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The Calatrava's Competition: The Best Traditional Dress Watches from High Horology Brands

February 17, 2023

The Patek Philippe Calatrava embodies the traditional ideal of a formal timepiece. Or does it? The label "dress watch" is often used liberally among brands and collectors alike, confusing the term's meaning. When you think of the Calatrava, the image that comes to mind is likely of a very simple round watch with small-seconds and applied indexes. Yet, the Calatrava has been produced in many variations over the years. While they all remain within the confines of the classic Calatrava case, many stray from the dressiness for which the model is known. For instance, the recently released 5226G with its luminescent hands and large Arabic numerals resembles a field watch far more than it does a formal timepiece. The fact of the matter is, the idea of a dress watch is different for everyone and is constantly changing, making the term hard to pin down. For the sake of simplicity, we'll keep some basic criteria in mind when considering traditional dress watches in the original Calatrava style.

  • Sizing: The case diameter must be 35 to 40 millimeters; even 40 millimeters is pushing it for a traditional style. A thickness of less than 10 millimeters ensures the case will easily fit under the cuff.
  • Case: The case should be circular and made of a precious metal. For the sake of comparison, I've selected rose gold as it is offered for all models discussed.
  • Dial: The dial should be a subdued tone like silver, beige, white, or black–we'll only look at watches with white or off-white dials. The dial should also have simple, applied hour markers and hands with no or minimal lume. Ideally, the dial would have a small seconds sub-dial or no seconds hand at all.

Several watches from high horology brands meet these criteria at fairly similar price points. We'll focus on the Patek Philippe Calatrava itself before examining some alternatives including the Vacheron Constantin Patrimony, the A. Lange & Söhne Saxonia, and the Jaeger-LeCoultre Master Ultra Thin Small Seconds.

The Patek Philippe Calatrava 6119R

traditional-images Following the Stern family's acquisition of Patek Philippe in 1932, Henri Stern designed the now iconic Calatrava Reference 96. At the time, wristwatches (as opposed to pocket watches) had only just taken off among men. The Reference 96 would solidify itself as a pioneer in this new market. The classic design is an exercise in ingenious minimalism. The iconic Calatrava case was innovative; at a time when lugs were often soldered to cases, the Calatrava's tapered, wrist-hugging lugs were integrated into a three-part case, laying the foundation for the modern case construction we've all come to know. The dial features only the essentials: applied hour markers, faceted dauphine hands, and a small-seconds sub-dial at six.

The Calatrava Collection, a staple of the Patek catalog, has always incorporated some variation of iconic Ref. 96 design. Later in the twentieth century, Patek introduced its signature "Clous de Paris" or "hobnail" bezel on several Calatrava references. The 6119R adapts this distinctive bezel and the classic design elements of the Ref. 96 for the modern day. A sapphire crystal caseback, itself a contemporary feature, allows the owner to view the pleasantly simple 30-255 PS caliber. The watch is also a wearable 39 millimeters in diameter, an excellent size for a modern dress watch. The additions of a silver grained dial finish and railroad minute track round out the design. However, I would be aware that the 6119R will fetch the greatest price out of all the watches on this list largely due to Patek's brand recognition and prestige.

The Vacheron Constantin Patrimony 81180/000R-9159

traditional-images While the Patrimony was only introduced in 2004, its history extends far further back in time. The minimal design takes inspiration from the Vacheron Constantin dress watches of the 1950s. The Patrimony is stylistically pure, featuring distinctive applied triangular hour markers at twelve, nine, six, and three, applied stick indexes for the remaining hours, and tasteful "dot" markers for the minutes. The round case and simple hands are slightly curved to suit the wrist and dial, respectively. Oddly, Vacheron has chosen to produce the Patrimony with small seconds in only 42 millimeters, a substantial size for a dress watch. The more wearable 40-millimeter 81180/000R-9159 pictured above distills timekeeping to the essentials even further than the other models in the collection, featuring hours and minutes alone. Most references within the Patrimony family are exceptionally thin. The 81180 is no different, boasting a thickness of only 6.79 millimeters thanks to the ultra-thin Caliber 1400. The movement also bears the Hallmark of Geneva, ensuring its quality.

Vacheron Constantin Traditionnelle 82172/000R-9382

The Traditionnelle could be described as the less famous sibling of the Patrimony. In comparison to its older brother, the Traditionnelle is immensely underappreciated. As its name suggests, the collection pays homage to the Vacheron's history of traditional craftsmanship dating back to its founding in 1755. The collection is marked by aesthetic elements which evoke twentieth-century watchmaking; dauphine hands, baton indexes, and a railroad minute track distinguish the dial, while a fluted caseback and stepping give character to an otherwise generic case shape. All in all, the Traditionnelle offers a unique, more detailed alternative to the minimalist Patrimony.

traditional-images The Traditionnelle 82172/000R-9382 strikes a balance between maintaining classical sizing and meeting modern demands with a diameter of 38 millimeters. The watch uses the 2.8-millimeter-thick Caliber 4400 AS, accommodating a slim profile of 7.77 millimeters. The movement also has a power reserve of 65 hours, equaling that of the 30-255 PS caliber in the 6119R. In both its looks and specifications, the 82172 can hold its own against the Calatrava. If you're lucky enough to consider buying the 6119R, consider the Traditionnelle first.

A. Lange & Söhne Saxonia 219.032

traditional-imagesThe A. Lange & Söhne Saxonia was among the first four Lange watches to be introduced by the brand in its 1994 revival. The minimalism of the original Saxonia laid the groundwork for later models within the collection; the elegant design featured the simple indexes and uncluttered dial which are now associated with the Saxonia name. In 2015, the current collection debuted. Despite the trend towards larger watches, the manual model was downsized from 37 millimeters to 35, only one millimeter larger than the original. This choice solidified the manually wound Saxonia's place as a purely traditional dress watch, while more complicated models could expand upon its minimal design.

traditional-images Like the other watches on the list, the Saxonia 219.032 maintains a thickness of only 7.3 millimeters. If that isn't enough, an even thinner version is available. Introduced in 2011, the Saxonia Thin is only 5.9 millimeters thick and can be found in 37-, 39-, and 40-millimeter sizes. The automatic variation, aptly named the Saxonia Automatic, has a case diameter of 38.5 millimeters while keeping a thickness of 7.8 millimeters.

Jaeger-LeCoultre Master Ultra Thin Small Seconds

Jaeger-LeCoultre's Master Ultra Thin Collection comes from a long tradition of making ultra-thin watches that began in the early 1900s. The origins of this practice are closely tied to the partnership which gave JLC the name we know today. In 1903, back when the company was only "Jaeger," Edmond Jaeger challenged Swiss watchmakers to create a very thin movement. Jacques LeCoultre accepted the challenge, making the 1.38-millimeter thick LeCoultre Caliber 145 by 1907. Today, this tradition manifests itself in the 8.1-millimeter-thick Master Ultra Thin Small Seconds. At 39 millimeters in diameter, the dress watch has modern proportions while keeping traditional aesthetics. The purity of its design pervades the piece, from the eggshell traditional-images beige dial with faceted applied hour indexes to the polished dot markers which denote the minutes. Like the hour markers, the dauphine hands are faceted. One facet is satin-brushed while the other is polished, giving the hands additional depth. The small seconds sub-dial is well considered; in addition to being recessed into the dial, an easily missed red index marks 60 seconds.

For a dress watch, the Master Ultra Thin Small Seconds is surprisingly practical. Unlike the other picks on the list, the Caliber 896 is automatic. Despite the height that comes from the addition of a rotor, the watch still maintains an impressive thinness. Perhaps more notable is the watch's water resistance to 50 meters when the standard for dress watches of this ilk is 30. Like every mechanical JLC watch, the Master Ultra Thin Small Seconds undergoes "1000 Hour Control" testing to ensure precision and durability in several conditions. While an outlier on this list due to its functionality, this watch has the same aesthetic appeal as the others, offering an excellent alternative for those who want the vintage charm of a traditional dress watch without the practical drawbacks.

A Direct Comparison of Specifications:
Watch / Specification Price (retail, USD) Case Diameter (mm) Case Thickness (mm) Power Reserve (hrs) Winding Hallmark / Seal?
Calatrava 6119R 30750 39 8.08 65 Manual Patek Philippe Seal
Patrimony 81180/000R-9159 20100 40 6.79 40 Manual Geneva Seal
Traditionnelle 82172/000R-9382 21600 38 7.77 65 Manual Geneva Seal
Master Ultra Thin Small Seconds 19400 39 8.1 43 Automatic "1,000 Hour Control," Quality Seal
Saxonia 219.032 19700 35 7.3 45 Manual n/a

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