Why Size Matters (But Not In The Way You Think It Does)

If you had been able to travel in time, you would see interesting things. The manliest of men would be wearing watches in the 1920s (those that already made the transition from a pocket watch to a wristwatch) that today even many women would find too small. Sizes did increase in the decades afterward, perhaps being best on point in the 1950s, when 36mm was about average for many men’s watches. Watches became larger after that, and in the late 1960s and early 1970s, oversized became popular. As the quartz crisis wreaked havoc, sizes went down with it, but as the renaissance of watchmaking took place, sizes slowly but surely went up again. This leaves us with a wide variety of differently sized vintage and modern watches to choose from, often even within the same brand to choose from.

It is all about the right proportions
The fact that a manly watch has to be large or at least 38/40/42/44mm is a myth. It is all about the right proportions in relation to the wrist that you have. In today’s’ world, we have gotten used to the fact that the watch covers the entire top of our wrist while showing a bit of bracelet or strap on either side results in a far better composition. Smaller watches often give a more refined vibe, bringing us to another word that most men find very emasculating; elegant. Over the years, this has become a word that we mostly associate with women, while men can be elegant as well. A nice cut suit, a sharp-looking shirt, a fine pair of shoes, combined with taste; that’s male elegance, and a matching watch is mandatory. Sure, you can wear your Rolex Deepsea Sea-Dweller with it, but why would you?

Three Tank Louis Cartier; CPCP (left), Jumbo White Gold (middle), and XL (right)

When it comes to proportions, it is essential to keep in mind a few basic rules. For a men’s watch, the smaller it is, the thinner it needs to be. If a small watch becomes too thick, it changes the way we perceive it. An excellent example of this is the Tank Louis Cartier. The pre-CPCP version measures only 33.5 x 25.5 mm, yet by powering it by the ultra-thin Frédéric Piguet caliber 21 La Maison kept the watch slim and made it therefor perfect for a gentleman’s wrist.

White gold Rolex Day-Date in classic 36mm size

Smaller watches like this will probably take many men a bit out of their comfort zone. Still, it is an adventure that pays out its dividend, as smaller watches seem in general to be better at standing the test of time, for the reason that they are often referred to as a ‘classic.’ While Rolex has offered the Day-Date in larger sizes, to me, the 36mm version is still the only one. Here are also the individual dimensions of the different parts that play a role, because as a watch grows larger, so does its individual components. Wherewith the 36mm Day-Date I find the bezel elegant, with its larger siblings, I find them a bit much. Of course, beauty is still in the eye of the beholder, and either way is right, just don’t let you persuade towards the larger watch, just because it is larger.

Don’t go for plain numbers
To determine if a size is right for you, you need to try out the watch. There is no substitute for it, as numbers alone can throw you off. Most watches don’t wear the size that they are. For example, the thickness of the bezel can do a lot to how you perceive a watch. A thick bezel makes a watch look smaller, while a very thin one does the opposite. The same goes for the color of the dial, as lighter ones tend to make a watch look larger. This means that it could very well be that a 40mm watch with a thicker bezel, perhaps even combined with a black dial, looks smaller on your wrist than a 38mm one with a slender bezel and silver dial.

The Octo Finissimo’s thinness ensures that it sits perfectly on the wrist despite its generous diameter

The overall thickness of a watch also plays an essential role in this. Most wrists can handle larger watches if they are thin. A great example of this is the Octo Finissimo by Bulgari. As this watch is essentially a square measuring 40mm by 40mm, it is a substantial watch for most wrists. However, because it is only 5.15mm high, this changes everything. The watch not only looks better on the wrist, but it also sits better, as thinner (and lighter) watches increase wearing comfort.

Small and thin are far more challenging
The larger and thicker a watch or movement, the easier it is to make. There is simply more room, and that makes it that tolerances are much more forgiving. This is one of the reasons why I always say that ultra-thin watches are a complication of their own. Most men don’t take this into account, but smaller and thinner watches challenge watchmakers exponentially more. Smaller diameters of a movement make, for example, the power distribution of a watch much more difficult. A smaller mainspring means that less power is available, to begin with, and especially when you also need to power complications, it is quite challenging. In a thin movement, the tolerances between the individual gears also require considerable expertise and craftsmanship, not only to make them but also to assemble. I can go on and on about this, and probably will in an article to come, but when you realize this, it also changes the perception of the cool-factor of smaller and thin watches.

5 thoughts on “Why Size Matters (But Not In The Way You Think It Does)

  1. I agree. The lugs can also play tricks with one’s perception too. Eg the Royal Oak 41mm is actually much bigger than that if you add the lugs. The Tank has probably the best visual on the wrist because the brancards are short and discreet, and sit comfortably under the shirt sleeve.

    1. Couldn’t agree more. Also, the angle of the lugs can make a big difference. In my experience, larger watches with smaller lugs tend to sit much better on the wrist. It is all very particular, and a proper challenge for a watch designer to get it all right so that the watch not only looks good in the window display, but can also be worn in comfort, radiating the same beauty.

  2. Another excellent article by Mr. Green. Thank you for sharing.

    There are so many truisms buried within the ‘one size doesn’t fit all’ way of thinking, and trying a watch on often will surprise ones expectations I have found.

    While I’m certainly no aficionado as are Mr. Green and Mr. Cramer, I have also noticed the lug width having much influence as to the watches overall presence on my wrist, specifically with leather straps. My Cartier Tank MC comes to mind. The strap adds in my opinion to the overall appearance and presence on my wrist. I’m 6’4” and 225 lbs and I enjoy larger watches when wearing short sleeves yet prefer smaller/ thinner timepieces when wearing long sleeves and much prefer smaller and thinner watches when wearing long sleeves and a sweater.

    Excellent article!


  3. Wonderful article. I have a 1920s art deco Longines tank that fits this description. It’s 41.5mm long but only 20.5mm wide, yet it looks great.

    1. Sounds like you have a true gem on your wrist, especially since Longines excelled not only aesthetically but also technically in those days.

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