Men's Watches

Weight watches

‘Less is more’ is the new mantra of haute horlogerie as watchmakers focus on svelte silhouettes. Nick Foulkes reports on a return to elegance.

September 01 2010
Nick Foulkes

Last September I was in New York and, as has become my habit since he became a watchmaker, I dropped by to see Ralph Lauren. Obviously, I paid close attention to what was on his wrist. So while I cannot recall exactly what suit the panjandrum of US style was wearing, I can recall with photographic intensity his watch. It stood out, not because it was a giant contusion, but for precisely the opposite reason.

Ralph was wearing one of his Stirrup watches, but not in the size designed for men, rather the small, ladies’ size (from £8,300); and I have to say it looked great. The rest of our afternoon was taken up discussing the joy of the small watch. “I love all kinds of watches and all sizes,” was Ralph’s conclusion, “but for me the discreet proportion of a smaller timepiece is more intimate.” After all, the watch is intended as a personal timepiece rather than a church-tower or railway-station clock adapted for the wrist.

There once was a time when a thin, small watch was considered the apotheosis of elegance; and I am old enough to remember when the original Rolex Daytona, at around 37mm in diameter, was considered a chunky bit of metal to have around your wrist. But times change and ever since Audemars Piguet’s Royal Oak Offshore, Panerai and Breitling became big, literally and figuratively, the size of men’s watches has gone in one direction: up. Today, conventional wisdom dictates that 40mm diameter is about the standard minimum size for a man, and many see 42mm or even 44mm as nothing unusual. There’s been a similar increase in the height of watches, with some achieving a ziggurat-like effect on the wrist.

But for the past year or so I have noticed that, among men of individual taste and style, the small watch is back. Last summer Arnaud Bamberger, the man about town who runs Cartier in the UK, was wearing small vintage Cartier Tanks from his own collection (2010’s Tank Louis Cartier, £4,550). And then I caught sight of the wrist of the cynosure of Neapolitan elegance, Mariano Rubinacci. He was wearing a minute Rolex of around 31mm that he bought in the early 1960s.

Now, this is anecdotal evidence, and the taste of three men, however stylish, does not necessarily make a trend – but it is interesting that these men, who have made elegance their profession, have independently decided to wear small watches. However, these intimations served as a warning for the style-quake that shook the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie at the beginning of the year. It seemed Piaget had bought almost every poster site in Geneva to big up – excuse the pun – its new ultra-slim movement (£13,200).

Inside the fair, Vacheron Constantin relaunched its Ultra Fine of 1955 in a case of 36mm diameter (£16,260), and even shaved a few microns off the height of the mid-20th-century original (4.1mm as opposed to 4.54mm). Girard-Perregaux, which launched its slim watch, the 38mm 1966, in 2006, came out with a svelte 40mm GP 1966 chronograph (£17,900 in pink gold) plus, in the same range, a 1966 Palladium Small Seconds 38mm (£9,300). And Ralph Lauren, on whom I’d seen the small Stirrup, produced a smaller-diameter Slim Classique, offering a 38mm (from £8,500) alongside the 42mm (from £10,400).

“Until now everyone was focusing on complications and innovative materials; now we are back to more discreet watches with more design and styling content,” was the way that Vacheron boss Juan Carlos Torres put it, adding that the skills needed to work with these small movements was demanding for a generation of watchmakers that had worked only on larger pieces.

“It is time, at last, for the watch industry to go back on the road to elegance. This business used to be about beauty and timelessness, and I think we are due a return to those values,” explained Philippe Leopold Metzger, CEO of Piaget. However, while slimness was definitely at the top of the menu for men, not everyone was convinced that a reduction in thickness would be matched by a smaller “footprint” on the wrist. Metzger, for instance, feels that a large-diameter watch has “become an expression of inner strength” for many men and, perhaps rather like Samson, they would be reluctant to give this up. All I can say is that Messrs Lauren, Bamberger and Rubinacci are all strong characters with more than their fair share of inner strength.

Certainly Gino Macaluso, Girard-Perregaux’s cerebral CEO, did not feel that masculinity was imperilled by embracing both thinner and smaller watches. “In my opinion, as far as high-end watches are concerned, the diameter will be back to a smaller dimension,” he says, citing case diameters of 38mm and 36mm for simple watches. “Personally speaking, we realised that 38mm was the right size for the simple [hours, minutes, seconds and date] 1966 when we launched it four years ago: 38mm is clean and balanced, 40mm is perfect with a complication such as the chronograph we launched this year, but it is too much for a plain watch,” he says, adding that those two millimetres were what divided an elegant watch from one that, to his taste, is “a bit too ‘show-off’”.

However, Macaluso is keen to make it clear that, while his vision of high watchmaking over the next few years is of more compact watches, there are no hard and fast rules. “Sports watches will be a bit bigger,” but even then, the maximum diameter that he sees himself launching is 42mm – “no more for what, conceptually speaking, is a sophisticated watch”. By leaving the door open to larger sizes where appropriate, Macaluso is acknowledging that tastes and habits have changed: the contemporary consumer of fine watches is less likely to be locked into one pattern of behaviour or set of dimensions.

For instance, Richard Mille has noticed that some men are wearing the smaller watches that he initially designed with women in mind: “Everybody finds what he wants where he wants; people jump from one brand to another with no problem. Sometimes I see people in evening dress with a chronograph and the following day doing some sport with an extra-flat [red gold automatic RM 016 extra flat, £45,000].”

That said, some brands that have hitherto been best known for large watches are finding ways to offer something on a more manageable scale. Even Panerai has launched a thinner movement. “The new P999 thinner movement and the 42mm diameter [available from October, £4,500] maintains the proportions of the historic Radiomirs while making them acceptable for the most elegant of situations, without betraying the watch’s military origins and sporting character,” explains Panerai CEO Angelo Bonati.

Panerai is not the only sportswatch brand to find that shedding size does not mean losing character. Bell & Ross is not a brand for the shy, yet in advertising its BRS Ceramic White Phantom 39mm (£1,850), it uses the strapline “Smaller, Sleeker, Smarter”. Hublot’s Jean-Claude Biver has gone one better – 1mm, that is – and launched the Big Bang 38 (£5,900; Big Bang Earl Grey Diamonds version, about £8,850). He turned Hublot around thanks to an uncompromisingly bold design strategy, with some bigger watches closer to 50mm across. “It is a big watch,” he says of the (44mm) classic Big Bang, “but we found that when reducing the size, the strength of the design remains.”

Obviously, the “readjustment” of values and the appreciation of a more subdued aesthetic as a result of the financial crash has played its part in the return of the small watch. But I do not subscribe to the notion that an economic downturn, however sharp and painful, has turned everyone into a neo-Puritan, adhering to new standards of discretion. In fact, one could argue that the return of the small watch has as much to do with making a flamboyant statement as wearing a large one.

“I have a friend who wears an old Vacheron Constantin Patrimony with a diameter of just 31mm,” says Juan Carlos Torres, “and at 31mm, everyone is looking at your wrist; in terms of recognition it is incredible.” Or, as Lauren put it to me, “The smaller timepieces make an impactful fashion statement.”