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The preference for smaller watches is often evident in subtle ways, such as saying "I'm more of a vintage fan." This statement implies that modern watches tend to be larger than their mid-century counterparts. But why does one's design preference seem to be closely linked to the diameter of the watch case? Mark Cho, in a presentation at the horological society of NY two years ago, argued that modern men tend to perceive their own wrist size as too small due to the trend of larger watches. It is unclear what exactly drives this trend. Is it a symbol of masculinity? Or is it popularized by certain brands like Panerai? It's possible that there is even a technical necessity behind the trend. Regardless, the popularity of larger watches has become well-established in the modern watch world. But is this trend unique to modern watches or do historical trends also show variation in watch sizes? Let's take a closer look at the factors that influence watch sizes and the trends of the 20th century.


Before the wristwatch, pocket watches were the standard timekeeping devices. These watches ranged in size from mid-20mm to over 50mm. However, in 1904, everything changed when Alberto Santos Dumont ordered the first wrist-worn watch for men from his friend Louis Cartier, which was dubbed the Cartier Santos. In the early days of wristwatches, the diameter of watches rarely exceeded 30mm. In fact, at the beginning, watch manufacturers competed to build not only better but also smaller watches. The size of the case and watch was a symbol of optimization of the mechanical wonder that is the wristwatch. Size as a defining factor for technological prowess might actually be a central motive behind the size of watches.


This becomes especially apparent when we look at the size of field watches which began to see the light of day during the first world war as soldiers first began straping their pocket watches on leather straps for easier access to their timekeaping accessory during combat. As a result, the different armies wanted a massproduced and streamlined alternative for their respective soldiers, leading to watch manufacturers switching their production towards simple wristwatches distinguished by their simple case and dial design as well as uncomplicated interior complications. Ease of editing and handeling were thereby key, leading to the development of small watches that didn't get in the way during combat. 


The trend of smaller watches was continiued throughout the first half of the 20th century, as aforementioned watches found their way into civilian after the first world war. In the following art déco era, the design became more heavily adorned, leading to more complicated designs also using more precious metals and new case shapes like the Cartier Tank, which, influenced by the newly introduced tanks of the preceding war, broke the monotony in design as circular cases became stale. Other shapes like the tonneau or carré cases followed, but those also rarely surpassed the size of 30mm in either dimension, as the watches were lacking any sprawling complications that would have led to bloated cases. With the great depression and the following second world war, heavily ornamented watches yet again became neither affordable nor wanted, with individuals and nations fighting in the war striving for simple and compact watches.


As we move ahead into the 1950s and 60s, tool watches emerge as the next trend. These watches were built with utility in mind, and this meant certain restrictions on how the case could be designed. With the growing popularity of diving and chronograph watches in the offset of the booming fifties, the average size of wristwatches grew as the complications needed space to be implemented on the dial, bezel as well as the movement themself. The growth of the watch case can also be interpreted as a newly found understanding of status as the prospect of yet again unlimited economical growth in a flourishing postwar society set new standards and opportunities for self-fulfillment.


This trend towards ever bigger watches can be observed in data as well, being visualized in the heat map. Over the last 80 years, there has been a general increase in average case sizes. However, this increase is not happening gradually across all possible diameter levels. Interestingly, there are certain case diameters that appear to be the norm, including 34mm, 35mm, 36mm, and 40mm. These diameters peaked at different times, with 35mm and 36mm reaching their heights in the mid-1940s, 34mm in the late 1950s, 40mm during the late 20th century, and 36mm peaking in the 1980s. Furthermore, it is appearant that throughout the entire 20th century, case diameters ranging from 37mm to 39mm were essentially obsolete, despite falling between two of the most common diameters. This indicates that certain watch archetypes have established an unofficial norm for the acceptable size of a watch case.


As we've mentioned before, and as evident in the top graphic, tool watches are typically larger than their dress watch counterparts, and this is not by accident. For instance, if you want a dive watch to be water-resistant to 100m, 200m, or even 300m or more, the watch and the case must be sturdier. This entails fitting gaskets and adapting the case construction to reinforce the watch, particularly for deeper dives. Additionally, legibility, such as dial diameter, is another critical factor to consider. Similarly, chronograph watches, like tool watches, need to be slightly larger to accommodate additional functionality, such as complications and subsidiary dials. However, the increasing size of chronograph watches, as well as dive watches, over time cannot be solely attributed to functionality.


Between the mid-1960s and late 1970s, there was a fascinating trend in the watch industry. Both chronograph and dive watches experienced a significant increase in size, by approximately 5mm from their 1950s levels. However, by the beginning of the 1980s, these watches had shrunk by around 3mm. This provides us with the first evidence that fashion can drive changes in watch case designs, rather than utility or technological advancements. The 1970s were a period of experimentation and freedom in watch design, with brands pushing the boundaries and consumers seeking chronographs with a sense of daring charisma. Thus, it was the perfect time to embrace sturdy and rugged timepieces.


When discussing large watches, it is easy to overlook smaller timepieces. Historically, the smallest watches have always been dress watches, intended to fit discreetly under a suit cuff. Interestingly, while the rest of the watch industry has been trending towards larger case sizes, dress watches have actually been decreasing slightly in size. Since the late 1960s, they have settled around 32mm to 33mm. It appears that the most classic design archetype is the least influenced by fashion and trends, at least in terms of case dimensions. This is not surprising, as dress watch designs are intended to be simple and understated. After all, why would you need a 44mm case for a time-only movement measuring just 25mm?


Combining all the information we have gathered, we can see that watch sizes have been increasing since the mid-20th century, rather than just in recent years. Almost every bump and change in the size distribution can be attributed to marketing efforts. In the early days of watches, the best ones were those that had the same functionality but required less space. Manufacturers competed to create the smallest mechanical wonders, showcasing their technological prowess. This trend continued until the 1950s when new watch functionalities emerged, including dive watches, sports watches, and sporty chronograph hybrids. These watches were designed to withstand harsh environments, and their robustness was reflected in their appearance.


The trend towards larger watches peaked during the 1970s, a time of space exploration and everyday adventures. Brands went above and beyond what was necessary in terms of durability, catering to the recreational diving, air travel, and racing markets. Looking ahead to the present day, the factors driving watch size distribution in the 2020s are still a matter of debate. However, it is likely that marketing will continue to play a significant role in shaping the market. The emphasis will likely be on recognition and skill, rather than necessity. Advertisements may tout features like eight days of power reserve as amazing, even though they are not strictly necessary.

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