One of my favorite era of watchmaking are the 1940s and 1950s. A period that's been dominated by subtle timepieces and clear design of three-hand dials. Yet, simplistic elegance and subtle design does not at all mean dull or boring! It's a period in which variety and creativity in watchmaking are at a peak and brands, case makers and suppliers are experimenting with each and every detail.
April 25, 2023
Dress Watch Design - from 1940 to 1960
Marcus Siems @siemswatches
Collector, Author, Data Analyst
A Personal Favorite Sometimes you got these topics that simply are at the bottom of your heart. For many dress watches might not appear like much... They're simple, composed, and elegant timepieces, nothing too flashy. Well, yet these - one the first glance - basic designs can actually easily draw you into a rabbit hole of complex interactions of design elements and how seemingly minuscule changes can completely alter the overall appearance and vibe of the watch. And for me the variety of the minimalism of the Mid-Century era (1940-60) - the clash of late Artdeco with Bauhaus - is the pinnacle of dress watch design.
Some people like their watches flashy - like in the 1980s and 90s. Some prefer the steel-sports vibe of the 1960s and 70s. But one of my personal favorites is the timeless elegance of the 1940s and 1950s. An era that's been dominated by subtle timepieces and clear design on three-hand dials.
Yet, simplistic elegance and subtle design does not at all mean dull or boring! It's a period in which variety and creativity in watchmaking are at a peak. And brands, case makers and suppliers are experimenting with each and every detail of the supposedly most straight-forward genre - dress watches. But does dress watch equal dress watch?
I guess you can't speak about the dress watch evolution of the mid-20th Century and it's variety without mentioning Vacheron Constantin. A "Holy Trinity" member that came up with so many distinguishing designs and markedly shaped the appeal of the wristwatch then and today. Photo @goldammer.me.
Let's put this to the test and see what dress watches looked like back then and what made them special. I analyzed data from over 6000 watches listed on Chrono24 to see how the concept of subtle elegance was approached in the mid-20th Century and how this might differ from today.
Summarizing a few of the results we find that white dials (>70%) with three hands (78%), in round (89%) and golden cases (54%) dominate the picture. For those elements we find a time invariant monopole. But there are also several design elements that show a lot more variance and can help us better understand this era, its history and where our modern tastes might originate from.
1) Watch Size
We'll work our way from the outside to the inside of the watches front. So the first stop is a heat-map of dress watch sizes split up by year of production.
Figure 1. Distribution of Dress Watch Sizes between 1940-1960. Left shows the popularity per year as a heat-map (brighter colors indicate more popular sizes). The right indicates the mean popularity per diameter over the era.
First of all we observe that the 35mm watch diameter is the clear favorite all throughout the era. Almost 20% of all timepieces came in 35mm. However, we also see an interesting distinction between the 1940s and 50s. In the 1940s the watch diameter has been a lot more varied: Both "oversized" (37mm+) as well as smaller pieces (33mm and below) were a lot more common particularly in the late 1940s as they've been in the 1950s.
Another reason for variety size-wise: shaped watches. During the Artdeco epoch rectangular and tonneau shaped watches were quite hip and of course had a smaller extent left-to-right. As you can see here on this beautiful Patek Philippe ref. 1442. Photo @goldammer.me.
This also means that my predicted heterogeneity of style during the 1950s doesn't show in a watches' diameter. Yet, there's a lot more we can lay our eyes upon. So what about watch numerals?
2) Numeral Layout
The numerals on a watch face come classically in Roman, Arabic or Breguet numerals and comprise the least abstract way of indicating the passing minutes and hours on the dial. I speak of numeral layout as not necessarily all hours might actually feature a number of any sort. Sometimes you might come across numerals only for every even number; at 3-6-9-12 so the quarter hours; or sometimes only at certain positions, particularly only at 12.
Figure 2. Distribution of the 5 most popular Numeral Layouts for Dress Watches between 1940 - 1960 (Left) and the overall popularity over that span (Right).
During the era from 1940 to 1960 we see that the numeral layout on watches go through a transition from full numerals in 1942 to none by the end of the 1950s. In other words, it was a transition from a very direct to a very abstract display of time. And in between - from 1945 to 1955 - we see a lot of variations come up.
A little under 60% of watches of the time featured either full or no numerals. Meaning that about 40% displayed a non-classic layout. The most prominent "alternative" have been quarterly numerals (20%), which we might be most familiar with through vintage Omega or Jaeger-LeCoultre timepieces. But we also see even (9%) and singular-12 (6%) layouts to be quite popular. Both of them peaking in the late 1940s.
The quarter-hour numeral layout is one that's been particularly popular during the early 1950s with almost 30% market share. Most commonly we can find this layout on Omega and Jaeger-LeCoultre watches of the time (as shown here). Photo @goldammer.me.
3) Hour Marker
As numerals may be the most direct way to indicate the hour on the dial what other options do we see? Functionally, to display the hourly progress any form or shape arranged with a 30 degree difference over the full circle can do the trick. And indeed there are multiple ways to do so and probably also many more that you might be aware of when only looking at modern watches. So what have been the Top5 most popular choices in Mid-Century dress watches?
Figure 3. Distribution of the 5 most popular Hour Marker in Dress Watches between 1940 - 1960 (Left) and the overall popularity over that span (Right).
Full numerals are the most common choice during the early 1940s... a potential result of the War and a finding we've covered this in the last section already. But as we transition away from full numeral layouts we see several distinct trends coming up:
Circular or point markers are first peaking around 1946 (19% maximum share). A good 4 years later - around 1950 - Dagger markers become a thing and even the most popular choice in the late 1940s (33% max. share). The least favorite out of our Top5 are arrow markers (overall 5% popularity, 10% max. share), yet they're an interesting and extravagant choice during the late 1950s. Finally, during all of the 1950s the classic stick markers take over and become the by far most common marker style on any dial (71% max. share).
There's so much to a special hour marker design. It can and will underline every aspect of your dial. Here, on a stunning 1950s Longines Conquest the complex arrow or trapezoid hour markers are like a silvery sail to cruise the dark ocean of this dial. They add depth and light to an otherwise overlooked functionality. Photo @goldammer.me.
4) Watch Hands
And lastly, we can take a closer look at what originates from the very center of the dial - the hands. The only parts that visibly move around the dial come in quite a few variants as well and are even today still a much talked about detail in watchmaking.
Figure 4. Distribution of the 5 most popular Hand Sets in Dress Watches between 1940 - 1960 (Left) and the overall popularity over that span (Right).
Out Top5 dress watch hands are: Baton, Dauphine, Alpha, Leaf and Sword... quite a few styles that couldn't be more different if you ask me. In total we find three distinct waves of hand set trends.
The baton is the most simplistic design as it is solely a line, rarely faceted, the most basic hand to move around the center pinion. Yet, it is the clear favorite of the early 1940s peaking in 1941 with 35% max. market share. It is also a style that keeps quite common in dress watches all throughout the last Century. Additionally, slightly less popular but overlapping in time we see Sword hands peaking at around 12% max. share.
The early 1940s classic hand set - the Baton - a slim and subtle interpretation of the moving time indicator. Wonderfully implemented in this 1940s IWC caliber 89 dress watch with stepped case and teardrop lugs. Photo @goldammer.me.
The next trend of the mid- to late 1940s are leaf hands (38% max. share). Quite the opposite to the Baton as the Leafs are a more organic shape with playful late Artdeco influence - appearing as almost Art Nouveau. The next transition goes again back to stronger geometric shapes: During the 1950s it's all about faceted and mainly triangular hands in the style of Dauphine and Alpha. The Dauphine is the clear favorite with 59% max. market share in the late 1950s. But the Alpha hands give a quite similar vibe and also peak after 1955 at around 15% market share.
5) Conclusion - The Evolution
We've seen the numbers now but what does all of this tell us about the watches and their style? I'd argue that there exist at least three distinguishable periods of dress watches in the Mid-Century era alone. And to chronologically name them I would propose: The Factual, the Playful & the Technical.
The Evolution of dress watches from the early 1940s to the late 1950s by representative examples. On the left a full numeral, Baton handed beauty from Vacheron Constantin (cal. V454 - from the 1950s but early 1940s in spirit). In the middle an oversized 1946 IWC cal. 88 with quarter numerals, circular markers and Leaf hands. On the right a 1960 Omega Constellation 14393 with central railroad track, Dauphine hands, stick markers and without numerals. Photo @goldammer.me.
I can define these periods best by the clear trends in hand and marker design but also the variability of design elements within each epoch. First, during the Factual epoch of the early 1940s takes watch design still very literal. Watchmakers take people by the hand and dial design is meant to best improve legibility without abstraction. Thus, we find full numeral dials that avoid any mental calculation and matter-of-factly slim baton hands.
The second epoch of the late 1940s stands out as very experimental - hence the Playful. Hands, indeces, numerals as well sizes are a lot more variable than we can observe before or after this five year period. Design was freed up and conventions were broken - Shaking off the chains of Wartime production. Unconventionality, non-conformity and mixtures of key elements became the new normal. And all of this within the very "limited" framework that we today call dress watches.
A testimonial to the creativity of the late 1940s and early 1950s. A stunning example of a Doxa (Greek for "glory") dress watch from around 1950 with circular and dagger indeces, a single-12 numeral and Leaf hands in yellow gold. Photo @goldammer.me.
And last but not least we can see that the phase of extreme experimentation comes to a close with the beginning of the 1950s - the Technical. The watches originating in that era show a stronger technical focus. During that decade Omega introduced their Constellation and Rolex almost their complete professional lineup. Technical standards evolved and watches increasingly became precision instruments rather than everyday accessories. And this trend translates to the most common design elements: Dauphine hands, stick markers and an emphasized seconds track emit a (back then) very futuristic vibe.
Yet, it appears almost random how quickly the tables turned and the Playful era - with a completely different design approach - was left behind in favor of the Technical. Today we'd say watchmakers rebranded the image of the dress watch and elevated it to something beyond a mere time-telling device. Like everything sounds more reassuring when you back it up with some stats... (got me!)
Remeber when Rolex introduced a professional watch to withstand 1000 Gauss magnetic fields and to show off how progressive it was added a lightning bolt as seconds hand? That's when watches became geeky and technical specs a true conversation starter... Photo - Rolex 6541 from 1958 - Courtesy of MLG April 2023.
This professionalism is the root of our modern sports and dress casual watches. But did this lead design into a rather narrow niche? Did people forget how to emancipate the different aspects of watch design? (What about lugs, people?!) Right before everything became a matter of accuracy it was about style and composition. We probably see this push and pull between these two aspects of watchmaking still today.
Just a few years ago all you heard about the vintage watch market was about Rolex steel sports models. Then it shifted towards the "design" steel sports models aka the Royal Oak and the Nautilus. Now even stronger design oriented brands like Cartier, Piaget and Chopard making a bit of a comeback, too. The question is: When will this translate into new releases again? Until then you'll find me looking up photos of Mid-Century dress watches...
 Watches from Chrono24, extracted 2020 Nov. 29th & 2022 Jan. 6th; Karlsruhe, Germany;
 When Did Watches Start to Get So Big?; Marcus Siems, Goldammer Vintage Watches;
 A Watch Guide to Numerals - Types, Layouts & Evolutions; Marcus Siems, Goldammer Vintage Watches;
 The Ultimate Watch Hour Marker Guide; Marcus Siems, Goldammer Vintage Watches;
 The Ultimate Watch Hand Guide; Marcus Siems, Goldammer Vintage Watches;
All Rights on the text and graphics reserved to the Author.