Watch buyers often start with a very broad question: sport watch or dress watch?
If it's a sport watch, then the choices branch in a hundred directions like a choose-your-own-adventure novel. Clearly defined genres of sport watch include dive, pilot and motorsport watches as well as military watches and more, each seemingly with its own sub-genres. In this context, it makes sense to define a watch by its intended purpose, but this leaves dress watches — ostensibly just for "dressing up" — lumped into a single ill-defined mass despite the variety that exists.
Aside from its pragmatism and simplicity, a dress watch is primarily identified by its design and aesthetics: you more or less know a dress watch when you see it. This is subjective, of course, as watches made for action in the past may today be viewed as "dressy." There are, however, a range of different (though often overlapping) types of dress watches available, and being aware of the most common traditional styles will help any potential buyer narrow down their search.
Classical Dress Watches
If a dive watch is rock-n-roll, think of the classical style of dress watch as a string quartet playing Bach: the feel is very conservative and perhaps even of another time. Typical traits might include Roman numerals or simple stick indices, thin hands, monochromatic colorways and traditional decorative techniques like guilloche.
Tissot Le Locle Powermatic 80
All the essential features a classical dress watch should have in an affordable package. A solid automatic movement boosts its appeal.
Movement: ETA C07.111
Frederique Constant Classics Index Automatic
Frederique Constant does traditional watchmaking with conservative style and high bang-for-buck ratio considering the level of fit and finish offered.
Movement: Sellita SW200-1
Breguet Classique 5157
The original Breguet hands, real engine-turned, guilloche-engraved dials and high-level in-house movements mark the king of the classical dress watch style.
Movement: Breguet automatic
The minimalist approach to watch design is naturally understated and easy to fit into a dressy theme, even though it can also have a casual feel. German and Scandinavian brands seem to have a knack for this genre, as exemplified by the Bauhaus movement. Pared-back dials with thin cases can feel fresh and contemporary compared to those of more traditional watch styles.
MVMT Arc Automatic
MVMT offers the basic minimalist look with its inexpensive automatic watch, but a 41mm diameter offers a bit more presence than that of many dress watches.
Movement: Miyota 812A
Stowa Antea Klassik 390
A touch of Bauhaus gives Stowa's Antea Klassik a fun vibe that's still entirely appropriate for a suit.
Movement: ETA 2824 automatic
Nomos makes simple watches fun again by offering impressive value with in-house movements and refined details like subtle color highlights.
Movement: Nomos Alpha manual
Complicated Dress Watches
Many dress watches are characterized by simplicity, but this doesn't have to be the case. If rendered in an elegant way, dress watches can incorporate a range of complications, features and information — and this offers a whole new wearing experience. Calendar information and moon phase indicators are popular features, but even chronographs are fair game.
Junghans Max Bill Chronoscope
An absolute classic of Bauhaus design, the Max Bill Chronoscope shows that not all chronograph watches have to be sporty.
Movement: ETA 7750 automatic
A. Lange & Söhne Saxonia Moon Phase
A moon phase complication has a serene effect ideal for a formal watch. Here, German watchmaker A. Lange & Söhne pairs it with a digital date display.
Movement: A. Lange & Söhne L086.5 automatic
Patek Philippe 5396G
If you want a complicated, conservative watch, Patek Philippe — for whom calendar functions are the house speciality — arguably does them best.
Movement: Patek Philippe 324 S QA LU 24H/303 automatic
Rectangular Dress Watches
Square and rectangular watches were once much more popular, but today the vast majority are relegated to formal styling. The proportions are key to getting a good fit, so remember that these watches wear larger than their diameter would suggest. Thin cases also help, and when you get the proportions right the look is as classic as it gets.
Nomos Tetra Neomatik 39
Nomos once again offers a unique, contemporary look with one of the few modern square watch designs that feels both original and understated.
Movement: Nomos DUW 3001 automatic
Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso Classic Duoface Small Seconds
The Reverso is Art Deco heaven and this particular version reverses to offer two time zones via two dial options — both of which are equally appropriate for dress watch duty.
Movement: Jaeger-LeCoultre 854A/2 manual
Cartier Tank Must de Cartier Automatic
Possibly the quintessential dress watch, the Cartier Tank comes in multiple versions, but the Must de Cartier offers automatic winding and a relatively affordable price.
Movement: Cartier MC 1847 automatic