If you put your vintage men’s watch next to a brand new 2013 men’s watch, you will perhaps be shocked, or at the least, surprised by the difference in size. The vintage watch will in almost every instance be considerably smaller than your brand new 21st century watch. This is a reminder that for a considerable time period, “small” was beautiful, and the Duchess of Windsor’s quotable quip that one can never be too thin also applied to men’s fine timepieces.
Up till the dawn of the 20th century, only women sported wristwatches. The whole idea of a man’s wristwatch grew out of soldiers in the trenches, who had to see the time without digging into their pockets, and the needs of pilots during The Great War, who at first strapped their pocket watches on to their wrists, until several obliging watchmakers came up with men’s watches intended to be worn so that they would be quickly visible when at the controls of a plane. Most famously it was Cartier who made a wrist watch at the behest of pilot Alberto Santos-Dumont; this sparked the acceptance of wrist watches by men. First, well-to-do men; later, all men.
The shift from pocket to wrist watch was underway, and by the mid 1920s the wrist watch or strap watch as it was often called, had prevailed.
As the shift took place, men’s watches became less and less cumbersome; gone were those pocket-watch-on-a-strap sized prototypes from the trenches. Indeed, the great makers of mechanical movements were forever on a quest to find ways to make their watch mechanisms smaller and thinner, and bragged about it, such as in Gruen’s famous “VeriThin” models.
So how small is small, as far as an average or typical sized round men’s watch from the middle decades of the 20th century?
For a round watch, the standard diameter range was 28mm to 32mm, no matter the maker. Keep in mind that many of the finest men’s watches of the period were even smaller, both the Swiss and the American models.
For example, U.S.A. watchmaking giant Hamilton made micro sized men’s watches such as the “Norman” and “Todd” that were very small indeed. Today, these smaller vintage watches are sometimes marketed as “unisex” (a word that was coined in the 1960s and unheard of when these watches were made) or as “cadet”, “junior” or “boys” models, which is perhaps a bit more in keeping with the intended use of some of them – that is, as a “first” watch for a young man. The Todd measures 26mm in diameter, not including the crown, and takes a 14mm watchband. It was marketed as the ideal watch for circa 1950 doctors and technicians (with the unspoken assumption that doctors and technicians were adult males, of course).
The photo with this post illustrates the situation perfectly. On the left is a gorgeous men’s knotted lugs Nastrix watch, and on the right is an equally gorgeous 2012 Michael Kors rose gold watch. The vintage watch dates from the 1950s – its case measures 30mm in diameter. It is a full-sized men’s watch of the day, and other makers from Rolex to Bulova used this exact case at this exact size. The watch on the right measures 45mm. It is a full-sized 21st century men’s watch and typical of the better men’s watches being sold today.
A standard sized men’s wrist watch from the 1920s through the 1960s was so much smaller than today’s watches, that many who offer these vintage creations for sale have to do so with a special warning attached, in order to prevent buyers from buying something they expect to be nearly the size of a drink coaster.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, watches started to “grow” in size and by the 2010s they reached unheard of proportions. Suffice to say that if a watch collector wants to have a big watch to wear, he would do well to avoid most of the vintage watches from most of the 20th century.