standing man looking his watch

Choosing a Dress Watch: The Best Guide for Real Guys

Since watch collecting is a hobby of mine, I was asked for some advice on choosing a dress watch. My wife’s cousin is getting married, and her fiance knew that his smartwatch just wouldn’t cut it with his tux. Plus, is there anything more soulless than a smartwatch?

I asked him what his budget was — which was super entry-level but exactly where I excel — but there was still a… miscommunication. You see, dress watches are a really niche subject and it’s hard for most guys to drop much cash on them. They rarely wear them. And believe it or not, most of the occasions men wear a dress watch to, they actually shouldn’t.

So, of all the different types of watches, how do you choose a dress watch? Let’s find out in this brief dress watch guide.

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Choosing a Dress Watch

The best way to understand how to choose a dress watch is to break it down by the most important parts: Case, dial, and strap. Let dig into each and you’ll see what to look for in most dress watches.

Dress Watch Cases

Here’s what you need to know about dress watch cases:

  • They shouldn’t be large. Generally speaking, the largest size you’ll want to go with is around 40 millimeters across the case, but the sweet spot is really between 36 and 38 millimeters across.  Larger than that, and it will look out of place on your wrist.
  • The case should really be about 12 millimeters thick. Thicker, and your shirt cuff will hang up on it. Find a thinner watch that will slide under a shirt cuff.
  • The case material doesn’t matter much, as long as it’s at least slightly polished. Gunmetal, black, satin, and flat cases are too casual for dressier events. Silver, stainless, gold, rose gold, and similar are perfect. Be sure to give them a quick shining before the event.
  • If you can, you’re supposed to match your case with your belt buckle, cuff links, tie bar, and other metals. This isn’t as hard-and-fast a rule as it used to be (most likely because many men opt for titanium, platinum, and silver wedding bands), but it can be a classy touch.

Dress Watch Dials

A dress watch’s case is important, but it’s no more critical than the dial. Dress watch dials aren’t supposed to distract from your attire.

  • Three hands, only! Hour, minute, and seconds hands. Nothing more. The second hand is actually optional. If you need a little something more, you can go with a small seconds, but it’s best not to clutter the dial.
  • Date windows are not ideal, but they’re very popular now, so avoiding one can be tough. Just make sure it’s not huge and gaudy.
  • Try to stay away from numbers. It’s best to stick with simple batons or stick indexes, but that’s not always possible.
  • Sunburst, linen, and textured dials are A-Okay. In fact, they’re a great way to keep the piece from being too boring. A silver, gray, black, cream, or white dial are the best choices as they’ll go with almost any suit.

Dress Watch Straps

Don’t sleep on dress watch straps, either. This is an important detail that a lot of guys just don’t get right.

  • Go with a leather watch strap. Bracelets are too casual, as are NATO, person, canvas, and definitely rubber. Leather only, boys!
  • For a really put-together look, match your strap to your belt and shoes. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but match shades of browns as closely as you can without driving yourself nuts, and black leather’s pretty straightforward. A black leather strap is generally easier to match with black belts and black shoes.
  • Contrasting stitching is out of the question: If there’s stitching, it should blend so well that you really can’t see it. 
  • A little sheen never hurt anybody. In fact, it’s basically necessary. A little bit of a glossy touch looks great, where flat texture looks too casual. 

My favorite dress watch strap is a crocodile pattern leather band, but there are other handsome leathers available as well.

Do I really need a dress watch? What are the rules?

Here’s the deal: The only time the average guy is going to wear a dress watch is when he’s wearing a suit (here’s some help with figuring out those buttons, guys). And most guys only wear suits to weddings or funerals, and these events have a way of sending men into a tailspin. 

Relax. It’s not that serious.

You really don’t need a dress watch. You’re actually not supposed to wear a watch with formal attire. If you’re wearing a tux, you’re not supposed to wear a watch. If you’re attending a wedding, you really aren’t supposed to wear a watch there either. The idea is that these events should be the focus of your night and that time should not be a factor. You’re supposed to get lost in the moment. With that said, wear one if you want to. It’s no longer quite the faux pas it used to be.

You can thank Sean Connery’s James Bond. He wore a Rolex diver on a NATO’ish strap with a tuxedo. And that’s badass.

But, if you’re a guy who wears a suit to the office or you started a side hustle that requires looking good, you definitely need a watch of some sort. Does it have to be a dress watch? No, but something tells me Don Draper wouldn’t wear a G-Shock or smartwatch to the office. He’d pick a good dress watch.

Some dress watch options

It’s hard to drop a lot of coin on a watch you’re only going to wear once or twice a year. In my opinion, there are three or four brands you should check into when choosing an affordable dress watch:

  • Timex
  • Orient
  • Seiko
  • Citizen

Arguably the two best affordable dress watches are the Timex Marlin and the Orient Bambino (the Bambino is an automatic watch while the Marlin has a quartz movement). The issue with the Bambino is that it’s a bit large, making the Marlin my overall choice for the best affordable dress watch (my only suggestion would be switching it over to a premium strap). Both of these watches can be had for well under $200 and could make the perfect dress watch for guys on a tight budget.

For those who have a little more room in their budget, the Hamilton Jazzmaster and Tissot Gentleman automatic watches are both great choices. The Hamilton is a little large but it ticks all the other boxes of a classic dress watch, and the Tissot might not come on a leather strap, but the metal bracelet is handsome and one could swap the strap if so desired. Both of these watches cost between $600 and $700, both are Swiss made, and both of these are high-quality dress watches in the entry-level range. They also have automatic movements so guys don’t have to worry about winding mechanical watches.

Dress Watch FAQs

Still confused? Here are some of the most frequently asked questions. If you have more, ask in the comments below and I’ll answer.

Is it okay to wear dress watches casually?

Absolutely. Wear whatever the hell you want, whenever the hell you want.  These are just some general guidelines. If you want to wear a dress watch every day, more power to you.

What color dial should a dress watch be?

Stick to black, gray, silver, or white. Black is usually preferred but might limit your choices on straps a bit. White might be a bit more fun, but can draw attention. Gray or silver is a nice meet-in-the-middle. 

Should your watch match your belt?

The “rule” is yes. My rule is this: Match, or really, really don’t. If you’re wearing a brown belt but don’t want to match it, try something like a blue or green strap. If you’re wearing a black belt, consider a red or gray strap. 

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