Size Matters: Why small watch dials are back in fashion
Large dials have been a status symbol since the 1990s but the digital boom – and a rediscovery of retro Italian style – might have finally brought this trend down to size
Historically, men’s watches for general wear didn’t get any larger than 38mm – be it Clark Gable with his 34mm yellow Patek Philippe Ref 1526, Elvis Presley with his outlandish space-age Hamilton Ventura or Paul Newman in his auction-record-setting ($17.8million) Rolex Daytona Ref 6239. If a watch was of a larger size it was designed for a purpose, such as diving, aviation or some other extreme situation, where being able to see the dial was a matter of life or death. Wearing a sports watch to a party or function would have been seen as faux-pas – you should wear the watch, not the other way around.
Over time this began to change with the rise of the action hero – yes, as with so many trends it started with celebrities. During the ‘90s, the classically styled men’s watch wouldn’t cut it for the biggest stars in the world, and year zero for the large watch started with Sylvester Stallone. While on a trip to Milan in 1995, Stallone discovered the brand Panerai (a company that was famous for making large dive watches for the Italian military) and bought one of their historic 44mm Luminor models. Not only did Sly buy one for himself, he also bought one for his friend, rival and fellow muscled übermensch, Arnold Schwarzenegger. These timepieces not only appeared in paparazzi photos and on the red carpet, but both men chose to wear the watches in their films; from here, the large watch became part of popular culture.
Moving further into the decade the trend continued and the watches got bigger. Actors, sportsmen and rappers packed away their 36mm 18ct yellow gold Rolex President Day-Dates and moved on to the Hublot Big Bang, Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Off-Shore and IWC Big Pilot – all watches over 44mm. There should also be a special mention to the most ostentatious of all bling watches from the period: the diamond bezelled Jacob & Co Five Time Zone. At 47mm, it had all the elegance of attaching a multi-coloured tea saucer to your wrist with a leather strap.
There was a sea change in the early-2010s as two things called time on the huge watch trend. First and foremost was the popularity of watch websites such as Hodinkee. Until this time, watch collecting and horology had been a niche hobby for internet users, usually discussed on dedicated forums. Now, it became aspirational and lifestyle-based, with photoshoots of the latest impossible-to-get pieces timepieces pictures side-by-side with vintage Porsches and Leica cameras.
The second thing that happened was a change in fashion. The silhouette of men’s tailoring got slimmer, harking back to the cut of Italian suits from the 1960s (think Mad Men’s Don Draper) – a 47mm watch would look out of place and wouldn’t fit under the cuff even if you wanted to wear it.
What the online watch tastemakers facilitated was bringing the smaller vintage watch to the fore: beautiful hand-wound Omega, Cartier and Patek dress watches; sports watches like the classic Oyster line of Rolexes; the retro charm of the original Gerald Genta designed Audemars Piguet Royal Oak and Patek Phillipe Nautilus. The hype surrounding these pieces made vintage watches a hot commodity – this can be seen by the auction results over the past few years with some rare watches going up in price tenfold in a mere decade.
With the massive interest in the vintage market, watch brands were keen to mine their own history and release updated versions of their classic pieces. A notable example of this is the huge success of the relaunched Tudor, with its 39mm Black Bay Fifty-Eight being one of the hottest and most sought-after watches of recent times. The same goes for the Tissot PRX which brought back their Genta-style 1970s integrated bracelet timepiece for a new generation with a choice of either automatic or quartz movements.
Look down any red carpet now and you will see this in full force, from rapper Jay-Z with his curated collection of rare complicated Pateks to Dune star Timothée Chalamet wearing one of his classic Cartier Tanks, to Puerto Rican rapper Bad Bunny performing at the 2023 Grammys in a vintage 32mm gold Audemars Piguet. For the time being, at least, it would appear the fashionable small watch is here to stay.