Monster Watches

How a movie muscleman spawned a trend that bulked up the wristwatch
| By David Prince | From Gen. Tommy Franks, Nov/Dec 03

Blame it on Sylvester Stallone. Before the Hollywood muscle man started wearing monster watches, only special forces, top guns and military buffs wore them. But today, big wristwatches are in fashion and they continue to get bigger every year.

Stallone sparked the trend back in 1995 when he was window-shopping in Rome during the shooting of the film Daylight. The actor saw a Panerai Luminor in a jewelry store and bought one to wear during the film. He liked it so much that he asked the tiny Florence-based watchmaker to produce 200 of them in a limited edition with his signature on the case back. It was called Slytech. He apparently received only 15 of the timepieces, which he offered as gifts to friends. He still has two at home.

"I immediately felt when I saw the watch that it had star power," Stallone said during the U.S. launch of a new limited-edition Panerai at the Beverly Hills Grand Havana Room in October of 2002. "Besides, its perfect for people who are over 45 years old, " he added in reference to the ease of reading large-format watches.

Panerai is now one of the hottest watch brands in America and one of the prized names in the stable of watches owned by the Richemont Group. The sport watch, which comes in sizes as large as 1.8 inches (or 46 millimeters) in diameter, has redefined what's cool yet elegant in wristwatches. What was once worn over the wetsuits of crack frogmen in the Italian navy is now on the wrists of men wearing dinner jackets and suits, not to mention more casual attire.

"Some of the 300 Panerais produced exclusively for the Italian commandos between 1938 and 1993 were already catching the eye of collectors and fetching handsome prices at auction, especially the ones produced in the 1940s and early 1950s that were powered by Rolex 16 lignes movements," says Philippe Bonay, president of Panerai North America.

The Richemont Group bought the watch manufacturer in 1997, but it wasn't until Richemont took the brand global a year later that Panerai and, in effect, monster watches took off with the consumer. "It was the first line of watches with an extra large diameter [44 millimeters]," says Bonay. Last year, the company launched a limited-edition Panerai, the Luminor Marina 1950, which commemorates the development of the watch in the 1940s for the Italian navy. The largest modern Panerai (47mm), it's one of the rarest wristwatches on the market: only 1,950 will be made over the next three years. It sells for about $7,500 in the United States. "Today, our watches have gained respect of watch enthusiasts worldwide primarily because of their rarity, value and history, which no one can duplicate," says Bonay.

Panerai's success has also led many other companies to introduce larger watches. Audemars Piguet, for example, now makes one of the biggest watches on the market, the Royal Oak Offshore T3 Chronograph. The limited-edition, 1,000-piece watch is 57.20mm in diameter and weighs 4.762 ounces. It's no wonder it was designed with the help of Arnold Schwarzenegger and released with the launch of his recent film Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. Its bold, octagonal bezel and titanium case look as if they could withstand the assault of 10 Terminators. Its suggested retail is $19,900.

"This [big watches] is more than a trend," says Francois Henry Bennahmias, president of Audemars Piguet USA. "When you look at watch sizes throughout the history of watchmaking, the average width of a case in the '40s was 32mm, then 36mm—today it is 38mm. I believe this marks an evolution that stems quite simply from the evolution of physical appearance: people—men and women—tend to be taller and, naturally, have larger wrists. Maybe the average will soon be 40 or 42mm."

Besides being taller, many of us are slightly fuller framed than our forebears, so a mega-wristwatch looks proportionate. But there's also an ostentation to wearing a Panerai, T3 Chronograph or any other large watch. "It makes the product more visible on the wrist," says Christian Bédat, the head of Bedat & Co., a small Swiss watchmaker under the control of the Gucci Group. In April, Bedat launched a dressy, elegant large-format watch, the 797. It starts at about $3,950 in America. "It is easier for the brand to make a statement and for the consumer to feel that he or she got value for [the] money," says Bédat.

Nonetheless, there is also a practical side to wearing these massive wristwatches. Those who are beginning to find small print difficult to see will have fewer problems telling the time with a jumbo timepiece. A number of these watches were originally designed for just that. Divers (Panerai) in murky water needed to see at a glance how long they've been under and pilots (International Watch Co., Breitling and Chronoswiss) couldn't take their eyes away from their flight path for more than an instant to check the time over Germany or the United States.

"There are models out there that are large to be large, but for us functionality is part of the design," says Lisa Roman, director of marketing for Breitling USA. Most of Breitling's promotional material focuses on the company's history of producing aviator's watches, such as the Super Avenger. "More complicated movements need larger cases. For example, our new Bentley Motors watch with the added chronograph capabilities of its 30-second chronograph is driven by our new caliber 25 movement. The Emergency Mission at 45mm is housed with an electronic transmitter. So size is integral to function."

Some big watches, however, are unabashedly 100 percent fashion statements. Beverly Hills attorney turned jeweler Ali Soltani began his own brand, Ritmo Mundo, in March 2002 with a love for mega-wristwatches. "It's a lifestyle watch," says Soltani, whose family owns the chic Rodeo Drive jeweler David Orgell. His newest Ritmo Mundo, the Palazzo, has a whopping 52mm diameter case and sells for about $1,800. All his watches are made in Italy with French or Swiss movements. "It's nice to wear a $1,200 or $1,800 watch that is inspired by those that cost $20,000 or $30,000," says Soltani.. "There is no need to reinvent the wheel. I call it the adult Swatch, for lack of a better phrase. We could afford a $20,000 watch, but it's nice to have a few that don't break the bank."

A new monster watch brand seems to appear every few months, and Italy is a key breeding ground. "Large watches have been around for a long time already—especially in Italy," says Bédat. "Certain brands less established are producing very large watches, so they are easier to stand out from the rest. Some brands became famous and trendy due to the size and unique design they offered."

Two small, relatively new Italian brands making waves with grandi orologi are Anonimo Firenze and TCM. The former takes its inspiration from Panerai. with watches such as the Militare, and the latter resembles the IWC Big Pilot, with its Air First.

Anonimo Firenze began manufacturing in 1998 with the intention of maintaining the watchmaking traditions established in Florence by Panerai, which had moved its production facilities to Switzerland in 1997.

"We like to say that the Swiss make watch movements and we make watch cases," says Anonimo Firenze founder Federico Massacesi. "We have maintained the great tradition of making sports and military watches in Tuscany with Anonimo. We are grateful to Panerai."

The story is similar with TCM (Tierra Cielo Mare), which the Milan-based company Lo. Fo. Ce launched as a watch brand in 2001. "Air First is similar to IWC Pilots because we worked with IWC for many years," says Silvio Arati of Lo. Fo. Ce, whose largest Air First pilot's watch measures a massive 55 mm in diameter. "It was like a small family and we helped develop the Italian market for them as well as creating new watch designs. So it was [natural] for us to start our own creations."

Regardless of design origins, monster watches are here to stay. The only question is how much larger they can become. "There is a limit to the size of a watch," says Nadine Iskenderian, marketing and public relations manager for IWC. "Some companies appear to be competing for the production of the ever larger watch; however, in reality there comes a point where the watch is uncomfortable to wear."