36 is the new 42: Why Watch Sizes are Trending Down

Mechanical watches are famously complicated machines with hundreds of parts and centuries of rich tradition and culture. So it's perhaps a little surprising that broadly speaking, we've managed to reduce this fabulously complicated topic into a handful of arbitrary rules that we've collectively accepted as received wisdom. Date window bad, in-house good, and 36mm too small. Except this lowest-common-denominator comments section analysis of watch style is, frankly, rubbish. While we could passionately argue for date windows and ETA movements, today, we're going to talk about the question of size. Who would have thought that watch guys would get so caught up on a few measly millimetres? 


Let's examine this question of size in just a bit more detail. The typical description of watch size is a single measurement, diameter, excluding the crown. This is obviously an incredibly reductive take. You can't reduce a complex three-dimensional object into one number and get an accurate understanding of what it's like to wear. There are so many other factors; the lug-to-lug length, lug width, case thickness and curvature all play a crucial role in determining size. To be fair, brands are getting better at providing a wider array of measurements in their specifications, but all the measurements in the world don't meet up to the experience of trying a watch on in real life. 

168860-3003_L.U.C 1860 (5).jpg
168860-3003_L.U.C 1860 (5).jpg

Chopard L.U.C

Chopard L.U.C

What's even more frustrating, though, is the dogmatic determination that there's a single 'right' size. Mainly because that arbitrary number changes every few years. Ten to 15 years ago, 42mm was deemed to be the perfect everyday width. This was at a time when Hublot and Panerai (along with other plus-sized watches) ruled the roost. Fast forward a few years, and that simple measurement came down a little, and 40mm was seen as the platonic ideal of watch width. These days we're seeing 39 and 36mm sizes thrown around as the current ideal of wrist-perfection, backed up by the fact that when the designs we all know and love were first made 50-plus years ago, they were in these sorts of diameters. The real truth — boring as it may be — is that there is no single, ideal size. The only thing that matters is how it wears on your wrist. If 45mm looks good on you, well done, Dwayne Johnson, and if 34mm is more your speed, that's cool too.


These general trends paint a compelling picture of the ongoing de-escalation of watch case sizes, but it's anecdotal at best; we need data. This is where Mark Cho comes in. Cho is the founder of sartorial staple The Armoury. He's also an avid watch collector who wasn't content to accept the dictums of size, and as a tailor with more than a little experience in measurements, he decided to get some hard proof on what people wanted when it came to watch size. In 2018, armed only with social media and an online survey, he set about finding out. Around 1800 people took part in this initial survey, and in 2022 he opened it up again for round two. This time about 2400 people answered his questions. A key finding of both surveys was that many people self-identify as having small wrists when in fact, they are perfectly average. In an interview with GQ [ LINK TO : https://www.gq.com/story/ideal-watch-size-survey-2023-results ], Cho speculates that this dissonance is a result of seeing an industry obsessed with large watches and thinking they are in the minority for thinking they don't fit. 

Rolex Day Date.jpg
Rolex Day Date.jpg

Rolex Day Date

Rolex Day Date

The good thing, though, is that watchmakers are starting to wake up to the fact that big cases do not trump good design and are ceasing to treat watch buyers with a one size for all mentality. Audemars Piguet, for example, is making some exceptional 37mm Royal Oaks, and IWC still makes great dress watches with larger dimensions. Having said that, there's no doubt that in 2023, a cool case size is a smaller case size. Some of the most critically acclaimed new releases of 2023 came in 'small' cases (we're looking at you, Chopard L.U.C. 1860). 


The key takeaway from this back-and-forth on bigger versus smaller is that size trends are constantly changing. At the moment, we're swinging to the smaller end of the scale, and for many, this is a welcome correction. But make no mistake, sooner or later, we're going to go large again. In the end, the only measurement that matters is how happy the watch on your wrist makes you.


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