What’s The Deal With Big Watch Sizes? The Large Timepiece Explained
Why are watches today so big? That is a question we at aBlogtoWatch get asked a lot - and it is a typical source of conversation (and contention) among people who like watches. It is true that wrist watches today are larger than they have been historically, but perhaps not as large as they were a few years ago. What we are talking about is mostly the diameter of a watch case (usually measured in millimeters) and to an extent the thickness of a case.
How do you define a "big watch?" There is no specific size at which a watch becomes "big" or "massive" or "small." Though, I will say that people started commenting on large watch sizes when timepieces measuring 44mm wide from companies such as Panerai and others started to become popular in the early 2000s and, to a degree, the late 1990s.
In the 1990s, the typical size for a men's watch was in the 37-39mm wide range. A few years later that size went up to 41-44mm, and by the mid 2000s it was common to see watches sized from 45-48mm wide (and even larger). Historically men's watches were perhaps 35-37mm wide, though in the 1970s we did see a lot of larger men's sport watches. It is true that over time there has been a gradual trend to increase the size of men's watches, but starting in the early 2000s, that trend rapidly accelerated.
Even though many of the aBlogtoWatch writers are fans of large timepieces the purpose of this article isn't to defend them or convince you to wear one. Our goal is to explain the reasons why timepieces for both men and women have become larger, and help consumers feel comfortable with the watch sizes that they prefer.
The Big Issue
Watch lovers literally argue about the "proper" watch size. People who like comparatively larger watches say that smaller-sized watches look like timepieces for women or boys, and people who prefer smaller-sized watches complain that large watches look silly or indicate that the wearer is trying to compensate for something. The bottom line is that members of each faction are literally insulting one another on a regular basis in an on-going debate. That is how passionate people are about this topic.
The watch industry often uses the term "oversize" to indicate that a watch they are producing is larger than "average." While there is no "average size" any longer, they are referring to the size of their watch in comparison to traditional sizes of 40mm wide and under. We won't use the word oversize because we don't like the term oversize. aBlogtoWatch fans have heard me complain about this before, but the term literally means "too big." If it is too big, you can't wear it. Thus, an oversize watch is a watch too large to wear - and logically speaking, you can't actually refer to a watch you are wearing as oversize if it actually fits. So, if you see this term being used, you know what it means, and now you know why we won't be using it ourselves.
Large watches are a big issue because they make it difficult for people to wear "traditionally sized" watches. Often times "larger watches" are also called "modernly size" or "contemporary." Vintage watches are often smaller and thus often don't conform to modern size taste. In any event, this watch size issue is a huge source of debate among watch wearers.
So why all the fuss and what does it mean for you? It really comes down to personal taste, as we will discuss, and there is no correct or incorrect watch size. There are, however, certain rules to see if a watch is too big for your particular wrist. The first thing to do is put on a watch and see whether or not the lugs stick out past your wrist. If your wrist does not have enough real estate space for the watch to fully sit on, then in our opinion the watch is too large for your wrist. If the watch - no matter the size - completely sits on your wrist from top to bottom, then you can technically wear it without breaking style rules. It is also a good idea to make sure that the crown of a watch doesn't jab into your wrist while wearing it and moving your hand around.
So if a watch passes the above test then have no qualms about wearing it. The bigger issue is the emotional element, and deciding whether or not a watch is worth showing off as much.
Space To Show Off
With its 48 millimeters width, large indices and protruding crown, the Zenith Pilot Montre d'Aeronef Type
Offers plenty of real estate to show off the aviator inside of you
In the late 1980s the mechanical watch was slowly coming back into fashion after the quartz watch market more or less killed it with cheaper prices and superior timing accuracy. Swiss watch brands were able to rebound (in a manner of speaking) by upgrading the status of the mechanical watch to being a luxury item versus a utility item. Case designs and quality improved, and by the 1990s timepieces were more than ever a status symbol and designer product versus mere tool to indicate the time. This meant that more emphasis was being placed on people seeing you wear a watch versus just the wearer being able to see it.
Further, as watch case and dial design became more complex, it was increasingly desirable for wearers to show off the artistic and decorative value of their watches - which meant that larger cases and dials were increasingly of interest. More so, as (mostly) mechanical watches became luxury items, watch features often increased in complexity. Thus, brands needed more dial real estate for the many complications that were becoming more and more popular compared to the traditional popularity of mostly time-only watches.
Therefore, one major reason for the overall increase in watch size is that timepieces became much more of a visual status symbol, and because watch designers began to offer increasingly complex designs that merited larger case sizes to show off.
Once You Go Big, You Don't Go Back
Size is a funny thing, and once someone buys a larger car, larger home, or bigger television it is difficult to return to a smaller size. The same is true with watches. When I first started getting into mechanical watches I was buying timepieces sized from between 36-40mm wide. Today I barely wear anything under 42mm in width. Once I began to wear larger timepieces smaller ones seemed petite by comparison, and the same is true for many people who go from more traditional watch sizes to modern ones.
The funny thing is that sometimes when I go back to wearing a smaller watch, I recall what I am missing. But the sensation is bitter sweet. On the one hand, I appreciate the diminutive nature and comfort of a 40mm wide and under timepiece (especially because you don't notice it as much), but I also miss the visibility and boldness of larger diameter watches. The bottom line is that once most people begin to wear a larger watch, in the 42-44mm wide range and above, it becomes very difficult for them to go back to wearing a smaller watch again.
Sylvester Stallone wearing the humongous, 60 millimeter wide Panera L'Egiziano PAM341, a tribute to a
massive piece Panera originally made for the Egyptian army around the '50's
As much as we don't like to admit that fashion trends play a part in what fine timepieces we wear, they do. Many people credit celebrities for helping to popularize large sport watches that eventually led to the popularity of other large watches being made. It was in the late 1990s that actors such as Arnold Schwarzenegger wearing an Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Offshore and Sylvester Stallone wearing a Panerai Luminor began to capture media attention with these larger-than-average (at the time) watches. The public seemed to quickly warm to the idea of wearing larger sport watches with a bold personality, especially because on larger or bulkier guys they looked much better than smaller watches.
This shot compares a 55 millimeters wide SISU Bravado watch with what appears to be a 40mm wide
Rolex GMT Master II. Credit: sisumovement.com
It may have been the man that made the watch 20 years ago, but today the predominant sensibility in timepiece fashion is that the watch makes the man. As timepieces grew in size and contained ever greater levels of visual personality, they took on a communicative element akin to the clothes people wear. Further, it is often believed by many men that a watch is the only jewelry a man is "allowed to wear." Whether or not you agree with this statement, you'll freely admit that most all men are willing to wear a nice watch. This further imbued the wrist watch with a communicative power beyond its mere function to indicate the time.
Using a watch to indicate a lifestyle, social status, or level of success is why many people tend to say that people today do not wear a watch in order to primarily indicate the time. While that may be true, it is not true that people do not still use their watch to tell the time. All of the world's best selling watches, at all price levels, do one thing very well - offer the time in a very legible manner. They just also happen to do a lot more things at the same time.
A Matter Of Masculinity
The A.Lange & Sohne Terraluna is a perfect example for a watch that offers a rather legible readout of the
time - while also doing a"a lot more things at the same time"
It is socially interesting how women borrow things from men, but the opposite is rarely true. Over the years women have adopted men's names, clothing preferences, vehicle choices, and of course watch sizes. The "boyfriend watch" is similar to the boyfriend shirt, where a woman, in order to indicate her "relational dominance and security," or her command of both female and male roles, will choose to wear a man's versus women's watch. A good example of this is the fact that in many places, such as Asia and Europe, traditionally masculine watches such as the Rolex Submariner or Daytona have been widely adopted as a choice of watch for women.
As women "borrow" traditionally masculine items they begin to lose masculine appeal (either totally or in a small way). This drives men to search for new "masculine" items that are exclusive of women's current tastes. This has been a common social rule for the last several decades and of course continues today. In regard to watches, this is important in two regards. First, it is directly related to watch size because as women began to wear larger watches, what was once an exclusively men's watch size was now being preferred by females. Thus, whereas a man used to wear 36-40mm wide watches, because this size is now common for women's watches, men have moved up to larger sizes in order to once again discover a size with a more exclusively masculine connotation. Of course there are cultural and social differences, but this is a general rule in most areas.
Another side effect of women wearing men's watches is that women's watch design has adopted many of the style cues of men's watches. This has likewise forced men's watch design to become bolder and more distinctively masculine - which in many instances is related to larger case designs. Thus, the adoption of traditional men's watches for use by women has directly impacted the increase of watch sizes over the last 15 years or so.
More Space Inside
In 2013, Rolex introduced the 36mm wide Day-Date with colorful dials that rendered them wearable for
both men and women, By contrast, the more modern Day-Date II comes with a heftier, 41mm wide case
An interesting side effect of larger watches being popular today is the possibilities it has created from a technical perspective. A salient and very recent example is the popularity of smartwatches. The technology required to offer a watch with a screen, connectivity, and computing power requires a certain case size for all the hardware. Smartwatch makers benefited from the fact that the popularity of larger-sized watches ensured that the public would not immediately reject their products, as they are often much larger than traditional watches.
Other examples of larger watches allowing for new technology in timepieces are GPS controlled watches, extremely deep diving watches, and other novel electronic watches requiring more space and battery power than a simple LCD screen and quartz movement.
From a mechanical watch perspective, an interesting outcome of large watch sizes has been the use of movements in wrist watches that were traditionally used for pocket watches. Perhaps the most famous example is the ETA Unitas series of manually wound movements. Panerai used these movements for a long time, and today many brands still use Unitas movements in wrist watches. Traditionally designed for a pocket watch-sized case, 44mm wide and over timepieces can easily accommodate the size of such movements.
Countless new watch movements have been created which rely on the extra space available in today's larger case sized. Watchmakers armed with sophisticated computer software are able to design complications and mechanisms never before possible thanks not only to modern technology, but also because larger watch cases are not only accepted by the public, but often preferred. Therefore, the increasing demand for complicated and novel wrist watch technology be it mechanical or electronic has aided the continued popularity of large watch case sizes.
What Is The Perfect Watch Case Size?
The MCT Sequential Two S200 beautifully demonstrates how the extra spaces can be translated into
more highly complicated movements as it uses every bit of its 44.6mm wide case to house a
unique louver system.
Using some of the style rules set forth in the beginning of this article, you can easily determine whether or not a watch case is too large for your particular wrist. Beyond that it is really going to be a matter of personal taste. Don't let other people tell you whether a watch is too larger or too small. You'll just have to wear it and look at it on your wrist in the mirror to make a personal decision. You also need to remember that the larger you are, the more likely a large watch will look suitable on you.
For hard numbers, allow me to simply close with the results of a survey we did here on aBlogtoWatch a few years ago that polled our audience on the watch sizes they preferred most. Over 90% of the respondents indicated that a watch case size of 40-44mm wide is what they preferred to wear on a daily basis. That size range is a good place to start, but we recommend that a well-rounded timepiece collection offers some watch size variety.