How to Pick the Right Size Watch for You

You know those “rules” about which watch size is correct for your wrist? Forget about those.

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A few weeks ago, a colleague of mine emailed me with a concern. Did I think his watch was too small? He sent a pic of his wrist, wearing both a large 46mm Samsung Smart watch and a smaller — but still biggish — Timex Expedition, with a big black dial and chunky chronograph pushers. It looked fine to me. “My wrist is 8 inches,” he wrote. “So if you go by the rules, the 41mm Timex is too big.”

What rules was he talking about? The kind that you might find on forums or certain websites that have attempted to distill the ideal watch size into a formulaic function of wrist and case diameters. But I’m here to tell you that it’d be best for watch lovers everywhere if they threw such rigid notions about watch size out the window.

I’ve been writing about watches since 2012, and I’ve heard all the Unwritten (But Often Actually Written) Rules. That if your wrist measured X you couldn’t wear any watches smaller than Y or bigger than Z. That small watches were for ladies. That big watches were on the rise; that small watches were on the rise. That millimeters were all that mattered.

hamilton watch on wrist
The Hamilton Khaki Pilot Pioneer sounds small on paper at only 33mm, but take our word for it that it wears great on almost any wrist.
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Yes, the size of a watch is important to whether you ought to wear it. Hugely important, even, in some cases. But hard-and-fast “rules” are both wildly arbitrary and often more confusing then helpful.

And I say: Throw. Them. Out. The. Window.

Lest we forget, watches can be seen as fashion. Fashion is personal. It’s subjective. And there’s plenty of bad advice out there. So here are some basic truths about watch size: They are not "rules." Check them out. Use them to make up your own watch rules. Then break them at will. Most of all: never again let Google tell you what size watch to wear.

Some Tips

1. Watch size isn’t feminine or masculine

The first wristwatches were “bracelet watches” or “wristlets” worn mostly by women. Soldiers during WWI then strapped pocket watches to their wrists, so as not to miss the appropriate time to fire artillery or charge out of the trenches (or worse, be early). The same debate of the sexes raged then as it does now: was this “wristwatch” thing for ladies or dudes? It’s logical that women, who are smaller than men, might on the whole wear smaller watches than men, who are bigger. But we’ve also genderized the size of a watch to the nth degree.

wwi trench watch
A WWI-era “trench watch”

Watch sizes have vacillated widely over the years, but we tend to ignore that today. At times, lots of dudes would never be caught wearing a watch under a certain arbitrary size — say, 36mm — for fear of being mistaken for a lady. This doesn’t stop ladies (the smarter sex, obviously) from looking fantastic while wearing great big sports watches. We can all learn from this. Both really small and really big watches can be worn by anybody. Best to consider other factors when deciding what you like.

2. Size isn’t just about diameter in millimeters

The diameter of the watch case, in millimeters, is the common indicator of a watch’s size. For men, the “usual” sizes range from 35mm up to 45mm, though plenty of good watches fall outside of that range. But a case’s diameter is only part of the size story. A number of other factors come into play, like a case’s shape, its thickness, the size of the dial opening, the location and size of the crown, whether there’s a bezel (and the bezel’s size), the vertical distance of the lugs (which attach to the strap or bracelet), and even the color of the dial or the shape and thickness of the watch’s crystal.

My 35.5mm Zodiac Sea Wolf, for instance, wears a lot larger on my wrist because of its domed crystal and its “long” lugs. A white dial tends to look larger than a dark one; a bezel can make a watch’s dial, and therefore the watch itself, look larger or smaller, depending on its style. Don’t just look at a watch’s diameter when deciding if it’s the right size for you. Yes, we live in an era of the online watch boutique, but trying it out on your own wrist is the best way to tell if you like its size.

which size advice
A vintage Zodiac Sea Wolf wears larger than its 35mm case might suggest due to its long lugs.

3. Every wrist is different

Speaking of your wrist: it’s your own. Watch nerds talk a lot about the “sweet spot” for watch sizing; in modern parlance, that number is an inflexible range between 38 and 41mm. I say: the sweet spot is more relative than that. How do you find yours? If you’re a quantified type, go ahead and measure your wrist and use that number to narrow down the right potential watch size. Maybe you’re more like me, though; numbers don’t really help.

I’ve figured out my own “sweet spot” at around 34-39mm, by wearing a ton of watches. You might think about your wrist as a wall, and the watch your wearing as a painting. How do you want to fill up that wall today? How much space around the image do you want showing? It’s also worth noting that your “sweet spot” might change over the years, as your style and taste change. Keep an open mind. Try on a big hunk of a watch, or a little one, every once in a while. Maybe you’ll be surprised at how much you like the different size.

4. Size relates to utility.

cartier tank
A formal watch need not be large at all — the smaller-sized Cartier Tank is a case in point.

How are you going to use the watch? Is it formalwear or for camping? Will you wear the watch every day or just on special occasions? You might find you love a huge watch, but when you try to wear it with a suit it looks bad; or that a tiny watch you love wearing everyday doesn’t work for your next big adventure. It’s perfectly possible that you don’t just love smaller watches, or bigger ones, or ones right down the middle — your perfect watch size might depend on the day. And that’s just fine.

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