A long, long time ago, men wore 33 or 34mm diameter watches. And it was ok to do so. It was seen as something elegant as watches of these dimensions looked right at home on their wrists. Then in the early 2010s—decades later after many years of turmoil in the watch industry—watches became humongous to the point where only certain celebrity body builders could sport them. But things are changing again and now more brands make smaller watches for both men and women (because yes, only women could wear smaller watches while men were supposed to wear tanks on their wrists.) This return to smaller watches was driven by consumers’ clamors for better sized timepieces and brands went about it in different ways.
In this article, we will look at the significance of offering smaller watches and what it says about the watch industry now and how brands went about it.
What It Means to Have Smaller Watches
In order to keep this article short and sweet, I will be steering clear of the stereotypes that come with wearing watches of certain sizes. Which means I will not dwell on the fact that one day a salesman told me that a 34mm Junghans looked “feminine” on my wrist. These types of statements are common in the watch world and, as promised, I will not dwell on them beyond this paragraph. Instead, let’s talk about why smaller watches are cool and how offering smaller models is a good thing for any brand.
Watches have always come in different sizes, even when wristwatches became more popular after World War II and that anyone who was not in the military wanted to wear one. Watches for women have always been smaller than those for men—to the point where the dial was so small that it was virtually impossible to read the time. These sizes made watches more of fashion accessories than timekeeping devices. And it was common back then for men to wear watches that had 32 to 36mm diameters.
Wearing a “small” watch (by today’s standards) was therefore the norm. These watches were well-proportioned and therefore looked good on the wrist (like wearing fitted clothes.) They didn’t look too small nor too big, and it was easy to read the time. (It should be noted that most people wore watches that only had one complication—keeping time.) The point here is that watches were designed to be comfortable, elegant, and to have a dial opening wide enough to make reading time a breeze for people of all ages.
Fast forward many decades, seeing brands offer smaller watches is important because we are again offered the possibility to wear watches that are better suited for our wrists. We are no longer obligated to wear watches that are too big—which also comes at the cost of all-day comfort—and that don't look good in a variety of situations. In other words: even if Omega were to make a 46mm Aqua Terra with a lacquered dial and precious metals, it would look odd on the wrist in most situations. Smaller watches are more versatile for that reason.
The Rolex Sea Dweller Deepsea Challenge on the wrist.
How Brands Go About Offering Smaller Watches
There are basically two ways in which brands managed to make it alright to offer watches of smaller diameters. Either they release smaller models that have designs both suitable for men and women, like it is the case with Rolex Datejust or the Tudor Black Bay. Or they re-issue old models that were smaller back when they were first released. Brands can justify keeping the smaller diameter on the basis of authenticity and historical accuracy. Of course, that’s not to say that Rolex, for example, wasn’t making smaller watches already that both men and women could wear, but now wearing a 36mm Datejust has become alright for men.
With all of that said, Rolex is probably the brand that made the biggest splash in the past couple of years by releasing a 36mm version of the much-beloved Rolex Explorer 1, in the reference 124270. The very first Explorer 1, released in 1952 (at least according to some collectors,) had a 36mm case. So although the Explorer 1 has been in continuous production since the 1950s and had a case diameter of 39mm for several years, it was a big surprise—and the delight of many collectors—to see a modern 36mm Explorer 1. I think this move forced other major brands to follow suit.
As mentioned above, brands can also get away making smaller watches by digging into their catalogs and re-issuing certain models they produced decades ago—when they were smaller. Recently, a friend of mine acquired a modern Longines Heritage Military Marine Nationale that is a direct re-creation of a 1940s, 33-mm watch commissioned by the French Navy. 33mm is, by today's standards, very small for men. And although the modern re-interpretation has a case diameter of 38.5mm, it still is a smaller watch.
What About Independent Brands?
It wouldn’t be fair—and I wouldn’t be making a complete assessment of this topic—if I were to not dig into the world of micro and independent brands. (By that I mean brands that are not historical Swiss or Japanese brands—to keep things simple.) There are hundreds of such brands today but only a few come to mind when it comes to making well-proportioned watches that work for both men and women. (I do not claim to know of all of them, however.) Amongst these brands I would mention Lorier and its Falcon model as well as Serica and the 4512 model.
A bit closer to home is Monta. The house name brand has created a solid reputation for itself by offering incredible specifications, finish, and innovative features for under $2,000—the ubiquitous marker that typically separates luxury from non-luxury brands. Of its four models, two (the Noble and Atlas) come in with a case diameter of 38.5mm case diameter and a lug-to-lug distance of 47mm, making both models “small” and easy to wear for both men and women. Naturally, Monta is not the only brand to offer smaller watches, however it is one of the few that offer high-quality smaller watches.
Of course, we need to agree that 38.5mm in diameter is smaller, not small, and the point of this article is that the watch industry is slowly reverting to making smaller watches. In the case of Rolex and the Explorer 1, 36mm is a vintage size and other brands such as Junghans go a step further making 34mm watches. Overall, there is an interest in reducing the overall sizes of watches that first came from consumers and now that has been echoed by the brands themselves.
Featured image: www.watchgecko.com