This is a very good question. A while ago (pre-Covid), I was playing around with a Breitling Superocean, and it got me thinking onto how massive our watches are today. This might have had something to do with the fact that I had recently viewed a Girard Perregaux from the 1940s which is absolutely microscopic by comparison. Gazing at the highly polished steel work on the Breitling made me wonder about how our watches have progressed over the years and how our fashion styles have changed. So, prepare for a small history lesson about why watches were big in the first place, why they got smaller and how they then grew again. We will also have a quick look at where we think watch styles will go in the future, but there is a huge amount of factors at play there.
It all goes back to the 1940s. During this period of history, the planet was stricken by the might of the Nazi regime. A lot of events happened during those years which we would all prefer to forget, but it did give birth to some fine pieces of mechanics that stand out for their period. Consider pilots, who work in harsh environments that are extremely risky, a lot more dangerous than today. They needed to be ready for anything at any time, and in order to keep the time they needed a good watch. Enter the Beobachtungsuhr, or B-Uhr as it’s known for short. These watches were monsters at the time, usually over 48mm in diameter but with most around 55mm in total, that’s enormous even by today’s standards. These watches were, of course, huge for a purpose. In the dark they needed to be super legible to the pilot who can really only offer quick glances at their wrist as they fly (sometimes a pilot would strap it around their leg, probably because it's less intrusive). People weren’t offended by this, however, even though the watches were more often than not 20mm larger in diameter than the standard gentleman’s wristwatch, which was usually 32mm.
Watch sizing would stay like this for a long time, with only complex watches such as triple calendars from the likes of Rolex and Universal Genève really showing any possible changes in the sizing, and that was definitely down to the complicated movement inside. These are highly sought after watches in today’s world and fetch record breaking prices when they go to auction, but they can’t be the source of our ever increasing diameter trend as they are too complicated and expensive, instead we need to look at watches that are functional and mostly affordable to the masses.
We should, of course, look at the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms and Rolex Submariner, the archetypal diving watches. The Blancpain came before the Submariner, although both were released in 1953. The Blancpain had a ginormous (for the time) 42mm diameter case, but it was very hard to get hold of unless you were in the armed forces. Rolex' positively petite 37mm Submariner ref.6204, on the other hand, was available to all. The watch wasn't massive for the time, but it would steadily grow over time.
Again, even throughout the 1960s there were not watches that were large just for the sake of it. Recreational gent’s watches were tiny, Patek Philippe Calatravas and such were in the low 30mm range and were very thin as well. If you had a big, chunky watch, you had it for a reason. You were probably a pilot or a scuba diver, a plongeur professionnel, so to speak. One of my particular favourites from around these times is the Omega Seamaster PloProf, which is now in its 3rd generation. That’s probably the most specialised watch for the task, the strange case shape that is absolutely huge means that if you aren’t a scuba diver or Dwayne Johnson it’s going to look downright silly on the wrist. Still, it’s pretty cool and a real blast from the past.
Staying on the topic of the past, we have to give a small mention to the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak, the watch that was famously designed by Gérald Genta the night before it was due for release. It was the first watch to make stainless steel a material of luxury, with the watch costing 3300 Swiss Francs in 1972, more than a golden Patek Philippe watch and over 10 times as much as a Submariner.
So, now we have more extravagant design and now manufactures can safely use stainless steel in their luxury watches, but we still don’t exactly have this watch yet which is large because it can be, rather than large because it’s carrying out a specific duty.
Once again we circle back around to Audemars Piguet where I’d state one of the most well known watch designs to be a viable source for our large watch culture: the Royal Oak Offshore. Emmanuel Gueit took the design of the Royal Oak and dialled up the testosterone to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Royal Oak in 1992. He made the case much larger both in diameter and thickness, with the case now being an ungodly 42mm, the same size as the original Fifty Fathoms but without the professional requirements.
The watch also had other interesting features such as the prominent rubber gasket between the bezel and the case, a big thick and chunky bracelet which still had the design of the Royal Oak to it, albeit with added thickness, and a bigger inner bezel leading to the dial as well. Upon its release, Gérald Genta apparently stormed into the Audemars Piguet booth screaming that his Royal Oak had been “completely destroyed”. Since the release of the Royal Oak Offshore though, Audemars Piguet’s profits have sky rocketed and allowed them to put the Offshore on the wrists of the rich and famous, as well as make many versions and add a 44mm size too.
This is where I'd say that watches started becoming larger without a real need. Professional pieces from the likes of Blancpain and Panerai had fallen out of fashion amongst the pros and were about to join Audemars Piguet on the road to hugeness in the 90s.
Disregarding some of the more ‘fashion oriented’ watches out there, it’s generally noted that watch sizes are still on the rise in the industry, as tastes become younger and more vibrant and, as such, require bigger and bolder statements in order to be heard in the thickness of it all. Even the most traditional of companies such as Patek Philippe and Breguet have been slowly and quietly upping the sizes of their watches, even their dress watches are taking up arms in this race to see who can make the biggest watch without looking completely ridiculous. Here’s a snapshot of some of the watches the team has in store at the moment that take a walk on the larger side of life, if you like your Big Mac meals extra large and your alloy rims 23 inches or more, here are some watches that may interest you.
Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Offshore - 26170T.OO.1000ST.08 from 2013
This is my personal favourite stock entry at Watches of Wales at the time, and if I had the cash for it I’d have bought it in a heartbeat (though knowing how clumsy I am I would’ve probably dropped it by now). This version of the Royal Oak Offshore is one of the more classy and discreet watches in their range, if by discreet I mean enormous. Even though it’s 42mm in diameter these watches are well known for seeming larger on the wrist, akin to a 45mm watch. Given that Audemars Piguet also produces a 44mm version of the watch, you can see why they didn’t need to produce another bigger case at, say, 48mm.
It’s a very imposing watch with the black strap and dial contrasting against the steel of the case well. With extra details such as the rubber clad chronograph pushers and crown and the extra thick hornback leather strap with AP folding clasp, you know they really did go all the way with this one. As it’s a 2013 model it’s still using a Jaeger-LeCoultre base calibre, but that just means at the end of the day that the watch will be easier to have serviced as the movement is found in a lot of high end watches. I particularly like the Mega Tapisserie dial on this one, it’s pretty outlandish but it shows off Audemars Piguet’s talent for artisanal work at the same time.
IWC Aquatimer Automatic Chronograph - 3767.05 from 2011
Moving up the size scale by two millimetres and we arrive at the sleek rubber coated case of the IWC Aquatimer, an automatic winding chronograph watch with plenty of stealth appeal. The Aquatimer 3767.05, or as it’s sometimes known, the ‘Galapagos’ edition of the Aquatimer brings with it subtle class. The fact that it’s wrapped in rubber means it doesn’t reflect light nearly as much as a ‘naked’ watch would, it also protects the watch superbly from scratches over time. Adding to this, the top of the bezel is not aluminium that’s been painted, as it’s too prone to scratching and fading over time. It’s also not ceramic either, as that can prove to be very expensive, instead, it’s sapphire crystal which gives it a uniform look with the crystal over the dial, it also allows for lume to shine through meaning the bezel will be very visible in the dark. Watch sizing: Why are modern watches so huge? Inside the slick black case is an automatic winding movement with a chronograph function as well, meaning the watch will keep on running as long as you wear it often. It’s also got a date window at the 3 O’clock position, and surprisingly, a day indication as well, right next to the date. That’s not something you see as often on a professional diving watch as you might think, in fact I can only think of a couple off the top of my head. Whether you go on special operations with the military in real life or on Call of Duty, you can feel pretty awesome with this timepiece strapped to your wrist, if you like the fact that nearly every surface of the watch is rubber then this could be the one for you!
Hublot Classic Fusion Aerofusion Titanium Moonphase - 517.NX.0170.LR from 2017
Moving on up the size ladder but just by one millimetre this time we come to one of our most popular entries at the moment, the Hublot Classic Fusion Aerofusion Titanium Moonphase (that name is too long, let’s just call it the Hublot Aerofusion for now okay?). We just got this one in not too long ago and it’s already stirred up a bit of a storm on social media, with the videos gaining many views and being shared all over the place. This one takes the size game with a pinch of salt, as although it’s big in the diameter department it’s actually quite thin for a watch of this complication.
Hublot has done a great job of appropriately sizing the proportions of the Aerofusion. Believe it or not, it’s actually quite hard to get movements to fit well into cases, especially if they are not the same size as the movement was originally designed for. Some overcome this in a different way, check out the new Patek Philippe 5180 Squelette for example, that’s a 28mm movement inside a 39mm case and to me it looks ridiculous. Hublot does a good job of decorating the ETA base calibre on this watch, and spent over two years tinkering with the moonphase and complete calibre modules fitted to it. With the titanium case it will be exceptionally lightweight as well and can perform as a sort of sporty style dress watch, or however you see fit, it’s pretty versatile.
Breitling Superocean - A1732024/B868 from 2017
Continuing forwards but moving quite significantly down the pricing ladder lands us at this brand new and as yet unworn Breitling Superocean diving watch. The Superocean has been Breitling’s answer to the Seamaster Planet Ocean and Rolex Sea Dweller watches for a while now, but for some reason not every model has hit the mark. I’m not entirely sure why to be honest, they are technically at least very good watches, it’s a 200m water resistant diving watch with an automatic winding calibre inside.
People tend to enjoy these watches mostly for their looks, but it’s still nice to know that they are ready to play and you don’t have to mess about with taking it off if you want to go for a swim, and there will definitely be no panic if your friends get bored and push you in by surprise. I really like the Milanese loop bracelet on this watch, it’s something seen on only a few other serious sports watches, but it makes the Superocean stand out amongst the crowd of somewhat ‘same-y’ divers on the market today. It’s 46mm as well, so it won’t fit everyone, and nearly every visible surface on the case is polished, so it’ll glitter in sunlight and attract scratches as well.
Panerai Luminor Submersible - PAM305 from 2016
Now we’re at the largest of our super large collection of super large watches, the Panerai Luminor Submersible PAM305. It’s just as well this thing is made from titanium, the case is so big and chunky in all proportions that it’s uncanny, it feels like stainless steel! I have worn this and the PAM389 and while the latter is probably my favourite, the 305 has some advantages, such as the more robust titanium diving bezel which has no chance of shattering unlike the ceramic of the 389. Watch sizing: Why are modern watches so huge? It’s also got an exhibition caseback, and while the finishing of the movement is clearly not at the level of Philippe Dufour or some such, it does have a certain rugged charm to it, like a lumberjack or something.
The PAM305 watch is a huge 47mm across and, being the classic cushion shape that Panerai is well known for, the watch expands outwards in all directions on the wrist. Having said that, it’s pretty ergonomic considering how huge it is and how far the lugs stick out. I have 7.5” wrists and it hugs my wrists really well, I reckon someone with 6.5” wrists could just about pull it off, but smaller than that is asking for trouble as the rubber strap is a little inflexible around the lugs and spans out a bit. Having said that, the watch does come with a leather strap and Panerai’s quick strap changing system which makes it easier to change the look to fit wherever you are.
Please Note: All watches and prices were correct at the time of authorship and may have subsequently changed or been removed since, please contact Watches of Wales directly or visit the website to view an up to date list of all stock available.