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Culturecheck

‘Small Watch, Big Drip’: Why A New Generation of Leading Men Are Embracing Teeny-Tiny Timepieces

By Randy Lai
18 Jan 2023
7 min read

In defiance of antique notions about the ‘femininity’ of small, elaborately detailed watches, a growing number of male A-listers are swapping their hunk of horological steel for pieces which look (and wear) like a breath of fresh air

For the best part of 40 years, if you uttered the phrase “celebrity brand ambassador” around watch collectors, the image they’d conjure up collectively would likely involve some combination of a big macho fellow, generic good looks and, under all but the rarest of circumstances, a hefty sports watch somewhere north of 41mm. (Bonus points if in steel.)

That’s a far cry from the brave new world in which the watch community now finds itself. Today, you’re as likely to spy discrete, vintage-inspired dress watches on your favorite actor, athlete or musician; and to go a step further, an increasingly impassioned minority of those men have even begun favoring what lay people might have once referred to as ‘ladies’ watches’. This, as all good students of history know, is a faux-pas.

To be sure: the ‘small watch, big drip’ trend - as I’ve just spontaneously decided to call it - is currently experiencing a popular revival, but it’s hardly the first time that famous men with ‘tastemaker’ credentials have harnessed the power of fiercely individualistic design. Who could forget the sculptural shapes conceived for Patek by Gilbert Albert or the delightfully quixotic bracelet watches worn by Miles Davis during the 1970s? A more likely explanation for this resurgence has to do with the landscape we find ourselves in - where so much of celebrity culture has become intractable from the bellwether of consumers’ tastes.

Small watches with unusual case shapes and/or bedazzling gem-work have cropped up on celebrities at least a dozen times in 2022
Small watches with unusual case shapes and/or bedazzling gem-work have cropped up on celebrities at least a dozen times in 2022

Why, last year alone, small watches with unusual case shapes and/or bedazzling gem-work have cropped up on celebrities at least a dozen times: a trend that is just now gathering momentum - and very much here to stay.

To better understand how the teeny-tiny men’s watch even snuck its way onto pop culture’s radar, I spoke with Brynn Wallner. The founder and author behind Dimepiece is noted for her fun intersectional perspective on watches; and this has endeared her to a huge international audience - including a sizable number of young female collectors who have gotten into the field through fashion, music or some other interrelated conduit.

According to Wallner, the shift toward ‘small watch, big drip’ has its roots in a broader trend taking place in menswear. For blokes, popular dress norms have become increasingly femme (or gender fluid, at the very least). Pioneers like Harry Styles - who, in 2020, famously wore a Gucci dress on the cover of Vogue - have opened the door for masculine types wanting to borrow feminine fashion codes - a phenomenon that Wallner says she first detected, of all places, in the realm of hip-hop.

“Tyler, the Creator led the charge with his smaller vintage Cartiers,” says Wallner. “But when Dwyane Wade - who is 6’4”, by the way - wore a 36mm Vacheron Constantin Patrimony at the Met Gala, I knew diminutive watches were becoming definitively more mainstream.” 

Dwyane Wade wearing a 36mm Vacheron Constantin Patrimony at the 2022 Met Gala Photo: @dwaynewade/ Instagram
Dwyane Wade wearing a 36mm Vacheron Constantin Patrimony at the 2022 Met Gala Photo: @dwaynewade/ Instagram

It’s impossible to overstate just how influential hip-hop has been in the small watch’s transformation to an object of popular desire. Beyond Tyler, The Creator - whose personal collection boasts a number of obscure Cartier designs like the Baguette Or Coulissant - numerous artists of color, either operating within or proximate to modern hip-hop, have advocated fearlessly for watches that are small in stature, but mighty in design. 

Wallner points to men such as Puerto Rican trap singer Bad Bunny, who earlier this June elected to wear his own Patek Philippe Ellipse Ref. 4832 (a model noted for its dainty gem-setting and mother of pearl dial) on the cover of American GQ. Fashion-savvy netizens perceived this as something of a flex: a move which Tony Traina, a leading editor at Hodinkee, observes as having a useful ancillary effect. 

Puerto Rican trap singer Bad Bunny wearing his own Patek Philippe Ellipse Ref. 4832, a model noted for its dainty gem-setting and mother of pearl dial, on the cover of American GQ Photo: GQ
Puerto Rican trap singer Bad Bunny wearing his own Patek Philippe Ellipse Ref. 4832, a model noted for its dainty gem-setting and mother of pearl dial, on the cover of American GQ Photo: GQ

“When you’re a celebrity, and all of your peers are wearing the same 5711 [Nautilus],” says Traina, “the best way to show that you’re of a certain caliber - where everything you touch turns to gold - is to embrace things that are weird and uniquely specific to you as an individual.”

Here in East Asia, where men have historically been very comfortable with smaller watches, it’s not uncommon to see pop idols like Kim Tae-hyung (of K-pop supergroup BTS) sporting the Panthère de Cartier - a sensuous design from the eponymous maison, popularly accessorized with stacks of lavish jewelry bracelets. 

BTS’ Kim Tae-hyung sporting the Panthère de Cartier Photo: Vogue Korea
BTS’ Kim Tae-hyung sporting the Panthère de Cartier for Vogue Korea's cover shoot Photo: Vogue Korea

Even the most cursory interrogation of how the ‘small watch, big drip’ movement has impacted pop culture reveals Cartier’s supremacy in the space - with a mixture of modern and vintage designs cropping up on men who align with the brand’s zeitgeist-y appeal. Earlier this September, Dune star Timothée Chalamet virtually broke the watch internet when he was spotted at the Venice Film Festival wearing a Tank à Vis from the early 2000s - fitted with the unusual dual timezone complication, and in all likelihood part of Cartier’s legendary (now defunct) CPCP collection.

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“Most brands are still releasing larger watches,” says Wallner. “Even ‘ladies’ watches - like the Luce Aquanaut Rainbow from Patek Philippe - are sized at around 39mm. So men following this trend [towards smaller, stylized] watches will often seek out vintage Cartier pieces. I think the brand will always be a leader in genderless watchmaking - they certainly have a rich heritage to back that up.”

The growing fondness for small timepieces among male tastemakers comes at a time when the watch community is already grappling with the concept of gendered watches - a somewhat arbitrary convention that has long played a role in Swiss watch marketing. For many veterans of the industry, including Zoe Abelson, an independent watch dealer and founder of Graal, the tendency for traditional luxury brands to label timepieces by sex is counterintuitive: alienating potential consumers, whilst failing to capture the nuance and many micro-trends now afoot in watch culture.

“Most of my collection is full of watches you’d traditionally categorize as ‘men’s’ timepieces,” says Abelson. “For me, a watch is a watch - it doesn’t need to be distinguished or marketed on the basis of gender. Ultimately, it’s the consumer’s decision as to what works best for them, and brands shouldn’t arbitrarily influence the kinds of watches consumers spend their time paying attention to.” 

This critique, about how gender labels in the industry curtail meaningful choice, is almost always leveled in relation to female consumers. Yet when it comes to convincing a larger chunk of men that teeny-tiny watches have more to offer than the scourge of ‘shrinking and pinking’, gendered marketing might have a similarly detrimental effect.

According to Traina, the way in which numerous luxury watch brands categorize their collections has caused them to “miss out on opportunities” to introduce their products to bigger, more diversified audiences. “When you break your offering down into ‘women’s stuff’ versus ‘men’s stuff’,” he says, “you immediately splinter the total audience for a design that, by definition, is meant to have widespread appeal”. 

By contrast, Wallner adopts a somewhat more measured position - acknowledging that labels can be a jumping-off point, especially where brands with a huge portfolio of theoretically ‘unisex’ watches (ergo Cartier and Jaeger-LeCoultre) are concerned.

“On the one hand, it’s beneficial to remove labels in an effort to make watches more universally inviting”, says Wallner. “But it can be difficult for non-watch people to really grasp the difference between a 36mm and 40mm watch - in that sense, gender labels are a useful shorthand for indicating proportion. If watch brands were to remove these altogether, I’d propose more ‘intentional’ design catering to the various sizes of wrist.”

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Without talking to the Futures and Harry Styleses of the world, it’s difficult to say with any degree of certainty whether these topical issues factor into the leading man’s growing appetite for smaller, more visually stimulating watches. What is apparent however - as in many other broad areas of cultural relevance - is that men of all dispositions, whether they be sensitive thespians or gloriously over-the-top rappers, are more at ease sharing their niche interests.

Fashion and evolutive social norms both play a crucial role; and together with social media - the most powerful tool for amplifying public interest - a world in which the ‘small watch, big drip’ trend is able to rival the monolithic steel sports watch might be closer than you think. 

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