The 5 Most Iconic Ladies' (Small Wrist) Watches
Okay, the headline is a bit misleading here. Clickbait-y even. At RESCAPEMENT, we’ve never been fans of the often arbitrary distinction between men’s and women’s watches (likewise, why do we need an Oscar for Best Actor and Best Actress? Shouldn’t there just be a “Best Performance”?). To us, there are two types of watch enthusiasts: the ones with small wrists and the ones with big wrists. The chicken wrists vs. the Sylvester Stallones. Sure, women will tend to have smaller wrists and thus fall into the former category, but that’s where the distinction ends. If you’ve invested any time into this little hobby of ours, you're likely to have some appreciation for the mechanical movements ticking inside a timepiece, whether or not that timepiece is covered in diamonds or not.
We’ve compiled a list of the 5 most iconic watches (plus one bonus watch!) for smaller wrists; we’re focusing on watches that are 36mm or under in diameter. Forgive us if these watches aren’t traditionally “feminine” — American GIs were wearing 34mm A-11s in the trenches during WWII, and there was nothing dainty about that. Which brings us to our last point: this list focuses on new watches. Many popular vintage watches will fit right into the 34-38mm sweet spot we’re talking about here, making them perfect for wrists of all shapes and sizes. The modern trend toward larger watches — though stalled recently — means these mid-sized watches can be harder to find.
Oh, if you still need convincing that you — bearded bear, beer can crushing man that you are — can rock a 34mm watch, take a look at Ryan Gosling’s favorite watch. Or if you need proof that men like diamonds, just look at Lil Uzi Vert’s Patek. With that settled, on to the 5 most iconic watches (and one bonus watch!).
Nomos Glashuette has been something of a pioneer in making well-designed, unisex watches. The Orion is a particular favorite of women and men alike, being the most simple watch in a lineup defined by its Bauhaus minimalism. Save for a PR disaster around its “At Work” series which seemed to presume only men were ever “at work”, Nomos is steadily making watches in the 35mm-36mm range that look great on wrists of all types. And the accessible prices mean anyone can pickup an iconic, hand-wound timepiece, serving as the perfect jumping off point into this horological hobby.
The classic Nomos Orion is 35mm in diameter, with steel-blue hands and simple golden indices at the hour markers. It has Nomos’ manual Alpha caliber inside, an extremely thin movement that allows the entire case to sit just 7.4mm thick. They’ve also expanded the line to different case sizes and dial colors, down to 33mm for those looking for something even smaller. The rose and champagne dials are particularly elegant.
Nomos extensive collection of moderately-sized, Bauhaus inspired watches made this a tough decision; its Tetra was a close runner up to be featured here. It’s offered in a variety of sizes, but the original 29.5mm size, now also offered in a variety of dial colors, is the perfect fit for male or female petite wrists.
The watch everyone knew was coming on this list. If it was good enough for Jackie Kennedy, Andy Warhol, Princess Diana or Michelle Obama, it’s got to be good enough for your size-starved wrist. Design by Louis Cartier himself in 1917 and inspired by the Renault tanks that Cartier saw in use on the Western Front in World War I, the Tank has remained remarkably similar over the ensuing century. Cartier now offers it in a variety of options, including the Solo, Cintree, Francais, and Louis Cartier.
The Tank Louis Cartier is the Tank, with a case and dial most reminiscent of the original Tank. Meanwhile, The Tank Solo offers a more affordable quartz and stainless steel option to the Tank Louis, since the latter is only offered in precious metals. The smallest Tank Solo measures 31mm by 24mm, while the larger model is 35mm by 27mm. Both stainless steel models ring in at about $2,500.
Cartier Panthere (Bonus Watch!)
Another Cartier? We’re briefly breaking our promise to focus on unisex watches, just because this watch is so damn beautiful. The smallest Panthere measures 22mm by 30mm, making it slightly smaller than the Tank. The small stainless steel model is $4,000 and comes on an elegant five-link bracelet. While small-wristed men may be more inclined to choose the Tank or another of Cartier’s classic designs, the Panthere is one of the most iconic women’s watches around today.
Where Cartier often falls short is in the movements it places inside its watches. The entry-level Panthere and Tank are quartz-powered movements. Cartier isn’t exactly consistent in this approach either: for example, the Cartier Santos, often referred to as the “first men’s wristwatch”, comes only with mechanical movements. This could be owing to the history of the Santos, but if a $6,000 entry-level Santos can have a mechanical movement, there’s no reason a $4,000 Panthere can’t. At the end of the day, Cartier is a jewelry brand, and it’s clear that they think that women and men think about jewelry differently. Whether or not this thesis is true is up for debate.
Unlike Cartier, Chanel has put serious time and money into developing beautiful, mechanically-driven watches for women. Being Chanel, the watches are obviously made with women in mind, but these are timepieces with respectable calibers inside that are worthy of the horological bona fides they receive (e.g. dominating the GPHG women’s category). While many of the Boy-friend models have diamond-studded bezels, some are more understated.
For example, there’s nothing stopping my 6.75mm wrist from rocking the stainless steel Chanel Boy-friend below, with its 37mm by 29mm case, except for the $5,200 price tag.
Tudor Black Bay 32 and 36
Tudor’s Black Bay line doesn’t just make some of the best modern dive watches. It also offers a collection of smooth bezel watches in 32mm, 36mm and 41mm diameters, a more understated look for those who still want the classic Tudor dial and snowflake hands. Both feature an ETA 2824 automatic movement, but Tudor’s distinctive design more than makes up for the mundane movement inside.
By signing on Lady Gaga as a brand ambassador, it’s clear Tudor is trying to appeal to a more diverse client base. The Tudor Black Bay 32 and 36 execute on this vision in a refined way.
Another watch everyone knew was coming on this list. One of the most iconic watches of all time, Rolex offers it in sizes as low as 28mm, making it a viable option for anyone. Rolex’s “mid-sizes” are 34mm and 36mm and offer a variety of bezel and dial designs, from florid options like a precious metal fluted bezel or diamond indices to more understated options like the smooth bezel and stick marker indices.
This being Rolex, every Datejust model comes with an automatic (“Perpetual”) movement: the smaller models come with the 2236, the mid- and larger-size models with the 3235. Both calibers feature rapid setting and instantaneous date functions.
While not quite iconic, there are a number of watches under 38mm that didn’t quite make the cut.
Perhaps the best do-anything-with-it diver for small wrists, the Seiko SKX013 is the smaller cousin of the SKX007. At 37mm, it wears great on smaller wrists, if not a bit tall (it’s the same thickness as the SKX007 and utilizes the same 7S26 automatic movement). The fact that you can get this badass diver on Amazon for about $200 doesn’t hurt either.
The internet’s favorite watch, the Seiko 5 SNK series, is another 37mm Seiko that serves small wrists well.
Junghans Max Bill
The original Bauhaus watch. Designed by the eponymous designer in 1961 and largely unchanged since, the Max Bill is a minimalist 34mm watch with a domed crystal that flatters any wrist. It’s inspiration for Nomos and other design-centric brands, and is oft-imitated by the social media-driven brands like MVMT and Daniel Wellington that watch snobs love to hate.
Patek Phillipe Calatrava
This watch transcends a list of “iconic watches for small wrists” because it’s one of the most iconic watches ever. The modern Reference 5196 which adds a small seconds to the dial, is perhaps the perfect dress watch for anyone, no matter the wrist size. At 37mm and with availability in a number of precious metals (we feature rose gold below), it’s a watch anyone can aspire to own. And with prices starting at $20,000, it will remain just that, an aspiration, to most.
The list could go on. Even brands known for larger watches — your Big Pilots and Luminors — have gotten in on parring down the designs to make them accessible to the circumference impaired. There’s a 36mm Pilot’s Watch from IWC that’s not missing much from the classic designs of years past, and a 38mm Luminor that makes me think I might just be able to rock that crown guard one day.