Men’s Watch Sizes: A Timeline
Choosing the perfect watch is a very personal thing, and hinges on a number of factors. Design, style, brand, cost and abilities are all obviously key, but one of the most important, and often overlooked, elements is size.
Picking the ideal size timepiece for your wrist is an art more than a science, and there are no hard and fast rules. It is, however, crucial to get it right. Too small and it will look like you’ve picked up a child’s watch by mistake; too big and you risk looking like the child.
And it is not just a case of measuring your wrist and working out that a model with such-and-such dimensions will be correct, in the same way that a suit in ‘your size’ won’t automatically be the best fit.
Some watches wear differently depending on their shape or even the metal from which they are made. Rose gold pieces, for example, tend to can appear smaller than they actually are on some people. On the other hand, a nominally-sized watch with large chronograph pushers or crown guard will make it seem bigger.
Of course, individual tastes and prevailing fashions also come into play. Some people like a watch large enough to be noticed from a distance, others like to go under the radar. At the moment we are just coming off the back of the trend for huge wrist monsters and are somewhat reverting back to vintage proportions.
Basically, the sizes in which watches are made seems to be in a constant state of flux, but there are overriding patterns if you make a study of it.
For that reason we have put together this article tracking the changes which have occurred over the last 100-years or so, and also take a look forward to see where it might be heading.
The History of Men’s Watch Sizes
The 1900s to the 1930s
The very first wristwatch was created, depending on which version of events you believe, in either 1810 by Abraham Louis-Breguet, or by Patek Philippe in 1868. Although that may be a subject of debate, what is certain is that the earliest pieces were used exclusively by women. Men carried only pocket watches, the idea of something worn on the wrist considered feminine.
That began to change in 1904, when famed French watchmaker, Louis Cartier answered the call from his close friend, the legendary Brazilian aviator, Alberto Santos-Dumont for a reliable alternative to the simple clock he used for navigation in his aircraft’s cockpit.
It gave rise to the Cartier Santos, a piece still made today which, in many people’s eyes, ranks as the start of the wristwatch era.
Yet, even though the Santos could conceivably be called the first tool watch, it would take the arrival of the First World War to truly cement the new innovation’s status.
Soldiers enduring the horrors of the trenches started jerry-rigging their standard-issue pocket watches to straps around their wrists, giving them a much quicker way of assessing the time than having to dig them out of their tunics, open the case, and then replace them.
When these servicemen returned home still sporting the pieces on their arms, it transformed the image of the wristwatch from a purely female accessory to one suitable for even the manliest of men.
Increasing numbers of manufacturers started catering to the trend, producing models aimed directly at a male audience.
However, between the extremely reserved fashions of the time, and the fact the movements were usually taken directly from women’s so-called ‘pendant’ watches, these men’s models generally measured only between 27mm to 30mm in diameter.
Today, that would seem laughably small, and those now buying the really early vintage models are sometimes surprised at just how miniscule many of these pieces are. Yet despite their size, no one would mistake these antiques for ladies watches. The hour markers are relatively large and bold, as are the handsets, and the case shapes have a definite masculine edge to them. Although the earliest examples are round, these evolved quickly into different forms. The likes of Gruen and Bulova developed rectangular and square calibers, and the watches to house them.
The 1920s and 1930s
The Roaring 20s marked the start of the wristwatch’s first real Golden Age. The Art Deco and Bauhaus movements dominated styling principles, and gave rise to an era-defining look.
Nowhere is that better encapsulated than in another creation by Louis Cartier, the Tank. Inspired by the tracks of the Renault tanks he had witnessed on the Western Front in WWI, the achingly luxurious styling epitomizes Art Deco’s ornate approach.
But even though the brand released a number of different versions in the space of a few short years (the Normale came first, quickly followed by a host of others such as the Cintrée, the Tank Louis, etc.) they were all particularly small by today’s standards—with anywhere between 26mm and 31mm the norm. Even the sharply elongated Cintrée (French for ‘curved’) only measured a maximum of 47mm top to bottom. But its rounded case, formed to hug the wrist and coupled with a width of just 23mm, meant that the whole watch looked rather like one continuous bracelet.
The same fashions carried over into the 1930s, but their time was running out. The Great Depression and the prospect of an even more deadly conflict on the horizon had a major impact on watch design.
Even though Switzerland was officially neutral during WWII, their watchmaking industry at the time was heavily influenced by the military. Both sides required models of the utmost practicality, with any notions of decorative styling completely redundant. From the basic field watches worn by infantry through to some of the first chronographs built for aircrews, all are typified by their stark minimalism and focus on legibility above everything else; made to be read quickly and easily in even the most stressful conditions.
But, with some famous exceptions, many of these models are still relatively small. The A-11, for instance, made by Elgin, Bulova and Waltham and known in some circles as ‘the watch that won the war’ was only a 32mm piece.
Of course, some wartime occupations needed something a little bigger. The initial hints of these new, almost unrealistically huge models actually started before the war, with brands such as Panerai. Their Radiomir watch, utilizing a revolutionary luminescent material on the dial called radium, was being supplied to the country’s Navy divers from as early as 1936. The hand wound movements and enormous 47mm waterproof cases were both made by Rolex, but the models were strictly for the military. In fact, it wouldn’t be until the 1990s that Panerai started selling their creations to the general public, coinciding nicely with the trend in that era for oversized watches.
The other branch where an easily readable watch was, if anything, even more crucial was in the Air Force. Aerial combat came of age in World War II, and it gave rise to the pilot’s watch. Again typified by a clean, no-nonsense look some of these models, and especially on the German and Axis powers side, were gigantic. Perhaps most famous is the B-Uhrs, produced by several manufacturers such as IWC and A. Lange & Söhne. The name is short for Beobachtungs-uhren, or Observation watch, and the model measured an incredible 55mm across, intended to be worn over the sleeves of the crews’ flight jackets.
In all, the war years had a hugely significant effect on the future of the wristwatch for the next several decades, not only in its pared-down design parameters, but also in an overall increase in average size.
Along with some of the most iconic pieces ever made, the 1950s also saw brand’s start to make a single watch in a range of sizes.
Possibly the manufacture who accomplished this to best effect was Rolex, who had already produced different sized models of their Oyster Perpetual range. The series—which took its name from Rolex’s two groundbreaking innovations; the waterproof Oyster case and self-winding Perpetual movement—had been around since the 1930s and the only real distinction between each version was their relative dimensions.
Then, in 1945, the Datejust launched. It was the watch that really put Rolex on the map but, recognizing that its surprisingly large-for-the-time 36mm case may have been putting off potential buyers of both sexes, the 1950s was the decade that introduced the 34mm Date and the 26mm Lady-Datejust. Later, they would also add a 31mm mid-size to cover all the bases.
Each of these were practically identical, in both function and options, merely scaled up or down to suit any wrist.
Elsewhere, the rise of the tool watch continued unabated. For perhaps the first time, the idea that a model could do more than just tell the time became mainstream, and a flood of watches with added utility were released.
Because they were destined to be used in some of the harshest environments imaginable—deep underwater, on top of mountain peaks, in frozen wastelands of the Antarctic, etc.—they had to have a certain bulk about them to be able to withstand their surroundings. The additional millimeters also gave them more room for dial detailing, so making them more legible in a pinch.
Even so, not many of these early tool models broke the 40mm barrier. The debut references of some of the most famous of all time; the Rolex Submariner and GMT-Master, the Omega Speedmaster and Seamaster, all stayed at or below 39mm. Certainly big by the standards of the day, but by no means excessive.
It was the 1960s that brought about the first real major shift upwards in watch sizes.
36mm became far more acceptable for dress models, while sports pieces were now 40mm as a minimum. The evolution of the wristwatch was such that it was suddenly, more than ever before, something to show off as a display of identity. Rather than being hidden away, they had become statements.
The move to more noticeable sizes may also have been a reaction by the traditional houses to the first whisperings of the coming quartz crisis.
Both CEH and Seiko presented prototypes of the new-fangled tech in 1967, with the latter unveiling the debut full-scale production model, the Astron 35SQ, in 1969. While it was only a tiny 30mm and so expensive that very few ever sold, it sent shockwaves through the industry, and pushed mechanical watchmakers into new, and bigger, directions.
The growth in watch sizes continued throughout the 1970s, but it was a dark time for the traditional brands. More than two-thirds of the Swiss houses folded under the onslaught of the electronic invasion from the east, and many of those who were left were forced to make their own quartz models in order to survive.
Rolex introduced a series themselves, starting with the ref. 5100 Beta-21, measuring a chunky 40mm—once unheard of for a Rolex dress watch.
Strangely though, the quartz pieces coming in from Japan and America were still noticeably small.
Hamilton brought out the Pulsar, measuring just 34mm across. Seiko later unveiled the first six-digit LCD watch, the LC V.F.A 06LC, which was less than 30mm. Both groundbreaking in their own way, it may well have been the reduced size, as well as the perceived soullessness of the electronics inside, that manufactured a gap in the market through which mechanical watches were able to regain a foothold.
The decade of excess and conspicuous consumption also saw the reemergence of a love for the art of watchmaking.
No longer able, or attempting, to compete against quartz technology on factors like price or accuracy, the traditional Swiss brands reorganized their marketing approach on terms of heritage and the sort of engineering virtuosity it takes centuries to perfect.
Going hand in hand with that was the question of image. Mechanical watches were expensive, and only got more expensive as time went on. Rather than being a negative, a hefty price tag became as much of a status symbol as the watches themselves in the wealth-obsessed 80s.
It was now acceptable to display your prosperity, and bigger and bigger watches were one particularly effective way of doing so.
Although the 36mm-38mm space was still considered the top end for more formal pieces, there was a certain amount of experimentation and rule book ripping as far as tool watches were concerned. Firms like Breitling and the recently taken over TAG Heuer started introducing some especially large models, such as the latter’s Formula 1, which could be had in a 44mm version. Omega’s latest in the Speedmaster series, the Mark V, measured the same, and even some of the so-called Holy Trinity jumped on board, with Audemars Piguet bringing out a 42mm example of their Royal Oak, a model which had stayed mostly sub-40mm until then.
Whether or not these sometimes lavish exhibitions of affluence leave you cold these days, they certainly helped save an industry which had looked to be dying a slow, painful death just a few short years previously.
And it wasn’t over yet.
The 1990s were when things really started to go big. In diameter, anyway. The tail end of the 80s had seen a new type of race develop, one that took aim at the ultra slim. AP had built the thinnest tourbillon watch ever in 1986, with the ref. 25643, coming in at just 2.5mm high. Not to be outdone, Seiko had made the Cal. 6720, a quartz movement for one of their high end Credor models which was just 0.89mm thick.
However, as the decade progressed, the competition seemed to lose traction, not to be reignited until the 2010s.
The 90s actually brought with it some of the largest watches ever made for general sale. What we now describe as oversize, the likes of Italian brand U-Boat debuted pieces such as their U-1942 which was a ridiculous 64.4mm wide.
Not quite to the same extreme, but big nonetheless, this was the decade Panerai first went on sale commercially, and were brought to wider attention thanks to the patronage of Sylvester Stallone. Their initial offering, the Luminor, started at 44mm and has gone bigger since then.
Average sizes across the more well-known brands started to creep up as well. Overall, it was hard to find any sports watch smaller than 40mm, with 41-43mm now the standard.
One name which stubbornly refused to exceed the 40mm limit was Rolex. They introduced the Yacht-Master in 1992, which eventually became available in three sizes (a first for a Rolex tool watch); a 29mm ladies model, a full size 40mm and an unusual 35mm in-between.
But although well known for their conservatism and resistance to change, even Rolex were going to have to accommodate the trend sooner or later.
Rather than reigning themselves in, watchmakers continued to make bigger models at the dawning of the new millennium.
The IWC Big Pilot’s watch, for instance, a reissue of a wartime aviation classic, came in at 46mm, and TAG Heuer revealed their Link series, with 44mm cases.
And Rolex finally decided to engage, producing larger versions of two of their longest serving models, the Datejust and Day-Date. Both had topped out at 36mm for their entire histories up until then, but the arrival of the Datejust II and the Day-Date II meant they could now be had in 41mm sizes.
It marked the beginning of the brand finally giving way to the trend, in their own reserved fashion, and it was a pattern that would be repeated with carefully selected models in the years to come.
The 2010s to Today
Although the recently concluded decade saw some truly enormous models—Breitling had a new 49mm Navitimer, Panerai brought out a 47mm Radiomir, U-Boat gave us a 55mm Classico—the 2010s actually signaled the end for the oversize watch.
The financial crash of 2008 caused a sea-change in customer attitudes, something reflected in a new movement, one for vintage-inspired pieces.
All of a sudden, a need for nostalgia saw a return to more modest and understated designs and, crucially, more manageable sizes.
Even so, this wave of retro watches, while they may look like the traditional examples from 60 or 70-years ago, are still slightly larger than the originals. A 38mm tool watch could well still struggle for an audience in the modern day, and so 40mm is still the smallest you are likely to find from the main manufacturers.
The key seems to be to offer more choice. Omega’s Speedmaster can now be had in anything from 42mm up to 44.25mm, not including the limited editions. The Seamaster 300M goes from 41mm to 44mm and there are four different sizes in the Planet Ocean range.
Even Rolex have introduced more options. The Datejust II and Day-Date II were replaced with the Datejust 41 and Day-Date 40 to run alongside the standard models. The Yacht-Master is still produced in three sizes but, as a perfect illustration of the industry as a whole, they have all taken a step upwards from the original three. The smallest is now 37mm, running together with a 40mm and a 42mm.
And, most telling of all, the Submariner, a watch that had been stuck at 40mm since 1959, finally went to 41mm last year.
So today we find ourselves getting what, for some, is the best of both worlds; the classic timeless styling of days gone by, with the dimensions of the modern day.
It has been a dramatic last few decades, with changes brought about by advances in technology as well as fluctuations in style. At the moment, it seems as if the vintage revival will be with us for a little while longer, but what may happen after that is impossible to predict.
It is unlikely (fingers crossed) that we will see a return to the enormous behemoths of the 80s and 90s anytime soon, but nothing is guaranteed. It is a fast paced world, just one of the things that makes it so exciting.
Featured Photo: BeckerTime’s Archive.