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20 Years of Watchmaking - Diameters Waxing and Waning over Two Decades: Part 1

20 Years of Watchmaking Diameters Waxing and Waning over Two Decades: Part 1

Is the diameter of a watch an entirely objective piece of data? Not really. What was deemed ‘big’ in 2000 seems to have become the new ‘medium’ 20 years on. What’s more, technical tricks of the watchmaking trade can make dials look bigger than they actually are*

In 1920, the usual diameter for a watch was between 24 and 28 millimetres (mm). By 2020, this had grown to between 39 and 42mm. Does that mean wristwatch diameters are gradually increasing with every passing decade? The impression may indeed be one of relentless expansion, but in fact that’s not the whole story by any stretch. The prevailing diameter of cases has in fact mirrored the changing fashions and requirements of specific markets, and the past two decades are no exception.

Diameters Waxing and Waning over Two Decades: Part 1

Nautilus Perpetual Calendar Ref. 5740 © Patek Philippe

Decoupling Diameters and Movements

For many years, the diameter of men’s watches was tied to that of the calibre powering them. At the dawn of the new millennium, this technical aspect became a secondary consideration.

The legendary ETA 7750 calibre, probably the most widely-used chronograph, is 30mm in diameter – but it’s very often fitted in watches 10mm larger. A casing ring is used to connect caliber and case, ensuring that the former doesn’t rattle around inside the latter.

Diameters Waxing and Waning over Two Decades: Part 1

L.U.C XPS © Chopard

The same is true for the 25.6-millimetre Cal. 2824 and 2892 models, millions of which are in circulation, not counting the variations offered by Sellita (SW 200, also 25.6mm) or the slightly less numerous but similar calibres on offer from LVMH and Richemont. Today, in many cases, the size of the case bears no relation to that of the calibre. Brands’ choice of diameters is first and foremost a question of positioning and readability. Watch designer Eric Giroud, who’s worked with the likes of Harry Winston, MB&F, Mido, Boucheron, Tissot, and Van Cleef & Arpels, notes that “as a rule of thumb, the bigger the watch, the smaller the price tag”.

A Question of Size… and Prize

In terms of positioning, watch diameters are there to reflect a brand’s identity. Whatever the tides of fashion and trends between 2000 and 2020, some institutional firms (and one or two others) have resisted the temptation to expand or shrink their models: among them are Rolex, Patek Philippe, Breguet, and Chopard (for most of its L.U.C. collection). For them, straying out of the 39-41mm range, a key component of their identity, would be an act of heresy.

Diameters Waxing and Waning over Two Decades: Part 1

Tourbillon Heure Sautante Minutes Retrograde © Blancpain

The Oversized Revolution

At the other end of the spectrum, some firms have built their style around deliberately oversized diameters. One such brand is Hublot, whose Big Bang finally settled on 45mm. Most of IWC’s Portugieser collection measures between 42 and 45mm. Roger Dubuis’s Excalibur’s main diameter of 45mm is one of its distinctive features. In the early 2000s, Franck Muller was already offering his iconic tonneau format in seven or eight different sizes. Officine Panerai watches are often seen as being synonymous with large cases. “Panerai clearly laid the foundations for large watches, all of 20 years ago,” says designer Eric Giroud. There are no Submersibles measuring less than 42mm, and Luminors can be as large as 50mm in diameter. Why?

Grandeur en cadence : partie 1

Excalibur Spider Huracán Performante © Roger Dubuis

*On the occasion of GMT Magazine and WorldTempus' 20th anniversary, we have embarked on the ambitious project of summarising the last 20 years in watchmaking in The Millennium Watch Book, a big, beautifully laid out coffee table book. This article is an extract. The Millennium Watch Book is available on www.the-watch-book.com, in French and English, with a 10% discount if you use the following code: WT2021.

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