Home Continuing Series Historical Horology Historical Horology: The Evolution of Wrist Watch Sizes

Historical Horology: The Evolution of Wrist Watch Sizes




A few weeks ago, we had a quick overview of some of the complications that have come into being over time. Of course, all those functions (as well as personal tastes) have helped drive the size of watch cases (spoiler alert: they’re really only gotten bigger). Read on for some information on how the watches have changed.

Of course, with any discussion of the watch, we commonly start with the pocket watch (unless we want to go really far back), as that’s where the wrist watch had it’s truly modern origins. In the 1900’s, pocket watches were what you had for a time piece. If you wore a watch on your wrist (as we do today), you’d very likely be laughed out of the pub. Even with that stigma out there, in 1904 a Brazilian navigator (by the name of Dumont) worked with his friend (perhaps you’ve heard of him – Louis Cartier?).


Now, you might think that we’d have a trench watch of sorts being created, but no. This is well and truly recognizable as a wrist watch (and, oh yeah, made it easier for Dumont to know the time when he was piloting a plane). Leap forward to World War I, and the ground troops realized that it truly was a pain to have to pull out a pocketwatch on the battlefield. I can only imagine those troops returning home had more than a little to do with the wrist watch becoming the fashionable alternative to the faithful pocket watch.

Of course, pocket watches still informed the new wrist-borne segment. How? Well, pocket watch movements were (and are) round, and what got stuffed into a watch case was just a smaller version of the previous pocket watch movements. That is, until companies like Bulova and Gruen started to experiment with square- and rectangular-shaped movements. Even with those new shapes, however, the movements (and subsequent watches) seem very tiny by today’s standards. Round shapes came in between 28 and 32mm, and the rectangular (or square) ones went from 26 to 29mm.


Even when the quartz explosion hit in the 1970s, case design didn’t change much – there were a lot of round cases, and sizing stuck around the 32 to 34mm range. A slight uptick in size, for sure, but definitely something that would be consider a child or woman’s watch these days. And it stayed that way until those crazy 80’s, when Cartier released the first (modern) big watch, measuring in at a whopping 38mm. Once this new sizing caught on with the public, watch companies realized there was money to be made with these “oversize” watches.

100th Ann. Cartier Santos on left, '80s version on right
100th Ann. Cartier Santos on left, ’80s version on right

This trend has continued on today, with some watches creeping up towards the 60mm mark. As with the 80s, the trend seems to be that if you want to make a big statement, go with a big watch. Of course, that requires some restraint and judgment for what truly makes sense (in terms of case size) as compared to your wrist size. For me, the dividing line seems to be around the 46mm mark – any bigger than that, and I feel it can appear too big on my wrist. Of course, that’s contingent on the design as well – certain brands have a way of making a case visually seem smaller (or larger) than the spec sheet would indicate.

If you’d like to read more about these case size trends, Richard Paige has another great article over at aBlogtoWatch (here) covering that very topic.

All images courtesy of aBlogtoWatch

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