In the past 20 years or so, watches have gotten big. Really big. Some attribute the rise of the oversized watch to Sylvester Stallone and the revival of Panerai in the ’90s, but big luxury brands like IWC, Breitling, Omega and even Rolex have followed suit with watches far exceeding 40mm in diameter. A 2014 story in the New York Times suggested it pretty much comes down to good ol’-fashioned exhibitionism. Why spend big money on a new luxury watch if no one will notice it? “In an age when cell phones have largely eliminated the need for a timepiece, the monster wristwatch serves another purpose, as a holdout of permissibly conspicuous consumption,” wrote Guy Trebay.
Thing is, the luxury watch industry isn’t in such great shape. But you know what’s going gangbusters? The vintage watch market. And don’t think Switzerland hasn’t noticed. To capitalize on this, the predominant trend in the industry right now seems to be a more faithful reimagining of old references and design cues. That, of course, means smaller cases. Considering most watches from the ’50s and ’60s tend to sit somewhere around 34mm to 36mm, many recent releases with enthusiast cred don’t stray far from that size.
And while we expect more and more brands to follow suit with future releases, there are plenty of great watches you can find right now that fit in a modest-sized sweet spot from 38mm to 36mm in diameter.
Timex Archive Waterbury United Stainless Steel and Webbing Watch
Part of Timex’s vintage-inspired Archive series, the (deep breath) Waterbury United Stainless Steel and Webbing Watch has the looks of an old-school American field watch, with a 38mm case to match.
A member of Seiko’s beloved SKX family of affordable, mechanical dive watches, its 37mm case sets it apart as especially modest for a diver.
This three-hander from Brooklyn-based Martenero features a Japanese-made automatic movement, comes in four distinct colorways, and has a nicely shaped 38mm case.
It’s Nomos’s most affordable (and underrated) watch. Comes with an in-house handwinding movement and a reserved 36mm case.
Tudor Heritage Black Bay 36
The Black Bay 36 became somewhat of a champion for downsized watches when it was unveiled at Baselworld last year. Its 36mm case is a drastic change in size from the standard 41mm Black Bay.
IWC Pilot’s Watch Automatic 36mm
Though somewhat overshadowed by its larger sibling, the 40mm Mark XVIII, the Pilot’s Watch Automatic 36mm might be a better homage to the original IWC pilot watch of the ’40s, which was also 36mm.
Zenith El Primero Heritage 146
Zenith’s El Primero line is full of variants, some good, some (very) questionable. But its latest edition, the Heritage 146, is what enthusiasts have all been waiting for, with its perfect vintage deign and 38mm case.
Breitling Transocean Chronograph 38
Technically, it was launched as a ladies’ watch some time ago. But the Transocean’s 38mm case is perfect for anyone who wants a handsome and modestly sized chronograph.