Big Watches. Why? Some Theories . . .

Big watches - Panerai MS Dhoni Flyback Chronograph

Big watches. Big mystery. A few years back, a 40mm diameter watch case size became the new normal. Back before Woodstock, a man’s dress watch was 32mm. Young’uns don’t know it wasn’t always like this. Or perhaps they think men were pygmies a generation or two back. The times, they changed. But why? . . .

First, I admit I’m one of those hidebound traditionalists who thinks 34mm is the right size. I’m old enough to have been born into this notion. People will call me an emaciated hipster, and there is truth in that. I do have smaller wrists. (I feel like “Oscar Klosoff, wrist size: 6.5” should be listed after my name in every article.) Hopefully, I won’t find out how much weight gain’s required to swell appreciably near a joint.

Anachronistic? Guilty as charged. I only like change when I find coins on the ground. For all the durability and legacy talk that comes from the mechanical watch proponents, watches a generation or so old are generally considered unwearable by modern enthusiasts. Can’t we just turn back time and keep things from changing? Apparently not.

Sylvester Stallone Made You Do It?

Big watches - Sylvester Stallone wearing RM 25-01

The conventional wisdom explaining big watches: the Sylvester Stallone Panerai myth (frequently promulgated by RF). Color me skeptical. Are there any other styles that have been affected by action stars that are now septuagenarians? Terminator Gargoyles sunglasses. Red headbands?

We’re to believe that just this one outlier trend stuck around for over two decades. I’m not buying it. What are the real reasons – or at least more plausible, possible reasons?

Obesity Crisis -> Big Watches

G-Shock G-011D Cube (8)

It’s a first world problem, but people are bigger nowadays. They’re more wider than they are taller. It doesn’t take an advanced study to know that fatter people equals wider wrists, and proportions need to be adjusted. Old Sly has beefy limbs from weight routines beyond 12 ounce curls.

But fat people have always existed, and no special accommodations were previously needed. Al Capone was stocky enough but sufficed with a Rolex Prince sized like a Cartier Tank. Watch collectors have long been old fat white guys (OFWG’s) as well. It’s not like other fashions are accommodating the plus sized, and scrawny people wear these 40mm+ watches too.

Staring at screens, wrecking our eyes

Big watch - IWC Big Pilot

In a similar societal trend, our collective vision is probably deteriorating worse than past generations. (I mean eyesight, just to be clear.) We all stare at electronic screens at a near distance way too much and it is taking its toll. Is this trend born of corneal and macular degeneration?

Despite the O in FOWG being for old, I doubt it. Vision correction is better than ever as well. Besides, this is style, a game of the young. An old man will buy a car meant for a young man but not vice versa.

Masculinity Crisis -> Big Watches

Bruce Willis wearing Todd Snyder

Are we not men? Apologies to either female reader, but we’re generally talking men’s watches here. Women’s watches are less affected, which further discounts the age and obesity rationales. I’m not saying that women are getting older and fatter, but I’m not not saying it either.

I was going to make an argument about males feeling neutered by modern society and culture grasping at an exaggerated symbol of masculinity, as begat the lumbersexual trend a while back. Maybe I’m blaming the victim here.

Regardless, it’s likely that watches endured a sort of runaway selection where bigger meant more manly (meant more desirable) and a little cyclic reinforcement took things to ungainly extremes. To be evolutionary, the male presents and the female selects. Cherchez la femme!

Informality Crisis

Bell & Ross BR05 motorcycle helmet

The ability of a watch to fit under a fitted shirt cuff is of major importance to me; I wear long sleeve buttoned shirts almost year round. I’m in the minority there. Common male garb seems to be the underwear that is T-shirts, or some other short sleeve knit. This might tie into the obesity thing, as that would explain why they don’t get cold.

Few of the cargo shorts cult are wearing dress watches. It’s sports watches, divers, and practical limitations on size are all but gone.

Planned Obsolescence

1947 First Rolex Tudor

This could just be the marketing trick of varying styles to increase consumption. In the mid 1990’s several brands sold something literally labeled as “THE BIG SHIRT” because big, baggy, puffy was the style. Within a generation the powers that be have switched it so that every shirt is tagged ‘slim fit’ – despite the populace getting ever fatter.

Watches don’t need replacement that often (unless you lend them to a toddler). Factories need to stay in business and designers must innovate new, truly desirable looks or features to maintain demand. Not really, but some still try. The lazy route is to just bump up the size if that tricks people into thinking their watch is outdated.

There may be an extra layer of duping going on. If people are convinced that these largely empty watch cases actually constitute a beefier or more premium device, prices can rise while, in most cases, only some additional cheap metal casing and plastic spacer plastic has been added.

Big Watches, Bad Taste

Richard Mille watches horsehead on wrist

This is my subjective, holistic, opinion that entails most previous theories. I could be elitist and cite Paul Fussell’s term of prole drift:  “an inevitable attendant of mass production, mass selling, mass communication, and mass education” that leads to continual cultural debasement.

Support for this comes from the people that openly favor humongous watches and deride traditional proportions. They rarely speak of beauty, function, or technology. The common refrain is “hur hur you got a small wrist! I’m a real man, need big watch!”

I wish I had a cheerier, more charitable answer. I do not. The unified theory is based almost entirely on crassness. And the worst part is that I find myself agreeing with those snooty hipsters over at the Dinkee. Worse yet, perhaps, is that there is no way to reverse this. The pendulum may swing the other way at some point, but it seems out of my, and your, hands.

Off-Topic

If any tour guide or docent in a museum or historical house gives the line about low doorways and small beds being because colonists were short people, please set them straight. The average height has only shot up in the last century or less, and outside some freakish Scandinavian countries, it’s just not that extreme.

Roofs and doorways were low because heating was a bitch when you had to chop firewood, and every inch of headroom also meant more work and material to build the house and less chance of it being all that sound. Beds were short because they did not fully recline because of a belief that this was bad for breathing.

24 comments

  1. Can you please provide the model designation for the G-shock illustrated? Thanks! This was an interesting read, but you seem to be taking a rational approach to a completely irrational situation. Watches today are not so much tools as they are style, personal adornment, status symbols for some and entertainment for others. Who looks for logic in fashion and passion? I feel there’s room for every taste in our hobby, even if there’s nor room for some watches under every cuff.

    1. I agree that we are in an irrational situation! I’ve heard of ‘the kids these days’ wearing analog watches they can’t read, not even set to the right time. Matt Farah admitted that he never set the date on his watches till he got a perpetual calendar. As one that thinks form should follow function, this is insanity to me.

    2. The G-Shock “Cube” has become one of my favorites. It’s such a different shape that it defies the watch size conventional wisdom. I think it fits my 7 inch wrist just fine. In the end, I don’t care… I just like it! Here’s a photo that didn’t make the cut on the review article.

  2. Oh no, Oscar Klosoff smells that sweet, sweet Rolex flipping money (Rolex flipping is to 2020/2021 as being a mortgage broker was to 2007/2008) and is auditioning for HoDinkee.

    All hopeful kidding aside the sweet spot for a lot of men for watches has been 40-42mm, and has been for a long time. The most iconic watch from the most iconic watch company has not gone outside that range since it was introduced in 1953.

    In the 1990s and 2000s there were some very large watches, primarily from the Richemont brands pictured in this article. Those brands have significantly fallen out of favor since then.

    They were probably using that size to justify their pricing compared to more reasonably sized watches from the much stronger brand Rolex.

    I personally cannot wear anything below 40mm without it looking cartoonishly small, and above 42/43mm is too big. I have had to sell watches that fall outside that range on both sides.

    And people are getting taller and having larger frames. Actual height statistics bear that out, nobody needs to use furniture and house framing to approximate things. Something not so politically correct to point out is that America actually actually compares very well with Northern Europe on height and many other statistics when only including the Americans from Northern Europe. So despite the overall American height averages there is a significant group of outliers. Taller people also make more money, so they are likely overrepresented in the $5,000 – $10,000 watch buying demographic.

    On the topic of height, another issue is that many modern, robust automatic movements are having a bit of a height issue, and larger cases help make that height more proportionate to the diameter. There are watches in the 44 – 45mm range that I wish were a bit smaller, but their movements are so tall that they would start to look disproportionate. As new movements come out I expect to see a renewed focus on reducing height.

    1. I presume you mean the Submariner, which is of course a dive watch. I give those some leeway as their presumed purpose necessitates the size: they are pressure vessels with a bezel and meant to be seen underwater! Some ABTW article that I chose not to reference claimed some Cartier watch dared to go huge at 38mm circa 1998 and thus set things off. Is that more than one author’s opinion?

      You’re on to something with the issue of stretching diameter to hide thickness. There’s a fairly narrow ratio of thickness to diameter before the stoutness becomes excessive. The Marathon GPM at 12/34 looks like a brick.

      1. I have a lot of respect for Cartier, but think it is irrelevant here. Brands like IWC, Panerai, and Breitling (which were never particularly small) went chasing after Rolex and used larger size to demonstrate more value. About 10 years ago people realized that those sizes were a bit too cartoonish, and started going back to the 40 – 42mm sweet spot. The brands that went big have been rushing to get new models into that 40 – 42mm range.

        1. Yeah, I was on Wall St right before the financial crisis and I still think that was peak Big Watch – everyone had a Hublot or some other monstrosity. It feels like it’s moderated somewhat. I think 42 is the new 36.

  3. I like the prole drift idea, but I’m a tall guy, so I don’t feel guilty about wearing a watch proportinal to my size. I wear my vintage pieces, but 34 mm is small.

    You also left out one key fact: watches are really the only sociable acceptable jewelry (that and wedding bands and class rings) for men to wear. So why not go big or go home? It’s all well and good for Fussell to mock other people’s pretensions. He had a Yale degree and tenure.

    1. I tried to give the Fussell sampling a chance, but a blowhard pissing about special orders at bookstores, network television, and taxis has become as irrelevant as bookstores, network television, and taxis. And for better or worse beer has never been more hopped up.

    2. Well, I may sound like Fussell if I equate large watches to large belt buckles or large hats. I’m a throwback to the age when miniaturization of devices was the sign of progress and status. IMHO ‘bigger is better’ is a sure sign of prole drift.

      And yes, the examples from ~1981 are outdated. I was baffled at the reference to sweet beer as the micro brew, or craft beer, revolution has been an exception to prole drift.

      1. An Apple computer that fits on the wrist generates significantly more revenue than the Swiss watch industry, so I would argue miniaturization is still popular.

        The entire world has been an exception to the prole drift argument, which is based on this idea that there will be a convergence in consumption when there has in fact been a massive technology driven divergence.

        The most popular luxury watch brand in the world has not changed its popular model sizing significantly from the 1950s, so I would argue that this whole oversized watch thing is based on a trend that died about ten years ago and was limited primarily to some now unpopular Richemont models.

          1. Apple sizes its watches on height. The 44mm model is 38mm wide. The 40mm model is 34mm wide.

  4. I think all of these factors are at play. As an acknowledged elitist, I put the most weight on some combination of a) men are getting fatter and b) less of a need to fit “under” something.

    When I was 80lbs heavier, my 36mm Seamaster looked small on my wrist, now it looks perfectly proportional, and my 42mm Explorer – not considered an exceptionally large watch by current standards – is HUGE.

    If I needed a unified theory, I would say that, as fewer people wear watches, those who do want them to stand out more, to be noticed by people who don’t really pay attention that much. Kind of like expensive streetwear.

    1. I focused too narrowly on wrist size, which presumably doesn’t change that much with weight gain. The whole picture matters, and a stockier forearm and hammier hand will alter visual balance.

      I’d be outside the peacocking crowd, but that may be because I’m outside the high end as well. There exists an aspect of “I spent a lot on this watch and I want people to notice it” and immodest size billboards better.

  5. Can I put something here to complain about Grand Seiko? I really like some of their sport watches, but mein Gott, they are big. The J239 and C203 are up my alley but both of them are 44mm! Is that a Spring Drive thing? I don’t want a dinner plate on my wrist.

    1. They’re either too big or too small. Personall 40-44 is my sweetspot and can, on occasion go up to 45. Panerais at 47 are comical.

    2. GS is trying to make some very thick movements, both on the Spring Drive and automatic sides, look proportionate. I have looked at the SBGE257 a couple times, but while the diameter is reasonable it’s over 14mm thick.

  6. I like big watches, and I cannot lie…

    I have found that I’ve acclimated to bigger watches via my G-Shock “evolution” over the past year.

    My wrist is 7 inches…. at the edge of “average.” But, I don’t mind big watches, and I have to admit liking the legibility that usually (but now always) comes with them.

    1. Note–as smart watches go, the Apple Watch is on the larger side (and the Garmins even larger). Compare to Fitbit, or the discontinued Microsoft Band. The Microsoft Band was tiny, a thin bracelet. Its display, if I remember correctly, was a single (OLED) line of text. It’s interesting to consider why that form factor (which was also Fitbit’s) failed.

      1. In fairness, the iWatch has much more functionality. As you note, the early fitness gizmos had a supermodern sleekness to them, looking all Star Trek and not like a conventional watch. I think it was common for them to be worn in addition to a normal watch, so the whole time display was rather secondary.

  7. When the display became divorced from the module/movement, very small and very large wristwatches became possible. I have a Swatch “skin” watch–does anyone remember those? Very small, or very thin watches are neat, but even smaller is not wearing a watch at all.

    Now that every device includes a digital clock, many of the few people who still wear wristwatches want something more convenient than pulling out their phone–hence, lume, because your phone is backlit. And, hence, large watch faces–because a watch is no longer a backup way to know what time it is (that’s what your phone is for…) but rather a primary statement.

    1. The size of the guts inside adds another layer of comedy for me, at least with the gargantuan fashion watches with the tiny quartz movement inside. I showed how the dinky Snapple promo watch was largely plastic spacer inside, so I can’t imagine the lonely island movements inside some of these modern mall clunkers.

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