There are some moments when you need to look smart, whatever you do for a living. If you're in a dark suit or dinner jacket, a superb finishing touch is a slim and stylish watch. We all know that Sean Connery, as James Bond, wore a Rolex Submariner with his dinner jacket, but there were historical and commercial reasons for this. In his book 'On Her Majesty's Secret Service,' Ian Fleming describes how Bond transferred his Rolex from wrist to fingers so that it would become a knuckle-duster.
If you're not Bond, a more classic dress watch is advisable for smart events. This generally means something slim, thin or ultra-thin, with a simple dial, not all that large – though fashion changes in this respect, and many classic watches now have 40 millimetre dials instead of the mid-size dial that used to be the norm. The determining factor is whether the watch is small and slim enough to fit under your French cuff, which could be taken as meaning 38 millimetres and max 7 millimetres. But let's take a look at some candidates for classic dress watches.
1. Breguet Classique 5157
This extra-thin watch is definitely a classic, with its unmistakable Breguet looks – Roman numerals, Breguet hands, fluted case, superb guilloché dial – that create an appearance of extraordinary refinement. Its appearance is based on Abraham Louis Breguet's creations, which revolutionized watch design in his day, privileging pure forms, harmonious proportions and unobtrusive dials. The back of the watch is truly spectacular, with the guilloché oscillating weight dominating the superbly finished movement. This piece is available in 18-carat yellow gold or white gold. The Calibre 502.3 movement, with 45 hours power reserve, is housed in a 38 millimetre case, 5.4 millimetres thick. Retail price about €12,500.
2. Piaget Altiplano
Piaget positively specializes in ultra-thin dress watches, and the maison continue to break records. The Piaget Altiplano Ref. GOA29112 in 18-carat white gold is just one of its many Altiplano variants, and it is a minimalist version with extreme classic elegance. The case is just 6 millimetres thick and 38 millimetres in diameter, with white dial, baton-type indices and black strap. The Piaget 430P ultra-thin movement is hand-wound, with about 43 hours power reserve. The movement is finished with blued screws, bevelled bridges, and circular Côtes de Genève. About €13,100. The brand has helpfully created a pair of Altiplano cufflinks which would make the perfect set with the watch. €3,300.
3. Pierre Arpels watch
Van Cleef & Arpels are famous principally for their beautiful and poetic women’s watches, but for men, they have a real classic, the Pierre Arpels watch, which was created specially for Pierre Arpels in 1949. The brand presented a new range of this model at SIHH 2012. They retain the principal characteristics of the original: a watch based on a perfect circle, with a single lug on each side instead of the conventional dual lugs in order to reinforce the effect of lightnes and geometry. The two hands are needle-like batons; the hour markers at 3, 6, 9 and 12 are Roman numerals, all placed the same way up. The case is of course ultra-thin, because Pierre wanted it to sit discreetly under his shirt cuff. The white lacquer dial has a central section with a relief honeycomb pattern, while the case is slightly bevelled, ensuring that it doesn’t catch on clothes. The strap in the 2012 versions is even more minimalistic than in the original, with two layers of black alligator that are not sewn, but manually glued. It is available in two sizes, 38 or 42 millimetres, in pink or white gold. The 38-millimetre versions are closer to Pierre’s original concept, while the 42-millimetre reflects the current preference for larger watches. There is also a version in which the bezel is set with diamonds. In all versions, a diamond is set into the crown.
The watch is powered by a manually-wound Piaget movement, the 830 P. Nothing strange about this: Piaget and Van Cleef & Arpels are both Richemont brands, and Piaget actually began life making movements, specializing in ultra-thin. The effect of this watch on the wrist is delicate, and the single lug is usually a feature of women’s watches. But nonetheless it’s spectacular, and perfect in its function as a dress watch. Read more about the watch and Pierre Arpels here.
4. Patek Philippe Calatrava 5119
One of the classic dress watches, given character with its hobnail (or Clous de Paris) bezel. The Calatrava dates back to 1932 and was influenced by the Bauhaus and its pure, functional design. The case is 36 millimetres in diameter, with an ultra-thin silhouette – 7 millimetres – that helps forge its identity, along with its satin-finished sides, mirror-polished lugs. The dial is perfectly balanced, with black Roman numerals on white background, leaf-shaped hour and minute hands, and a discreet baton-style seconds hand on a subdial at 6 o'clock. The calibre 215 PS manually-wound movement provides about 44 hours power reserve. Perhaps the most classic version is in white gold with black alligator strap; it is also available in yellow, pink or white gold.
5. Ulysse Nardin Classico 8206-118-2/31
This 39-millimetre watch with an 18-carat rose gold case and eggshell dial has a small seconds subdial at 6 o'clock, and a well-balanced overall feel. The movement provides about 42 hours power reserve, and the case is water-resistant to 50 metres. With its brown alligator strap, it is a classic as its name proudly claims. About €10,200.
6. Jaeger-LeCoultre Master Control
The Master range has a number of classic watches, and the Master Control, part of the 2012 collection, has that purity of line that makes it an ideal dress watch. The Calibre 899 is a lovely movement, whose superb appearance can be admired through the sapphire caseback. It runs at 28,800 vibrations/hour, with 43 hours power reserve. A feature of this model consists of ceramic ball bearings and a variable inertia balance which enhance reliability. In one model, the stainless-steel case frames a silvered sunray-brushed dial, with rhodium-plated numerals and hour markers, while in the 18-carat pink gold model, the dial has gilt numerals and hour markers. The blued centre seconds hand provides a refined note of colour. There is a date window at 3 o'clock. Reliability is assured by the Master Control 1000 Hours process, in which watches undergo 1,000 hours of testing in the factory.
7. Jules Audemars Extra-Thin
This self-winding watch has a 6.7-millimetre thick case, with a diameter of 41 millimetres, withhour and minute functions. The dial is an essay in minimalism, with just 12 baton-style hour markers, two hands, the Audemars Piguet logo, and the usual 'Swiss Made' at the 6 o'clock position. The automatic movement operates at 19,900 vibrations/hour, with a 40-hour power reserve. It is visible through the sapphire crystal caseback, and it has manually-finished bridges, with polished bevels and satin-brushed edges. The oscillating weight can be custom-decorated according to the customer's wishes. It is available in three versions: 18-carat white gold, silvered dial, black strap; 18-carat pink gold case, silvered dial, brown strap; and 18-carat pink gold case, black dial and black strap. Magnificent.
8. Montblanc Star Classique Automatic
This is a superbly elegant watch with a 39-millimetre dial. The Montblanc 4810/408 automatic movement provides about 42 hours power reserve, and runs at 28,800 vibrations/hour. The absolute simplicity of the watch is mitigated by a small second dial at 6 o'clock, subtly featuring the Montblanc logo. The watch is of average thickness at 8.9 millimetres. It has a sapphire crystal caseback. This piece is available in a number of versions: 18 carat red gold and yellow gold, gold-and-steel with bezel and crown in 18 carat red gold, and two steel versions with black alligator-leather straps.
All in all, a classically minimalist piece, in which even the rounded crown plays an important part in the design. The subtle curves of case and lugs contribute to the watch's wearability and enhance the impression of slimness even though it is nowhere near an ultra-thin.
9. IWC Portofino Automatic
Three hands, and a discreet date display. This is the IWC formula for a classic watch, in a 40-millimetre diameter, 9.5 millimetre thick case in a number of versions that include Milanese mesh bracelets (which personally I would avoid for a dress watch). The dial has linear hour index markers, except at the 6 and 12 o'clock positions with Roman numerals. The 35110 calibre self-winding movement offers a 42-hour power reserve, and the centre seconds has the hacking function. The 18-carat red gold version has a gold back with an engraving of the village of Portofino, and a dark brown alligator strap. The stainless steel case version offers the choice of a silver-plated or black dial.
10. Omega De Ville Co-Axial Chronometer
In the version with stainless steel case and black leather strap, this has the simplicity and discretion essential for a dress watch. The dial in the 41-millimetre case has centre hour, minutes and seconds, and a date window at 3 o'clock. Hour markers are in Roman numerals. This is, however, a multi-tasking watch, water-resistant to 100 metres, and with the Omega 8500 calibre with co-axial escapement that improves accuracy and stability, and increases power reserve to 60 hours. The bridges and oscillating weight, visible through the caseback, are decorated in Côtes de Genève.
11. Vacheron Constantin Patrimony Traditionnelle Self-Winding
This model has been given a new 41-millimetre case, housing the ultra-thin Calibre 1120, compliant with the Hallmark of Geneva standards. The case itself is 8.6 millimetres thick. This watch is a piece with beautiful balance, understated, tightly-honed throughout from the narrow bezel to the beautiful daupine hands. The gold case frames an opaline silver-toned dial, with 18-carat pink gold applied hour-markers. A black minute circle adds a delicate note of colour contrast. The sapphire caseback reveals the superb finish of the movement, with Côtes de Genève work on the flat surfaces, chamfered and hand-polished edges and screw heads. Unusually, the screw-in caseback has a knurled edge and is relatively side, making it look a little sportier. Only if you take the watch off, of course. It has a classic strap in chestnut brown alligator. The movement runs at 2.75 Hertz (19,800 vibrations/hour), with a power reserve of about 40 hours.
12. Jaquet Droz Eclipse Onyx
Jaquet Droz watches are always different and interesting, and this piece packs a lot of functions into a dial that is still uncluttered and deliciously eccentric. The dial is in onyx, housed in a polished steel case, with centre hours and minutes, and another centre hand that indicates the day of the month. The date hand is distinguished from the hour and minute hands because it is wiggly, and ends in a crescent that frames the date number. There is a small celestial scene with moon phase at 6 o'clock, with moon and stars in bright rhodium-plated metal. Day and month are indicated in windows above the centre of the dial. The case is a tad larger than most dress watches at 43 millimetres, but it's definitely a watch that makes a statement, and that statement is masculine originality. Not least because a complication watch is housed in steel. Black alligator strap.