Johnny Cash was known for many things. He was the primal American folk singer, a devoutly religious outsider and a hard-drinking soul who got hooked on painkillers after being attacked by an ostrich. But Cash was also “The Man in Black”, a colour he wore as a symbolic protest against social injustice and a gesture of solidarity “for the poor and the beaten down / Livin’ in the hungry, hopeless side of town”. Except that, let’s face it, Cash also wore black because it looked totally badass.
He’s hardly the only one either. From Darth Vader to Karl Lagerfeld, the gangsters of Reservoir Dogs to the members of Kiss, many have gravitated to the dark side of the palette. That’s largely because black is a colour that’s become supercharged with renegade swagger. Traditionally, it has powerful connotations – in Greek legend, the god of the underworld, Hades, ruled from a black ebony throne, while in Renaissance Europe, black was associated with status because achieving a strong version of the dye was so labour-intensive. Black is edged with danger and mystery, too: during the 1000s, black creatures like ravens and cats were seen as evil and credited with supernatural powers.
Want some of that for your wrist? Of course you do. And, in fact, a black watch makes sense for a bunch of highly practical reasons. Firstly, black is a supremely wearable colour and a watch of this hue will offer the versatility to sync up with practically anything in your wardrobe, from casual wear to something more formal.
Black watches aren’t just playing the tough-guy role either. They have a genuinely rugged lineage to uphold. During World War II, the British Ministry of Defence wanted to place an order for custom-built wristwatches for their soldiers. The watches needed to be accurate, durable, waterproof and shockproof with luminous hands and hour markers, plus a stainless-steel case. The specified dial colour, meanwhile, had to be black, because white text against a black background was deemed to be the most legible. Twelve companies would fulfill the MoD’s brief, with Buren, Cyma, Eterna, Grana, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Lemania, Longines, IWC, Omega, Record, Timor and Vertex combining to produce almost 150,000 watches between them. The 12 watches created for WWII would later become known as “the Dirty Dozen”.
Today, that functional heritage has continued. Many black watches make use of materials like ceramic and carbon fibre to keep them lightweight and resilient, while special finishes like PVD or DLC (diamond-like carbon) are used for both protective and aesthetic reasons. The upshot is that whether you just want a simple black dial or a fully murdered-out watch, your choices are now greater than ever. For watches, it’s not a case of back in black; this is a colour that never went away.
IWC Big Pilot’s Watch 43 Top Gun $15,400
Tudor Black Bay Ceramic $6590
Longines Hydro Conquest $2575