Watches, they come in all shapes and sizes, quite literally. Often when we examine the design of a timepiece, we dissect the dial design, the colors, the metals, the bracelet, the movement, the functions, the aesthetical cohesion between everything, and ultimately, if it's a nice watch to wear.
However, one often overlooked aspect of watch design is the watch case shapes that we have to choose from. Here, we will consider the watch case shapes you have to choose from and dive into how they all size up.
Starting with the most obvious case shape, watches most commonly come in round cases with equal measurements in all directions, excluding the lugs. Think of any number of watches that you can, and most of them will probably be circular. While that is great for someone who wants a watch to stay within the remit of normality and tradition, circular watches also have drawbacks.
Mainly, they are ubiquitous and lack the distinctive personality that some of the other case shapes have. Thus, they rely on other parts of their design to be distinguishable on the wrist.
With that said, though, the majority of the most iconic watches ever feature round cases, and it's not a coincidence; round cases are great for just about every kind of watch.
For example, the Rolex Submariner is a round watch, as is the Patek Philippe Calatrava - a dive watch and a dress watch. Two diametrically opposed timepieces with regards to their use cases, but they pull off round cases perfectly.
One of the harder-to-find case shapes these days, square watches are some of the most visually distinctive timepieces you can mount onto your wrist. Retaining the uniformity of sizing that round watches have, square watches wear true to size like round watches (provided the lugs aren't too long) while shedding the ubiquity that round watch cases have and injecting some flare to the overall aesthetic of your timepiece.
Watches like the Cartier Santos Dumont, the TAG Heuer Monaco, and the Bell & Ross BR01 are some great examples of square watches that use their distinctive shape to add to their overall aesthetic.
Immediately recognizable from across the room thanks to their case shapes, these square watches demonstrate that a well-executed square case will work in just the same way that a beautiful bracelet or dial will - people will recognize them and know what you have on your wrist. Square watches are different, not seen often, and are typically worth giving a second, third, or even a fourth look.
Square's sibling and perhaps one of the most misunderstood watch shapes out there, rectangular watches cases are stunningly beautiful, distinctive, and on the dressier side of things, but they do not wear true to size, so bear that in mind. When we purchase a watch, its case diameter is usually a pretty important measurement.
Depending on who you ask, that measurement will be from 9 o'clock to 3 o'clock or 10 o'clock to 4 o'clock. Either way, the rectangular case shape skews this reading, so it is less important for rectangular watch cases.
The Cartier Tank Divan is an excellent example of a watch with a huge case diameter, but when that doesn't mean it wears as its diameter suggests; in fact, it wears much smaller. Likewise, the Jaeger LeCoultre Reverso and Cartier Tank are both iconic rectangular watches that wear differently to their measurements - 28mm wide would be on the larger side of things for them!
Rectangular watch cases are usually reserved for dressier designs and require some more thought than other cases shapes when considering them for your collection. Definitely try on the watch before purchasing, if you can.
Also known as barrel-shaped, tonneau watch cases feature on some of the trendiest timepieces on the market today. Ranging from most of Richard Mille's and Franck Muller's watches to legendary watches like the Cartier Roadster and the F.P. Journe Elegante, tonneau watches feature plenty of visual flair while retaining the true-to-size element of watch wear, and allow the brand to take ownership of their design.
By combining a flared round midsection with a rectangular profile that lengthens the watch and narrows at the top and bottom, tonneau cases feature the best of both worlds from round and rectangular case shapes and, as such, are incredibly versatile. They can be easily used for dress watches or sports watches, and everything in between, as brands like RM, Franck Muller, and F.P. Journe have come to show.
Easily the most legendary watch case shape there is, the octagonal case has grown from a relatively unappreciated piece of eccentrics to one of the industry's most beloved case shapes with watches like the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak, Patek Philippe Nautilus, Vacheron Constantin Overseas, and plenty of others bringing their own style to the shape.
While some brands like AP can push the angular look, some brands like Patek like to soften the edges and bring some refinement to the design. As such, octagonal watches can feature plenty of unique personalities, even when compared to other watches that also feature octagonal-shaped cases. As such, never assume you know how an octagonal watch will wear, feel or look on your wrist. Octagonal watches are often true to size, but you won't feel the same way about them all.
The last of the standard case shapes, cushion cases are harder to find than the other shapes discussed. They are often square versions of tonneau cases, that swap the tonneau's rectangular profile for a square one. Essentially, they are squares with puffed-out lines or circles with four corners. Either way, they are easily worn, feel and look similar to round and square cases and won't need too much getting used to.
Without a doubt, Panerai is the brand most well known for utilizing the cushion-shaped case, with the vast majority of their timepieces featuring the case. While some other brands do use the shape, like Laurent Ferrier, Ressence, and others, Panerai has brought the shape to the fore and deserves recognition for that, even if they weren't the first to use the shape.
Finally, last but not least, we have the rest of the shapes that aren't as easily definable or commonplace. These are the highly irregular shapes that you seldom see (sometimes once off) and will require an entire other level of wear and appreciation to get used to and be comfortable with from an aesthetic and functional standpoint.
From the triangular design of the Hamilton Ventura and the semi-circular bell shape (Carre) of the Cloche de Cartier to Urwerk's array of beautiful shapes or Vianney Halter's Antiqua, the uniqueness of a watch case can genuinely be accelerated when a brand is comfortable enough to push their aesthetic boundaries and create a watch that is unlike anything that has come before it.
These watches are usually not true to size and require plenty of getting used to. Furthermore, these watches are immediately recognizable on the wrist and speak for themselves.
While plenty of shapes exist out there in the wonderful world of watches, you should play around and explore what you like and dislike. Don't allow yourself to be boxed in and relish the different feels, looks, and designs that watches can have. Your watch should reflect you, your style, and what you like - not what you are told to like.