BLOOMBERG – Ever since the wristwatch was invented, its makers have grappled with the question of how big it should be. Thick as a hockey puck or puny as a nickel? At the moment, watchmakers are leaning into the latter, a trend that crescendoed last month at Watches and Wonders, the annual luxury watch fair in Geneva. Over a dozen brands welcomed new product lines in small sizes – or welcomed reduced versions of existing popular models.
Like hemlines, watch proportions wax and wane in cycles. For men they started out big, since the first ones were pocket watches with straps attached to them. Louis Cartier made an early version in 1911 for his friend, aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont, who was tired of having to yank out his pocket watch to navigate while in flight. It wasn’t long before it dawned on watchmakers that an enormous timepiece on the wrist was unwieldy and unnecessary, so they began to reinvent movements on a smaller scale.
Beginning in the late 1940s and continuing through the ‘50s and ‘60s, watches settled in at around the 35- to 38-millimetre (mm)-diameter mark, and those constitute the bulk of the most sought-after vintage designs of today. Sometime around the late 1990s, just as mechanical watches were emerging from the quartz crisis and experiencing the early stages of a multibillion-dollar recovery, they started to get big again.
It was a transformation initially driven by the popularity of the chronograph, which required a large canvas to display its counters and a thick case to ensure the water resistance expected of a sports watch. It became a fashion trend, and even quartz watches were turning out beasts as big as Panerai Luminors, which average about 45mm and frequently reach 47mm.
Pilot’s watches and chronographs also set a standard for big and bulky: The IWC Ingenieur Chronograph maxed out at 45mm, as did Zenith’s Pilot model, even the non-chronograph variety. Diesel, a quartz fashion brand, made a chronograph in 2013 with a 76mm case.
There was really nowhere to go from there but back down. When auction house Phillips in Association With Bacs & Russo sold Paul Newman’s 1964-made Rolex Daytona ref. 6239 for a record USD17.7 million in 2017, it set off a vintage obsession that’s yet to subside. That one, at 37mm, made smaller watches cool again.
Scaled-down watches have since become mainstream. A slew of vintage revivals were introduced at Watches and Wonders, in diameters ranging from 32mm to 40mm. TAG Heuer’s Glass Box Carrera Chronograph, for example, is now 39mm. It was inspired stylistically by original Carreras from the ‘60s, which ranged from 36mm at the beginning to 40mm for more recent models.
Similarly, Tudor unveiled a Black Bay 54 diver’s watch with elements from the 1954 original, including its 37mm size. (For a time in recent decades, a watch that size would’ve appeared on the “Ladies” page of a watchmaker’s website – but the original Black Bay dive watch, in that size, was used by the French and United States navies in the ‘60s and ‘70s.) Chopard’s 36.5mm LUC 1860 is modeled after an original 1997 timepiece. And the 1980s cult favourite Cartier Pasha was introduced in a 35mm version this year.
IWC honoured its Ingenieur line this year, reissuing the one created by design maestro Gerald Genta in 1976, in its original 40mm size – a watch that was considered so big at the time, it was nicknamed the Jumbo.
Piaget just introduced a 36mm “unisex” version of its Polo Date, down from the standard 42mm. A press release touted that it was meant to “encapsulate today’s mood”.
Even pilot’s watches, which are characteristically big to be as readable as possible, are coming down in size. Zenith introduced one in 40mm this year.
New models are also shrinking, and that has to do with fashion. The Hublot Big Bang? Not so big anymore. The brand’s flagship collection that helped start the big-watch trend in the 1990s topped out at 45mm. A new version of the Spirit of Big Bang premiered this year in 32mm, and it’s not billed as a ladies’ piece.
Panerai, another brand known for its ample proportions, released a Radiomir Quaranta (Italian for “40”) in 40mm this year. For some brands, reducing a watch to 40mm means little more than coming down from 41mm or 42mm. Panerai’s average size is 45mm, and it routinely makes 47mm watches.
“We are the world leader in big watches, but the Radiomir Quaranta is a new classic for Panerai, one that both women and men can wear,” said Chief Executive Officer Jean-Marc Pontroué. “Last year we launched the Luminor Quaranta (40mm), and it was a great success. We found that 60 per cent of buyers were men, and 40 per cent ladies, which we were not expecting.”
Chairman of preowned-watch giant WatchBox Danny Govberg said a new wave of collectors is partly behind the shift. “It isn’t just a love of vintage,” he said. “It’s driven by the next generation of buyers. People like my son want a watch that’s more wearable than what my generation is used to.”
It’s a preference that’s infused current designs with a new sense of gender neutrality, to the point where some brands have abandoned the tradition of categorising watches on their websites and in catalogues as either women’s or men’s. Searches can instead be done according to size, materials and style.
“We’re seeing more unisex watches and smaller sizes,” said WatchBox CEO Justin Reis. “You see it with Cartier, the smaller Tanks and Pashas, the popularity of the Crash. We’ve seen it with Audemars Piguet and its larger rollout of 37mm and 39mm Royal Oak models this year, which were previously 44mm and larger.”
Men are wearing what used to be defined as ladies’ watches, he said, a distinction that was often only about size. “They want something more elegant, more refined,” Reis said. “Which doesn’t mean they want something lightweight in terms of substance. They still want complications, they just want them to be smaller.”
“When we did our 36mm automatic Tonda PF last year, it was meant originally for ladies, but a lot of men were looking for that size, especially collectors,” said Parmigiani Fleurier CEO Guido Terreni. “By the same token, a lot of women have become interested in our 40mm watches.”
Among Parmigiani collectors, Terreni has noticed a preference for smaller cases. “I don’t think a big statement in boldness is considered very refined anymore,” he said.