There’s something about a watch you could actually buy with your current bank account, right now, that gets the heart thumping and the synapses firing. These watches — specifically, the ones that cost less than $1,000, many of them less than $500 — are the subject of our new series “Time Is Money“.

I
own a vintage Hamilton tank from the 1930s or so, given me as a graduation gift. It’s an interesting watch for a young guy to have, and I was swollen with pride the first day I wore it to the office. I was waiting for a compliment when a coworker noticed it on my wrist. He asked about it, and I explained: gift, graduation, vintage.

“Chris, did someone buy you a women’s watch?”

You could almost hear the hiss as I deflated.

He didn’t mean it as a slight. It’s a tiny watch, especially by today’s standards. This is the common thinking: the big watch fills the grown man’s wrist, looking sporty, assertive, bold. The small watch is feminine.

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The sad thing is, for some time I was embarrassed by my once-beloved Hamilton, even if I wouldn’t admit to it. Next to a chunky Panerai or even the ubiquitous Speedmaster, it was dinky, an insult to my manhood. The thought was ridiculous, and yet I couldn’t shake it: no man would wear this watch.

This is the common thinking: the big watch fills the grown man’s wrist, looking sporty, assertive, bold. The small watch is feminine.

But I recently put that Hamilton back on my wrist, and it still felt good. It’s still clear what the time is (though that time stays stoically at 9:33, because it doesn’t run). It’s small on my wrist, relative to modern watches, but even so it doesn’t look ridiculous to me. It looks like a watch. A unique one, and one that I hope style trends back toward, because it’s a great piece.

This is also true of the Tsovet JPT-PW36 ($250) I’ve been trying out lately. At 36mm, it’s the smallest watch the California-based, American-owned brand makes. They’ve been making watches since 2008, and their products fall squarely into the sub-$1,000 range. Broadly, Tsovet’s timepieces have a slight “fashion watch” slant, with just the right empty space on their dials, a wide range of color options, and a broad mix of Japanese and Swiss quartz and Swiss mechanical movements. To be fair, they make watches sized for Brontosauruses, too — all the way up to 48mm.

The JPT-PW36 isn’t the cheapest of Tsovet’s watches, but it rests solidly on the lower end of their range. In most ways, that affordability doesn’t show through in the watch itself. The dial is largely empty, with small arabic numerals, very plain and thin and spaced along its edges; small dots and hash marks along the outer dial continue the quiet theme. “Tsovet” sits plainly toward 12:00, and the only other markings are the ghostly imprints of its model name, “Japan Quartz”, and “50 meters”, its depth rating, below the center of the watch. They’re so subtly imprinted in the face as to appear an imperfection, only visible when they glint ever so slightly in the light.

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The watch would almost be boring if not for its hands. They’re perfectly aggressive, drawing the eye away from the featureless desert of the dial. My model, in cream and black (I actually like the black-and-white and coffee-stained liveries better), had a sharp longsword minute hand and a sharp dirk for the hour, both black and white, plus a rapier-thin orange second hand ticking away thanks to its Miyota quartz movement. These hands are the lifeblood of the watch’s style. It’s a beguiling watch; the Horween leather strap, thin black stainless steel case and simple crown are just as shy as the empty face. And perfectly, those hands shout out the time, firm and present but not obnoxious.

All of the watch’s features work because they aren’t oversized on my wrist.

And so we return to why the smaller watch is great. All of these features work, at least to my eye, because they aren’t oversized. It’s as light on the eye as it is on the wrist.

It’s for those reasons that we now prize minimalism (or just plain sensibility) over ostentation in just about every facet of style — except for watches. It’s not that a 42mm version of this Tsovet would be too big. It’s that the 36mm one does the job just as well as its larger counterparts — its compactness, handled correctly, is a boon rather than an embarrassment. It wears comfortably because it’s thin. It doesn’t shout from the wrist, and therefore has a more versatile look. And when people do notice it, they tend to find it refreshing, using descriptors like “classic” and “understated”. This is where the small watch wins out over the big one, and they’re big victories — no Waterloo, sure, but they make a statement.

There are certainly other notable small watches available, several of them extremely affordable. Timex makes a Camper model at 34mm for $38; a 37mm Seiko 5 Field Watch will run you $60, and with a mechanical movement, too; Tsovet also makes a great 38mm watch with a Swiss-made quartz movement for $200. And while the JPT-PW36 has problems — the aforementioned oddly cryptic dial markings, a lack of lume, a sense that it isn’t nearly as tough as the Timex or the Seiko, and a second outer level of dial, raised just enough to look a little cheap up close — it remains worthy thanks to its singular style, which doesn’t feel too avant-garde, and isn’t governed by a Napoleon complex. You shouldn’t suffer from the latter, either. If you don’t have enormous wrists, swallow your silly pride and try a small watch on for size.

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