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5 Questions to Ask Before You Buy a Dress Watch

A good dress watch can cost a pretty penny, so before you buy, ask yourself these important things.

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Editor’s Note: So you’re ready to make a watch purchase? Not so fast. Before committing, it’s worth thinking carefully about your needs to make sure you’re truly buying the right timepiece for you. Our series Five Questions aims to help you do just that.

Plenty of folks don’t have a dedicated dress watch — people wear all kinds of stuff with a suit, and you’ll see plenty of chunky Submariners sticking out from under a tailored cuff. But if you’re throwing on your tux for a black tie event, you really want to be wearing a watch that complements that attire, which is something thin, uncomplicated (in both the horological and literal senses), and elegant.

The watch doesn’t necessarily have to be made of precious metals (though many dress watches are), and it certainly doesn’t have to be expensive (though many, again, cost a pretty penny). But the svelte lines of a no-date, time-only watch on a thin leather strap are often the best compliment to formal- and semi-formalwear. So when you’re ready to pull that trigger on your first (or next) dress watch, ask yourself these questions to make sure you’re making the right decision.

1. What are you going to be wearing it with?

If you have multiple dress watches, you might be able to pull of something a bit more complicated with a suit, but if this is your one dress watch and you want to be able to wear it with white or black tie, it should be time-only: the point here is elegance and simplicity, and to this end, many dedicated dress watches don’t even have a seconds hand. (Who needs precision timekeeping to the second when you’re at a cocktail reception?) Consider the occasions and clothing that will be accompanying the watch — this will help steer you in the direction of the right type of timepiece.

2. What’s the potential watch’s case depth?

If you’re a bigger guy with a bigger wrist diameter, you might be able to get away with a 42mm dress watch (or, indeed, you might feel silly with a 34mm dress watch). However, one thing you don’t want is a thick watch protruding from under your cuff. So stick with something relatively thin — not necessarily ultra-thin, but certainly under 10mm, and likely even something under 8mm. (Keep in mind that most of these watches will probably feature handwound or quartz movements — the rotor in an automatic movement often precludes a watch from being thin.)

3. Are you interested in precious metals?

Many dress watches feature precious metal cases, in keeping with the theme of elegance, class and sophistication. Of course, this doesn’t have to “be the case” with your watch — there are myriad, beautiful steel options out there — but a formal occasion is always a good excuse to pull out a yellow, pink or rose gold watch. Keep in mind that white gold and platinum might look like steel from a distance without betraying their worth, so these are also options particularly suited to a formal watch.

4. How much are you interested in spending?

Once again: a classy dress watch need not break the bank. Can you spend five or even six figures on a dress watch? Sure can! But you can also spend under $1k on a gold-plated watch, which gives you the look of precious metals without the spend necessary for a fully gold case. Or you can go the vintage route (if you’re willing to deal with the potential pains of maintenance) and grab a precious metal watch for potentially less money, such as a gold IWC cal. 89. The possibilities are endless.

5. What kind of movement do you want?

As previously mentioned, the rotor in an automatic movement (which winds it) often precludes a watch from being terribly thin (though there are exceptions), which is why many thin and ultra-thin watches use either manually wound or quartz movements. If you’re not someone who particularly gives a damn what’s powering your wrist candy, then by all means, go for a nice quartz watch! If you’re more horologically curious, then spring for a mechanical watch. You can find thin, dressy automatics, but they’re a bit fewer and farther between.

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