03/20/2024
 4 minutes

Exploring Diverse Watch Shapes Through Time

By Aaron Voyles
Cartier-Crash-Paris-2-1

Diverse Watch Shapes

Beyond their time-telling function, wristwatches often reflect style and craftsmanship, with some engineering, history, and artistry thrown into the mix. However, while we all appreciate differences in watch design, one aspect that often goes unnoticed is the myriad shapes they can come in. While plenty of things that we buy are often said to come in “all shapes and sizes,” there are few objects this is more true of than timepieces.

From the classic round design to trailblazers like the AP Royal Oak and avant-garde creations such as the Cartier Crash, the shape of wristwatches has undergone a fascinating evolution over time. So let’s delve into the historical context behind the various watch shapes, showcasing how they’ve evolved to cater to the different tastes and trends of their time.

Round Watches

The round watch shape is inarguably the most classic and timeless shape for any watch. While it wasn’t the first case shape used, it has grown to become the most popular shape across the entire industry. Round watches are used in all styles of watchmaking, from dress and sports watches to field and dive watches and everything else you can imagine.

The round case’s origins can be traced back to the early 20th century. That’s when wristwatches gained popularity as a practical accessory during World War I, as soldiers would repurpose their round pocket watches and strap them to their wrists. Brands like Rolex and Omega embraced the round shape and used it a basis for the majority of their watches. The Oyster Perpetual, Submariner, and Daytona from Rolex and the Seamaster and Speedmaster from Omega are just a few examples.

The classic round shape of a watch: Rolex Oyster Perpetual 36
The classic round shape of a watch: Rolex Oyster Perpetual 36

Rectangular Watches

Rectangular watches emerged as one of the earliest wristwatch shapes thanks to the Cartier Santos Dumont, the rectangular pilot’s watch that Louis Cartier created in 1904 specifically for the Brazilian aviator Alberto Santos Dumont. However, while it was one of the earliest shapes, rectangular cases were not popularized until the Art Deco period in the 1920s and 1930s, when geometric forms were celebrated in design.

Rectangular watches were one of the earliest shapes.
Rectangular watches were one of the earliest watch shapes.

This period gave rise to a slew of rectangular watches like the Rolex Prince, Omega Marine, Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso, and many more models that have gone on to become some of modern watchmaking’s best-known timepieces, thanks to their overarching aesthetic of refinement, elegance, and luxury.

Square Watches

Characterized by sharp angles and precise lines, square watches offer a bold and unique aesthetic that is difficult to replicate with other case shapes. This means that the shape is often used by watchmakers to create an unconventional piece that exists outside the horological norm. While there are very few truly square watches, some watchmakers like Vacheron Constantin with the ref. 6290, Patek Philippe with the ref. 3430, and others experimented with square cases in the mid-1900s to create dress watches that broke from the traditional round designs that dominated the landscape and offered collectors something different.

Additionally, brands like TAG Heuer (called Heuer at the time) created watches like the Monaco, which offered a square design for a sports watch. It was a rarity in 1969 when it was launched, and remains a rarity today.

Square watches are unique and bold, like the Heuer Monaco.
Square watches like the Heuer Monaco are unique and bold.

Tonneau Watches

Getting their name from the French for “barrel,” tonneau watches feature a curved, barrel-shaped case that is straight on the top and bottom but rounded at the sides. These cases add a touch of distinction and sophistication to the wrist, while giving the watch itself a unique flair as it straddles the line between round and rectangular. While this shape has never really taken off in its own right, it has been used by several brands as the linchpin of their aesthetic, namely Franck Muller in the 1990s and Richard Mille in the 2000s and beyond.

Watches from Richard Mille are known for their tonneau shaped cases.
Watches from Richard Mille are known for their tonneau-shaped cases.

Octagonal Watches

With their eight-sided cases, octagonal watches gained prominence in the 1970s thanks to the introduction of iconic models like the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak and Patek Philippe Nautilus. Both designed by Gérald Genta, these iconic timepieces popularized the octagonal case, which has gone on to become one of the most distinctive and recognizable shapes in all of watchmaking. While there is an argument to be made that these watches are tonneau-shaped, and only watches like the Bvlgari Octo Finissimo, or Octo Roma are truly octagonal, both the Nautilus and Royal Oak’s best-known case feature is their bezel. So, we’ll classify them as octagonal.

As the name implies: the Octo Finissimo shows an octagonal watch at it's best.
As the name implies: The Octo Finissimo shows an octagonal watch at its best.

And Then There Are “The Others”

Beyond these classic shapes, there are also wristwatch case shapes that defy categorization thanks to their whacky constructions. Among are timepieces like the Cartier Crash, a whimsical and avant-garde timepiece said to be inspired by a surreal car accident involving a Cartier executive’s watch with dents and twists in its case, and the Vianney Halter Antiqua, which redefines what a watch is supposed to look like.

It is the first watch that comes to your mind when thinking about indefinable watch shapes: the Cartier Crash.
It’s the first watch that comes to mind when thinking about indefinable watch shapes: the Cartier Crash.

Exceptionally unique and entirely different from anything else on the market, these types of watches often highlight the artistic side of watchmaking in a way that traditional timepieces cannot. Their shape provides one with a unique wearing experience that no other watch can replicate, thus ensuring that the watch leaves a lasting impact on its wearer. And that’s something we ought to notice.

Conclusion

The world of wristwatches is as diverse and eclectic as the individuals who spend their hard-earned money collecting them. From the timeless elegance of round watches like the Rolex Oyster Perpetual to avant-garde creations like the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak, the shapes of wristwatches have evolved over time to reflect the changing tastes, trends, and aesthetics that unite the world of watchmaking with the world of design. Whether you prefer the classic appeal of a round watch, the boldness of a square design, or the eccentric nature of a Cartier Crash, there’s a timepiece out there to suit every style and personality.


About the Author

Aaron Voyles

I love everything about watchmaking, from the artistry of their design to the engineering hidden within their movements and the history that breathes life into their stories.

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