Perspective: Here’s the Skinny

For over a century, timepiece brands have advertised a curious idea: the thinner the watch, the better

One of the lesser known dogfights of the branding world happens to belong to one of its most refined sectors: luxury wristwatches. And the brinkmanship is not about what you'd think. Sure, precious metal cases, jewel encrusting, features like moon-phase calendars–all are nice. But when it comes to convincing consumers that the wristwatch in question is truly chic, it's all about being skinny.

In 1904, the Cincinnati-based pocket watch maker Gruen was 10 years old and looking to up its market share. When the company discovered a way to reduce the traditional four layers of gearing to three, the "VeriThin" watch–all of 7 mm thick–was born. Soon, a global race was on to market slimmer and slimmer watches. LeCoultre introduced a 1.38 mm pocket watch in 1907, and in 1925 Piguet turned out an impossibly svelte watch of 1.32 mm.

In 1938, Gruen introduced its first Veri-Thin model in wristwatch form (adding the hypen in the process). It sold briskly until the Second World War halted production. In a way, though, WWII wasn't entirely a bad thing for the brand. "The metallurgical advances made during the war allowed Gruen to [change] the plates, so the profile became even thinner," explains watch expert Edward Faber, owner of Manhattan's Aaron Faber Gallery and the author of American Wristwatches: Five Decades of Style and Design. How much thinner? By 1947, Gruen had returned to the market with a line of "thin thin veri-thin" models, shown at right. "Veri-Thin became a hallmark of wristwatch design," Faber says. And, like most hallmarks, they weren't cheap. That $135 Consuela model would cost $1,303 today.

As might be expected, the presumed value of the skinny watch was the alchemy of marketing alone. Thinner watches didn't keep better time. They didn't last longer either. But they did speak to postwar notions of modernity and sophistication. The Veri-Thin, Faber says, "allowed the dandy to dress up so the thickness of the watch would not interfere with the line of the clothing."

But then, over the past 20 years, watchmakers made a curious move, going back to thick by selling multidial, function-packed chronograph watches thicker than hockey pucks. Still, that Piaget is again touting a super-thin watch (the Altiplano, opposite page) confirms two enduring truths about marketing: Everything comes back around eventually, and thin's always in. "Piaget correctly understands the irritation of the bulky watch," Faber says.

"This ad shows the emergence of the new idea–which is really an old idea–of elegance returning to the wrist," he adds. "That's the thread that connects these two ads: the idea of elegance in the modern day."

With a price tag of about $8,500, Piaget's watch proves another old idea: You can never be too thin, or too rich.

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