What Is the Shape of the Watch? Watch Case Shapes Explained

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You might think that watches are as simple as a round and occasionally rectangular design. However, you would be wrong. In fact, there are a wide variety of different watch shapes, each with their own aesthetic ethos and history.

As with anything else, different watch shapes go in and out of fashion, and can thus sometimes become associated with certain eras.

With that in mind, let’s take a closer look at nine of the most common watch shapes and the story and nature of their aesthetic take on watches and watchmaking.

9 Most Common Watch Shapes

1. Round Watches

This is probably about as basic as it gets for a watch shape. The vast majority of watches are obviously round, and it’s almost certainly what you think of when you think of watches.

On the one hand, it is tempting to say that this is so standard and neutral that there’s “nothing to see here.” On the other hand, that basic design obviously allows for a lot of customization options in terms of what shapes are added around the rim of the round watch.

These are also among the easiest watches to read, since clocks are typically imagined with round shapes in mind.

If you’re looking for a watch shape that is natural, neutral, minimalistic, and easy to read, a round watch shape is the standard by which other watch shapes are measured.

2. Rectangular Watches

This is another design that is classic in its own way. These are among the most common non-round watch shapes, so if you’ve seen or owned a watch that wasn’t circular, there’s a good chance it was rectangular instead.

Part of the reason this watch shape is so well-known to people is that one of the most famous of all watches uses it – namely, classic Cartier Tanks. The Cartier Tank was released in 1917, with its famous rectangular shape being inspired in part by the shape of Renault tanks during the First World War.

Thankfully, the chic watches outlived that era and conflict to become one of the most sought-after timepieces on the market for decades to come. Even so, their shape, design, and origin meant that they retained the nickname of “Cartier Tanks” even well after the war. What’s more, this watch style came out early enough in the wristwatch’s existence that it proved influential, with many rectangular watches to follow, including options from Gruen, Hamilton, and Jaeger-LeCoultre.

While they are less common today than in their Cartier heyday, they remain a classic bit of retro chic, with many rectangular watches today attempting to recapture the wartime and subsequent Flapper-era elegance of the Cartier Tank rectangular watch.

3. Square Watches

Once again, this is a watch style that was a lot more popular in the first few decades of the 20th century, with its popularity starting to peter out at just after the mid-century point.

Like their rectangular Cartier counterparts, these were originally dress watches designed by bespoke watchmakers such as Vacheron Constantin and Audemars Piguet. That being said, there was also a brief trend in the 70s of sports watches attempting to adopt this style, with Heuer Monaco probably being the most notable and recognizable today.

Given the continued supremacy of rounded shapes, going with a square one remains a popular way to go against the watchmaking grain, or else to try and evoke early to mid-20th century styles.

4. Tonneau Watches

Also known as “barrel watches” (tonneau being the French word for “barrel”), these are essentially rectangular watches that have had their sides rounded a bit. These tend to be a bit longer than the cushion watches described below, and often come with an art deco chic aesthetic. Alternatively, this style was popular for chronographs as well as dive watches dating from the late 70s and early 80s.

5. Cushion Watches

These are sometimes nicknamed “squircles,” which should already give you an idea as to the basic shape of these watches. They are the watchmaking equivalent of trying to “square the circle.” Their profile tends to be more square-like, but they feature rounded edges as well as bowed-out sides, giving them a slightly rounded appearance as well.

The style first came to prominence thanks to the styles of the Panerai Radiomir during the 1940s. Since that time, it has been most commonly associated with divers and sportsmen and women, giving them an overall “sporty” and “rugged” aura.

That said, you’ll also still find this watch design on dress watches, where they are often given the decidedly dressier term “cushion watches.” Yet another common name for this watch style is the “tonneau,” as described above, though these are technically two different watch shapes.

6. Asymmetrical Watches

These are a classic way to break the “rules” of watchmaking and still enjoy a fashionable watch. Postmodernism concerned itself with breaking down long-established artistic norms, with symmetry and perspective being chief among them. This is the artistic ethos behind many asymmetrical watches.

Even so, many asymmetrical watches are able to do this while still retaining a balance. For example, while these watches have an asymmetric style, with their crown-side often a bit wider than the other, they nevertheless appear balanced. The basic idea of this particular type of asymmetrical design is to add a bit of extra shrouding to the watch crown and stem, just as crown guards attempt to do for a dive watch.

Influential watch examples here include the Omega Speedmaster, Universal Geneve Polerouter, CWC Chronograph, and Benrus Type 1.

7. Avant-Garde Watches

Imagine the rule-breaking postmodern ethos of asymmetrical watches “dialed” up to the nth degree, and you have avant-garde watches. Just as the artistic avant-garde is all about pushing boundaries, these watches tend to be on the cutting edge of innovative watch design, whatever that may mean in a given time or place. Common examples of avant-garde watches today include Urwerk and MB&F, which are constantly reinventing the way in which watches are conceived and designed.

8. Oval Watches

This is another example of a watch shape that is pretty much what it sounds like. That said, there is naturally a lot of variety as to how narrow or wide the ovals for these cases may be. Also called “egg watches,” these watches are often used as dress options, with the rims being studded with jewels.

9. Carriage Watches

Think of an oval watch, turn it on its side so that the rounded ends are pointing horizontally rather than vertically as does an “egg,” and you have carriage watches. Once again, these tend to be thought of as prime designs for luxury watches, as the elegantly rounded design and jewelry such as diamonds make them a natural fit for the luxury market.

In Conclusion

There is far more to watch shapes than first meets the eye. While the average consumer may think that rounded watches and the occasional rectangular one are all there is to the world of watch shapes, the savvy watch consumer knows differently.

Every one of the watch shapes mentioned above has its own history, and each is suited for a different style and type of activity.

In short, when shopping for watches, you shouldn’t just think about the maker or design but the overall shape of the watch you’re considering as well.