The Dress Watch – Death Greatly Exaggerated

Blancpain dress watch

“As the downturn of the watch industry marches on, the dress watch, once a proud general leading the troops, is now becoming the first casualty.” As the guy who argued that the dive watch genre is doomed, I may not be the best person to criticize Martin Green at quillandpad.com for pronouncing time of death on the dress watch. Oh well. It’s a tough job, but someone’s gotta do it . .

What was long the cornerstone of the watch industry is no longer a hotly desired model. The dress watch has been overtaken, surpassed, and in some cases even downright forgotten as new generations splurge on steel-encased icons, the latest Apple watch, or forgo a watch all together.

Rolex Daytona

Mr. Green’s right about the once and future prominence of “steel-encased icons.” It sure ain’t Cellinis or Constellations creating waiting lists at authorized Rolex and OMEGA dealers. But this isn’t anything new. Luxury “sports watches” have been replacing dress watches since 1970, when the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak first sprouted.

The SRPD77 - a dress watch?

The dive watch is another major culprit in the dress watch’s decline. (Thanks Bond, James Bond.) At some point, dive watches stopped being dive watches and became watches – if you know what I mean. If not, let’s just say Seiko didn’t suddenly decide to trash decades of distinctive Seiko 5 designs for low-priced clones of higher-priced dive watches.

Breitling BR 05

But it wasn’t the dive watch or the luxury sports watch per se that sent the dress watch heading to the showers. It was the enormous cultural shift away from tie-and-jacket office wear, the gradual leeching of “casual Friday” to all the other days of the week.

It’s hard to ID the moment a suit stopped being a ticket to a better life. The ’60’s, when tie-wearing “straights” were vilified, and universities ditched dress codes? The 70’s, when rappers in sportswear burst onto the scene? The rise of tech in the ’80’s and ’90’s, where future billionaires dressed in whatever clean clothes they could find?

However we got here, we’re at the point when only a Master of the Universe gets suited and booted for work. Where weddings, funerals and fund raisers are the necktie’s last stand. The point where the subtle, elegant dress watch is a cultural anachronism.

Tissor Victorinox

While the Apple Watch has accelerated the dress watch’s decline, it’s hardly the first casualty. That dubious distinction belongs to low-priced Swiss quartz watches. Last year, Swiss quartz watch exports sank 17.4 percent. While some percentage of the watches not selling were dress watches, most were affordable, battery-powered timekeepers.

The real story here: the Apple Watch is not an equal opportunity ass kicker. While quartz and mechanical watches are losing market share like mad, there is one notable exception: high end horology.

OMEGA dress watch

Put the current Swiss watch-whacking coronavirus crisis aside. When it comes to the future of the traditional watch – including dress watches – TTAW commentator’s Sightline’s got it right: “It’s no different than the collateral damage that happened to the camera industry. There will be a high end and not much else.”

Bottom line: people will buy dress watches for special occasions, just not so many. People or watches. And not cheap ones. People or watches.

Surprisingly (or not), Mr. Martin ends his rant by backing away from his clickbait pronouncement to agree with Sightline’s analysis. Mr. Green acknowledges that the dress watch isn’t quite as doomed as he first declared.

Framed OMEGA 125th Anniversary Tresor

While it’s on life support, I doubt the dress watch will fully cease to exist as I expect it to become a niche. That is at least some good news because as resident gentleman of Quill & Pad, and an avid collector of dress watches, this is one obituary I hope never to write.

Long story short, the dress watch is dead. Long live the dress watch! Meanwhile, who issues those gentlemen residency cards? I own a tie – and a dress watch!

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1 Response to The Dress Watch – Death Greatly Exaggerated

  1. Luke Ibis says:

    Dress watches could easily be revived if the Men of Taste of Style (TM) over at The Dink decided that they are the next “thing” in the watch world. Let’s put the challenge out there!

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