Fashion

In Defense of Small Watches

Earlier this year, I strolled into a Tourneau to try on some watches (because that’s my idea of fun these days) and asked about the Cartier Tank Française model. The salesperson very enthusiastically pitched the largest model to me. “Oh, women today are allll about the big watches,” he explained. “Don’t even bother trying on the small.” For context, this particular watch comes in two sizes—small and medium—and with the medium’s case size coming in at 30 millimeters by 25 millimeters. It’s not even considered a “big” timepiece by today’s standards. But nevertheless, I tried on the medium, and my heart sank. This watch felt oversized and bulky on my wrist, and I couldn’t even see the gorgeous chain-link bracelet that sets the Française apart from the other Cartier Tanks. I took a photo of the watch for good measure and slept on it. But the more I thought about it, the more distraught I became. Why shouldn’t I give a second thought to the small version?

To be clear, this salesperson should probably get a raise. In a lot of cases, a woman will walk into a watch boutique and be led directly to the tiny, rose gold, diamond-encrusted “ladies” watches. There’s a phrase in the industry to describe ladies watches, by the way: “Pink it and shrink it.” Watch manufacturers somehow got it in their heads that, in order for a watch to appeal to a female-identifying demographic, it has to be tiny, bedazzled, and pink. But one size does not fit all! As Suzanne Wong, cofounder of women’s watch collective Watch Femme, says, “What is a woman’s watch? It is a watch owned by a woman.” Elle Macpherson, for example, has been rocking her 40mm Rolex Daytona since the ’80s, and it’s not just glamazon supermodels wearing the big dogs. Women in the watch world are completely fed up with the “pink it and shrink it” mentality, and we’ve gotten to a point where the existence of timepiece gender labels are nearing extinction.

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In Cara Barrett’s earth-shatteringly good “All Watches Should be Unisex” HODINKEE article, she throws the gauntlet down, challenging the watch industry to stop dictating what female-identifying people should wear on their wrists. “Call me crazy, but sometimes what I’m looking for is actually the latest steel sport watch that measures at least 36mm,” she writers. This is all wonderful, and to see Barrett’s article shared by literally everyone I know on the Internet made me feel hopeful and excited. And yet … and yet … I prefer small watches.

Trying on that Française watch didn’t make me feel powerful or strong; it made me feel weak and small by association (to my therapist, if you’re reading this … let’s unpack). And it’s not just the Cartier models. It’s the 39mm Omega Speedmaster my friend let me wear for a night; it’s even the 36mm Datejust I tried on during that same Tourneau outing. Being relatively new to the watch world, I almost felt like there was something wrong with me—that I was anti-feminist for wanting a smaller piece. Absurdly, you know what really excites me? A vintage 22mm Rolex I tried on—22mm! That’s a few millimeters larger than a dime.

So, how did we get here? Women have been wearing watches for centuries now–years before their male counterparts started opting for wrist watches over pocket watches as a result of WWI. Women’s watches were essentially jewelry that told time; teensy tiny pieces like Queen Elizabeth’s II’s Jaeger-LeCoultre, which is fitted with the world’s smallest mechanical movement (designed for her to discreetly check the time during Coronation, of course). Then as watches developed – with more complications and value to people in the workforce (historically, men) – we got away from the “watches as jewelry” model. Think: watches designed for aviation, diving, hanging out in caves, and whatever else adventurous men used to do while the women were at home “baking pies.” Even as a woman’s role evolved in society, ladies watches remained more petite – typically quartz – versions of the men’s watches.

If you look at most vintage watches, you’ll see that they rarely exceed 36mm. In this video expert John Reardon explains how a 35.5mm Patek Philippe was a “horrible failure commercially in the early 1950s, and, ironically, the reason it didn’t sell so well wasn’t the price, it was the size.” The 35.5mm size, he continues, was considered “massive” for the time.

Fast-forward to today: Your average men’s watch is in the 40-42mm family, and most women I speak to consider 36mm to be their sweet spot. And a lot of men today want their women to go even bigger! In fact, I even engaged in a little comments-section debate on one of my posts, in which I was sporting a 26mm Rolex Datejust. Liz Eswein, the creative mind behind @newyorkcity on Instagram, tagged menswear designer Aaron Levine in the comments, saying, “See!!! 26mm.” She was using my image to prove a point that small watches are viable options, to which he responded, “Hard disagree.”

Mr. Levine is not alone here. Miranda Levitt, who owns a showroom for fashion designers in New York, tells me that when she was looking for a 26mm model herself, she was met with a lot of resistance from dealers and “watch guys” dismissing that size as “out of style” or simply something they do not sell. But Zoe Abelson, of Watch Girl Off Duty, says, “Smaller watches are slowly making a comeback. Collectors are starting to focus more on earlier-generation (vintage and ’90s) references of current models that are made in smaller case sizes.” For Abelson, a man wearing a small watch conveys a sense of self-assurance. “I’m more attracted to men wearing something vintage and smaller (Ryan Gosling in a vintage Rolex Air King 34mm comes to mind).” Regardless of attraction, it appears that some men are simply fatigued by the wave of XL watches, and looking for something more unique and fashion forward.

John Van Lieshout, partner at the cocktail bar La Noxe, recently bought a 28mm Omega Constellation for its understated elegance: “You have a beautiful watch with a beautiful movement and you don’t need that machismo thing.” Similarly, Nicholas Santiago, one of the geniuses behind streetwear brand and creative agency Pizzaslime is eyeing the traditionally feminine Cartier Baignoire for his next purchase: “I’m def not scared of a smaller watch… I honestly think the bigger the watch, the douchier it looks.” And metal matters: “there’s truly nothing like a little gold watch,” JJ Owens stated as we were admiring Bella Hadid’s mini Cartier Panthère (aka the It-Girl Watch). Any bigger and her gold watch might feel a little gaudy – or at a minimum, less versatile (Bella loves to stack). GQ Senior Associate Editor Sam Hine thinks it’s stylish when the watch is low-key, like Bella’s, regardless of gender: “Too many guys want someone across the room to notice they’ve got a Rolex on, so they buy a big one. But a small watch is a watch for yourself – a vintage Panthère is pretty subtle, but real heads will spot it and will probably think you’re really cool because Keith Richards wore one too.”

No matter what any of us say, it all comes down to individual preference. “I think the funniest thing about small watches is that enthusiasts who like them frame a love for big watches in morally judgmental terms,” Jack Forster, editor in chief at HODINKEE, says. “And, of course, those who like big watches do the same thing.” This humbled me a bit; at some point, I definitely thought that I was some kind of martyr for liking small watches. I’ve learned over time, though, that there’s no one right way to do it. The reason why watches are so popular and obsessed over is because they are so personal. “If you really love watches and are around them long enough,” Forster continues, “you (I hope) eventually get to a point where you wear what you like, for your own reasons, and what a watch says about you is irrelevant background noise.”

Still, I love, love, love a small watch, and no matter what gender you identify with, I suggest giving one a chance. Just be sure you DM me a wrist shot.

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