Tell me you like smaller watches without telling me you like smaller watches: "I'm into vintage". The indirect conclusion here is that modern watches are way bigger then for example Mid-Century pieces. Let's take a deep dive into the quantitative history of case sizes and find out what all this has to do with branding and marketing and if we can learn something about todays trends. What drives the watch size distribution in the 2020s is still a matter of debate. Nevertheless, when we look back in 10 years or more my best guess will still be that it'll boil down to exactly this one thing: Marketing!
June 28, 2022
When Did Watches Start to Get So Big?
Marcus Siems @siemswatches
Collector, Author, Data Analyst
My Motivation: It's not always easy to put into words "why" I write about a certain topic but this time it is. The short story is "it has been requested in a YouTube" comment. The slightly longer story is that I always perceived size as a design detail that kinda splits the audience. For example, 38mm can be perceived as "too big" or "too small" and both views are typically advocated by vintage or modern watch lovers, respectively. But why is that such a dividing topic and why does size even matter? So I decided to put it to the (quantitative) test.
Tell me you like smaller watches without telling me you like smaller watches: "I'm more of a vintage fan". The indirect conclusion here is that modern watches are way bigger then for example Mid-Century pieces. But how come that your preference for certain designs comes with a case-diameter attached to it?
There has been a bit of a discussion on the topic already. Mark Cho held a presentation at the horological society of NY last year arguing that modern men even misperceive their own wrist-size as too small because watches seemingly go bigger and bigger.
Where we started ... small, beautiful, mechanical wonders. Photo @goldammer.me
It is hard to say what drives this trend really. Is size a symbol for masculinity*? Is it because certain brands like Panerai live the bigger is better lifestyle and made it popular? Or might there even be a technical necessity[2-3]**?
Whatever it might be, big watches are well accepted in our modern watch world. But is this only about modern pieces or do we actually see that historically sizes vary as well? Let's have a closer look then what other factors might be influencing watch sizes and the trends of the 20th Century.
Do you think it looks too small? I don't think it looks too small. Photo @goldammer.me
Before we dig further into the numbers let's have a bit of a historical background check on watch sizes. As we all know, before the wristwatch came the pocket watch. These pieces came in variable sizes from the mid 20mm to the 50mm+ range. Everything changed in 1904 when Alberto Santos Dumont ordered from his friend Louis Cartier the very first wrist-worn watch (for men) - dubbed the Cartier Santos[3-6].
In these very early days a watches' diameter was rarely exceeding 30mm. In the early days it was really about making wristwatches smaller. Think about it, wristwatches descended from relatively large pocket watches. To differentiate your brand, manufacturers started an arms race to build not only better but also smaller pieces. Case and watch size has at the very beginning been a symbol of optimization of this mechanical wonder we call a wristwatch.
In the 1930s/40s watches still had to be quite small. Yet automatic watches increase the difficulty of miniaturization as the rotor still had to sufficiently large to span the mainspring. Photo @goldammer.me
Size as a defining factor for technological prowess might actually be a central motive. If we look further ahead into the 1950s and 60s, tool watches are the next emerging trend. And with their utility come certain restrictions to how a case can be built. But before we get ahead of ourselves let's have a closer look at the data[7-8].
In the following plot the Top row shows the overview for all watches and years as a "heat map". Sizes more common within a year are brighter, less common darker. The Bottom shows the average size per year grouped for different watch types (military, sporty, dive-, chronograph, dress-, and dress casual watches) as well as the average.
Figure 1. Historic Distribution of Watch Sizes from 1940 - 2010. The Top shows the overview for all watches and years as a "heat map". Sizes more common within a year are brighter, less common darker. The Bottom shows the average size per year grouped for different watch types (military, sporty, dive-, chronograph, dress-, and dress casual watches) as well as the average.
But there is a lot of information to digest here. I would like describe what we see in the upcoming subsections. If we look close enough there is a lot we can learn about history from a simple measure like the case diameter.
1) Not all diameters are made equally
We do see that generally over the last 80 or so years case sizes tend to go up on average. But one interesting point is that this increase is not happening gradually over all possible diameter levels. There are case diameters that seem to be the norm, namely 34mm, 35mm, 36mm and 40mm. All of which are peaking at different times; in the late 1950s, mid 1940s, 1980s and during the late 20th Century, respectively.
The sweet spot for many - 36mm (35.5mm to be exact) and perfectly fitting into the late 1960s as this Heuer Carrera 3648 in yellow gold. Photo @goldammer.me
Case diameters from 37mm to 39mm are basically obsolete throughout the entire 20th Century even though they are in between two of the most common diameters. This speaks that certain archetypes of watches have set the standard for how big a case has to be, an unofficial norm if you want.
2) Tool watches just have to be bigger
I've suggested it before and here we see it in technicolor. Tool watches tend to be bigger than their dressier counterparts and that's for a reason. If you want a dive watch to be water-resistant to 100m, 200m, or even 300m+ you need to make the watch and as such also the case sturdier. Gaskets need to be fitted, the case construction needs to be adapted, the deeper you wanna go the more you have to reinforce the watch. On top, legibility - i.e. dial diameter - is another factor.
Well if you wanna go deep, you'll need some serious metal on your wrist. Photo @goldammer.me
Similarly, chronograph watches need to be slightly bigger as well as they simply need to fit more functionality - both complications as well as subsidiary dials. However, what cannot be explained by functionality is that chronograph (as well as diver-) sizes per se are still increasing over time.
3) Beyond complications - the Space Age
We see a very interesting trend between the mid 1960s until the late 1970s. Chronograph as well as dive watches dramatically increase in size - all in all by about ~5mm to their 1950s levels. And with the beginning of the 1980s they're down again by ~3mm. That's the first evidence we got that fashion can actually be the driving force behind the cases outlines. Not utility, not technological swagger.
Funky and chunky... the 1970s with their particularly robust tool watches like this Heuer chronograph with Panda dial. Photo @goldammer.me
The interesting fact here is that particularly the 1970s have been a time of freedom when it came to case design. Brands have been experimenting more and people have been lusting for chronographs with daredevil charisma. So going for all out sturdy and rugged pieces seems to fit the time perfectly.
4) Not all watches are getting bigger
As this story is about big watches we can easily forget about about smaller pieces. Historically, the smallest watches have always been dress watches, pieces meant to slip under cuff when wearing a suit. And funnily enough, as the rest of the world has been going for larger and larger pieces, dress watches have actually been slightly decreasing in size until they settled around 32mm to 33mm from the late 1960s on.
Where the world is still ok/small... Dress watches remain relatively small. Yet there exist a few tricks to make them appear larger through proportions - see for example here as the dial diameter is stretched all the way and the bezel is almost only an afterthought. Photo @goldammer.me
It seems the most classic design archetype is also the least influenced by fashion and trends - at least when we consider the case dimensions. But this is not too surprising as also dress watch design is meant to be rather simplistic. Why bother giving your watch a 44mm case if you only have 25mm time-only movement?
5) My attempt of a conclusion
If we combine all the information we have gathered so far we can see that watch sizes have not only been increasing the last couple of years but actually since the middle of the last Century. So far almost every bump, every change in the distribution can actually be explained by ... well ... marketing.
In the very early days, the best watch was the one that had the same functionality but needed less and less space. It was a showcase of technological marvels to built the smallest mechanical wonder.
Size is always relative, it's not only about diameter. The lugs can add substantial "perceived" size as in this beauty here. Photo @goldammer.me
This trend continued up until the 1950s when watches became new functionalities. There were now dive watches, sports watches and these sporty chronograph hybrids. The watches were coupled to rough environments - on the race track, the yacht, expeditions to the Mt. Everest and under the sea. And to endure the roughest of the rough the pieces had to not only be but also look powerful.
All this was went to peak during a time of space exploration and the beginnings of everyday adventures in the 1970s. With recreational diving, air travel and racing the brands went over and above what might have been necessary robustness.
It has a depth rating of 200m but still looks elegant - a grand hybrid. Photo @goldammer.me
It's nice to interpret all these factors in retrospect. It makes sense now but what actually drives the watch size distribution in the 2020s is still a matter of debate. Nevertheless, when we look back in 10 years or more my best guess will still be that it'll boil down to one thing: Marketing! It's not about necessity, rather about recognition and skill. Let's face it, 8-days of power-reserve isn't really something you "need", but still advertorials tell you that it's amazing to have.
* I'd argue strongly against the "masculinity" aspect. Women's watches are no longer exclusively petite. Iconic models as from Cartier for example are still rather small, but so are the men's counterparts. Additionally, most best-selling fashion-style watches for women (Fossil, Michael Kors, etc.) range far into the 40mm+ range - not what the typical watch enthusiast is looking for but what the average person might be interested in.
** There's an interesting side-note that longer power-reserves have become increasingly popular these days as well. However, you can't simply make a watch run for longer. To keep the timing accurate and the winding still manageable you would need to upgrade your mainspring-barrel (the part that holds the watches power-source/mainspring) or even add a second. In both cases this would also increase your movement size and subsequently your case-size.
 Ideal Watch Size: A Curious Case of Misperception and Missed Opportunity; Mark Cho, Horological Society New York;
 Long Power Reserve; Watch Wiki;
 Gent's Watch Sizes (Why Size is Irrelevant); Michal Kolwas, WahaWatches;
 A Brief History: The Cartier Santos; Wei Koh, Revolution;
 Cartier Santos: A Brief History; Tony, Rescapement;
 The History of the Wristwatch; Manuel Luetgens, WatchMaster;
 ~50,000 Watches from Chrono24, extracted 2020 Nov. 29th and Jan. 6th 2022; Karlsruhe, Germany;
 How To Become A Watch Analyst; Marcus Siems, Goldammer Vintage
 The Modern History of Watch Case Making; Marcus Siems, Goldammer Vintage
 Golden Age of the Chronograph - Case Design; Marcus Siems, Goldammer Vintage
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