The Evolution Of Wrist Watches

Posted by Patrick Enrile on

In the beginning the Watch Gods created the wristwatch, and it was good.

Up until the early 1900s, pocket watches ruled the day for men’s timekeeping fashion. These were worn on a chain in a pocket, either in a vest or trousers. It was considered “sissy” for men to wear watches on their wrists. However, in 1904 Brazilian aviator Alberto Santos Dumont collaborated with his friend Louis Cartier, the famous French watchmaker, to design and create a timepiece for the wrist that could be easily read while flying. Something that wasn’t so clunky and awkward as a pocket watch which Dumont hated to keep having to pull out of his pocket in flight. Thus the Cartier “Santos” was born, and the official birth of a new era in timepiece design: the wristwatch.

The wristwatch really caught on during WWI (circa 1917) where the soldiers had the same needs as Dumont… a convenient timekeeping apparatus that didn’t need to be pulled out of a pocket during stressful action times. Finally, it became not only convenient, but more importantly, fashionable, for men to wear something on their wrists. Thus the Golden Age of the wristwatch began. And it was good.

Things moved forward rather predictably in wristwatch design…. since the mechanical movements were mostly round miniature pocket watch movements, this movement shape dictated the case design…”form follows function”: the mantra of the Art Deco era in the 1920’s. But, innovators like the Gruen watch company, and Bulova Watch Company, began to design and engineer rectangular shaped mechanical movements, thus opening up more design avenues for square and rectangular shaped watches. For the next 30 or 40 years the watch industry made their collective living off wristwatches in the round, square, and rectangular variations of this design theme. Interestingly, from a modern point of view, these watches seem “tiny”. The round shapes were around 28 to 32mm, and the rectangular and squares were in the 26 to 29mm average range. As you can see in the below picture, a Bulova rectangular shaped movement is dwarfed by the Panerai (44mm). The movement, which takes up most of the case, only measures 25mm x 17mm.

And when the movement is placed back in the watch (below), it still only measures 29mm x 20mm, and looks like a “coffee table” for the Panerai. Also pictured is the quintessential dress watch from the 1970’s and 1980’s, The Rolex 18kt gold Cellini, which measures a whopping 31.5mm diameter. This watch belongs to a friend of mine who got it as a graduation gift from college. When I put this on my wrist, I feel like I’m wearing a child’s toy watch! 

Ironically, in the 1970s, all hell broke loose for the established watch industry. The Japanese Quartz revolution won over audiences far and wide, and the Swiss and American watch industries began a slow, descent into oblivion. Ironically, the Japanese Quartz explosion didn’t get very creative with watch design. They kept the same tired designs of the mechanical - round, square, rectangular – 32 to 34mm. The one interesting blip came from the Digital companies like Pulsar. The Pulsar Digital watch, although it had a rectangular shape, bore no resemblance to the watches of the past. And I can honestly say, it was the low point in watch design, although some people thought it was a fantastic design… probably the same people who thought polyester leisure suits looked fashionable.

And then nothing really happened until the mid 1980’s when something very unusual transpired. Cartier released a watch that was big. Not just big, 38mm big. This was a very important concept for the modern watch experience…the bigger the watch, the bolder the statement. Up until this time, the average watch size in round cases was 32 to 34mm. With the realization that the public would buy “oversize” watches, the watch companies realized that they had a whole new, very receptive, audience to sell to…they could sell their existing designs in big sizes. It was like the record companies realizing that they could sell the old vinyl record versions of albums all over again in CD formats…it was like striking gold in their own backyard.

Today, it seems anything under 40mm is a woman’s watch, and many watch models can tip the scales at 55mm. If watches go any larger, we’ll need scaffolding and miniature cranes to attach to our watches to hold up our wrists from the weight.

Of course no one really knows where the next trend will be in watch size and design, but I can safely say that the “oversize” trend will continue into the forseeable future. However, I think we’ll have to redefine the terminology…after all, how can “oversize” be the norm if most new watches average around 42mm.

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