A Defense of Small Watches

By Brynn Wallner, originally published in Harper’s Bazaar
JUNE 2021 
          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.

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.

Tyler, the Creator wearing a small Tank Louis Cartier on a bright green gator strap, shot by Zamar Velez

Britt Ekland wearing a 26mm Rolex President, shot by Slim Aarons
(source: Getty Images)

Kareem Rahma wearing a tiny vintage Seiko, holding my dog Honey.

Nicholas Santiago wearing a 36mm Rolex Datejust (36mm is typically the smallest men will go). 

Yours truly wearing a 26mm Rolex Lady-Datejust, shot by Jared Sherbert

John Van Lieshout wearing a 28mm Omega Constellation (bought from my Basic Space experience!)

Tyler again! Wearing another Tank Louis Cartier (photo @scumfuckflowerboy)

Miranda Levitt wearing her 26mm gold Rolex Oyster Perpetual.