Instead of the centered seconds hand found on most watches, some have “small seconds”: a dedicated sub-dial that only has a seconds hand. If you grew up with pocket watches, this isn’t a novel concept. Before the mid-century, it was customary for seconds to appear on a sub-dial at 6 o’clock. In fact, this was easier to manufacture. If you’re interested in the mechanical shift to centered seconds, Jack Forster explains it in detail here.
I’m a sucker for small seconds. It’s no longer the easy option – brands go out of their way to add this touch. Today, it’s used to evoke a vintage feel reminiscent of pocket watches of the early 20th century. Small seconds add visible motion to a watch dial – more so than the larger, centered seconds hand. Some could take it or leave it, and I’ll admit, it doesn’t work on every watch. However, when done correctly, small seconds can take a simple silhouette to the next level. Today, we’ll take a look at some of my favorite examples of small seconds, the good, the great, and the gaudy.
Omega Seamaster Aqua Terra Small Seconds
The Aqua Terra is a gorgeous watch. As The Time Teller would say, it’s a perfect “one watch watch collection watch”. As the name indicates, it’s perfect for all conditions. The design language is simple, but the beauty is in the details. The dial’s horizontal teak pattern is reminiscent of the Patek Philippe Nautilus, but at about 5% of the cost. I could go on and on about this watch – it’s an absolute gem. Last year, Omega added a small seconds sub-dial to the Aqua Terra. At 6 o’clock, this is a “traditional” position for small seconds. It’s a welcome addition to a classic watch. The Aqua Terra is simple enough for this sub-dial to feel well-balanced without over-complicating things. It has stick indices every 5 seconds, Arabic numerals every 10, and a date window at 30. True watch nerds will rejoice on the 30th day of every month when the date lines up with the indices. Overall, you can’t go wrong with this offering from Omega.
Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso Small Seconds
Jaeger-LeCoultre, often called the watchmaker’s watchmaker, introduced the Reverso in 1931. It was arguably the world’s first sports watch, created with polo players in mind. The Reverso features a reversible, swiveling case to protect the crystal from stray polo balls and mallets. Today, JLC offers the Reverso Duoface, featuring another dial on the reverse side of the case. Many references include small seconds. The rectangular dial shape forces the small seconds sub dial to 6 o’clock, which as we’ve covered, is a comfortable home for the feature. Due to its size, the Reverso wears more like a dress watch in the 21st century. It’s a small watch. . . with small seconds. The seconds hand can’t be more than 6mm long, as the case itself is only 25mm wide. To me, this is the beauty of horology. This microscopic small seconds dial is an over-engineered celebration of history. If you’re looking for small seconds on a classic piece, the Reverso is right up your alley.
One of my favorite examples of small seconds appears on the Panerai Submersible. If you’re interested in Panerai’s offerings, I recently wrote an article on their current lineup. The Submersible is their dive-focused tool watch, based on the Luminor model. Because it’s a dive watch, the dial features large, legible indices for underwater visibility. These circular and baton-shaped indices also appear on the small seconds dial, positioned at 9 o’clock. It’s consistent, clean, and easy to read. It almost looks like your Panerai is wearing a Panerai. If you already have a 44mm Submersible, you know what I’m talking about. To those people, I highly recommend Everest’s curved end straps for the Submersible: they’re made specifically for this model, hugging the case perfectly. This is a perfect model for divers who love small seconds (and big watches).
Vacheron Constantin 1921
You’re not hallucinating – the dial is slanted. The Vacheron Constantin 1921 was created with drivers in mind. In the 1920’s, cars had oversized steering wheels and people wore watches on the inside of their wrist. This slanted dial allowed drivers to tell the time at a glance. Today, it’s just a cool watch made by one of the best brands out there. The cherry on top? Small seconds at 3 o’clock: a rare position for the sub-dial. It’s a beautiful use of space on this unique silhouette; you’ll never see anything else like it. To further confuse your eyeballs, the second indices are oriented like a normal watch. This wasn’t the case with the original. Vacheron decided that the new models should be even quirkier. Regardless of its potential to nauseate, the 1921 is a beautiful watch. Its use of small seconds is unlike any other.
Some people look good in hats, some people don’t. Some people wear a hat every day to the point where they look weird without one. Small seconds sub-dials are similar. There’s a long list of watches that look great with the feature. There’s an equally long list of watches that just don’t need it. In the case of the Vacheron Constantin 1921, it wouldn’t be itself without small seconds. It’s a defining characteristic of the watch; a part of its century-long DNA. Small seconds are baked into the history of timekeeping, appearing on the pocket watches that eventually became wrist-bound. It’s a simple feature, but it can make or break a watch. When done right, it’s a beautiful thing.