Whenever I’m checking the forums, I constantly encounter posts implying that the size of a watch determines it as a ladies’ or gents’ watch. Or, for that matter, that a 36 or 38mm watch will be “too small.” When I see that, I can’t help but laugh, especially when it comes to vintage watches.
When I try to get to the bottom of people’s concerns, the main reason behind it all seems to be fashion.
First of all, with vintage watches fashion is at best a redundant concept. Realistically, also a noxious one, which gives you hardly anything but discomfort. Yes, it takes the comfort of applying the bigger picture of vintage watches in general to what we wear, and gives absolutely nothing in return.
Well, maybe it does – it gives fashionistas, who so selflessly provide a sharp contrast to the WIS, and the WIS making the killjoys scuttle is beyond enjoyable a view.
“But 30mm is a ladies’ watch size”, some write in tons of angry posts, willingly or unwillingly being the killjoys to the happy new owners of vintage watches. Ummm, no. It isn’t, and it never really was. Why?
That’s because it always was about the proportions, not the diameter. There is no strength in numbers, not here, not in this case.
In the process of design, can you make a 28-38mm watch a ladies’ watch? Of course. But merely with manipulating the finishing, the size of numerals, the size of the logo and proportions of hands, you can do the same to a 46mm watch.
Small Gents’ Watches – The Background
Early wristwatches often were equipped with “repurposed” ladies’ pendant watch movements. These often measured from 10 to 13 lignes, which is perfectly in line with today’s standards for wristwatch movements.
While it was always the standard for ladies’ watches to be smaller than gents’ ones, this pushed the trend for very small ladies’ watches. Until as late as 1980, ladies’ watches very rarely exceeded 26-27mm in diameter.
That was actually the upper limit for these. Watches of that size were often either more rugged models with waterproof cases or out of necessity, in order to house an automatic movement. Self-winding movements rarely or never were quite as small as hand-wound movements, in order to keep an acceptable efficiency of winding.
Needless to say, the use of movements smaller than the standard for gents’ pocket watch movements was seen as something of a compromise in terms of accuracy.
It really didn’t take long for gents’ wristwatches to become the main area of an arms race between the manufacturers. Each of them wanted to show their technological and engineering prowess by offering the best accuracy in the smallest possible package. Hence, gents’ watches measuring 27-30mm in diameter were at the height of popularity back in the 1920s, 1930s, and into the 1940s.
That popularity has only declined circa 1960.
During that time, brands like Rolex have made quite a lot of small watches, which were to be the benchmark for ruggedness. Oyster Raleigh, the Oyster Speedking… these aren’t exactly ladies’ watch names. That’s because they were never intended to be that.
Bulova, on the other hand, has marketed the most rugged (and sized 30mm tops!) watches as a recommended purchase for the military personnel. The Air Warden and the Military Watertight. Speaking of the Air Warden – the 1941 model, also called the Nighthawk, measured 26mm. The marketing slogan for the Watertight and the Nighthawk was “Designed for the men in service.”
So, what makes such a small gents’ watch a gents’ watch? Proportions, proportions, proportions.
If you want to make it look like a ladies’ watch, all you need is to make it look like the features of the dial are squeezed in a small package. But if you simply downsize the features of a bigger watch, keep the same proportions, levels of detail and finishing, it’d be more than odd to call the result a ladies’ watch.
So, How Does It Feel to Wear a 28mm Watch?
Surprisingly comfortable. Of course, with the mindset still infested by the invasive fashion concepts of today, it takes some time to get used to it. Took me a day. Then again, it also takes time to get used to a larger watch.
I simply don’t feel the main concern of most vintage watch would-be wearers: “what will the people say?” The only correct answer is: they won’t say anything because, for the most part, they don’t care. Besides, you should feel comfortable with a watch, not everyone around you.
The very first thing to remember about vintage watches: they may be out of fashion, but they’re never out of style.
Most Popular Watch Sizes 1930-1990
The trend for “behemoths” has only been introduced in the 1990s, with the rise of fashion watch brands. They were (and are) usually oversized pieces equipped with tiny quartz movements. Sadly, the trend has migrated to the offer of established manufacturers as well.
The basic range of sizes was 30-36mm. 37 and 38mm were considered oversized. Not that they weren’t produced in fairly large volumes because brands like Doxa and Tissot had quite a lot of models sized 38mm, and they’re anything but hard to find.
Dress/casual watches rarely went over 40mm, with the notable example of that being the original IWC Portuguese, which was a true behemoth of its time. The 43mm case diameter was, however, forced by the size of the pocket watch movement that it housed.
Tool watches had slightly different criteria of size. They were designed for maximum durability and legibility, so they were on the larger side, often crossing the upper limit for dress/casual watches by quite a few millimeters.
The exception are time-only military watches, these rarely were sized above 36mm. In that respect, a notable exception is the Beobachtungsuhr (B-Uhr) made for the Luftwaffe. These watches were equipped with a 19’’’ pocket watch movement with an indirectly driven sweep second, and the case measured a whopping 55mm. Then again, they were meant to be worn over the pilot’s jacket, not directly on the wrist.
IWC’s homage to the B-Uhr (IWC was one of the original manufacturers of these), the Big Pilot’s Watch, at 46mm seems almost reasonably sized, when compared to the original 55mm, which was nothing short of a Goliath.
The original Panerai watches made for the Marina Militare weren’t small ones either, at 47mm. The chunky Oyster case (these watches were made for Panerai by Rolex) housing a fairly large and heavy pocket watch movement (ebauches by Cortebert and one Angelus alarm movement) could be anything but small. The size was forced by the fact of the watch having to live up to the required capabilities in terms of accuracy and water resistance.
Obviously, there were other “behemoths” of their time as well – the 44mm Universal Geneve for A. Cairelli, the original Longines Avigation with an open-face pocket chronograph movement etc.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the tool watch size has moved up from the range of 27-36mm, the range that we remember from the 1930s and 1940s.
The Omega Speedmaster, first sized 39.7mm, moved to a 42mm diameter with the introduction of the asymmetric case.
While diver watches mostly remained at 37-39mm, the popular EPSA Super-Compressor case has moved the range slightly up, with the available sizes being 38 and 42mm. EPSA-cased GMT/world time watches by Enicar got as large as 43mm (due to the rotating bezel for the world time function).
The 1990s and early 2000s have seen a massive increase in popularity of massively oversized watches. However, most of them – frankly – have the massive size as a visual design feature only, with no actual reason for it in terms of the capabilities or the movement.
Currently, the manufacturers are releasing more and more reissues of models from the past, and while sometimes these are bigger than the original ones, often the size is kept as it was decades ago.
For example, while the recent reissue of the Heuer Autavia is much bigger than the 1960s original, the Longines Heritage Conquest measures 35mm, as it did in the 1950s.
Timex went a step further with the reissue of the 1960s Marlin. Like the original, it measures 34mm, and it has been received extremely well by the collectors’ community. Not that the people who like their watches big didn’t criticize it, however, such reactions are – fortunately – in the minority.
Ones who go as far as calling these pieces “ladies’ watches” are usually quickly brought to order by the community, which reaction of the community I most sincerely applaud. The implementation of common sense sometimes takes a bit of a shock therapy to be to any avail, and it seems entirely in place to use it against notions quite as erroneous.
Some manufacturers, like Invicta and their recently acquired subsidiary, Glycine, consistently try to present massive watches as popular, and Glycine’s recent increase in the size of certain models justified by them as “pushing the trend for big watches” is an example of that.
However, looking at the novelties from the last few Baselworlds, I dare say that the trend has died a natural and timely death. Pushing the trend for big watches seems, at best, like turning the loose screw.
Within the range of 26mm and up, especially in the case of vintage watches (well, the lower end of that range is pretty much limited to vintage watches only), size is not the factor that defines a watch as ladies’ or gents’. As said before, it’s all about the design and proportions.
If knowing the nature of vintage watch sizes is of little help in encouraging you to wear your vintage watches (should you have just found yourself owning one by means of inheriting it, or if you’re just getting into the hobby), let me put it this way – it’s all about your mindset, which, believe you me, is no big deal to reform. Seen people do it rather quickly, didn’t take me long either.
People rarely care anyway. Only the WIS will notice, but since the WIS know the bigger picture it’s OK.
You can always give a short lecture about vintage watches, as a proper bit of knowledge and history is always the best way to overpower doubts. Keeps the wit in shape, and there’s a chance that you’ve just planted some common sense in an otherwise vacant mind.
Jokes aside, let the actual historical context define the comfort of wearing a watch. It’s you who has to like the watch you’re wearing, not everybody else.
It’s always best to build your own preferences on a solid foundation.