Nothing but Time: A Guide to the Time-Only Dress Watch

For all of the incredible things that watchmakers can do with calendars, moon phases, and chronographs, there’s a lot of beauty to be found in a simple time-only watch. Whether three or two-handed, the dress watch is an expression of simplicity and proportion. The pass/fail margin is slim, as those with a keen eye can immediately spot details that seem out of place — a hand too short, a set of lugs too narrow, or a logo position that seems out of sorts. When you look at complications, design can be forgiven for the sake of engineering, whereas a time-only watch needs to be executed with absolute precision. While some of our top selections in this category will obviously come from some of the industry’s leading luxury watchmakers, good design isn’t relegated to the luxury category. There are an impressive number of more approachable brands that have learned over the years that the devil is in the details.

Longines Heritage Classic Sector Dial

Longines Heritage Classic Sector Dial Nothing but Time (BFM) in post
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Sector dials were popular in the 1930s, and have been seeing quite the resurgence in recent years. Longines has tapped into the vintage-inspired trend with great success, and their Heritage Classic collection remains one of its most popular within watch collecting circles. With contrasting finishes on the inner, outer, and small-seconds rings, the design creates maximum legibility with minimal embellishment. ($2,700)

A. Lange & Söhne Saxonia Thin

A. Lange & Söhne Saxonia Nothing but time (BFM) in post
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It would be impossible to properly speak to this category without an entry from the Glashütte powerhouse that is A. Lange & Söhne. No detail is too small to escape the consideration of the brand’s design team — especially in a two-handed watch without numerals. The Saxonia’s dial is solid German silver, the hands are pink gold (as are its indices and case), and the 2.9-mm-thick manually wound movement is a work of art unto itself. ($23,100)

Cartier Santos-Dumont

Cartier Santos-Dumont Nothing but Time (BFM) in post
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The Cartier Santos-Dumont is a bit of a legend in the watch world — surprisingly to some, it’s technically the first ever pilot’s watch, though its design codes are far from anything that currently falls into that category. It’s also the first men’s wristwatch ever created (not counting pocket watches converted to be strapped onto one’s wrist), and one that was filmed in flight all the way back in 1906. Everything great about Cartier’s approach to watch design is on display here: Roman numerals, a “railroad” minutes track, blued sword hands, and a single sapphire on the crown — a master class in timeless design. ($7,650)

Nomos Glashütte Club Campus

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When it comes to more approachable watches in the sub-$5,000 bracket, I’d struggle to name a brand with more thoughtful and interesting designs than Nomos. The German brand is one of those outliers where with every reference, every detail appears incredibly well thought out. Though relatively small — producing somewhere around 20,000 watches per year — Nomos manufactures quite a large volume of its movements and components in-house. The vast majority of the Nomos catalog would easily fit into this list, but we had to narrow things down to one of their classics. We’ve opted for the manually wound 38mm Club Campus in an understated shade of grey here, which is powered by the brand’s in-house manufactured Alpha movement. ($1,910)

Patek Philippe 6119G-001

Patek Philippe 6119G-001 Nothing but time (BFM) in post
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It’s impossible to talk about time-only dress watches without talking about the Patek Philippe Calatrava, the 1930s design that defined — and continues to define — the classic dress watch. This year’s update adds a slightly larger case and a “Clous de Paris” guilloché bezel. As with all things Calatrava, this watch is the definition of timeless —a watch equally at home now as it would have been in any decade dating back to the model’s inception. What more do you need? ($36,400)

Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso Classic Duoface Small Seconds

Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso Classic Duoface Small Seconds Nothing but Time (BFM) in post
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Yet another iconic and historically significant watch to make the cut, the Jaeger LeCoultre Reverso started its life as a watch for polo players, only to be reborn as a black tie classic. Despite the clean art deco lines of its face, there’s a lot going on beneath the surface here. Flip the Reverso’s unique swivelling case to discover a watch on the reverse displaying a second time zone. ($28,100)

Tissot Heritage Porto

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Not all time-only dress watches need to be based on historical legends. Instead, Tissot plays an interesting game here of leveraging a few more classical details and pairing them with playful numerals and an out-of-the-ordinary strap mounting system. The combination works well, and delivers a bit more of a statement piece than many of the competitors in this list. It’s playful and won’t cost you an arm and a leg either. ($650)

Vacheron Constantin Traditionnelle Manual-Winding

Vacheron Constantin Traditionnelle Manual-Winding Nothing but Time (BFM) in post
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The popularity of Vacheron Constantin has been spiking dramatically of late, and while most of the attention is fixated on the brand’s sports watches, their dressier counterparts are equally worthy of the spotlight. Much like the contenders from Patek and Lange seen above, the relative austerity of this watch’s dial belies the beauty within. Fortunately, this pared-down piece’s superbly finished movement — including a coveted Geneva Seal certification — is easy to admire through its sapphire case back. ($26,400)

Rado True Secret

Rado True Secret A. Lange & Söhne Saxonia Nothing but time (BFM) in post
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Ceramic is valued for being tough, heat-resistant, and hypoallergenic, but it lends itself to luxury surprisingly well. The muted glow of this polished ceramic case and bracelet immediately grabs the eye from a distance, while the window cut through the dial invites you in for a closer look at the automatic Swiss movement. ($2,500)

Panerai Luminor Due PAM00728

Panerai Luminor Due PAM00728 Nothing but Time (BFM) in post
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While Panerai is known and loved for its military-inspired dive watches, the Luminor cleans up pretty nicely when given the opportunity. Featuring a slimmer case designed to fit under a shirt cuff and a polished titanium bezel, this Luminor Due is ready for any occasion on land or sea. ($11,100)

Seiko Presage SSA407

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As many Seiko watches do, this one reveals unexpected detail on closer inspection, like the subtle geometric texture of its chocolate-brown dial. ($650)