Before we dive into the world of watch sizes, I’d like to mention Vincent Deschamps’ The Unavoidable Return to Smaller Watches. It’s a great article on popular brands like Rolex revisiting smaller case diameters. This shift is a reaction to the “go big or go home” design mentality of the 2000’s and 2010’s. As it turns out, 44mm watches aren’t for everybody. In this article, we’ll take a look at some larger-than-life luxury pieces, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s impact on watch sizes, and the Rolex Explorer I’s case diameter throughout history.
Big Watches after the Turn of the Century
Upon its release in 1953, the Explorer I had a 36mm case diameter. This size remained the same for 57 years, with the exception of the reference 5500 (34mm) in the mid-sixties. 57 years. Rolex is known for their “if it ain't broke, don’t fix it” approach, but this consistency is pretty remarkable. In 2010, the Explorer I hit a growth spurt and increased to 39mm. After all this time, why did Rolex decide to change the size? The Explorer II had been a similar, 39mm+ option for decades. The answer becomes clear when you look at popular watches after the turn of the century. Watches started getting bigger and bigger. . . and bigger. By 2010, a 36mm watch just seemed out of place, and Rolex took notice.
As a point of reference, let’s look at Esquire’s 2010 Watch Awards. This list includes 39 watches of all different brands and styles. Although it’s not the biggest sample, it’s definitely a representative sample of what was popular at the time. I went through and calculated the average case diameter, which landed just over 42mm. People liked big watches across the board: the Panerai Luminor, the Rolex Yacht-Master II, and the Rolex Deepsea, just to name a few. There’s no telling what caused this overall size increase, but pop culture was definitely a large factor. Arnold Schwarzenegger alone had a significant impact.
In 1987, Arnold wore a 46mm Seiko Solar Diver in the movie Predator. This planted the seed for his love of large watches, and likely did the same for some people in the audience. Arnold got his first Luminor (44mm) in 1996, and he’s been sporting Panerai ever since. His favorite, the Big Egiziano Radiomir, comes in at a whopping 58mm. Arnold has also been known to wear a 55mm Jacob & Co, a 58mm Zenith Pilot, and a 64mm U-Boat. These are massive watches, even on someone like Arnold, who’s a 6’2” bodybuilder. These watches got a lot of screen time during the 2000’s and 2010’s: during his tenure as Governor of California (and continued to make movies). Obviously Arnold isn’t solely responsible for the large watch trend of the 2000’s and 2010’s, but he certainly played a part in it.
I see the Explorer I as a reference point for watch case sizes. Its 2010 size increase seemed like a proper adjustment given the trends of the 2000’s and 10's. In recent years, as Vincent points out, we’re seeing a regression back to the mean. People are realizing that they are not, in fact, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and perhaps a 40, 38, or even 36mm case size will do the trick. Last year, the Rolex Explorer I returned to its original 36mm case diameter. In my opinion, this just felt right. I think Rolex made a good decision in 2010; it’s hard to argue with what's selling. The 39mm Explorer I is a beautiful watch, and now that it's discontinued, it's growing in value. 12 years later, it’s fun to look back and appreciate the 39mm Explorer I for what it represents.
As someone who fell in love with watches during this time period, I have fond memories of big cases. I'm no stranger to a chunky G-Shock or two. My tastes have changed over time, but I still appreciate large watches. As always, you should buy what you like. The Explorer I is among the best all-around watches money can buy. It can easily be someone's only watch; the perfect balance of style and subtlety. During the age of huge watches, Rolex followed suit. They adapted their modestly sized “all-arounder” to fit the 39mm sweet spot. In 2010, this size just made sense (and it still does for most people). That said, I love to see the Explorer I return to its classic 36mm case.