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The Echo Chamber: “I have small wrists”

The Echo Chamber: “I have small wrists”

small wrists

Many watch lovers and enthusiasts often claim that they enjoy smaller watches as they have “small wrists”. However, with over 50% of those asked taking such a view, there must be more afoot. Read on to find out how trends and watch design have created this perception and how things may change in future.

If I had a pound for every time I have been told that someone “has a small wrist” or that “any watch over 40mm is just too big”, I would be enjoying a far more extensive watch collection. The fact is that, over the last decade, the ever-strengthening argument for smaller watches has all-too-often been accompanied by the aforementioned statements.

Over the last decade, it is clear that watch brands have been in search of a new format. With popularity around the likes of Hublot and its immense cases beginning to fade, a meteoric rise of vintage watches into a new market space and an unprecedented media attitude, large watches just don’t feel right anymore.

“…not everybody can have a small wrist.”

Their size and weight on the wrist not only feels unwieldy but, more importantly, doesn’t appeal to the recent retro-minimalism professed by the movers and shakers of the stylish world surrounding watches. In response, the demands for smaller case sizes accompanied by the aforementioned statements have come in thick and fast.

Let’s be serious, though: not everybody can have a small wrist. Aside from being statistically impossible, March Cho of The Armoury and Drake’s has indisputably proven that the average male wrist circumference is between 6.5 and 7 inches. Bearing in mind that, with such a wrist size, most wearers can enjoy the majority of major brands’ models up to even the largest of sizes, one has to ask why such a sentiment has arisen.

The Mistakes of the 2000s

The first major contributor when talking about the current perception of small wrists is the way in which the early 2000s played out. I for one do not believe that this period has received enough consideration as a period of serious change within the watch industry.

Panerai Luminor 1950
Perhaps the antithesis of a small watch: the Panerai Luminor 1950s 3 Days Acciaio 47mm | Photo: Officine Panerai

Ironically, it actually was a time of relative prosperity and growth after the revival or, at least, reinvigoration of brands from Omega to Panerai. However, it was also this period of growth which saw a lot of watches appeal to the fad of ever larger cases. The reasons were varied whether looking at the popularity of Panerai, Hublot’s appeal to the sporting crowd or the arms race of water resistance amongst dive watches.

The overall result was a set of watches sized not to suit the audience but rather sized to suit brand image, to set a watch apart from the crowd or to take part in am inter-brand game of one-upmanship.

You will be able to see, even at this stage, that the consumer simply didn’t come into the equation nor did the comfort once enjoyed courtesy of more proportionally-considered timepieces.

Nostalgia: The Power of Vintage

Smiths Everest Expedition small wrists
A delightful vintage offering: the 36mm Smiths Everest Expedition

A second contributor to the oft-repeated misconception that one has “small wrists” has been the spectacular rise in popularity of the vintage watch and, as a consequence, smaller proportions. I am, however, getting ahead of myself as many vintage watches are neither small nor well proportioned (just ask an Omega Speedmaster Mark III owner).

Tudor Black Bay 58 small wrist
Perhaps the most popular smaller vintage watch: the Tudor Black Bay Fifty-Eight | Photo: Montres TUDOR SA

Frankly, I don’t think that anyone could have predicted that, come the 2010s, major watch magazines would become dealers of vintage and pre-owned watches. The foundations were laid by a growing fascination or whimsy for “the glory days of watchmaking” with such figures as Sean Connery wearing his Rolex Submariner ref. 6538 or Don Draper of ‘Mad Men’ wearing any range of vintage dress watches.

As the nostalgia for the old was courted by advertising with chronically-repeated words such as “heritage” or “re-edition”, cool became classic and a key attribute to that (along with aged Super-LumiNova and faded dials) was the presence of a smaller case.

Most importantly, though, these vintage-inspired watches showed people that smaller cases could be as comfortable and often more comfortable than larger equivalents.

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The Echo Chamber

Even so, I must be careful as this view neither addresses the subject of this article nor does it provide a statistically sound conclusion. Just because small cases are popular doesn’t mean that popular watches have small cases. In this statement we see the disconnect between the watch enthusiast and the average public buyer.

The current ref. 214270 Rolex Explorer | Photo: Rolex SA

You see, many enthusiasts (myself included) enjoy the allure of a vintage-style small watch case and the delicate feel which that brings. We wax lyrical about how we would buy a 36mm dive watch or why the 39mm Rolex Explorer verges on sacrilege. In this environment, the cliché: “I have small wrists” becomes a justification for the enjoyment of classic sizing and seems more acceptable than “I like small watches”.

However, this view still misses a section of the bigger picture. The fact is that, when presented with a 34 or 36mm watch and a 39 or 41mm alternative, most men will buy the larger watch. This is supported by the fact that brands⁠ — apart from those specifically catering to the ‘vintage’ loving customer ⁠— offer those larger sizes not out of obstinate pigheadedness but because these watches sell well.

Instead of taking from the “small wrists” trend that watches are too big, I invite you to consider if it is more of a question of proportions which should be addressed. Consider the Sinn U1 ⁠— a very popular 44mm technical dive watch. In response to demand for a small, mid-size version, they launched the Sinn U200 a decade ago with a 37mm case. The result? Nobody bought it. It was truncated and far too thick for its very narrow diameter.

However, this year, they have revised the U1 in a 41mm size with a slim profile and curved lugs. This, on the other hand, is hailed as a roaring success. From this we can understand the fact that it is not, in truth, case size which has brought on this bout of “small wrists ” but an ergonomic problem. This is a problem which isn’t created by case diameter, thickness or lug-to-lug length. Instead, it is the overall design of a watch which needs to work together to make a difference.

With more and more sensibly sized a proportioned watches on the market, this is also a problem which might just have been solved.

What do you think? Tell us in the comment section below.

View Comments (2)
  • Too true. I see the market moving to smaller watches, with the Richard Milles and Hublots of this world looking as anachronistic as city SUVs when we move to electric cars. It is absolutely a case of proportion (“how it wears”). Dive watches tend to ‘wear’ small due to the thick bezel and smaller face. Dress and chronographs tend to wear large. I think slightly unfair to lump the Panerai Luminor 47 in with noughties excess as it is essentially a vintage dive instrument that was 47mm. Panerai also wear small due to the cushion case, as do ’70’s designs such as the Seiko Willard or Doxa Sub. In my view, some of the worst culprits are the dress watches. The 40/41/42mm watches from eg IWC, Patek, AL&S, Breguet, JLC and Vacheron are inexcusable, with terrible proportions on the wrist! Likewise the 39mm Explorer and 41mm Aqua Terra. Vintage watches also tend to look larger with their generally flat or square lugs (cp rolled lugs that break the case up) Personally, I’d generally go 36-39mm for formal watches, 38-40 for sports and 39-42 for divers. Cushion cases, Speedmaster Professionals, and Seiko divers excepted!

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