Vacheron Constantin Tradionelle Triple Calendar Moonphase

Insight – The Argument for Cheap Tool Watches and Expensive Dress Watches

In a nutshell, tool watches don’t need to be refined, and dress watches do.

The Lost Art of Exercising Standards of Taste

Despite believing that the subjective experience of watches is ultimately all we have, I am not one of those egalitarian folks who believes that because someone enjoys a watch it thus belongs in this world. Watch critics like that really aren’t critics at all. They practice what a colleague recently called reportage, as if by using the French word for sucking up it somehow becomes a sophisticated enterprise.

I have no patience for the blanket relativism of reportage. I want to hear a critic bitch about the foul stench of the latest horological failure, and I want to hear a critic sing to the heavens in praise of a great achievement. I want backbone, ideas, and a willingness to stick one’s jaw out and risk getting it busted for asserting standards of taste. I want critique, merci beacoup. And you can’t have critique without standards.

Rolex Daytona Rainbow Ever Rose Gold
Can’t imagine Paul Newman wearing one of these. He had impeccable taste.

However misguided at times, I have standards of taste. And so do you. And so does the sell-out practicing reportage. The problem is our self-conscious postmodern culture which forbids standards of taste and calls forth a relativistic aesthetic free-for-all. For fear of being deemed snobs – or, worse, uncool! – we’ve let our standards go.

I’m here to unearth my own standards of taste and assert them.

A Moment of Clarity

I believe I’ve had a moment of clarity about where my thresholds of horological taste actually reside, and where, dear reader, yours might ought to reside as well.

I’ve seen, handled and worn thousands of dress and tool watches by now, from the world’s most expensive and rare pieces down to disposable trash. It is this entire spectrum of billions if not trillions of watches that I want to apply not blanket approval but blanket judgement. Because without some standard guiding us we become undiscriminating fools tossing about in a sea of high-octane Swiss marketing and Instagram trends.

I’m better than that, and so are you.

Audemars Piguet Royal Oak
The early Royal Oak from Audemars Piguet challenged our sense of categories and thus our sense of taste, but it did it tastefully.

So let’s go back to a time before smartphones and the watch craze of the 2020s and get some sure footing on a dirty street in New York where you could always buy fake luxury goods on the cheap. I learned a lot about horological standards on Canal Street.

Counterfeits on Canal Street

When I was a young aspiring watch collector with no money to spare because I had chosen to go into the dreaded music industry, I also happened to work at a recording studio in New York City’s Chinatown which required that I walk the east end of Canal Street every day. This was the place where you could buy a Rolex Submariner for $40 and a Vacheron Constantin Triple Calendar Moon Phase for $25. I regularly bought both, but I only ever wore the fake Sub.

I still have the last Rolex Sub knock-off I bought there, nearly two decades ago. It’s a great watch. Looks like a real Rolex. Runs pretty well without ever having been serviced. And it even has some sentimental value at this point.

Vacheron Constantin Conterfeit Watch
A poorly executed dress watch like this Vacheron Constantin knock-off just doesn’t work. When brands offer dress watches at affordable prices, the results are often sub-standard. It’s a categorical problem.

The dress watches I bought, however, never once looked good enough that I’d wear them. That Vacheron Constantin Triple-Calendar Moonphase stopped running within weeks, and it just always looked too cheap and crappy for me to wear it. The Patek Calatrava knock-off I bought was so poorly executed that I never wore it, and it stopped running despite my never winding it.

The hard dirty lesson of China Town was that cheap tool watches could run well and look great, while cheap dress watches were disposable trash.

Why Cheap Tool Watches Are Just Great

Stainless Steel is Stainless Steel

First of all, most tool watches are stainless steel, which is cheap, sturdy and often recycled anyways. You don’t need to spend a ton of money to get a stainless steel tool watch, and while Rolex and Seiko like to brag about Oystersteel and EverBrilliant, the only meaningful improvement to low-carbon stainless steel is hardening, which neither of those formulas offer.

Hemel Airfoil Chronograph
The Hemel Airfoil is $499, looks great, works great, and has one of the more thoughtfully laid out dials going.

Chunky Movements

For various reasons, tool watches tend to offer more internal real estate than dress watches. This extra space allows for thicker movements, which allows for thicker components, which are more durable, and which can work just fine without having to meet tiny tolerances. Whether it’s a third-party Swiss or Japanese movement, or some proprietary machine knocked out wherever, tool watch movements are the Ford F150 engines of horology – big, reliable, work horses that need not cost a fortune to get right.

Vaer tool watch
For $799 Vaer gives you all you need in a tool watch, including a Sellita 200-1 movement.

Too Much Refinement = Gaudiness

I understand full well that many tool watches strive for refinement, especially those vomit-inducing rainbow-jeweled tool watches so popular these days. Sure, I get it, we can apply dress-watch refinement to a tool watch, and whole genres have cropped up in those fertile soils – like the Royal Oak’s spawn and so on. However, a tool watch can fail to be anything like a tool watch under too much refinement.

Rolex GMT Master II
Modern Rolex tool watches have been polished to the point of looking like gaudy dress watches, and unsurprisingly their owners tend to baby them.

You’re Supposed to Beat On It

So many people baby their tool watches, which cracks me up. Investment pieces. Heirlooms. Collection trophies. Yadda yadda. If you want a tool watch that shows no signs of being beat on, I suggest getting ceramic bezels and hardened steel and still doing what you’re supposed to do with tool watches – beat on them.

Bremont Dive Watch with water
Bremont strikes a great balance, with hardened steel, brushed ceramic bezels, and prices under $4000 for some serious tool watches with chronometer-grade movements. All in good taste.

In the end, if you want a tool watch that costs a ton of money, be my guest. There’s no shortage of options available today. But the satisfaction you get out of that expensive tool watch is going to be derived from what I consider to be superfluity and not substance.

You can get all the substance a tool watch needs to possess for very little money.

Why Dress Watches Need to Cost A Lot

Essentially, dress watches follow an inverse logic. They just don’t work when made cheaply, and every modern attempt to offer an affordable dress watch has, in my opinion, failed to achieve what a great dress watch needs to achieve in order to be a shining example of its genre.

Nomos Orion
The Nomos Orion sits just within the boundaries of acceptable dress watch standards.

Not to pick on Nomos, because I love Nomos, but the brand is interestingly situated just inside the threshold of acceptable dress watch standards. I think Nomos dress watches like The Orion are exceptional value with their handsome in-house movements, refined design, and lovely and clean dials. But there’s something a Nomos nearly lacks enough of that, say, my Vacheron Constantin dress watches possess in excess. 

I sometimes struggle to put my finger on that something, but I have no better word for it than refinement.

Refinement – (n) the improvement or clarification of something by the making of small changes

In a nutshell, tool watches don’t need to be refined, and dress watches do.

Refined Case Work

Whether steel or precious metal, a dress watch case succeeds when it achieves enough immaculately executed details to cut an elegant figure on your wrist. The Patek Calatrava, for example, is not a very complicated design – in fact, it is distinguished by removing complexity along its sides, which are, though shapely, not terribly interesting. But if you look at the small changes that refine the Patek Calatrava, you’ll find edges that sing with decisiveness, brushing like velvet with uniformity, polishing so smooth that candlelight dances across it with a grace befitting romance.

Patek Philippe Calatrava with Lange Saxonia Thin
Patek Calatrava (top) and Lange Saxonia (bottom). Refinement defined.

A tool watch doesn’t require that level of case finishing. I’ve seen it so many times, and it’s superfluous, wasted, and only going to make you feel dumb when you bang the chunky monster aginst the door of your wife’s car because your vintage Land-Rover broke down again (been there, done that in a Grand Seiko).

Patek Philippe Rainbow Aquanaut
Transgression of basic standards of taste from Patek Philippe. Rainbow Auqanaut 2022, $212,000.

Increase the complexity of a dress watch case beyond that of a Calatrava, and a manufacturer faces a challenge requiring countless hours of hard work, with the result often being a jewel-like quality to the exterior of the watch befitting aforementioned candlelight.

Dressy Dials

Tool watch dials need to be legible, and no more. Dress watch dials need to be refined and exquisite. The sharper the hands, applied markers, and any printed bits are on a dress watch dial, the more that watch is going to radiate elegance and panache. I’ve recently flown a vintage plane with Nick English of Bremont watches, and the idea that a pilots watch in the WWII era style should sparkle with elegance is not only absurd, but maybe even distracting. 

Refined Movements

It’s rare that a tool watch requires high complication – perhaps some chronographs, but then those can be made chunky and rugged. Dress watches, however, not only house some of the world’s most complicated mechanical machines, but they tend (or at least should tend) to attempt to do so in the smallest space possible.

Vacheron Constantin Historiques 1955
Vacheron Constantin 1955 Historiques with Caliber 1003 in gold.

And when a dress watch is stripped down to house a mere time-only manually-wound movement, you’ll find that ultra-thin movements like the Vacheron Constantin 1003 and so on no only offer exceptional thinness on wrist, but also become as compelling and stunning to look at with a loupe as the most complicated calibers due to the necessary refinement of components set into small spaces.

The Matrix of Horological Taste

I leave you with this matrix, upon which you might find yourself plotting different watches. I’m loath to plot out various models here for fear of angering potential advertising clients (I’m kidding), but I think this could be a fun and useful tool for plotting out your own collection with the above screed in mind – or perhaps better with your own screed in mind.

Horological Taste A Matrix Chart