Are Watch Wonks Overstating The Trend Toward Smaller Men’s Watches?

We watch enthusiasts – and especially we journalists – have often wormed into so many little horological nooks that our view of the big picture becomes obscured. I’ve just recently started to notice the phrase inside baseball a lot in watch journalism (because a friend pointed out how much that phrase appears at Hodinkee). I had never really understood or used the phrase, and yet, indeed, inside baseball aptly describes how we obsessed folks talk about watches: (n) “the minutiae and detailed inner workings of a system that are only interesting to, or appreciated by, wonks, insiders, and aficionados” (Wikipedia). 

I’m starting to wonder if we watch wonks are overstating the scale of the smaller watch trend for men, and I’m starting to wonder if our exaggeration of the trend doesn’t reflect some wishful thinking by us hip urban folks who prefer their watches (and masculinity) on the fey side of the norm.

The HRC Problem

Did Hillary Colinton wonk her way
out of the presidency?

In both her book What Happened? and in the recent Hulu documentary about her (coincidentally directed by my high school classmate Nanette Burstein), Mrs. Clinton speaks of how being a “policy wonk” put her out of touch with Americans. I would immediately glaze over when she started talking about some esoteric bit of legislation. The downside of HRC’s deep expertise is that her tendency to talk inside baseball alienated millions of Americans she aimed to attract. Worse, HRC seems to have blinded herself to the big picture of American politics that was emerging around her – a picture she was disinclined to see from within the deep crannies of policy.

We watch wonks can so easily waltz into the HRC problem. We know that most people don’t think about watches like we do, yet our obsession causes us to lose sight of what’s really going on in the mainstream. We assume people are probably hungry for the kinds of insights and nuanced analyses we offer, but let’s be honest: most people don’t care what we watch wonks think.

Watch Journalists Vs. CEOs

I had a revealing conversation with Walter Von Känel, long-standing CEO of Longines, and his Canadian rep about a year ago. I had said to Mr. Von Känel that I believed smaller watches were going to continue to become popular, and his Canadian rep agreed with me. Mr. Von Känel laughed out loud at my suggestion, put his huge arm around me and said, “You don’t know anything about the markets, do you?” No, I don’t really that know much about the markets, because my passion for watches has led me into nooks and crannies where something as vast as, say, the Asian market is obscured.

If you’d asked me, I’d have figured that both Longines and Oris were banking on the mainstream customer adopting smaller men’s watches, but I’d have been wrong.

Walter Von Känel, CEO of Longines

Mr. Von Känel’s rep chimed in, suggesting that if Longines pushed the smaller models for men as much as they do the a larger ones, then perhaps trends would change. It was an interesting counterpoint, one which Mr. Von Känel considered affably. “Maybe,” he said, and then reminded us that he needs to move over a million watches a year, and that he and his team knew which men’s watches moved: larger ones.

N. American CEO of Oris, VJ Geronimo, was here at BTDHQ recently, and he said something similar. Oris’ better selling models are the larger Aquis models, despite the popularity of the typically smaller Divers 65 and Pointer Date models.

VJ Geronimo, CEO of Oris N. America

If you’d asked me, I’d have figured that both Longines and Oris were banking on the mainstream customer adopting smaller men’s watches, but I’d have been wrong. I couldn’t see the bigger picture while crammed into the nook of vintage-inspired smaller watches to which I seem inextricably drawn. But CEO’s know markets, which means that they know what’s going on in the mainstream far more than we watch wonks do.

But Smaller Watches Sell Out!

One of the things we watch wonks can’t seem to grasp is that smaller men’s watches are often produced in minuscule numbers when compared to their larger counterparts. In fact, smaller watches are often limited runs that sell right out to – you guessed it – watch wonks. Indeed, we constitute a tiny part of the market: the enthusiast market. And because we love esoteric models created just for us so much – and because those models so often sell right out – we sometimes assume that this is a banging sector. It’s really not all that banging.

A suitable recent example is the Tudor Black Bay 58, a tasty, vintage-accurate 38mm version of the very popular Black Bay dive watches. If you read the press around this watch, you’d have thought Hans Wilsdorf had risen from his grave and bestowed upon the watch world a gift so wonderful that they simply couldn’t make enough. But, once again, we are peering out from between the narrow blinders of inside baseball.

Tudor Black Bay 58

n actuality, the Black Bay 58 was produced in low numbers just as most of Rolex’s steel sport watches are, thus creating the impression that people are starving for these models. The more accurate take is that watch wonks swiftly bought up the limited number produced. The same may be said of Invicta’s 40m Pro Diver, which is also sold out.

Tempering The Watch Wonk Perspective

Why would I want to temper my hip inside baseball perspective on watches? Why would I temper my endless appetite for reporting on these cool-ass smaller watches that speak so loudly to my heart? Why would I give up the chance to help the mainstream “see the light” and, instead, attend to existing tastes more thoughtfully? Why not accept my role as an influencer and keep pushing against the mainstream?

The 43.5mm Oris Aquis is one of the company’s best sellers.

The answer is that sometimes I just want to report on what’s really going on in the world of watches on a larger scale, so that I (and perhaps some readers/listeners) can better understand our passions in a broader context. I think WatchTime Magazine gets this balance right. Often, however, watch publications draw a rather bold line between Industry News and Inside Baseball, and that line tends to forbid us to explore the intersections between these two sectors. I’ll go further: the editorial convention of separating Industry News from Inside Baseball allows watch watch wonk snobbery to go undetected.

Often, however, watch publications draw a rather bold line between Industry News and Inside Baseball, and that line tends to forbid us to explore the intersections between these two sectors.

Snobbery? Yeah, I think it comes down to snobbery in the sense that we watch wonks seem compelled to speak inside baseball loudly within our little echo-chamber of what we implicitly consider “good taste.” Influencer is just a fancy new word for trend setter, and to think of myself – let alone my colleagues – as trend setters leaves a slightly sour taste in my mouth. Because it smacks of elitism, perhaps? It seems that our wonky “good taste” is almost always running against the grain of the mainstream. Because of that, we watch wonks have a tendency to not only under-report the popularity of larger (and, some writers appear to believe, less tasteful) watches, but also to assert and impose our aesthetics as some kind of truth about what make a good watch. That, in my estimation, approaches snobbery.

The 40mm Invicta Pro Diver 31290 sold right out, but that likely indicates limited production.

Phenomenological Subjectivity Is The String In The Labyrinth

The only way out of this conundrum that I’ve come up with is the phenomenological perspective. I’ve come to define the phenomenological perspective as considering a watch not as an object unto itself but as a subjective phenomenon in the mind of the beholder. By taking up the phenomenological perspective, I’ve realized that there is nothing specific, essential or objective that we can say about a watch, even regarding its size. Instead, we have to consider the messiness of individual subjective experiences, and that consideration tends to have two positive results: 1) we might sometimes stop imposing our personal subjective aesthetics so forcefully, and 2) we might soften our sometimes snobby attitudes toward mainstream tastes (however unintentional that attitude may be).

By taking up the phenomenological perspective, I’ve realized that there is nothing specific, essential or objective that we can say about a watch, even regarding its size. 

In an interview with Canadian men’s style journalist Pedro Mendez for BTD Podcast Episode 35, Pedro reminds us that the goal of all of this consideration of style is to help everyone find their inner joy. Pedro is an incredible resource for all things in fine men’s wear – and his ideas about it have broad-reaching implications for everything from masculinity to sustainability – but his reminder that the goal is joy suggests that, no matter how much intel the man possesses, he is better thought of as a guide than an authority. We wonks don’t know what’s going to float anyone’s boat, but we can help people navigate the waters that buoy them. And we wonks are going to be far better guides if we stop assuming that our own tastes and perspectives are objectively “correct” or “good.” 

If we wonks really want to get outside of our little nooks and critique the bigger picture, we must understand that our tastes are, in the end, nearly irrelevant to how anyone else is going to subjectively experience beauty.

Aesthetic Diversity Is Beautiful – Guides Are Helpful

So here I am, a wonk with esoteric tastes writing about watches and other stuff that I deem to constitute The Good Life, yet I don’t want to replicate HRC’s problem and alienate tons of people. I’d much rather be inclusive of as many people as possible, and I’d like to think I can – by taking the phenomenological perspective – be a bit more inclusive of all tastes (including the inclination toward larger watches).

The Ianos Abyssos is 44mm acorss, but it wears like a 40mm watch.

A diversity of tastes is a beautiful thing to behold, and if we wonks are going to do anything with all this accumulated knowledge – our inside baseball – I believe it’s best to share it gently and to temper it with an ongoing note-to-self that our subjective aesthetics – and not some objective assessment – have led us into the nooks we so obsessively haunt. A good guide knows that their knowledge never exceeds their experience, and, for those of us who have accumulated a lot of experience inside this or that nook, it may prove wise to more overtly acknowledge that there’s a vast aesthetic ocean we will likely never meaningfully explore.

If we’re privileged enough to have other folks take our lead, it should be with deep humility that we guide these folks into our wonky nooks, all the while acknowledging the just how small these nooks are. Maybe it’s more accurate to think of our knowledge as something akin to local knowledge.

How Big Is Your Watch?

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that – largely due to the illusion of objectivity fostered by focusing on the physical features of a watch – we wonks have inspired a rather large and growing community to obsess over watch diameter. It’s a complicated problem, one that I tackle in detail in BTD Podcast Episode 3, but to summarize: watch size is not nearly as important as we watch wonks tend to think it is. In fact, the diversity of wrist shapes would suggest that any quasi-mandate about “Cinderella Size” and all that is a misguided imposition of personal tastes into the objective assessment of a watch. In fact, all we can really say about the size of a watch is, obviously, the size itself and maybe some commentary on how it seems to wear. Beyond that, we’re trying to disguise the wolf of our subjective tastes in the sheep’s clothing of objective assessment.

Some of my favorite personal watches are quite large and colorful.

It may take some effort for us wonks to temper our negative gut reactions to really big watches, and it may take even more effort to realize that our judgement of a watch based on its size is neither right or wrong, but merely opinion. Mainstream tastes may shift toward smaller watches over time, we shall see, but, even if they do, we wonks may want to remember that – even in this hypothetical future in which mainstream tastes align with our wonky ones – it’s still probably best to disown authority in favor of curiosity.