The adage about progress and the passage of time still holds true, -the more things change, the more they stay the same. With respects to Rolex, this adage applies especially with Rolex’s evolutionary (not revolutionary) designs. Opinions vary on how large a watch should be with no definite answer. It’s apparent watch size seems to be driven by design, utility, trend, and market preference.
Rolex slowly evolved into producing larger watches since the company’s founding in 1905. Rolex started out producing 26mm – 30mm pillow-case style wristwatches, primarily based on the pocket watch styles of the day. Now, Rolex’s large watches hover at 45mm, but like everything Rolex does, changes are based on utility. Initially, wristwatches started out as small pocket watches strapped to a lady’s wrist and were primarily seen in ladies’ circles because pockets were not prevalent on women’s clothing, yet a gentleman wore a waist coast to hold a pocket watch. Late 19th and early 20th century warfare pragmatism brought wristwatches to men. Wrist watch size and placement came purely out of utility from war pragmatism emanating from the Boer War and WWI trenches. Soldiers couldn’t reach for a pocket watch to coordinate an attack while holding a rifle. Soon after WWI, battlefield utility worked into the watch industry with wristwatches being marketed to men.
Generally speaking, throughout the middle-20th Century, Rolex followed the industry standard of 36-37mm size for men’s watches and 28mm for women’s watches. 36mm was large enough to read, has wrist presence, but no so large that it flopped around attracting unwanted fashion-statement attention. The notion of the 36mm wristwatch all changed at the 1954 Basel watch show when Rolex unveiled the Submariner and GMT models at a whopping 40mm case size. The Rolex Submariner and GMT launched an entirely new category in the watch industry, -professional, utility-based, tool watches. Just as how utility pushed the pocket watch to the wrist, utility again made watches larger for better visibility, especially underwater with the ready accessibility to SCUBA, another breakthrough technology introduced in the 1950’s. From the 1950’s onward to the late 1990’s, Rolex’s professional series of tool watches had 40mm cases, and the DateJust line of dress watches stayed at 36mm.
Fast forward to the late 1990’s when big screens were filled with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone. Schwarzenegger’s 1996 film “Eraser” showed him wearing a large Panerai dive watch gifted to him by Paneristi Sylvester Stallone. Large watches gracing these action heroes’ wrists started the push for larger watches primarily out of fashion rather than utility. Throughout the 90’s and 2000’s Rolex ignored the industry trend for larger watches because there was no real utility behind a larger watch. Larger watches are heavier, and require a large wrist to prevent top-heavy watches from flopping around.
Recently, Rolex experimented with larger sized watches. In 2008, Rolex unveiled the 44mm DeepSea SeaDweller, a large stainless steel dive watch designed to reach 12,000 below sea level. Later in 2011, Rolex unveiled a redesigned 42mm Explorer II, 2mm larger than its 40mm predecessor. Rolex also up-sized the tried and true Rolex President and DateJust from 36mm to 41mm, and the globetrotting Rolex Sky-Dweller was introduced at 42mm. By and large, Rolex increased watch size because of the increased movement complexity under the hood (Yacht-Master II, Sky-Dweller) and to improve visibility (Explorer series) with their patented Chromalight luminescence. Rolex redesigned the Rolex President for 2015, decreasing its size from 41 to 40mm making it look more proportional despite the improved movement inside.
The industry trend is moving back to a 40mm men’s sport / utility watch as wearers realized that large watches have their own –isms with weight, comfort, and watch-flop. Zenith wristwatches moved from 45+mm Defy chronographs prevalent in the 2000’s down to a rather stately 40mm standard for their more refined chronographs of 2015. Panerai’s watch stable is comprised of 40mm wristwatches. Fortunately, Rolex did not chase the fashion pendulum because as others realized, fashion is fickle but utility is not.
– Sheldon Smith