The smallest watch you’ve never heard ofFergus Nash
The watch industry has two major forces acting as historians. One is the obsessive group of passionate collectors who archive knowledge and record every minute detail they can, and the other is the marketing departments of brands who may omit or exaggerate certain facts to control their employer’s legacy in the public consciousness. Unfortunately for those of us who deeply love the historical aspect of the watch-collecting hobby, it’s the latter force who end up spreading their information the furthest. When I started to research the smallest watches ever made, I was shocked to find that nobody had made a definitive list before, but it led me to a fascinating discovery.
Before the First World War popularised use of the wristwatch amongst men, a wearable watch was considered to be more like a piece of jewellery than a functional timekeeping tool. There were hundreds if not thousands of brands making frankly tiny watches for women, as small as a thumbnail and using rope or chain as a strap. Few watchmakers possessed the patience or ability to service a mechanical movement so small, and because of this many of those watches ended up decaying beyond repair or simply being thrown away. The trends quickly moved towards larger watches for both men and women, but there’s definitely something quite magical about a watch so small it can barely be read, like a clock for fairies.
If you search for smallest watch or movement, you’ll soon be met with thousands of results about the Jaeger-LeCoultre Calibre 101. This is one of the oldest mechanical movements still in production, and it also happens to be the smallest. Among the other smallest mechanical movements are the Bulgari Piccolissimo Calibre BVL 100, the Blancpain Ladybird R550, and the Le Temps Manufactures LTM1000. Impressive though they are, I wasn’t satisfied with the qualifier of “mechanical”. If Jaeger-LeCoultre could make a manually winding movement that measured 14mm x 4.8mm x 3.4mm, then surely someone could make a quartz calibre that was even smaller.
Given that a large majority of watch enthusiasts are male and prefer mechanical watches, it shouldn’t be surprising to learn that there hasn’t been much discourse about tiny women’s quartz watches. Beyond just trying to sift through every watch ever made and bookmarking the smallest ones, I wasn’t sure that it was possible to get definitive answers on the smallest of all time. That was until I came across one thing — a timeline of Citizen’s achievements on their Australian website. There, noted at 1967 with no photos or further information, was the simple claim that they had made the world’s smallest ladies’ watch at that time.
If Citizen really had a valid claim to the smallest watch in a pre-quartz world, then that would have been huge news and devastating to the JLC Calibre 101. When I dug further, I also found a reference to Citizen releasing another “smallest movement” in 1980, and a “smallest solar movement” in 1998. Clearly, Citizen had a relationship with small watches that hadn’t been emphasised before, and so I needed to reach out. I didn’t have any contacts at Citizen so I simply sent them a message through their global support website, expecting to be referred up or potentially rejected. What I didn’t expect was a response within two hours giving me exactly what I was looking for.
The customer service rep from Citizen sent me links to their historical model search engine which you can find here, entirely in Japanese. Aided by Google Translate, the mysteries were solved. The model from 1967 was called the Hi-Look, and the 21-jewel Calibre 1300 which powered it was the smallest three-handed movement at the time. That’s an important distinction, and unfortunately I still couldn’t find the movement’s exact dimensions.
Skipping ahead to 1998, the Exceed Ladies Eco-Drive used the Calibre B030 — the world’s smallest three-hand module with solar charging. Although this movement and its offshoots were used in dozens of different watch designs, with the rechargeable capacitors still being available to buy, I couldn’t find the movement dimensions for this model either.
The real star of the show finds its home within the Citizen Exceed Gold from 1980. The Exceed Gold range was already impressive in 1978 when the Calibre 7900 was developed, as it was the first movement to be thinner than a millimetre at 0.98mm. For context, 44 years later the world’s thinnest mechanical watch is the Richard Mille UP-01 Ferrari at 1.75mm, nearly twice as thick. But, Citizen weren’t satisfied with mere thinness. The Calibre 1500 measures in at 9mm x 7mm x 2mm, which is almost half the size of the JLC Calibre 101 by volume. It was put into watches like the Exceed Gold to maximise the amount of decoration they could use in a small case, and it was even used to make minuscule watch faces that were attached to rings. As far as I can tell, the Calibre 1500 remains the smallest analogue watch movement ever created, of course excluding digital or atomic technology that can be as small as a cubic millimetre. If you know of something smaller, by all means please reach out to me on [email protected].