The shape of a watch is one of the most important elements in determining its overall style. Below are the most prevalent watch case shapes you’ll come across.
While watch type generally describes the functionality of a timepiece, watch style is more about aesthetics. This is where shapes, colors, and materials come into play, and details like hands, hour markers, and bracelet add to the overall design of the watch. Here we’ll outline the main watch style elements to know so you can discover which watch designs you like (and dislike).
Round cases are the most traditional and common of all the watch case silhouettes. As men’s timepieces moved from the pocket to the wrist in the early 1900s (women adopted wristwatches much earlier than men), most of the then-new “wristlets” retained the classic round shape of pocket watches. From Rolex to Omega, Patek Philippe to Vacheron Constantin, Breitling to TAG Heuer, the vast majority of watch brands focus predominately on making round watches.
Alberto Santos-Dumont was a pioneering aviator that lived in Paris at the turn of the 20th Century. He complained to his friend, Louis Cartier, that it was too cumbersome to deal with a pocket whilst trying to operate an aircraft. So Louis Cartier developed a square-cased wristwatch for Alberto Santos-Dumont, which is not only noted as being the world’s first purpose-built men’s wristwatch but also paved the way for the square case to be a favorite Cartier design. Aside from the Cartier Santos watch, other famous square watches include the Cartier Panthère, TAG Heuer Monaco, Bell & Ross BR 03, and NOMOS Glashütte Tetra.
Rectangular watches gained prominence during the Art Deco period and continues to be a relatively popular timepiece shape—particularly for vintage-inspired dress watches. Cartier is known for its mastery of non-round watches, which the brand refers to as “shaped watches.” The Tank watch is one of Cartier’s most popular watch models and it sports a rectangular-shaped case. Other famous rectangular watches include the Patek Philippe Gondolo, Rolex Cellini Prince, and Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso.
Cushion-shaped cases are defined as square cases with rounded corners. They can look more circular if they’re paired with a round bezel and dial or more square when the bezel and dial follow the shape of the case. The use of cushion cases dates back to at least the 1930s when Panerai made watches for the Royal Italian Navy. Panerai remains the brand most associated with cushion-shaped watches. You’ll also find plenty of cushion vintage watches from the mid-20th Century from the likes of Omega, Rolex, Patek Philippe, and Longines. Some popular modern cushion watches include the Drive de Cartier, Vacheron Constantin Historiques American 1921, and Panerai Radiomir.
Oval-shaped cases can be placed either horizontally or vertically, depending on the watch. An oval case placed horizontally is sometimes referred to as a carage-shaped watch. Some well-known oval watches include the Cartier Baignoire, the Patek Philippe Ellipse, the Girard-Perregaux Cat’s Eye, and a selection of ladies’ watches made by Piaget.
Tonneau is the French word for “barrel” and it is used to describe rounded rectangular watches. Yet again, Cartier is credited for bringing this non-round watch to market first when it introduced the Cartier Tonneau timepiece in 1906. There are a handful of luxury brands that favor tonneau-shaped watches including Franck Muller, Parmigiani Fleurier, and Richard Mille.
When a watch brand wants to flaunt their creative side, they often turn to asymmetrical cases. While certainly unconventional and not to everyone’s taste, if you prefer designs that stand out, an asymmetrical watch case may be just what you’re looking for. Some famous asymmetrical watches include the Cartier Cloche, Cartier Crash, Rolex King Midas, Vacheron Constantin 1972 Prestige, and Hublot MP-05 LaFerrari.
In addition to the shape of the case, another element that defines the style of a watch is the material used to make the case. While conventional materials like stainless steel and gold remain the most prevalent when making watch cases some brands have also turned to other materials like ceramic, bronze, titanium, rubber, synthetic sapphire, carbon, and others.
Several high-end watch brands, such as Richard Mille and Hublot, focus on using high-tech material alloys to manufacture cases, which offer benefits like lightweight architecture, ultra-durability, and high corrosion resistance. Other brands, such as Rolex and Omega, have proprietary formulas for various shades of gold. It’s also worth pointing out that the two-tone watch, defined as combining two different colored metals (usually gold and steel), has been a prevalent timepiece trend for decades. Below is a list of some of the most popular materials used to make watch cases.
Stainless steel is an iron and chromium alloy that’s highly corrosion-resistant. This trait makes it a particularly good choice for sports and tool watch cases. Most luxury watch brands use 316L steel, but Rolex is known to use 904L steel.
Gold used in watchmaking is alloyed with various other materials to achieve the desired color. In addition to ubiquitous yellow gold, there is also white gold, red gold, and rose gold. Today’s high-end watch brands mainly use 18k gold to make gold cases, which is 75% pure gold mixed with other metals.
Platinum is rare and expensive and, therefore, an ultra-prestigious choice when it comes to watches. Platinum watches are normally made from 95% pure platinum alloy, generally alloyed with ruthenium—this is called 950 platinum. Watch brands usually reserve platinum cases for their finest collections.
Although titanium watches have been around since the 1970s, they have become immensely popular just over the last decade. Titanium watches are generally alloyed with iron, aluminum, vanadium, molybdenum, or other metals. It’s a particularly good metal for watch cases since not only is it much stronger than steel it’s also lighter and more corrosion-resistant.
The use of ceramic, which is zirconium oxide, has flourished in watchmaking over the last few decades thanks to the material’s modern look and resistance to scratching and fading. It is a non-metallic material that’s created by heating and cooling, and can be produced in a wide range of colors. While some brands like to use ceramic for bezels, others are made entire watch cases from ceramic too.
Carbon fiber is a woven-textured material that’s most commonly associated with high-end sports carts. Carbon composites are now becoming a popular material for luxury watches too. This dark material is not only lightweight and strong but also has a distinctive pattern that is unique to each case.
The handset of the watch is the most important part of the dial—after all, the hands are what tell you the time! Functionality aside, watch hands come in all sorts of designs, which adds to the watch’s style and character. Below are some of the most popular hand styles you’ll find on luxury watch dials.
Hands with wide bases that taper into sharp points. A stem connects the base of the hands to the center of the handset. Alpha hands are sometimes called lance hands.
Hands with arrow-shaped tips. Sometimes both the hour and minute hands have arrow-shaped ends and sometimes, only one of them has it. In French, arrow hands are known as harpon hands.
Long and straight hands that can end in a straight, rounded, or sharp point. Baton hands are sometimes called stick hands, which are typically much thinner. If baton hands have sharp points, they are sometimes called pencil hands.
Thin hands with decorative circles near the tips. If you look closely at the circles, they include a thicker side to resemble a crescent moon. Breguet hands are named after famed watchmaker Abraham-Louis Breguet, who almost always used this handset on his creations. Breguet hands are sometimes called pomme hands after the French word for “apple.”
Large and ornate hands with segments that resemble church glass-stained windows. Cathedral hands are typically found on vintage-inspired pilot watches
Hands with wide bases that taper into sharp points. Dauphine hands are typically faceted but you’ll sometimes see flat ones too.
Hands that have wide centers and thin bases and points—like a leaf. Leaf hands are sometimes referred to by their French translation, feuille hands.
Hands with a three-point star on the hour hand, similar to the Mercedes Benz logo. Mercedes hands are most associated with Rolex sports watches.
Hands that have see-through components. Skeleton hands, also known as squelette hands in French, can come in all sorts of shapes and sizes.
Hands with diamond-shaped accents near the tips, created by Tudor in the mid-20th Century for military commissions. It was collectors that coined the name “snowflake” hands and Tudor now uses that name officially.
Hands with decorative spade-shaped (like the playing card suit) accents. Spade hands are sometimes called poire hands, which is French for “pear.”
Hands that flare out into broader ends with sharp pointy tips, similar to a sword.
Sword hands are also known by their French name, glaive hands.
Hands with a barrel in the center and a long needle-like tip to resemble a syringe.
The hour markers on a dial, also known as indexes or indices, play another important role in defining the watch’s style. Below are some of the most popular hour marker styles you’ll find on luxury watch dials.
Roman numerals are the oldest type of numerals used on watch dials and remain popular today, particularly for classically designed timepieces. If you look closely at a Roman numeral dial, you’ll see that fourth hour is marked IIII rather than the correct IV. The use of IIII is said to bring better balance to the dial.
Arabic numerals (a.k.a. Western Arabic numerals) are the digits most of us use—1, 2, 3, etc. This is different to “Eastern Arabic numerals,” which are the numbers used in Arabic script. Some dials use Arabic numerals for all the hour markers while others only use a few, such as the 3/6/9 numerals on the Rolex Explorer.
Breguet numerals are a stylized form of Arabic numerals, named after Abraham-Louis Breguet. The theory is that that these numerals were the result of Breguet’s handwriting.
Baton indexes are rectangular markers that are either painted on the dials or formed out of metal and applied onto the surface. Dress watches typically have thinner baton markers (sometimes called stick markers) while sports watches have thicker ones—often coated in luminous materials for legibility in the dark.
Some watches use different shapes to mark out the hours. For example, many sports watches have a mix of round, rectangular, square, and triangular hour markers, all filled with luminescence so that they glow in the dark.
Some watches have precious gems, such as diamonds, sapphires, rubies, or emeralds, at the hours, which adds some serious sparkle to the dial.
California dials are the names given to a very specific dial design that mixes Arabic numerals, Roman numerals, and shapes.
The watch’s band is not only an important part of the piece’s functionality, it is also integral to the watch’ style. Below are some of the most popular band types styles you’ll find on luxury watches.
The term bracelet is usually reserved for metal watch bands. Watch bracelets can come in a wide range of metals to match the watch case and there are plenty of link styles to choose from. Some popular styles include Bonklip, three-link, five-link, beads-of-rice, brick-link, Milanese, and shark mesh.
Leather straps are a popular choice for dress watches. They also come in plenty of colors, ranging from neutral tones such as brown, tan, and black to vibrant shades like red, green, pink, or blue. Military watches are also often paired with leather straps, which sometimes have large rivets just below the lugs. A bund strap is a particularly thick and wide leather strap that was originally developed for military pilots as a way to protect their wrists from burning should a fire occur. Rally straps are characterized by large perforations in the leather (similar to racing gloves) to allow for air circulation around the wrist.
Rubber straps are a practical choice for dive watches since they perform great in the water and are light to wear. They are also available in a wide assortment of colors and patterns. The term “Tropic strap” refers to a Swiss-made rubber strap with a diamond pattern that debuted in the 1960s.
Nylon straps, also called fabric straps, were originally used in the military due to their utilitarian style and durability. The name NATO strap is often used to describe all types of nylon straps; however, that’s a misnomer. The British Ministry of Defense (MoD) introduced what we now call the “NATO strap” in 1973 and the name was derived from the NATO Stocking Number (NSN) used to order it. MoD-issued NATO straps were “Admiralty Grey” in color, fitted with buckles and keepers, and most importantly, included a shorter nylon piece attached to the buckle to prevent the watch from falling off the wrist. Today, nylon straps are available in plenty of colors and designs and often don’t have the same structure as the original NATO strap