A Guide to Case types and designs

By J. Daly, Dublin, Ireland

March 28, 2021

It goes without saying that the watch case is an integral aspect of watch design and functionality. The case protects the watch movement from dust and moisture, and it assists in guarding the movement from the bumps of everyday use. The case of a watch coupled with a good strap dictates how the watch feels on your wrist. It also has probably the greatest influence on a timepiece’s overall look, giving many pieces their universally recognisable aesthetics. So, given the numerous categories and styles, how is one to know what to look out for? This guide was put together to help answer that exact question so if anyone is asking you about a “tank” or “tonneau” case, you can know immediately what they are talking about.

Round

The majority of watch cases will fall into this category. The circular chassis is the most efficient for holding the dial and movement, particularly for analogue dial watches. It is generally considered the best way to display the dial for ease-of-use in reading the time and using secondary functions if present.

Square

Square watch cases are usually harder to manufacture but espouse a unique and sporty style. TAG Heuer’s Monaco is probably the most recognizable example of a square case design amongst others made in the mid-20th century. Although less common now, a square can make a bolder statement these days as the round watch reigns supreme. 

Tonneau

A tonneau case is an elegant, multi-dimensional design that has an overall rectangular shape. While similar to the cushion case style, the tonneau is taller and longer with arched edges which provides its unique aesthetic. The word tonneau is French for “barrel,” which can be seen in the shape of the case, the complexity of the shape makes them exclusive.

Cushion

The cushion design can be thought of as a blended square and circular shape. It is a design defined by the shift from pocket to wristwatches, when wire lugs were soldered to cushion-like cases so they could be worn on the wrist. It is often seen on divers and other sports watches but is also occasionally used for dress watches.

Asymmetrical

Sometimes difficult to distinguish from round cases, asymmetrical cases are marginally wider on one side than the other. This is to provide slightly more shrouding for the watch’s crown and stem (and pushers if it’s a chronograph). The Omega Speedmaster is an iconic example of an asymmetrical case.

Rectangle (Tank)

One of the most influential case designs in the watch world is the Cartier Tank, released in 1917. This watch, which was inspired by the Renault tanks used in WWI, was so popular in the early 20th century, that many now refer to similarly-shaped dress watches as “tanks.” Rectangular watches are less common today, and those that do exist are mostly throwbacks to those early wristwatches.

Avant-Garde

These are watches that try to push the limits of standard timepiece design or functionality and sit in a category without specific parameters. Models such as the Hamilton Ventura were among the first to define this category, but more contemporary examples come from high-end luxury brands such as MB&F, Richard Mille and Franck Muller are examples of avant-garde watches that defy convention.