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Why Your Status Symbol Watch May Not Be a Classic Tomorrow

Su Jia Xian breaks down the fleeting trends in haute horlogerie.

Fashion is, by definition, ephemeral. What’s fashionable today will be out of fashion tomorrow.

Watches, on the other hand, are considered, well, timeless – no pun intended. Fine timepieces are widely regarded as something precious to pass on to one’s grandchildren. Sometimes, they are also held up – mistakenly, I should add – as financial investments.

Yet, that is not quite the case. Tastes evolve over time, and some watches do go out of fashion, no matter how well made they are.

Take, for example, one of the most basic characteristics of a timepiece: the diameter of the case. In the years before and immediately after World War II, the average men’s wristwatch was between 32mm and 35mm – comically small by today’s standards. And up till the early 2000s, the average men’s wristwatch was under 40mm in size.

In those seemingly quaint days, a 44mm Panerai was considered extra large. So oversized, in fact, that Panerai also off ered 38mm and 40mm watches, just in case. Today, most men’s watches are over 40mm in diameter, with anything 36mm or less considered somewhat dated-looking. Chunky watches are also extremely fashionable, so fashionable that it shows in the numbers.

Swiss bank Vontobel recently estimated that the top-performing Swiss watchmakers last year were Audemars Piguet, Hublot and Richard Mille – all known for their hefty timepieces. Small watches have gone out of fashion, it seems.

Now, the pendulum seems to be swinging the other way, with excessively large timepieces – think 46mm or 47mm, or even larger – becoming less popular.

It appears that the average size will settle around 40mm, which is largish enough to seem contemporary, while being small enough to be discreet on the wrist.

And it’s not just size but style as well. The elegant, extra-thin watch, perhaps fitted with a semi-precious stone dial and a matching bracelet in gold mesh, was one of the status symbol watches in the ’70s and ’80s.

In fact, Francisco Scaramanga, the villain played by Christopher Lee in the 1974 James Bond film The Man with the Golden Gun, wore exactly such a watch. Visible in many scenes, it’s square, compact, in yellow gold and fitted with a thin gold bracelet – and the dial is brown tiger’s eye.

But this distinctive style has totally lost its lustre, and such watches look sadly passe. A villain in a contemporary action flick is more likely to be sporting something large and aggressive looking on his wrist.

Typically, the watches that stand the test of time are those that keep in mind the Goldilocks principle. Anything too extreme will probably end up looking dated, being too synonymous with a particular period in time.

As a result, the timepieces that personify our era, those that are the ultimate status symbols of today, might not be the classics of tomorrow.

Read more of Su Jia Xian’s incisive commentary at his website, WatchesbySJX.com.