What distinction can you make between a formal watch (Cartier, Vacheron) and a casual watch (Seiko, Rolex)?

The distinction between models (not brands – brands have very different  models in their lineup) is quite subtle, if you ask me. And I have  seen quite a lot of watch models and collections. So, what happened is  that in time, the watches evolved so to match their intended use.

The Daytona is expensive, but not a formal watch

So, watches had to specialize along these functions, and along the context where they would have to be worn.
Until quite recently, and I mean the Seventies, the distinction was pretty clear. Gold watches were for dressy events; steel watches were for everyday life and business; diver and other kind watches were informal, and so, strictly for leisure. Remember that a JLC Reverso was considered a sporty watch.
Then,  there came the Seventies, the genius of Gerald Genta, and the  introduction of the Royal Oak and the Nautilus, and the world of watches  literally went crazy. One of the first headlines for the Patek Philippe Nautilus was like “There is a steel watch that is costly as gold ones”,  and people raced to buy it, after an initial skepticism.
The creation of the “luxury sports” category meant that the traditional  categories were no longer valid, or better, no longer binding. You would find breaches of etiquette in formal occasions that would have sent Lord Brummel wailing in the night.
So,  what you are finding today is a very complex system made of models  displaying various shades of dressy-ness, if I can use this term. And I  will make some examples.

Lange und Sohne Saxonia

How dressy is dressy?

Take Lange und Sohne for example, a company that lies among the manufacturers of uber-dressy watches, like the Saxonia that you can see on here. As you can readily notice, it is very similar to  the Patek Philippe Calatrava, the prototype of the dress watch if there is one.  Now compare it with a Lange One.

Lange und Sohne Lange One

Do  you find it more or less dressy? Actually, the One is a little bit less  formal than the Saxonia (even if it is way more expensive).

Now let’s take a look at another timepiece. It is another Saxonia (precisely, a Saxonia Small Seconds Big Date), but it is a bit different from the one on top.
This Saxonia looks way more sporty than the first Saxonia, and also from the Lange One . But you see the metal? This could be either steel or white gold or platinum – we cannot be sure.  That would complicate matters enormously as for the value and the social  occasions where to wear this timepiece.
So, this longish discussion is taking up to the point where it becomes quite difficult to make a definite list about what is formal and what is not. It is not a black and white issue. It is more along a scale of grey.
The same feature could be valued differently if placed in two  different contexts.

VIPs and watch wearing

As  such, we can see that VIPs make huge breaches of etiquette when using  watches. And I am not saying that these wrongdoings come from “nouveau riches,” who have no idea. I am  saying from people who have had a very formal upbringing.

Prince William and his Omega Seamaster

Look at what Prince William is wearing. A steel Omega with a steel bracelet AND a suit in a formal occasion?
That would be really off for you and me – but HE is the Prince Royal, so he can. More, the watch was a gift from his mother, Princess Diana. So, he can. You, better not.
Let’s recap things a little bit. What I am writing should not be  taken as a 100% tried and true watch etiquette, because it isn’t one. It  is a very rough-and-tough guide to avoid big social blunders, and blend  seamlessly in every crowd of watch digerati. It is conservative, mind  you – so it exceeds on the way of caution. Your mileage may vary.
There are mostly three kind of activities: leisure, business and formal.
Let’s examine the rules that apply to them.

Leisure – Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law

In  leisure activities, you can wear whatever you want. It is your wrist,  and your activity. So you can wear a FitBit, a Swatch, a G-Shock or  anything else with abandon.
Nobody would say anything to you about that.  In leisure, the watch you wear will probably be closely linked to your  activity: so, if you are a diver, you would be wearing a diver watch,  while if you are going to a sports event (or cooking spaghetti), you  might enjoy wearing a chronograph.

Kevin O’Leary

Business is business, baby

When  you take a watch into a meeting room, you are starting to put other elements in the mix. That is, you are going to be evaluated for what you show. The  people watching you from the other side of the table are going to paint  an impression of you through your look. And a watch (or its lack) is an important part  of any look.
If  we ask to business professionals, they quite agree that a watch is a  good way to establish a character, a style. And they employ this tactic  routinely. For example, someone like Kevin O’Leary has a “quirk”: almost  all of his watches have a red band. He also wears other red accents on  him at all times. This is part of the style he wants to broadcast, and  that defines him globally.
Quite  simply, when you are dressing for business, a watch becomes a specific  tool. Use it to impress, so wear what is most effective to this end. And  to do so, you need to know it in advance, by studying your “opponent”.  This means that there are no holds barred.
You  might wear a flashy gold Rolex, or resort to a playfyul plastic Swatch,  if the latter is better for your overall plan and the image you want to  get through. It is up to you and your goal, not to cumbersome social  rules.

Formal is different than business

When  you are in business, you may use pretty much whatever you want, if it  suits your character, lifestyle, and goal. But when you are doing things  formally, you should not. A formal event has different “levels”, so to  say.
 
1 – formal  dress means at least a two-piece suit, with matching jacket and  trousers. This level goes up to the tuxedo. The right watch for this  kind of event is a gold watch, as simple as it can be. If you do not  have a gold dress watch, a gold-plated dress watch would do. Prefer  white dials over dark ones, and avoid bracelets if possible – a gold  bracelet, especially if cumbersome-looking, would be considered boorish. The  wristband should be dark, possibly black: the brown one you see on the  Saxonia on top would not be totally fitting.
2  – in case of black or white tie events, that is, a level more formal than the tuxedo, man’s suits are composed of three pieces, including the waistcoat. The waistcoat has some little pockets.
You should put a yellow gold pocket watch into one of them. The pocket watch has to be  secured on a gold chain, linking the watch to the waistcoat. As usual, if you don’t have a gold watch, a gold-plated one would do – but if you are invited to a black-tie event, well, you most probably have the means of owning a gold pocket watch.
3  – you have an opportunity here, however. A vintage/antique watch is considered to enjoy  a “free pass” over the social etiquette in watches. This means that you  could breach the standard rules if you are wearing something that is  obviously vintage, and probably has some serious significance for you, like Prince William does.
Remember that you got to have the knowledge about what you are wearing,  though, because people at the event are going to comment about your watch and  ask questions. If you cannot justify why you are wearing a vintage timepiece, nor you have an idea about horology, you would be written off as a fool.

You can find much more about horology and its fascinating history in The Watch Manual, a thorough e-book that explains all the basics about watchmaking and its protagonists.

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