Why We Still Love Tuxedo Dials

Why We Still Love Tuxedo Dials

Apart from wedding parties and prom dates, we have fewer and fewer occasions to wear black tie these days. But at least our wrists can still be dressed up. Here are a few of our favorites.

In the world of dress watches, the aptly named tuxedo dial design remains a classic because it’s très chic (that’s French for “totally bougie”). Tuxedo dials generally feature concentric circles of alternating dark and light colors, usually black and white. The stark contrast is reminiscent of the sophistication of a black-and-white tuxedo and oozes class. And today, with the persistent proliferation of everything steel and sport, the tuxedo dial offers a welcome contrast to the casual trend.

With the declining desire for formal attire, the advent of Casual Friday at the office, and the public’s insistence on wearing Juicy Couture pajamas on airplanes, the tuxedo dial has fewer adherents than it once did. That’s exactly why I love it.

The tuxedo dial’s DNA is directly tied to the earliest sector dial watches of the 1920s. The most basic definition of a sector dial watch is any watch with a dial featuring concentric circles that typically separate the minute track from the rest of the dial. It segments the dial into sections and offers a pleasing contrast to the eye.

collection of universal Geneva polerouters

The 1930s brought a design-conscious tidal wave known as the Art Deco movement or Arts Décoratifs (that’s French for “futuristic lines and stuff”). The Art Deco movement touched nearly every corner of fashion, architecture, and industrial design, including watches. It was a style that embraced modernity, technological innovation, rich colors, and bold geometry. This was in contrast to the prior Bauhaus movement, which was more dogmatic in its fanatical utilitarianism.

The next two decades saw many watch manufacturers create tuxedo dials for a public that readily lapped up nearly anything Art Deco. The tuxedo dial design became synonymous with class and formality. Some of the earliest examples of 1930s and 1940s tuxedo dial watches came from Omega, Lemania, and Marvin. However, the best was yet to come.

By the 1950s, WWII was over, and the world was getting back to business as usual. With that came three of the most well-known tuxedo dial watches: The Universal Genève Polerouter (née Polarouter), the LeCoultre Memovox Wrist Alarm Tuxedo, and the Tudor Oyster Prince Tuxedo. Each watch is different, but they’re all tied together by the sleek and classic design of the tuxedo dial.

I hardly have to repeat the lore of the Universal Genève Polerouter. Released in 1954, the Polarouter ref. 20214 (changed to “Polerouter” in later references) is widely considered Gérald Genta’s first masterpiece as a designer, and he was only 23 years old when he created it (we even called it a masterpiece back in 2021). Its gold outer track and black inner circle give the dial both dimension and texture, with the sharp dauphine hands the bow on the tuxedo. It’s James Bond in a tuxedo sipping a martini; it’s pure class.

jaeger-lecoultre memovox alarm tuxedo dial

A dressed-up  Lecoultre alarm watch. Image: Courtesy of Matthew Bain.

Before the Polerouter came the LeCoultre (pre-Jaeger) Memovox Wrist Alarm, a popular watch for those more excited by gadgets and technology. Its design and functionality played perfectly into the futurism sweeping the country in the mid-1950s. The first model featured gold-toned 12, 3, 6, and 9 Arabic numerals around the outside track and the Memovox alarm triangle that rotated in the center. It’s powered by the LeCoultre caliber 814 and uses an 18-karat gold case. It’s a more traditional aesthetic than the Polerouter, but still looks contemporary for the day, mainly because of the stark contrasting dial.

tudor oyster prince tuxedo dial

Tudor Oyster Prince “Tuxedo”

Finally, the pièce de résistance (that’s French for “top banana”) is the Tudor Oyster Prince Tuxedo. I’ll go out on a French-cuffed limb and say it’s the most stylishly versatile of the three, which is why it’s one of the most popular mid-century tuxedo dials. The design falls somewhere between the austere modernism of the Polerouter and the gilded traditionalism of the LeCoultre Wrist Alarm.

Unfortunately, the style’s popularity waned as the 1960s progressed and the concept of suburban conformity came under attack, yielding the idea of formal dress watches as passé (that’s French for “so last year!”) by the younger generation. Dress watches, like many other trappings of middle- and upper-class American life, became symbols of the dreaded establishment, no longer desired by the restless youthful masses.

However, we’re living in a new time, and classic, vintage-inspired design has now become its own form of rebellion for those who want to set themselves apart from the hordes of loyal basic steel sport watch devotees. Much the way it was once rebellious to shun tuxedo dials for sport watches, nowadays the opposite is true.

longings heritage tuxedo dial   longings heritage tuxedo chronograph

The best modern tuxedo dial comes from a brand that seems to have perfected the subtle art of heritage mining: the Longines Heritage Classic Tuxedo Small Seconds and the Longines Heritage Classic Chronograph Tuxedo, both based on references from Longines’ historical vault. Each model is almost identical to its inspiration, offering two of the most classically beautiful dials of any modern heritage models. These two stunners harken back to the days of rowdy jazz clubs and strong martinis, and they offer a classic style in a modern package. For my money, these two models offer everything you could want in a vintage-inspired tuxedo dial watch.

vintage longines tuxedo dial

A little vintage inspiration for those modern tuxedo dials from Longines

While there are a few other notable modern tuxedo dial watches such as the Cartier Roadster Tuxedo Dial and the Rolex Datejust “Tuxedo,” Longines has done the best job at capturing the original magic of the classic tuxedo dial look and reworking it in a modern package.

The beauty of this kind of classic design is that regardless of the societal views of formality, the design itself is universal. Our eyes are drawn to contrast, and that’s exactly what the tuxedo dial is all about. Whether it’s the contrast of the colors on the dial, or the contrast of a dressed-up person in a casual world, the watch reflects the wearer. As humans, we are all walking contradictions. Just like the enjoyment of a tuxedo dial, embracing our own contradictions is what often gives us the joie de vivre in our daily lives, and that’s French for beauty.

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