Smaller watches are the biggest watch trend for 2023

Like hems, watch the proportions wax and wane in cycles. For men, they started big as the first were pocket watches with straps attached to them.

Ever since the wristwatch was invented, watchmakers have struggled with how big a watch should be. Thick as a hockey puck or flimsy as a coin? Currently, watchmakers are leaning toward the latter, a trend that reached a crescendo last month at Watches and Wonders, the annual luxury watch fair in Geneva. More than a dozen brands welcomed new product lines in small sizes or welcomed reduced versions of existing popular models.

Like hems, watch the proportions wax and wane in cycles. For men, they started big as the first were pocket watches with straps attached to them. Louis Cartier made an early version in 1911 for his friend, aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont, who was tired of taking out his pocket watch to navigate in flight. It wasn’t long before watchmakers realized that the huge wristwatch was cumbersome and unnecessary, so they began reinventing movements on a smaller scale.

Beginning in the late 1940s and continuing through the 1950s and 1960s, watches settled around the 35- to 38-millimeter diameter mark, and they represent the majority of the most sought-after vintage designs today. Sometime in the late 1990s, just as mechanical watches were emerging from the quartz crisis and experiencing the early stages of a multi-billion dollar recovery, they started to get big again.

This was a transformation initially prompted by the popularity of the chronograph, which required a large canvas to display the counters and a thick case to ensure the water resistance expected of a sports watch. This has become a fashion trend and even quartz watches have become beasts as large as the Panerai Luminors, which average around 45mm and often reach 47mm.

Pilot watches and chronographs also set the standard for big and bulky: the IWC Ingenieur Chronograph maxed out at 45mm, as did Zenith’s Pilot model, even the non-chronograph variety. Diesel, a quartz fashion brand, made a chronograph in 2013 with a 76mm case.

There really was nowhere to go from there but back down. When Phillips Auction House in association with Bacs & Russo sold Paul Newman’s 1964 Rolex Daytona with ref. 6239 for a record $17.7 million in 2017, it started a vintage craze that hasn’t died down yet. This one, at 37mm, made smaller watches cool again.

Miniature watches have since gone mainstream. Watches and Wonders featured a variety of vintage models with diameters ranging from 32mm to 40mm. TAG Heuer’s Carrera Chronograph glass case, for example, is now 39mm. It was stylistically inspired by the original Carreras of the 1960s, which ranged from 36mm at the start to 40mm for the newer models.

Likewise, Tudor introduced the Black Bay 54 diver’s watch with elements from the 1954 original, including its 37mm size. (For a time in recent decades, a watch of this size would appear on the Ladies’ page of a watch manufacturer’s website, but the original Black Bay diving watch of this size was used by the French and US navies in the 1960s and the ’70s.) Chopard’s 36.5mm LUC 1860 is modeled after an original watch from 1997. And the ’80s cult favorite Cartier Pasha was introduced in a 35mm version this year.

IWC honored its Ingenieur line this year by reissuing the one created by design maestro Gerald Genta in 1976 in its original 40mm size – a watch considered so large at the time that it was dubbed the Jumbo.

Piaget has just introduced a 36mm “unisex” version of its Polo Date, down from the standard 42mm. A press release touted it as designed to “encapsulate today’s mood.”

Even pilot watches, which are characteristically large to be as legible as possible, are shrinking in size. Zenith introduced the 40mm this year.

New models are also declining and this is related to fashion. Hublot’s Big Bang? It’s not that big anymore. The brand’s flagship collection, which helped start the big watch trend in the 1990s, has reached 45mm. A new version of the Spirit of Big Bang was introduced this year in 32mm and is not billed as a ladies piece.

Panerai, another brand known for its large proportions, released the Radiomir Quaranta (Italian for “40”) in 40mm this year. For some brands, downsizing a watch to 40mm means little more than downsizing from 41mm or 42mm. Panerai’s average size is 45mm and they regularly produce 47mm watches.

“We are a world leader in large watches, but the Radiomir Quaranta is a new classic for Panerai, one that can be worn by both women and men,” says CEO Jean-Marc Pontrouet. “Last year we launched Luminor Quaranta [40mm], and it was a great success. We found that 60% of the buyers were men and 40% were ladies, which we did not expect.”

Danny Govberg, chairman of pre-owned watch giant WatchBox, says a new wave of collectors is partly behind the change. “It’s not just a love of vintage,” he says. “It’s driven by the next generation of buyers. People like my son want a watch that is more comfortable to wear than what my generation is used to.”

It’s a preference that infuses modern design with a new sense of gender neutrality, to the point where some brands have abandoned the tradition of categorizing watches on their websites and in catalogs as women’s or men’s. Instead, searches can be made by size, materials, and style.

“We’re seeing more unisex watches and smaller sizes,” says WatchBox CEO Justin Reiss. “You see it with Cartier, the smaller tanks and pashas, ​​the popularity of Crash. We have seen it with Audemars Piguet and its wider spread of 37mm and 39mm Royal Oak models this year, which were previously 44mm and larger.”

Men wear what used to be defined as women’s watches, he says, a distinction that was often just one of size. “They want something more elegant, more sophisticated,” Reiss says. “Which is not to say they want something light in terms of content. They still want complications, they just want them to be smaller.

“When we made our 36mm automatic Tonda PF last year, it was originally designed for ladies, but many men were looking for this size, especially collectors,” says Parmigiani Fleurier CEO Guido Terreni. “Similarly, many women have taken an interest in our 40mm watches.”

Among Parmigiani collectors, Terreni has noticed a preference for smaller boxes. “I don’t think a big bold statement is considered very sophisticated anymore,” he says.

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