When watches made their way from pockets to wrists in the early 20th century, they were tools above anything else. In fact, around the time when they were a new phenomenon, wristwatches had a critical role to play in military and aviation out of actual necessity. They then gradually found themselves being used as accessories, diving apparatus, lap-timers or even just ornaments.
Through this evolution and till the 1970s, watches generally remained modestly sized and elegantly proportioned. Case sizes between 30-35 mm were the norm, while those around 37-40 mm were considered oversized! To take a celebrated example, James Bond’s Rolex Submariner worn by Sean Connery in Dr. No was just 38 mm. Now, I don’t think Mr. Bond is one to sport anything that isn’t dripping with masculinity; but if we look at recent trends, this is close to the normal size for ladies’ sports watches.
So what really changed?
The trend of going big with watch sizes
The 1980s and 90s was when the trend for larger watches took off. This could be attributed to the Swiss watch industry coming up with a new aesthetic after the Japanese quartz revolution, in making watches visible design pieces with substantial presence as opposed to the quaint timekeepers they used to be. It added up with an increase in number of digital devices people were using, such that the primary function of a wristwatch was no longer to just tell time. If you jog your memory about the most ubiquitous timepieces you’ve been coming across recently, they are likely to be large and extravagant.
The likes of Audemars Piguet (by introducing the beefed up, 42mm Royal Oak Offshore in 1992) and Panerai (by resurrecting their 47mm military dive watch DNA in the late 90s) played a significant role in normalising this surge in watch sizes. Soon, watches under 40mm in size started to be called unflattering (but amusingly creative) names.
It gradually became so pervasive that even ambassadors of conservative elegance like Jaeger-LeCoultre had to give in. For instance, in their current line-up, the smallest round watch for men is 39mm wide.
However, the charm of a classic, small timepiece never fully went away. It’s actually making a roaring comeback. There is a growing fascination for watches that speak to classical sensibilities, partially also owed to the popularity of minimalism in the world of design, at large. It may have been hard to imagine a few years ago, but understated and vintage-inspired designs are the biggest thing in the watch world right now. Vintage-mania on Instagram and at international auctions has only catalysed this.
Pop culture is playing its part in the revival too. If you’re a fan of Mad Men, a TV series set in the 1960s, you know that Don Draper’s watches get their fair share of screen time and have got people curious and talking. And then there’s Ryan Gosling, who’s never seen without an interesting vintage watch on his wrist, whether on screen or off it.
My take on what makes smaller watches so irresistible
The ratio of case and wrist size can be a factor that is often overlooked when acquiring a watch. But there really isn’t a greater indication of how well a watch suits you. When a watch sits nicely and comfortably on your wrist, it has a very pleasing aesthetic balance; a kind of timeless subtlety. And I think people are coming around to that. While there is no denying this is purely a matter of personal preference, when trying on a watch, I look to distinguish between whether it seems one with my wrist or just placed on it — you know it when you see it.
I feel that there must be good reason why older codes of elegance have stayed with us. For instance, we still haven’t found a good enough alternative to the tuxedo. Why, then, did we deviate so much in case of wristwatches?
While a fair percentage of consumers have a genuine preference for larger watches, many seem to have played into the narrative of ~42mm being the “accepted” average size of a wristwatch.
I’ve felt for long that wearability tends to be the most underrated aspect of choosing a watch nowadays. And while there is no single ‘right size’ of a watch; my opinion is simply that more modest sizes (relative to your big your wrist is) look more flattering, organic and purposeful, compared to those watches which are conceptualised to be gratuitously large.
Given that my own preferences tend to favour smaller case sizes, I took the opportunity to handpick a selection of modestly sized watches that epitomise unassuming simplicity and demonstrate the industry shift to smaller timepieces. Each of them subtle, but very distinctive, and coming from brands that pay careful attention to what collectors with conservative leanings are looking for.
Rolex Oyster Perpetual
Rolex is the flag-bearer of timeless design and sticking with a winning formula. The fact that even most of their sporty watches come in at 40 mm says something about what the champions of classicism believe to be the ‘right size’.
The Oyster Perpetual is the most simple Rolex you can buy, but that is absolutely no comment on the quality of its finish, chronometry or design finesse. It comes with Rolex standards such as 904L steel, white gold markers and hands and precision guarantee of within 2 seconds per day. A watch as uncomplicated as the Oyster Perpetual still stands out with its exceptional machining and finishing, and could be your all-weather companion for a lifetime.
The white dial Oyster Perpetual released at Baselworld 2018 may just be the only watch you’ll ever need. Dressed up or down, in the pool or on a trek, it’ll do it all with aplomb. Though you can take your pick from 34, 36 and 39 mm sizes, my recommendation is 34 mm. Because if Ryan Gosling can, so can you.
Nomos has stuck to what it does best in offering simple designs with a whole lot of details as you start to look closer. Sizes across their catalog are mostly under 40 mm, and they haven’t changed direction in favour of prevailing trends.
The Tangente may be the definitive Nomos, but the Orion takes an even more formal and minimalist approach to watch design. The 35mm variant is just 7.4 mm thick, which makes for a very satisfying wear. Doing away with Nomos’ signature numerals, the Orion plays between contrasts of gold applied markers and heat-blued hands, while the domed sapphire crystal adds some curves to complement the sparse, clean dial. Little touches like the space between the 4 minute markers and gold marker are very different from what you would usually see on a minute track, making it an eye-catcher even in its simplicity. As with all their watches, the hand-wound Alpha caliber powering the Orion is made in-house by Nomos.
Oris Divers Sixty-Five
Oris’ recent releases have shown that they, too, are convinced about small watch sizes being in vogue. We have seen the Divers Sixty-Five collection expand to include 36 mm and 40 mm (originally 42mm) versions and the return of sub-40 mm Aquis Date after a hiatus of a few years (with only a 43mm option in that time).
Oris knows how to practice the right amount of sophistication and restraint in design, which makes their watches appear precise and confident without needless frills. Let’s just say they do well-finished, no-nonsense watches really, really well.
They’ve shown this with the 40mm Divers Sixty-Five, which has a bronze bezel and gilt-like accents on the dial. These elements give a sense of warmth to the watch’s appearance, while taking nothing away from its purpose-built-tool character. This is another solid candidate for a one-watch-collection. Tough but unpretentious. Understated but refined.
Omega Seamaster Aqua Terra 150M 38mm
The Seamaster Aqua Terra is one of the most versatile watches that Omega make. Its popularity rests on being a simple design executed with little details that result in the watch being greater than the sum of its parts. It’s smart, refined and solid. An Aqua Terra was also James Bond’s choice in Spectre.
In its 38 mm avatar, the Aqua Terra is an under-the-radar, everyday watch that is a total technical powerhouse on the inside. It is equipped with an in-house co-axial movement that is METAS Master Chronometer certified, which implies that apart from high accuracy (maximum deviation of +5 seconds per day), it can resist magnetic fields of up to 15,000 Gauss. Innovation in movements is one area where Omega doesn’t nearly get the credit it deserves. But it helps to know how robust and reliable their co-axials are. The Aqua Terra 38mm is a safe but excellent choice.
Longines Heritage Classic ‘Sector’
As a brand, Longines is pretty serious about its DNA and heritage. It’s one of the watchmakers that showcases true consistency in aesthetic across its collections, playing elegance as its trump card. And one place where they really bring their A-game is vintage reissues.
The Longines Heritage Classic ‘Sector’ is a 2019 release that is essentially a reissue of a 1930s model, packaging some handsome, refined design cues into a 38.5mm steel case. Almost no visual changes have been made to the watch, if compared side-by-side with its older sibling. While this aspect can be divisive, with some claiming it discourages design innovation, an honestly-executed vintage reissue is hot property nowadays.
It is powered by an automatic movement with a silicon hairspring. With the kind of value Longines offer, the Heritage Classic ‘Sector’ is quite hard to wrong with. Classic indeed, and one of 2019’s standout launches.
Grand Seiko SBGX263 (9F quartz)
Yes, a quartz watch made the list. For the naysayers, all I can say is you have to see it, hold it and understand it. The SBGX263 (or the 9F champagne dial 37mm) is a really fine watch.
Apart from being the point of entry, financially speaking, into Grand Seiko watches, the SBGX263 has a legitimately remarkable movement, hand-polished exterior, and a dial that keeps revealing different colour tones to you over time.
You may have heard this before, but in the sphere of high-end, high-accuracy quartz watches, Grand Seiko’s 9F movement is king. This is because it actually has some mechanical components, arguably looks better than many basic mechanical movements. is assembled by hand in the same studio as the Spring Drive, and boasts accuracy of within 10 seconds per year. The way it ticks is really unlike anything else; which takes me back to where I started. You have to see it, hold it and understand it. It’s special.
So the next time you’re looking to get yourself a timepiece, make sure you try one of these and see how you feel. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed with the quiet assuredness they offer.