Even just a couple decades ago, if you bought a men’s wristwatch, it was probably small. Really small. Like, just-a-smidge-bigger-than-a-Kennedy-half-dollar small. For nearly as long as men have been wearing watches on their wrists, watches ranged from about 33 to 36 millimeters, and those that were any larger were stylistic outliers and chunky sports watches. In fact, some large watch designs from way back were derided for being unnecessarily big. Oh, how times have changed.
Today watches in the 40 to 42mm range are considered “standard,” and if you’re looking at a chronograph or dive watch there’s a good chance it’s a few millimeters bigger still. This change came recently and quickly, as hulking sports watches from IWC and Panerai became status items in the ’90s and ’00s and as the popularity of sports models from big brands like Rolex lead other makers to creep up case sizes, even if said watches were not actually sport models or did not require a brawny case for any functional purpose. The consensus amongst some prominent watch folk is that this case inflation is a holdover from an era of conspicuous consumption.
This doesn’t mean that every large watch-wearing individual is a braggart or is prone to compensate, but it does mean the big and bold watch has become the norm, which as a result seems to have, in some instances, spurred a bout of neuroticism in the modern watch buyer. There’s an abundance of guides online to “finding the right size watch for your wrist” (Editor's Note: uhh, we actually have one of those now) and forum posts inquiring as to whether or not a watch will fill out an enthusiast’s wrist, wrist circumferences no doubt having been taken with a tape measure and committed to memory. The subtext? Anything too small will look like a ladies watch.
My advice, first and foremost, is to buy whatever the hell you like regardless of size. My second bit of advice is to consider embracing the smallness. In fact, if recent industry trends are any indicator, more small watches are on the way. The vintage watch market is booming right now, and watch collectors have come to love the authentically small case sizes of yore. Watchmakers today have seemingly taken notice, offering dress and sports watches that are closer in size to their forebears. Tudor’s downsized Black Bay Fifty-Eight is a prominent example in dive watch form, coming in at 39mm; Oris, meanwhile, produced a 36mm version of both its Divers Sixty-Five and Big Crown Pointer Date.
So what exactly do you get out of a smaller watch? Comfort, for one. A substantially-sized watch is an ever-present weight upon your wrist, and while some tout “heft” as a signifier of quality, a truly comfortable watch is one that feels like it disappears on your wrist. Thinner, smaller watches are just inherently lighter by virtue of using less material. Further, if your wrist shape is more round than it is flat, a smaller diameter watch will sit more flush with your wrist since there’s less flat surface area.
An argument about aesthetics can be made, too. Large watches have a lot of empty space to deal with, both on the case and dial. Taller, thicker watches tend to have cases that feel slab-sided, while watches large in diameter often have dials with an overabundance of negative space, making the watch feel empty and platter-like. When a case is unnecessarily beefed up in size simply to suit consumer demands, these design missteps become all the more egregious.
Moreso, smaller watches tend to feel more refined. Watches that are gratuitously big don’t feel as purposefully made; hell, making a big watch is relatively easy. But small watches require more planning and working within more constraints. Complex movements need to be engineered to be slim and compact. Cases need to be thin but still strong enough to resist shocks and water pressure. Tolerances between the dial, hands and crystal need to be as tight as possible.
Ostensibly, this is what timekeeping enthusiasm is supposed to be about: celebrating the craftsmanship required to make a tiny, intricate piece of clockwork, not appealing to some aging notion about excess and visibility. A smaller, more discrete watch might not garner as much attention as a shining, hulking wrist piece, but that shouldn’t be why you buy a nice watch in the first place. You should buy it for you.