The Patek Philippe is sublime, but that Rolex Submariner doesn’t look bad with black tie either, even if the wettest thing in sight is a dry martini.
It is a well-known fact that a tuxedo improves every man’s appearance. And yet, in what I suppose is some pathetic attempt to come off younger than they actually are, there are always a few men who go all open-necked at the hint of a black-tie occasion. Call me old-fashioned, but if someone goes through the bother of sending me a formal invitation, chances are that the person expects me to make the effort to wear a dinner jacket and a bow tie.
This adherence to traditional elegance applies as much to watches as it does to attire. An evening timepiece should be discreet—a gentleman should have the grace to let the lady wear the diamonds. If he cannot resist a little glitter, he should restrict it to a pair of cuff links (my wife was kind enough to give me a pair from the fifties by Van Cleef & Arpels) or some diamond shirt studs (I’m still waiting). A tuxedo watch should also be neat and slim; turn it sideways and it should almost disappear.
What to do then about the fact that timepieces have grown considerably larger and more jewel-encrusted in the last 15 years? A black-tie dinner is not the place for a watch crammed with a chronograph, a tourbillion, and a perpetual calendar. But some people might feel a little underdressed in something as quiet as the perfectly round Vacheron Constantin Patrimony Ultra Slim, what I consider to be the ultimate watch for such evenings. It looks and feels like a very delicate coin on the wrist, and the dial—stark white and unadorned—is the very essence of discretion.
For those who feel that the Ultra Slim is just a bit too slight, there are other, more elaborate options, such as Girard-Perregaux’s 1966, Piaget’s Altiplano, Blancpain’s Villeret, and Patek Philippe’s Calatrava. All of these classic round watches share a pleasing sobriety of dial design—for example, the Roman numerals on the Villeret are pushed as far to the face’s edge as possible to create an even greater sense of cleanliness—and a low-profile case, although none is quite as anorexic as Vacheron’s Ultra Slim. And just as a man can have more than one dinner jacket (I rotate between a few double- and single-breasted velvets, one in bottle-green corduroy, and another in ivory silk), not all dress watches need to be round. For years I wore a midsize Franck Muller tonneau piece in pink-gold with a blue enamel dial, which I now alternate with the similarly sculpted L.U.C. from Chopard and a hexagonal sixties Vacheron that I bought at auction a few years ago. Privée, one of Cartier’s collections, is based on sketches from the company’s archives and has some excellent variations on the house’s timeless rectangular Tank, including the Tank Cintrée, a sort of elongated rectangle as imagined by Salvador Dalí, and the Tank Asymétrique, which takes the rectangle and sets it askew.
However, if you absolutely must wear your sport watch with your dinner jacket—perhaps you happen to be James Bond—at least show a concerted effort behind your choice and make sure the dial and bezel match your tux. A sixties ad for the Rolex Submariner was the first to make this suggestion: "How come it’s seen so much where the wettest thing around is a dry martini? Who knows. Maybe it’s because the black dial goes so well with a black tie." I might also suggest the classic Oyster Perpetual Day-Date by Rolex, done in 100 percent pure platinum—a perfect example of the kind of stealth wealth that works so well after dark.