For several years now, the watch industry has been exhibiting a tendency to (re)introduce smaller timepieces. Tudor, for example, recently surprised us with a 37-mm version of the Black Bay; Rolex brought back the Explorer with a historically correct diameter of 36 mm; Omega now offers the Seamaster Planet Ocean 600M – known for its rather generous dimensions – in 37.5 mm. The list goes on and on.
But what’s behind this resurgence? Are smaller watches really popular again, or have watch manufacturers simply run out of ideas when it comes to recycling old designs? Let’s take a closer look.
What qualifies as small?
Firstly, we should define what we mean when we talk about “small” watches, namely men’s and unisex wristwatches with a diameter of 34 to 39 mm. Women’s watches are deliberately not included in this article, since this category has always been defined by comparatively small watch sizes.
The Historical Perspective
Since the men’s wristwatch began its long, historic rise at the beginning of the 20th century, what was considered fashionable with regard to size has changed repeatedly. Early on, in order to fit comfortably under the cuff of a shirt, smaller, flatter movements were needed, around which the watch itself could be built. In other words, the diameter of a watch was determined primarily by the size of its movement. Since watch movements normally measured between 27 and 30 mm, the timepiece had to have a diameter of approximately 32 to 36 mm. For dress watches, this size ratio remained more or less unchanged until about the 1980s.
Sizes look a little different, however, when it comes to tool watches. Pilot’s watches in particular grew considerably in size in the 1940s. With a diameter of 50 mm or more, these timepieces were huge, even by today’s standards. The reason for this is simple: early pilot’s watches were often powered by pocket watch movements, which were more robust and reliable than the small movements used in dress watches at the time. The large size also improved the watches’ readability.
It was also essential for the diving watches that appeared in the 1950s to be perfectly readable underwater. To guarantee the required degree of water resistance, the case construction of these timepieces also needed to be much more elaborate. As a result, diving watches always measured 38 to 42 mm in diameter. This didn’t diminish sales, however; non-divers quickly took a liking to these timepieces, and water-resistant tool watches promptly became popular everyday wearers.
In the 1970s, luxury sports watches were also unusually large for the times. The original Royal Oak from Audemars Piguet, for example, was 38.8 mm across, which earned it the nickname “Jumbo.”
The 1990s and early 2000s were dominated by XXL watches, with brands like Panerai, Hublot, and Breitling flooding the market with watches in excess of 45 mm. Since then, the trend has reversed, and watches are shrinking again.
What do the numbers tell us?
How important a role does diameter play when it comes to actually buying a watch? A look at the extensive data in our Watch Collection Report reveals that less than 3% of users apply the diameter filter when searching for their dream watch on Chrono24.
Another indication that the size of a watch plays a subordinate role in the purchase process are our most frequently sold models. Among the top 10 best-selling watches on Chrono24 in recent years, only two models measure less than 40 mm: the Seiko SNK063J5 and Rolex Explorer ref. 214270. The rest of the bestsellers are familiar favorites like the Omega Speedmaster Professional Moonwatch, Rolex Submariner Date, and Rolex GMT-Master II.
All this proves is that people buy what they like. Yes, the watch should fit the wrist, but the lug-to-lug measurement is normally much more decisive than the diameter.
But if the size of a watch doesn’t really matter, why do we still see so many manufacturers launching smaller models? The answer is simple: The industry is finally waking up to the fact that women represent a serious segment of the market, and that women’s watches don’t need to be glitzy quartz-powered accessories. Furthermore, Asia, where the population tends to be physically smaller (and more slender) than in Europe or North America, is becoming an increasingly important market.
It’s also important to note that none of the new smaller watch models come at the cost of a larger counterpart. Manufacturers are simply expanding the range within the respective line, which is great for us watch enthusiasts. If watch diameters are no longer subject to the dictates of fashion, we can choose the size we want, when we want it.