watch case shapes

Once upon a time there was a watch. It was a watch with a round shape … This is how the story of the watches started long time ago. From the sundials, water clocks, clepsydra and the first portable watches the history of the watches has always been about rounded shapes. Only in the late ninety century / early twenty century we see the appearance of the first watch cases with shapes different from the well known rounded ones (e.g. Louis Cartier 1908 and Vacheron Constantin 1912 tonneau-shaped watches). At the beginning they were based on rounded caliber movement fitted in a watch case with square / rectangular shape and then, in a second phase, new movements with rectangular shapes started being manufactured (e.g. rectangular Gruen Quadron about 1925).

Since then many other shapes have been designed and commercialized. The creative work has gone well behind the exploration of two-dimensional shapes and also complex structures are now considered for modern watches. The following section underlines the many different shapes from the most classics to the most innovative.


Round-shaped Watches

The shape was originally the consequence of the system used to indicate the passage of time (ie. hands rotating in a circle) and now it represents the most commonly used shape even for many digital modern watches. Depending on the specific execution and decoration circular shapes have been used for very classic watches as well as sport and casual watches – in fact, this shape is the most versatile and has been the sole reference till the ‘1900. Over time the perfectly circular shape has been stretched into ovals or carage and then modified into barrels.


Tonneau-shaped Watches

The tonneau (French for barrel) shape was most likely the point of transition from rounded to square / rectangular watches. Vacheron Constantin introduced its first tonneau-shaped watch in 1912 and has since become an iconic model in its collections. However, it seems that the first watchmaker to introduce a tonneau-shaped watch was Louis Cartier in 1906 – this model was then followed by a square-shape in 1908 and tortue-shape in 1912. Due to its novelty, the tonneau-shaped watches became very popular in the early 1900.

Initially the tonneau-shaped watches were housing regular rounded caliber movements but over time also the movements started leveraging the new shape. Nowadays tonneau-shaped watches are mostly designed to be used for classic occasions and very seldom they are developed for watches meant for casual or sport occasions.      


Rectangular-shaped Watches

Rectangular-shaped watches represented the modernity; a break from the past and inherited rounded shapes. As such, this shape has been adopted by all the watch manufacturers who wanted to modernize their image (up to the latest smartwatch by Apple). At the beginning the square or rectangular shapes were being used only to manufacture watches for classic occasions, but over time some watch manufacturers started using them also to develop watches for casual or sport occasions.

A peculiar rectangular shape is the “tank” one. Many people use the descriptor “tank” as an alternative to “rectangular” but in reality those two shapes are not the exactly the same. The “tank” watches originally developed by Cartier (1917) were inspired by WWI Renault Tanks. In those watches the two sidebars “brancards” tend to be bulky and extend into the lungs like to emulate the caterpillars of the tank. Those tank watches might have both rectangular and square proportions.


Interesting to note that some watches evolved over time from rounded shape to tonneau to square while always keeping the dial rounded (e.g. Bell & Ross).

Bell & Ross Watch Evolution


Asymmetrical Watches

Once experimented with any kind of regular shape (including hexagons, cushions, baguette, lozenge…), some watchmakers started investigating asymmetrical watches. To name just few of the first asymmetrical watches manufacturers: Cartier with the skewed shape of the "Parallelogram" (1940's), Hamilton with the renowned Ventura introduced following WWII (circa 1957) showcasing an asymmetrical case, pointed and extended lugs and curved crystal, Patek Philippe with the unusual and unconventional designed by Geneva jewelry designer Gilbert Albert (circa 1965), Cartier again with a “crash” design (1967) and Vacheron Constantin with a lozenge shaped, asymmetrical case (circa 1972). Since then many more manufacturers followed the trend and started exploring also variations on the third dimension for watches to be used in classic occasions as well as the casual and sport ones.

asymmetrical watches


Bullhead Watches

We are dedicating a special section to this specific shape as we believe it is by now a classic and as such deserves more attention. The bullhead watches are chronograph with crown and chronograph pushers on top of the case rather than on the side (in some watches the crown might be at the bottom). Generally the top part of the case (where the buttons are located) is larger than the bottom part. This structure gives the watch the look of the head of a bull with its horns. The bullhead shape started becoming top of mind of watchmakers in the ‘1970. Omega in 1969 introduced its famous bullhead immediately followed in 1970 by Bulova, Seiko Speedtimer, Sorna and Orator. Later Also Desotos, Breitling, Fleurier and other companies followed. Nowadays also some newly established companies and niche watchmakers develop bullhead watches and most of the time those are positioned for the sport/casual segment.


Curved Watches

One of the most immediate outcomes of the creative exercise of exploring the third dimension is watches with curved surfaces. It is not about having a domed or curved glass but about having a curved case and sometimes even movement. One of the classics if the Tissot “banana watch” (1916 circa) inspired by early 1900's art-deco and with a very unique curved case and crystal that fits the case. Another great example is the Air Watch by Eva Leube (2011) in which also the movement is steeply curved to create an arch as showcased by the great case and curved glass.


Three-Dimensional Structures

By now there are no anymore limits to creativity and watchmakers explore any kind of shape for the case of the watch - some of those watches are emphasized in our other post THE MOST UNUSUAL AND UNIQUE WATCHES. Those watches cannot be classified in any of the above sections and have shapes very difficult to define. For example Maximilian Büsser & Friends (MB&F) have made lots of incredible creations and their horological machine number 4 (HM4) inspired by aviation has two vertical dials as part of a structure that reminds airplanes. Similarly Romain Jerome Spacecraft is an incredible machine with linear retrograde jumping hour indicated by a red-lacquered cursor on a vertical side of the watch which has a very peculiar shape.


From an historical perspective watches have kept a rounded shape till early ‘1900 when tonneau and square shapes started being introduced then followed by asymmetrical watches in the ‘40s and bullheads in the ‘70s and finally the “three-dimensional” shapes more recently. In other words, the bulk of the innovation on the shape of the watches has been done only over the last 100 years… and the exploration continues…

Every person has his own preference for one shape over another but it still seems that the rounded shapes are the most favorite and common in the market place followed by the rectangular ones. This is most likely due also to the fact that the rounded shape is the most flexible one in the sense that it can be used for both classic and casual or sport occasions. On the other hand the other shapes are generally designed and executed to fit more one vs another occasion and might relate more to a specific trend rather than being already established as a classic. The newest three-dimensional shapes are still too “avant-garde” and often very expensive for a broad adoption. No matter where you stand, there is most likely a shape (or more) that suit you (and your occasions) the best.



PS: if you want to know more about the different elements of a watch you can start from our post 17 Luxury Signs of World’s Most Expensive Watches


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