The 20th century was the golden age of wristwatches. They were still practical items made to be worn daily — but many of them would look like dress watches to our modern eyes. The most iconic of these have stood the test of time, in some cases being still in production by modern brands. Others are relegated to vintage archives but are no less impactful.
There are many great dress watches we can recommend, but if you're new to watches it's also helpful to look at those models which have been particularly influential. The following doesn't necessarily represent the "best" or the only dress watches you should know about but, rather, those that will help give you the context to explore the multitudes of dress watches available to you today.
They show not only that dress watches can take many forms and are still relevant even in our casual, sport-watch-centric culture — but also that they're anything but boring.
Year Introduced: 1917
The Tank: it basically doesn't get any more iconic — or any dressier. You can't talk about Cartier without using the word "elegant," and somehow no matter what shape their watches take (and they literally take many shapes), those Roman numerals and other cues are the height of formality, and they're distinctly Cartier. And no watch represents that better than the Tank: it defines and owns the rectangular dress watch space, and it's done so since almost as early as dedicated men's wristwatches existed.
Universal Genève Polerouter
Year Introduced: 1954
The Universal Genève Polerouter might not have been conceived specifically as a dress watch when it was first created in 1954 but, like most watches from that era, it sure looks dressy to our modern eyes. It was created to commemorate an airline (SAS) beginning routes over the north pole connecting New York to Copenhagen. They're thin and interesting dress watches, but what makes them a darling among collectors? A lot has to do with the designer: Gerald Genta, best known for creating hype hits like the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak and Patel Philippe Nautilus (among many others).
Omega Constellation "Pie Pan"
Year Introduced: 1952
The Constellation is an overall dressy collection from Omega, sometimes overshadowed by its sport watches today. Named (by collectors) for its faceted dial, however, those Constellations with so-called "Pie Pan" dials stand out among the many dressy watches in Omega's back catalog. Having introduced the Constellation collection in the 1950s, they've got that elegant mid-century Omega appeal, but a dial that gives them a shot of interest. Another thing that makes them cool: yup, it's another iconic design that Gerald Genta had a hand in.
Year Introduced: 1956
The Cellini might be Rolex's dedicated "dress watch" (it's the only modern one that comes on a leather strap), and other watches in its Classic (as opposed to Professional) family might all qualify for dress duty — but we'd have to say that the Day-Date is the most iconic of the lot. That largely comes down to its distinctive look, especially in variants with features like a fluted bezel and president bracelet.
Patek Philippe Calatrava
Year Introduced: 1932
The Patek Philippe name itself is iconic, and most Patek watches fall on the dressy end of the spectrum. But which is the most iconic? That's going to be a subject of contention. Some will say it's a calendar watch, perhaps, but the ultra classic and simple Calatrava has a special claim to icon status among dress watches. Men's wristwatches were still young when it debuted in 1932, and so were its Bauhaus principles of minimalism and practicality. Its design might look unremarkable today, but that only speaks to the Calatrava's impact.
Year Introduced: 1931
The Reverso certainly looks like a dress watch to our modern eyes, but it was designed for abuse. Its case flips over on the wrist to protect its glass and dial during what can be a hazardous game, polo. Wear it dial-side out, however, and you've got an Art-Deco masterpiece on your wrist, and one of the most iconic watches ever — dressy or otherwise. Its flipping case also adds a level of interest rare among otherwise often simple dress watches.
Breguet Classique 5157
Year Introduced: 2005
The Breguet look is unmistakable, and here it's represented in its purest form. The guilloche dial, the applied Roman numeral indices, the thin coin-edged case... these elements on any other watch will simply beg comparison to Breguet. Many Breguet watches might have exotic complications or skeletonized dials, but this model in the Classique collection distills the brand's basic design DNA (seeming to call back to the 1700s) down to a deceptively simple 38mm dress watch. Introduced in 2005, the 5157 is a modern example that represents centuries of Breguet watchmaking.
Year Introduced: 1939
The story behind the IWC Portugieser's name is that it was first made by request for two Portuguese businessmen in 1939. The watches were of high quality but also stood out for having been rather larger than average wristwatch sizes of the time at 41.5mm. That's even big for today, especially for a dress watch. It saw greater success in the 1960s and has since become an iconic collection and a dress watch staple.