Ever since I went down the rabbit hole of watch collecting, a few years ago, one thing has always bothered me. Why are modern watches so damn large? Why do men walk about with watches the size of a small plate on their wrists? Why do they not care that their watches are pretty much hanging off their wrists? Now this is a problem that watch enthusiasts the world over are waking up to. But I feel this is more of an acute issue in India.
Let’s face it, normal Indian wrists are mostly on the smaller end of the size spectrum, say about 6.75 inches or below. Smaller, more compact watches, with a case diameter of 36mm-40mm just work better. I mean, this is a country where generations of men have worn HMT watches that were never larger than 37mm, and have looked pretty good doing so. Then why wear a 45mm monstrosity with overhanging lugs, especially when you’re paying a pretty penny and investing in an expensive watch?
Over the past decade, one of the big changes in the watch market has been the rising popularity of vintage and pre-owned watches. The province of a relatively few dedicated collectors not so long ago, it’s fair to say that the market is booming. In 2021, the management consulting firm McKinsey estimated that pre-owned watch sales had hit $18 billion in 2019, while forecasting the market to grow to over $30 billion by 2025. This has been reflected in changing tastes for wristwatch sizes as well, with buyers, especially men, realizing that bigger doesn’t always mean better.
This is also a testament to the durability of mechanical watches. With timely servicing and proper care, a mechanical watch can last for decades, sometimes well up to a century. While, say, a Rolex Submariner manufactured in 1962 can’t hold a candle to one manufactured in 2022 in terms of materials used, or robustness, a watch that was designed to withstand the elements 60 years ago, can continue to do so even now. And keep running on time, and look better on the wrist than modern, larger watches.
But first, let’s start with a bit of history. When did watches begin to get so obscenely large? If you go through past catalogues of most major watch brands, you’d see that well up to the 1990s, watch sizes had been constant. This meant anywhere between 32-37mm for dress watches and 36-39mm for most sports watches, with only dive watches going over the 40mm mark on a regular basis. Now, for dive watches, and sports watches in general, given their profoundly tool-ish qualities, larger watch cases made sense. They perform a function, in rough outdoor environments, where legibility of the dial and water resistance reign supreme. Throw in a rotating timing bezel, as well as the need to resist high atmospheric pressures, or extreme temperatures, and a large, robustly made watch case makes sense.
However, the curious case of the expanding watch case kept getting curiouser over the 1990s and the early 2000s, till it suddenly seemed that, more often than not, dress watches for men were coming in at 41mm, while dive watches regularly hit the 45-48mm mark. Watch enthusiasts often jokingly call this the “Panerai effect”, with the luxury manufacture’s iconic and increasingly super-sized Luminor dive watches rocking up on the beefy wrists of dudes like Sylvester Stallone (he once wore a 60mm Panerai L’Egiziano PAM341). But it wouldn’t be fair to single out Panerai. This was also a time when Arnold Schwarzenegger was wearing giant Audemars Piguet Offshores or Tom Cruise was wearing a huge U-Boat watch.
A pattern begins to emerge here : a fetishisation of masculinity, and the concomitant credo of bigger being better. I also think that as watches became less of an everyday wear, the act of wearing a watch became a statement, and statements tend to get big. If in the 1960s you’d want to discreetly tuck in your watch under a cuff, in the 2000s, your watch needed to scream from the top of the mountain.
Thankfully, this couldn’t last, and with a renewed interest in all things vintage, we seem to be coming back to older, more sensible watch sizing. A 32mm size for a classic men’s dress watch of yore may be a step too far for modern egos. But watch sizes generally seem to be returning to 34-38mm for dress watches and 36-40mm for sports watches, including dive watches. Nostalgia for mid-century designs have meant that watch manufactures are either reissuing their classic designs from the 1950s, 60s and 70s (for example, Grand Seiko, Vacheron Constantin, IWC, Zenith), or new microwatch/boutique watch brands (like Baltic, Lorier), or taking design cues from decades past to create beautiful, case-perfect pieces. Watch sizes are also becoming gender-neutral.
I, for one, am all for watch cases opting for elegance. It’s difficult to describe, but it all comes down to proportions. Human beings are rational creatures who crave order and symmetry in their tools, especially when it comes to a tool that they’d wear on their wrists. On my 6.5 inch wrist, a watch that measures 38mm across, with a lug-to-lug distance of 44mm, and a lug width of 20mm, just hits that Goldilocks spot. I could happily go down to 34mm and up to 40mm, but that’s where I’d stop, because beyond that, it just wouldn’t look good.
Handwound is a column on watches and watchmaking.