the first person who said to me, ‘you’re never fully dressed until you’re wearing a watch’. In his case, he was never fully undressed either – he wore his in bed, too.
The aphorism applies particularly keenly when the dress code is dressy. A wrist undecorated by a watch when donning your finest Savile Row threads, a dinner suit or tails, is a sure sign you’re not taking your attire seriously.
On top of that, for those occasions when the code is most formal, a watch is one of very few opportunities you have to express your taste without looking like a peacock. I can think of numerous smart occasions when my wristwatch has drawn more attention than my suit or my shoes, which, despite my best efforts, haven’t always given me the distinction I might have liked.
A few rules apply with dress watches. Here, with examples (not all super spendy), we go.
1. Size is important
This is not the occasion to wheel out your G-Shock or even your Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Offshore. A dress watch must be of modest proportions – slender, and thin enough to fit under your cuff. No wristclocks, please. Ultra-thin models are a good place to start – as a rule of thumb, that’s anything around or under 7mm thick. As for diameter, that depends a little on your wrist size, but 39-40mm is the sweet spot. Even a larger man shouldn’t need to go beyond 42mm. Smaller guys can shrink it, but I’d recommend drawing the line at 36mm.
The perfect fit: Jaeger-LeCoultre Master Ultra Thin, £12,200, shop now from Mr Porter
2. Pick a metal that matches your cufflinks and a strap that matches your shoes
This one’s not hard – pink gold, brown strap, blue dial, steel cufflinks and black shoes doth not a smart-dressing getup make. For most men, the wardrobe will already include a pair of smart black Oxfords and some steel or cufflinks. So a steel case works, but white gold is often the solution if you’re looking for something to elevate your wristwear without clashing with your other accessories. Alternatively, get the watch first and then slipstream the rest. And avoid metal bracelets with dress – leather is more sartorial on these occasions.
The perfect fit: Chopard L.U.C XPS, £13,300, shop now
3. Save the complications for another day
There’s plenty to get excited about when it comes to fine watchmaking, and there’s no question the savoir-faire in a double flying tourbillon or an equation of time merits unqualified respect. But when it comes to a dress watch, pure and simple is best. Consider the less-is-more school and eschew a date, and even a seconds hand. If you want to look really sharp in that new dinner suit, the split-seconds chrono can wait.
The perfect fit: Vacheron Constantin Patrimony, £17,000, shop now
4. Go for a mechanical – every time
The debate about mechanical versus quartz should be won by now, but in case it’s not (and budget permitting), remember that in the making of that Gieves & Hawkes made-to-measure suit or those Crockett & Jones shoes were the hands of a craftsman, to whom skills have been passed through generations. It’s the same with a mechanical watch – even low-end mechanicals require some kind of hand-assembly, and in the more romantic scenarios, movements are hand-finished, and in some rarer cases even hand-made. Partner your best threads with a watch that’s worthy company.
The perfect fit: Zenith Elite 6150, £5,200, shop now from Mr Porter
5. Stick with the classics
Like a dinner suit, a dress watch is likely to be a purchase you make once a decade at most. And even then, you’re unlikely to jettison what you had before – what goes around and all that. Future-proofing a wristwatch is far from easy, but there are some failsafe options. Pick a watch from any of the traditional Swiss or German watch brands (any of the above will do) and you’ll be in good shape for years to come. And don’t think that means restricting the palette to a round-cased, yellow gold number with a Roman numeral dial – we’re living with the benefit of time and proof of concept for all manner of nebulous watch designs.
The perfect fit: Patek Philippe Golden Ellipse, £18,840, shop now
6. Don’t blow the budget on your watch
With dress watches, it’s tempting to feel only the very best will do. If money’s no object, fine. But if you splurge the budget on a watch but then have to wheel out your grandfather’s tux and a pair of old school shoes, something’s gone wrong. Obviously. So spread your budget, and if that means curtailing your horological ambitions, there are still plenty of solutions out there that conform to rules one to five.
The perfect fit: Christopher Ward C5 Malvern 595, £595, shop now