Feature: 5 Best Dress Watches
The dress watch is perhaps the hardest watch to master. It has to be simple, it has to be manual wind, it has to have no complications—small seconds at a push—and it has to be small, both in diameter, but more importantly, thickness. This leaves very little for a watchmaker to hide behind, only the quality of the watchmaking itself left to do the talking. How do the very best brands in the world do it?
Jaeger-LeCoultre Master Ultra Thin 1292520
This Jaeger-LeCoultre may be the cheapest watch here at £12,500, but not by much. In the company of the top three watchmakers in the world, it’s got to pack some serious punch to have any chance of competing solely on the grounds of excellence. Heading up the spec sheet? The Master Ultra Thin has a profile just 4.05mm thick. You know a watch is thin when the figure is quoted to two decimal places.
This is thanks to the calibre 849, a Jaeger-LeCoultre movement that itself is only 1.85mm thick. In skeletonised form, it’s found in the world’s thinnest watch, the Master Ultra Thin Squelette, but it’s no new movement. The 849 has been in existence since the 1990s, and its almost identical predecessor, the 839, since the 70s. Some have tried to compete with it and failed, Jaeger-LeCoultre always emerging back on top.
This is because making ultra thin movements is no new thing for the brand. In fact, the partnership of Edmond Jaeger and Jacques-David LeCoultre happened over a bet to make an ultra thin movement. This is a company that operated to such degrees of minute accuracy, it had to invent an instrument capable of measuring a micron in order to do so.
The crazy thing is that this calibre 849 isn’t even the thinnest movement Jaeger-LeCoultre made. That bet resulted in Jacques-David LeCoultre creating the calibre 145, which measured in at a scant 1.38mm thick. It’s this kind of unmatchable talent that secured movement supply deals with three of the other watchmakers in this feature, and also why the Jaeger-LeCoultre Master Ultra Thin deserves to share a spot alongside them.
Vacheron Constantin Patrimony 81180/000G-9117
At 40mm in diameter and 6.79mm thick, this Vacheron Constantin Patrimony may seem lardy compared to the paper-thin Jaeger-LeCoultre, but that’s a bit unfair. Jaeger-LeCoultre’s basic Ultra Thin with the self-winding calibre 896/1 is a comparatively beefy 7.58mm, so with some mental recalibration, this Patrimony’s 6.79mm is actually very good, sitting somewhere in the middle of this selection.
And that’s not the only stat that’s bigger than the Jaeger-LeCoultre—you’ll pay some £4,000 more for this over the Master Ultra Thin, but then you’re getting details like the applied logo and markers, and even more impressively, the engraved minute dots. The silver-grey dial also has a subtle curve to it that mirrors the gently sloping crystal.
But the big difference—aside from the jump to a top-three–tier watchmaker—is in the back, where it can’t be seen. In the tradition of the simple, thin dress watch, there’s no transparent case back here, but underneath is something truly special. The Vacheron Constantin calibre 1400 may not, at 2.6mm thick, be as two-dimensional as the mind-boggling calibre 849, but what it gains in size it makes up for with one little symbol: the Geneva Seal.
This commendation from the City of Geneva is worth the entry price alone, a certification that demonstrates the calibre 1400’s resilience to the most rigorous of scrutineering. The testing takes two solid weeks and covers every single component in painstaking detail—even the slots in the screwheads must be finished to perfection.
Patek Philippe Calatrava 5196R
Patek Philippe’s Calatrava 5196R is not the thinnest watch here and nor the calibre 215 PS inside it the thinnest movement. In fact, this is the thickest watch of the group despite Patek Philippe’s colossal provenance. At £16,850, it’s also the second most expensive watch here—the most expensive manually-wound—and it also bucks the trend by slapping a small seconds complication on the dial too. Quality is no more impressive than most of the others here either.
So why should the Patek Philippe Calatrava be a contender? On paper it comes across so-so, particularly given its chunk. At 7.68mm thick, it’s heading for double the Jaeger-LeCoultre. Well, here it is: the reason the Calatrava is such an important watch in this company is because it’s the one that wrote the rule book, set the trend. Back in the days of pocket watches, a high-end manufacturer wouldn’t be seen dead with its name on a wristwatch, and Patek Philippe changed that.
Granted, it was financial hardship that dictated the decision for the Stern family, Patek Philippe’s then-new owners, who in 1932 commissioned designer David Penney to create something new and exciting and never-before-seen. In the aftermath of the lavish and ornate pocket watch, the results were shocking. Small, svelte, reserved, the Calatrava was everything high watchmaking was not. And not only did the Sterns release this new watch under the historic Patek Philippe name—they made it the flagship.
This tradition, this heritage, it was all new at this point in 1932, and it was Patek Philippe that made it so. It’s hard to imagine what we consider now to be timeless being not just fresh, but a revelation, and even harder to believe that it was actually a difficult pill to swallow. But here we are, now calling these watches classic—and it’s all thanks to the Calatrava.
Audemars Piguet Jules Audemars Extra-Thin 15180OR.OO.A088CR.01
The inclusion of Audemars Piguet in a collection like this shouldn’t be unexpected. It’s one of the top three, and despite its reputation for being a one-watch brand, demonstrates serious credibility on the watchmaking front both in its history and with this Jules Audemars Extra-Thin. What is something of a surprise, however, is the appearance of Jaeger-LeCoultre for a second time. Remember when I said that Jaeger-LeCoultre supplied movements to the top three? Well, this Audemars Piguet Jules Audemars Extra-Thin still has one.
Ironically, it’s this Jaeger-LeCoultre calibre 920 movement that makes up the most of the Jules Audemars Extra Thin’s whopping £23,000 price, and when you check the spec, you begin to see why. Firstly, at 2.45mm thick, it’s thinner than all the other movement here except the other Jaeger-LeCoultre—and, despite that, it’s automatic! It’s also the only movement ever shared by all three top watchmakers, notably in the Royal Oak, the Nautilus and the 222, which later became the Overseas.
But the really impressive part about what Audemars Piguet calls the calibre AP 2120 is its engineering, which you actually get to see through the clear case back. Thanks to the slenderness of the movement, the case is still one of the thinnest here, and that’s despite the overengineering that Jaeger-LeCoultre is so famous for. Examples of that? The rotor weight, rather than cantilevering its mass out over the movement, is supported at its edge by four ruby rollers that run on a low-friction beryllium-copper rail.
A. Lange & Söhne Saxonia Thin 201.027
Being that this A. Lange & Söhne Saxonia Thin is the only German here, stereotypes would suggest that it would be the efficient choice. The price certainly suggests such, being the second cheapest here after the Jaeger-LeCoultre by just £1,000, and the Bauhaus simplicity of the classic dress watch is certainly not going to be an issue. And despite the extra thickness of a sapphire case back, the watch is only a millimetre-and-a-half thicker than the Jaeger-LeCoultre, making it the second thinnest here.
But can the German compete with its Swiss counterparts on matters of the heart as well as the head? It’s hard to believe, given present company, that the A. Lange & Söhne is the most delicate watch here. Not so much in a physical sense, I’m sure it could probably stop a bullet—more in its design. The lugs are small and slender, the bezel a wisp around the dial, which itself is set with markers barely a hair’s width. It’s as fresh as a glass of cold water.
The calibre L093.1 sings a similar tune, clear of fuss and clutter, leaving the landscape free for the watchmaking to tell the story. From the long, curving click spring to the screwed gold chatons, every aspect of the movement’s execution is dedicated to watchmaking excellence. Even the engraved balance cock, uniquely accomplished by hand, demonstrates technical perfection in the construction of this microscopic engine.
When you’re comparing the world’s best, it’s usually a matter of marginal differences, but these five couldn’t have been any more different. From the traditional to the technical, the humble dress watch demonstrates so much variety in its makeup, its simplicity so pure that the personality of each watchmaker shines through clear and true. The hardest part is choosing.
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