Whether it’s that odd rounded square, the long one with the curved sides or just typically watch-shaped, every watch has a case and every case has a correct way of talking about it. It’s one of the most elementary aspects of a wristwatch after all, and with most watches falling into one of a few baskets, it’s worth knowing what the labels on those baskets are. And so that you can master the art of horological banter, I’ll be going into a little more detail than ‘this is a square’.
The classic case shape of any watch. Unfortunately, there’s not a huge amount to say about it. It was the first type of wristwatch to be produced. That’s simply because it was the typical shape of a pocket watch, which were meant to fit nicely in the palm, which was downsized and strapped to the wrist. That said, because of its ubiquity, round cases are the most versatile out there, and let watchmakers play with the lugs, bezel and overall dimensions of the case in order to fit their ideal of a timepiece. That’s my way of saying boring isn’t always bad.
The brand that’s likely popped into your head at the mention of tonneau (or barrel) cased watches is Richard Mille. Their intensely high-end sports watches have been synonymous with the shape since the RM001 Tourbillon back in the halcyon days of 2001. Before them was Franck Muller (the Richard Mille of the 90s) with their equally disruptive cases. After all, if you’re dropping a few hundred K on a tourbillon, you can’t settle for a dull old circle. It might surprise you to learn however that the tonneau case goes back further than the Spice Girls – and in far more classical fashion.
The first tonneau case was actually made by Cartier in their second-ever timepiece, the aptly-named Tonneau, in 1906. Designed as an ergonomic dress watch, the case was meant to contour to the wrist. Six years later, Vacheron Constantin jumped on the hype train too, cementing the case shape in the annals of serious watchmaking. The only issue is that elegance and tonneau cases don’t work together with complications. They tend to not leave enough room for any serious watchmaking. That’s in good part why modern tonneau cases are big, bulky and sportier than the earlier models and why more classical brands stick to, well, the classics.
If you’re getting tired of hearing Cartier’s name then look away now. It won’t be his last appearance on this list. The square watch has its genesis in 1904 as the first pilot’s watch, created by Cartier for his friend and Brazilian aviator Alberto Santos Dumont. The modern version of the Santos is a little more 70s but the overall shapes still there. The key to the square watch is legibility. Because of the dimensions, there’s more space for the dial than on a similarly-sized round watch.
It’s still not great for anything you expect to knock about (again, flat planes aren’t your friends when it comes to protection) but when you need to read the time quickly at a glance, squares can be useful. Other brands have kept things equally sporty, with the most famous square watch being the Heuer Monaco of 1969 from Tag Heuer, as made famous by Steve McQueen. Bell & Ross too have made their quadrilateral reputation with the shape in their own cockpit-inspired pilot pieces.
If a square watch were for race day then its dressier cousin would be for the glitzy afterparty. Rectangular cases have been around almost as long as wristwatches, courtesy (once again) of Monsieur Louis Cartier. The seminal Tank of 1917 was inspired by the Renault tanks of the Western Front. Sure, it’s a little morbid to turn the first instance of serious mechanised warfare into an elegant wristwatch, but the result speaks for itself and has been on the wrist of high-flying creatives ever since. In fact, if there’s one use of the rectangle as iconic as Cartier’s it’s that of Jaeger-LeCoultre, whose Reverso turns 90 this year.
The flippable watch was built for British Army polo players in India and ensured that rectangular cases would forever be synonymous with Art Deco. It’s no surprise that rectangular watches have tended to err towards elegance, with just the occasional notable exception, such as the Heuer Monaco. Still, it’s not really a shape that works all that well with sports watches – flat shapes don’t exactly deflect bangs and bumps – and most watchmakers steer clear of the shape for risk of being declared an homage. It’s a good thing the Reverso and Tank aren’t going anywhere.
Think of a cushion case as the no-man’s land between a square and a circle, with four distinct corners but rounded edges in-between. Essentially, the Panerai Radiomir. The Radiomir is without doubt the quintessential cushion-cased watch and is the reason the shape dominates retro and vintage-style diving pieces. But the Radiomir, which was designed for Italian frogmen in the 1930s, was preceded by more elegant fare the previous decade and dressier versions are still synonymous with the roaring 20s.
There’s some debate over which was the first cushion-cased watch, but the Vacheron Constantin American of 1921 is a solid contender, with it’s diagonally-slanted dial. Back on home shores, there was also Fears in the same decade, whose 1924 cushion case provided the inspiration for the modern-day Brunswick. Today, cushion cases are shorthand for vintage style, be that practical, Panerai imitators or, quirky retro numbers or dress pieces ripped from various 1920s archives.
Almost exclusively found in women’s watches, the earliest oval cases can trace their lineage to what might possibly be the earliest wristwatch ever, courtesy of Abraham Louis Breguet. The Reine de Naples of modern-day Breguet is inspired by the original watch given by the watchmaker to Marie Antoinette of France in 1812 and is a good part of why oval watches are closely associated with royalty. Expect to see most ovals draped in diamonds, with more mother-of-pearl than a Cockney and slim, delicate straps to fit the thinly-tapered ends.
You’ll also see a few ovals on their sides, a la the Girard-Perregaux Cat’s Eye, though the dimensions and characteristics are pretty much the same. The aforementioned Breguet still produces a handful of oval watches, but so do Chopard, Eberhard, Piaget and pretty much any brand with a solid women’s line and high-jewellery offering.
Crazy case shape that doesn’t fit into any kind of blueprint? That’s avant garde. These are the watches that are defined by their shape. One of the earliest examples is, once again, from Cartier, with the phenomenal Crash. Inspired by a customer’s damaged watch in the 1960s and is still one of the most idiosyncratic watches around today.
Otherwise, think the Hamilton Ventura with its shield shape, or there’s asymmetrical numbers like Greubel Forsey or pretty much anything by MB&F. Their pieces defy any kind of description other than avant garde.