The A:S Guide to High-End Dress Watches

The A:S Guide to High-End Dress Watches

| 02.29.24

At Analog:Shift, plenty of great watches pass through our hands.

Big and small, vintage and modern, thousands of pre-owned pieces from a variety of brands will ultimately make their way to new wrists. Most exciting to this writer, however, is always the dress watch selection. There’s something incredibly pure and pleasing associated with a simple yet well-executed dress watch. Done right, such a watch can be unassuming and non-ostentatious, yet still possess a certain magnetism that draws onlookers’ eyes to one’s wrist. 

During the last two years or so, we’ve seen a marked increase of interest in dress watches, and while they still trail sports watches in popularity, we can expect to see the market segment continue to gain more momentum in the coming years. Furthermore, we’ve witnessed a cultural shift in fashion that has made it acceptable — and quite frankly, a power move — to wear a wafer-thin, precious-metal dress watch with jeans and sneakers. And while you should probably avoid playing basketball with a Journe tourbillon on your wrist, this same watch would look absolutely killer with more casual sartorial fare. TL;DR: While you may not be donning a cummerbund and tux on the daily, dress watches may still be for you! 

While such timepieces come in at every price point — we’ve covered some of our favorite dress watches in the past at lower price brackets — today we’d like to take a close look at the top of the market. When you spend big bucks on a high-end dress piece, what should you look for? What distinguishes an expensive dress watch from an entry-level offering, and which pieces are the best ones to consider? We'll cover all this and more. 

Hallmarks of a Dress Watch

First, we need to define ‘dress watch.’ Fundamentally, there are two primary conventions that are used: If you’re more of a purist, you might say that a dress watch is only a thin, precious metal, two-handed timepiece on a leather strap. (Perhaps you’re a bit rebellious, and maybe suggest that subsidiary seconds or central seconds would be acceptable.) These are typically the types of watches that would be associated with black tie or formal wear, and thus, in the strictest of definitions, a dress watch would have to fit these criteria. 

If, on the other hand, you take things a bit less seriously — maybe you even unbutton your shirt a bit! — you would embrace the more general category that most people refer to when talking about dress watches. This definition is more of a catch-all for typical design cues that make a watch ‘dressier,’ even if it doesn’t fit within a formal ‘dress code.’ (For example, a Rolex Datejust is often considered a dress watch by this group.) This set of attributes might include a delicate-looking or finely woven bracelet; adornment such as fluting or use of precious metals; and thinness. 

In both cases, dress watches are generally a bit more minimalist and elegant than your typical tool watches. Thus, in embracing a form-over-function mentality, you aren’t going to find any of the hallmarks of a true sports or tool watch — crown guards, rotating bezels, etc. — on most traditional dress watches. Generally, dials are simpler and colors are a bit more reserved. For the purposes of this guide, we’ll side with the more common, relaxed definition of dress watches — although, we’ll also provide several options for the purists. 

On high-end dress watches, movement finishing becomes much more important. Indeed, when one pays more for a dress piece, it’s often because either the watch is made of precious metal (and thus has a higher material cost), or alternatively, the movement is highly finished, which often involves lots of handwork. (Or both.) On high-end pieces, one should look for this — you can expect to find greater attention to detail and emphasis on craftsmanship at the top of the market. (The same generally applies to all watch categories, but especially in dress watches, where form trumps function.) Thus, the artistic elements of the timepiece should be noticeable and bountiful.

You must be even more discerning if you’re after a watch that you can successfully wear in both formal and casual environments: If you aren’t dressed up all the time, but want to embrace the dress watch aesthetic, pick a watch that’s attractive yet subtle, so that it won’t look too out of place in jeans and a t-shirt. Of course, what defines such a watch in the 2020s is very much in the eye of the beholder. 

A. Lange & Söhne Lange 1815 - IN THE SHOP

An excellent example of such a watch is the Lange 1815. On the one hand, there are the important factors highlighted above: exquisite finishing, a precious-metal case, an elegant profile, thin wrist presence, and generally minimalist design. At the same time, the railroad minute track and dark black, ‘Gothic’ typography bring the watch down a notch in formality that allows it to be worn successfully on a suede strap. Snag a watch like this and you’ll thank us later! 

Next, we’ll cover a series of our favorite high-end dress pieces and discuss what makes them stand out from the crowd. 

Patek Philippe 3919J

Patek Philippe Ref.3919/1J - IN THE SHOP

The Patek Philippe Reference 3919, an entry in the Calatrava collection, represents the quintessential Patek Philippe dress watch — and thus perhaps the quintessential dress watch. Designed as Patek was desperately trying to recover market share lost during the Quartz Crisis, the 3919 was meant to showcase the fundamental ingredients of successful dress watch design. Minimalism, purity of form, thinness, discreet elegance and aesthetic refinement are its visual hallmarks. 

Released in 1985 — a big year for Patek Philippe, which also debuted the Ref. 3940 perpetual calendar — the 3919 stood out for its hobnail bezel, an element absent from many simpler dress watches. The hobnail design (or clous de Paris) adds a bit of intrigue to an otherwise restrained design; in more recent times, we’ve seen Patek use it on the Reference 6119, the maison’s contemporary, time-only Calatrava. 

It is widely considered that the Calatrava captures the essence of a dress watch, and thus the 3919 can, in turn, be viewed as the essence of the Patek dress watch. With this kind of pedigree, it’s easy to see how the 3919 became one of the symbols of Patek Philippe as a whole from the 1980s through the 2000s. Though while the 3919 is an excellent choice as a Calatrava, its 33mm sizing isn’t going to appeal to everyone; therefore, the Ref. 5196 is a solid alternative at 37mm, or the Ref. 6119 at 39mm. You’ll notice a common DNA across the models, and can’t go wrong with any of them.

Lange 1 and Lange 1 Moonphase

A.Lange & Söhne Lange 1 - IN THE SHOP

Relatively thin in profile, cased in precious metal, and simply oozing elegance, the Lange 1 is the icon of the German watchmaking industry. Aesthetically unique with its asymmetric dial layout, the Lange 1 is immediately recognizable and seemingly universally beloved. As a dress watch, it features the essential DNA we’ve covered above, albeit with a distinctly German twist. 

Unlike the other watches featured here, Lange timepieces feature thicker, bolder dial text; stronger cases with sheer sides; and a far more substantial wrist presence. In spite of these details, the Lange 1 is still well suited to a dressy setting. Furthermore, from a movement standpoint, one receives a level of finishing typically found on a piece from an independent brand rather than from a company owned by a luxury conglomerate. 

A.Lange & Söhne Lange 1 Moonphase - IN THE SHOP

Lange only makes about 5,000 watches a year, and this is immediately evident in the Lange 1’s exquisite movement finishing. When one is paying for a "high-end" dress watch, it’s these unique details and defining attributes that a collector should look for. If the Lange 1 on its own is a bit too plain for you, look to the Lange 1 Moonphase, a watch that builds on the overarching design language but adds a bit more complication and a splash of color. You can’t go wrong with a Lange 1, and you can be sure you’re buying the best of German watchmaking.

Cartier Privé Cloche de Cartier 

Cartier Privé Cloche de Cartier - IN THE SHOP

We mentioned earlier that watches in this price segment should have a unique aspect that differentiates them from a sea of similar pieces — some detail that helps distinguish them, whether mechanical, aesthetic, or historic. In the case of the Cloche de Cartier, the case design is the center of horological gravity. 

When we speak about watches, nine times out of 10 we’re talking about round pieces — and when we aren’t discussing a round watch, we’re generally thinking of a tank-style piece, or something in the tonneau shape. Having a truly unique case shape is certainly something of note. Designed to emulate the look of a bell (or cloche, en français), the Cloche’s DNA was introduced in the 1920s as a brooch for women, morphing into a wristwatch later on. 

This particular Cloche de Cartier features a 37mm platinum case with a slim wrist presence and an elegant black leather strap that pulls out the black ‘Roman’ indices on the dial, which itself is a beautiful, subtle bone color. (Its off-white, almost eggshell tone has a nostalgic glow similar to that of a vintage watch.) Ultimately, this is a dress watch that is unassuming yet fascinating, and for pure diversification of a watch collection, it deserves a place in one’s collection. 

Breguet Tradition White Gold

Breguet Tradition White Gold - IN THE SHOP

Continuing with the theme of the previous piece — watches that possess a unique design quality — we’re compelled to return to the tried-and-true Breguet Tradition. Famous for its distinctive open concept-dial style, the Tradition is based upon the Breguet souscription pocket watches from the 19th century. Today, given its avant-garde nature, this piece would work just as well on a suede strap with jeans — an aspect that sets it apart from other dress watches. While it certainly has a dressy design, the dial scales this factor back a bit, offering a touch of something more contemporary and playful. 

Breguet Tradition Yellow Gold - IN THE SHOP

If you want a Tradition that leans more into dress watch territory than the white gold variant, opt for the yellow gold iteration. Furthermore, the Tradition collection as a whole is rather diverse, with a variety of complications and configurations produced. All possess a similar, old-meets-new vibe, but if you want a GMT or a calendar complication, you can find one with the same design language! 

If the Tradition is a bit too progressive for your tastes, Breguet is also one of the greatest manufacturers of simple dress watches. Their pieces are highly classy — or, as this young writer’s friends say, ‘old man-ish’ — and are an excellent representation of what a dress watch should look like. (Plus, as we have covered in the past here, Breguet watches are available pre-owned for an exceptional value. Give these a closer look!)

FP Journe Chronomètre Souverain

FP Journe Chronomètre Souverain - IN THE SHOP

Let’s say you want what’s at the very top of the basic dress watch market — in this case, FP Journe’s Chronomètre Souverain is a compelling option. In this particular example, we’ve stepped away from regular-production models to extremely limited, independent watchmaking. To make matters even more interesting, this Chronomètre Souverain is not a standard Journe, but rather, a boutique edition — a watch offered only to regular clients of the brand and produced in small numbers. These black-dialed ‘Black Label’ pieces are particularly desirable. 


Looking at its dial, we’re met with the time, a subsidiary seconds register, and a power reserve indicator. The dial has also been intricately engraved with multi-textured guilloché, and topped off with applied rose gold numerals to match the case. Flipping it over, meanwhile, you’re met with even more precious metal — the Calibre 1304 is executed entirely in 18K rose gold, adding heft to the watch and a bit of sparkle to the caseback. The movement layout is quite unique, with dual barrels and an isolated balance wheel. To achieve the separation between these movement elements, Journe buried the gear train beneath the dial side of the movement! This is an extremely interesting layout and not something you’ll find elsewhere. 

Of course, when you spend nearly $100,000 dollars on a watch, the question becomes whether to go with a less complicated piece from an independent like a Journe, or a similar offering from a luxury brand like an Audemars Piguet, Patek Philippe, or Lange. Therefore, we’ll move next into a series of more complicated watches for your consideration.

Patek Philippe Annual Calendars 

Patek Philippe Annual Calendar - IN THE SHOP

Introduced in 1996 with the Reference 5035, Patek’s annual calendars were designed to bridge the gap between ‘entry-level’ Calatravas and exclusive Grand Complications. A scaled-back version of the perpetual calendar, the annual calendar is nevertheless a sophisticated calendar that requires adjustment only once a year. If you’re looking for a complicated Patek for under $100K, these pieces are fantastic options. 

Patek Philippe Annual Calendar - IN THE SHOP

In addition to the aforementioned Ref. 5035, the Reference 5396 — both in white gold with white gold indices, and in the ever-desirable configuration of rose gold case, blue dial, and subtle ‘baguette’ indices — is an excellent choice. Based on early pocket watch layouts with in-line calendar apertures, it’s a complicated model that manages to avoid looking cluttered. Unobtrusive and elegant, this look has also informed Patek’s more recent Ref. 5236. 

Patek Philippe Annual Calendar Ref.5205 - IN THE SHOP

If the 5396 isn’t quite for you, the 5205 is a more modern alternative: Although it and the 5396 overlapped in production, the 5205 nevertheless features a more contemporary layout that was also used on the Ref. 5905 annual calendar chronograph with flyback. Its separated apertures make for a beautiful package, and the white gold variant with gray dial is particularly popular. 

Patek Philippe Annual Calendar Moonphase  - IN THE SHOP

Finally, if you’d like the modern extension of Patek’s original 5035, look to the Ref. 5146, which replicates the former’s aesthetics with a 39mm case diameter. 

Regardless of the specific reference, the annual calendar complication makes for an excellent introduction to high-end Patek, and is a great way to explore dress watch complications for under $50K. Once we’ve moved into even more complicated watches, we’re undoubtedly deviating from the strict definition of a dress watch — but that definition, along with that of “formal attire,” has long been relaxing within the greater sartorial world. 

Audemars Piguet Perpetual Calendar Moonphase

 Audemars Piguet Perpetual Calendar Moonphase - IN THE SHOP

Next up is a watch that one might not immediately associate with Audemars Piguet. A slim, round, perpetual calendar dress watch, this piece is a world apart from a Royal Oak. Whereas many complications render a watch too thick for comfortable wear within the guise of a traditional dress watch, perpetual calendars have historically been made thin by several top-shelf manufacturers. In our view, this particular AP is one of those perpetuals that was done right

Produced in the ‘80s, this Reference 5548 is a comfortable 36mm in diameter and laser thin. It’s sort of AP’s equivalent of the Patek Philippe Reference 3940 — but for less than $30K! This is truly an exceptional value. A complicated perpetual calendar from a ‘Holy Trinity’ brand can often run you near $100,000, while this piece gives you the same quality and elegance for a fraction of the price. Plus, this example comes with its correct box — which winds the watch automatically. 

Audemars Piguet and Patek Philippe Dress Chronographs


Let's say you aren’t sold on a full-on dress watch — you just can’t stomach the overly dainty presence and want something that will satisfy your slightly sportier tastes. Well, that’s when we’d recommend a dress chronograph, an incredibly versatile watch type. Two particular pieces come to mind in this category: First, the Audemars Piguet Reference 5520 is a gorgeous rose gold watch dating all the way back to the 1940s, but sized at an incredibly contemporary 38mm. Elegant faceted indices and a subtle blue chrono scale combine to generate a presence that’s simultaneously dressy and casual. 

If you like the look of the AP but want something smaller and more vintage in feel from the same era, look at the Patek Philippe Reference 130. Widely lauded as one of the most important watches from the maison’s archive, it encapsulates the Patek philosophy, which never subordinates elegance in the name of utility. Kicking around our offices is a spectacular example with appliqué numerals in the Breguet style executed in yellow gold. While it measures a relatively small 33mm in diameter, the lugs are extremely long, making it wear beautifully on most wrists.