Unlike a chronograph or a dive watch, the parameters of what make a good dress watch aren’t so easily defined. Truthfully, you can wear pretty much any watch you want with a suit (you can thank James Bond, with his propensity to wear a diver with a tux, for that), but to really elevate your black-tie look, what you want is something thin enough to fit under a sleeve cuff, minimal enough to complement your wardrobe (rather than overpower it) and classic enough to weather finicky changes in style trends.
Again, it’s not so clearly defined. But if you want an idea of what to look for, these 12 watches — spanning in price from well under $1,000 to well into five figures — are emblematic of the perfect fancy dress timepiece.
The Short List
Celebrated industrial designer Max Bill's work lives on in the form of this beautiful Bauhaus watch. Hand-wound and outfitted with a simple leather strap, it's it's one of the best values in dress watches under $1,000 and will easily pair with anything from jeans to a suit and tie. Available in several dial colors, it's kind of like a more refined version of, say, an Orient Bambino (see below) — in this case, however, equipped with a Swiss movement, luminous dial and a slightly more German-minimalist feel.
Movement: ETA 2801 hand-wound
One of the most iconic watches of all time, the Cartier Tank is almost like a tuxedo for the wrist. While it comes in a number of versions, the Tank Must Watch Extra-Large is a particularly classic look, has an automatic Cartier 1847 MC movement inside, and is the brand’s most affordable mechanical watch for men. Don’t be confused by the “XL” moniker — this is still a modest-wearing watch at 31mm wide, about 41mm in length, and under 8.4mm thick.
Movement: Cartier 1847 MC automatic
If you've never experienced the charm of a thin, restrained dress watch, rejoice — you're young and have your whole life ahead of you. Also, however, you can do so even if you're on a budget. The Orient Bambino collection recreates a vintage dress watch aesthetic with with a range of variations that make it fun and a shockingly good value. Everything you need, nothing you don't — and an in-house Japanese automatic movement. All for well under $200.
Movement: Orient F6722 automatic
The Intra-Matic is consistently one of our favorite dress watches under $1,000. Essentially a reissue of a Hamilton watch from the ’60s, the it delivers retro-inspired looks by way of a radiant sunburst dial, a thin bezel and case, and a Hamilton’s vintage “H” logo. The Intra-Matic was recently updated with more dial options, which include this fumé style. Inside beats an ETA 2892-2 automatic movement, and two cases diameters — 38mm and 42mm — are available.
Diameter: 38mm; 42mm
Movement: ETA 2892-2 automatic
You'll find tons of great dress watch options in Seiko's Presage line. There's the ever popular and affordable Cocktail Time series, of course, but the Sharp Edged series stands out for a couple reasons. They sit right in the mid range of the collection and offer premium features like sapphire crystal and an example the brand's famously expert dial execution. The dials are faceted in a unique and captivating way that doesn't distract from legibility or its sober vibe.
Movement: ETA 2892-2 automatic
Longines is quietly making beautiful, refined watches that truly deserve to be seen in person. This new Flagship Heritage has a conservative but warm vibe with a that hearkens back to decades past. It’s powered by an ETA 2895 automatic movement and has a classic appeal, with a thin 38.5mm case that’ll slide right under a cuff.
Movement: ETA 2895 automatic
The Orion is one of the watches that helped put Nomos on the map back in the ’90s, and it’s as handsome today as it was when it first debuted. What has changed in this version is a bump in size to 38mm from the original’s 35mm, giving it a bit more appeal to men with larger wrists. Driving the watch is Nomos’s Alpha caliber, the company’s first in-house effort and a manually wound movement.
Movement: Nomos Alpha hand-wound
The classic design of the 39mm-wide Ophion 786 is based on early Breguet pocket watches from the late 1700s but features the brand’s own twist. In its newest version, the watch is available with Arabic numerals, striking handsets and beautiful dial executions available in different colors and textures, including guilloché. Even the Technotime movement inside, with an exclusive Ophion bridge design and hand-hammered finish, is intended to reference the Breguet era. These are features often associated with high-end horology, making the Ophion 786 Vélos easy to recommend.
Movement: Soprod/MHVJ hand-wound
Grand Seiko has become more than the cult favorite of watch collectors it once was and now enjoys great mainstream enthusiasm. Adored for high levels of finishing and refinement, their watches offer remarkable value, even at luxury prices. Many offer a dressy style, and the beautiful Seasons Soko is a US-exclusive collection with gorgeous dial executions, here in frosty-blue, representing Grand Seiko’s typical approach of high refinement and strong value.
Movement: Grand Seiko 9S85 automatic
The Jaeger-LeCoultre Master debuted over 25 years ago, and with it came the brand’s “1,000 Hour Control” test, where each watch was tested for 1,000 hours for accuracy and durability before being delivered to customers. It’s just one reason why Jaeger-LeCoultre stealthily offers such a great watch; the rest comes down to details like the slim 40mm case, the expert finishing on the JLC Caliber 899AC inside and the refined dial of this Master Control Date model.
Movement: Jaeger-LeCoultre cal. 899AC automatic
The Slim d’Hermés features elegant numerals in the place of more traditional hour markers, which are the work of French graphic designer Philippe Apeloig, done exclusively for Hermés. Apart from being elegant and unique, the watch features an ultra-thin movement and comes in a sleek 39.5mm case.
Movement: Hermès H1950 (Vaucher base) hand-wound
Though not so well-known outside watch circles, Parmigiani Fleurier makes some incredible high-end watches. The Tonda 1950 is one of the brand’s simpler designs, featuring a 40mm stainless steel case and an opaline-finished dial, with an in-house automatic movement that’s just 2.6mm thick.
Movement: Parmigiani Fleurier PF701 hand-wound
German watchmaker A. Lange & Söhne is likely on many a watch fanatic’s bucket list of brands to own, due to the fantastic fit and finish of its watches. When in 2016 it announced its most affordable piece to date, the Saxonia Thin 37mm, the barrier to entry got a little easier to clear. The watch case itself is incredibly thin (and comes in either pink or white gold) and features a minimal dial, three hands and an exhibition case back to show off the incredible movement finishing inside.
Movement: Lange & Söhne cal. L941.1 hand-wound