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Does size matter? Follow our Editor-in-Chief’s in the first part of this exploration into why business continues to bloom for oversized watches.

Much like the infamous protagonist of Sex and the City, tasked to split her love between fashion and furniture,  I now cheat on shoes with watches, the latter moreso an activity in window shopping. So earlier this week, I happened upon a vintage market in North London playing host to all kinds of ephemera. Amongst delicate heaps of matured jewels, sat a pile of watches, neatly contained in their boxes. To the left of me, as I leaned over the counter to inspect them, a man picked up a 41mm Longines, which he shortly purchased not long after, while I inspected two nearing models, one a 17mm Omega, the other a 17mm Zenith. Exchanging his money, he looked at his purchase before declaring “it’s just the right size.” I glanced over. This struck me. Why had I migrated towards two smaller watchfaces and him the larger?

Admittedly, I was a little bit irked by this, so I took to my own Instagram account and devised a poll with the question to my male identifying followers: if you’re going to buy a watch, would you buy one with a big face or small? The result echoed much the same as my encounter in the market, with 74% of followers selecting a larger preference. I then posted two images of the Omega and Zenith models I had tried on, to which a majority of the audience stated that the model was “too small.” When a question needs an answer in the modern day, naturally, you turn to Google. “Why do men wear big watches?” I typed, only to be met with a thread of other frequently searched questions, imbued with anxiety around size. “Should I wear a small watch?” the internet asked the ether.

In Marie de Pimodan-Bugon’s polemic on the archaic gendering of watches, she poses the question: “is gendering a matter of size?” The history books might tell you yes, but met with the “no-gender generation” of today, the predilection is hazier, as consumers are refusing to be restricted by norms laid out that market women’s watches as smaller pieces with diamond bezels and less complications. The antiquity of gendered watches situates itself in a paradox, however, given that it was in fact women who migrated time to our wrists. 

Regarded as the first horologist to bring the watch to the women’s wrist, Abraham-Louis Breguet conceived a model for the Queen of Naples in the early 18th century, while the epochal Patek Philippe made one for the countess Koscowicz of Hungary almost 70 years later. Meanwhile, men were donning pocket watches swinging on chains, fastened to waistcoats. However, Elizabeth I of England received a wristwatch from Robert Dudley, the 1st Earl of Leicester in 1571, described as an arm watch, 229 years earlier than the 1810 Abraham-Louis Breguet. By the mid nineteenth century, most watchmakers produced a range of wristwatches, often marketed as bracelets, for women. 

The evolution of the gentleman’s pocket watch into the ubiquitous wristwatch had its roots in the wars of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. World War I was the seminal moment when the wristwatch became both a strategic military tool and a manly fashion accessory,” writes David Belcher for The New York Times. Given the inconvenience of withdrawing a watch from the pocket in battle – which historians also note back to the Boer War and the warm climate making it too hot to wear a jacket – the wrist became the new hotspot. Interestingly, if a man wore a watch on his wrist, it was considered a “strap watch”  to discern it from the perceived feminine model.

So when did it all start becoming about size and wrist presence? Well, if we fast forward ever so slightly, you get to the Cartier Tank. Created by the brand’s founder himself, Louis Cartier paid homage to the Renault FT-17, a French tank used during the first World War. The watch somehow manages to be both rectangular and square, and positioned itself as one of the early wristwatches that were starkly different to what was considered women’s jewellery. With functionality a precedent, warfare dramatically shifted the public perceptions of men’s watches, designed for the rigorous nature of trenches. Enter luminous dials and unbreakable glass. But wristwatches were also found to be needed in the air as much as on the ground: military pilots found them more convenient than pocket watches, so realistically, with the pressure of precision hanging over your shoulders, it helps if you don’t have to squint to see the dial numbers. 

Here’s where history likes to contradict itself. Move a little further along in the 20th century and the introduction of dress watches took full swing. The nature of men’s tailoring and the two-piece suits meant that to pair a bold watch with a simple silhouette might be a bit too jarring. Minimalism in its heyday.  Watchmakers set out on a quest to produce thinner and more discreet versions. A thinner watch requires a high level of skill and innovation on the part of the watchmaker, and with that comes a much higher cost. Slim profile, modest size and an understated dial goes states the rulebook for a dress watch.

Courtesy of Hublot
Courtesy of Cartier

But brawny and bold superseded societal protocol as wristwatches began to grow in size from 1930s through the 1940s as many watchmakers started to move away from pocket watches and introduced timepieces for the wrist. The Hamilton Piping Rock watch was a popular choice in the early 1930s. Measuring 34mm in diameter and 10mm thick. Soon enough, it became a game of who can go bigger with Panerai creating a prototype of the Radiomir at a staggering 47mm in 1936. And the rest as they say, is history. The boom of the big only gained more momentum with the rise of sports watches. It has since been a race to see how much surface area you can take up on your own wrist. To quote Li-Lo, “the limit does not exist.” 

It’s important to note here that the comparison being made spans both mechanical and quartz watches, the former manifesting in larger sizes while the latter sits flatter on the wrist given that it uses smaller parts and therefore requires less space. The vogue of big watches has been wholly embraced by female watch wearers, Patrick Graf, the CCO of Bucherer reflects. “Many brands don’t differentiate any longer between female and male watches. The lines are blurring more and more. This is because female consumers clearly also tend to buy bigger watches.” While watch brands reposition their marketing strategies to create unisex lines, rather than pertain the narrative of women buying men’s watches, the onus is on options today. Take Vacheron Constantin’s Historiques American 1921, reconfigured this year in a 36.5mm version and two 40m versions.

While it’s all well and good that a Hublot Big Bang can be worn by all mankind, there’s still a reluctance to shift towards the opposite end of the spectrum. According to the State of Fashion, Jewellery and Watches report, the research firm said it expects sales of second hand fine watches to reach $30 billion by 2025, making it one of the fastest-growing segments in the luxury industry. “Along with the vintage trend, smaller watches became more in fashion again,” notes Graf. “Since the CPO business is getting more and more established we have noticed the request for such watches has increased.”

“However bigger and therefore more recognizable watches remain in trend. Especially since we became more casual (trend fueled and reinforced during the pandemic) the general life as well as in many industries, casual and therefore also bigger watches are suitable. Sometimes it’s two kinds of clients and sometimes even the same client looking for different styles, matching the outfit.” Essentially, the diameter paradigm is getting blurrier and blurrier. We’re not afraid to go big. But why aren’t we considering the opposite? I’m yet to see one of my boyfriends wearing a 17mm watch. To leave you with a quote I overheard a stranger say in the street, “I can’t have my partner wearing a bigger watch than me.” It seems size does, after all, really matter.

This has been part I of the Boom of Big Watches. Join us next week as we delve further into the quartz crisis and its implications on size and hear from leading female horologists on what really matters. 

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Scarlett is a writer, editor, and creative consultant specializing in art, fashion, culture and digital strategy. Drawing on her work from previous titles including Dazed, LOVE Magazine, The Perfect Magazine, AnOther and 1 Granary, as the Editor-in-Chief of The Next Hour, Scarlett is leading the editorial vision toward new territories providing an alternative lens of social commentary to recontextualize the world of watchmaking for the next generation.