Not all wrists are made the same. Nor are tastes. So, despite round cases’ near monopoly on the men’s watch market, it’s good to know there are myriad other shapes on offer if you’re looking to sidestep the circle.
There’s TAG Heuer’s square Monaco, for example, and the oft-copied octagonal case of Audemar Piguet’s iconic Royal Oak. But if your personal sense of style leans more formal than casual, and you’re looking to add a Jay Gatsby flavour to your wrist, consider adding a tonneau-shaped timepiece to your collection.
The tonneau watch – known for its four-cornered barrel shape (tonneau is French for barrel) – has rolled in and out of favour since its debut, courtesy of Cartier, in 1906. At that time, tonneau watches (like all wristwatches) were considered dainty jewellery, and therefore mostly worn by women. But by the 1920s, men had dispensed with their pocket watches and strapped on tonneaus, too.
The dawn of Art Deco saw tonneau watches soar in popularity, their bold shape and clean lines chiming perfectly with the wider aesthetic taste at the time. Along with Cartier, industry-leading brands like Longines, Vacheron Constantin and Patek Philippe all produced their own takes on the tonneau in the first half of the twentieth century.
Despite its dominance throughout the 1920s and 1930s, the shape’s popularity gradually waned, and by the 1970s – a decade that saw the emergence of the tonneau’s corpulent cousin, the cushion case – most brands seemed to have forgotten about it altogether, preferring sporty heft over slim elegance.
Swiss watchmaker Franck Muller went some way in resurrecting the tonneau when he launched his eponymous brand in the early 1990s, adopting the shape as company standard. In an attempt to restore the tonneau to its former glory, Muller went in hard, taking all the classic elements of the Art Deco-era watches and adding in copious amounts of bling and off-beat colour palettes. (About as easy to wear as it sounds.)
Now, though, tonneaus are broaching new territory. Perhaps due to their slimmer silhouette, barrel-shaped watches have always been found at the dressier end of the spectrum – something to be worn with formalwear and a nice set of cufflinks (with matching metal, of course). But, thanks to self-described Swiss ‘watch architect’ Richard Mille, that’s starting to change.
In the early noughties, Mille came up with his own, slightly compressed tonneau case and his skeleton dials are now among the most recognisable watches anywhere. They’re so light that Rafael Nadal wears them on-court. Likewise Jamaican sprinter Yohan Blake, who wore his while competing at the London Olympics in 2012.
Granted, the tonneau’s evolution has been an odd one, and its elongated shape certainly isn’t for everyone. But if it’s not-so-ubiquitous elegance you’re after, then place the tonneau top of your list.
As one of the first brands to produce a tonneau watch, it’s fitting that Longines still creates some of the finest on the market. Every model in its Evidenza range comes in a sleek tonneau case, with the pared-back time and date models arguably the most handsome of the bunch (though the beefier chronographs look the business, too).
Cartier-style Roman numerals give it that classic Art Deco feel, as does the ‘flinqué’ dial, an effect that is achieved using a specialist engraving technique to add depth. Fitted with a rich brown leather alligator strap and featuring an automatic movement, it’s a great mid-range option.
Available at Iconic Watches, priced £1,090.
Omega Petrograd 1915
A stunning re-issue, Omega originally made this watch for the Russian market in 1915, running another limited edition production in 2014 to coincide with the Sochi Winter Olympics. One story claims the original 1915 model was created for a member of the Russian royal family – so tragically they can’t have had many years of pleasure from it.
The Petrograd uses a quintessential Art Deco typeface for the extra-large numerals and differs from the original in that it has additional 24-hour markings in red on the dial’s outer track – a nod to the Russian flag (or a bit of subtle Commie symbolism). The 18k yellow gold case sits beautifully on a burgundy strap.
Vladimir Putin himself would probably kill for it.
See more at omegawatches.com.
Kenneth Cole Silvertone Barrel
Aghast at the price of some of the Swiss Grandees of the industry? Then change tack from fine watches to fashion ones. (They still look fine, mind.)
US brand Kenneth Cole does this refined quartz tonneau watch – which could still pass muster on the set of Downton Abbey – for under £50. It’s got a two-tone dial with faux rose gold markers, a date window at 3 o’clock and comes on an imitation croc leather strap – all of the class, none of the financial crippling.
Available at Kenneth Cole, priced $59.
Maurice Lacroix Masterpiece Jours Rétrogrades Tonneau
This Maurice Lacroix model has a retrograde day feature, which – for those of you that don’t already know – means that at midnight on Sunday, its day hand sweeps all the way back to Monday, starting the process again. Handy if you’re the kind of person that consistently forgets what day it is but (rightly) doesn’t want to admit the same in public for fear of being judged. (Because you definitely will be.)
The Masterpiece’s two-tone dial is embellished with some intricate guilloche engraving work and the hands boast a generous amount of lume for good legibility. There’s also a see-through caseback, enabling you to view the automatic ETA movement, and it comes on a crocodile skin strap. So the brand has kept things classic, but added a few modern tweaks.
Available at Chrono24, priced £1,545.
Vacheron Constantin Malte
Named after the Maltese Cross that is the logo of this hallowed brand (one of the so-called ‘Big Three’ along with Audemars Piguet and Patek Philippe), the Malte is a masterclass in refined simplicity.
Its case is 18k rose gold and the dial mixes sleek baton markers with Roman numerals, with a small seconds dial at 6 o’clock. The in-house movement is hand-wound, just like the watches in the 1920s would have been.
Other variations on the theme are available, including the Malte Tourbillon Skeleton, the exorbitantly priced (around £183,000) daddy of them all.
Available at Watchmaster, priced £15,590.
Richard Mille RM 27-02
This is the very watch that was built to withstand Rafa Nadal’s ferocious serves, backhands and triumphant fist-pumping. With a case made from a type of carbon fibre developed partly by the brand itself, this watch is so light – 18 grams with the strap – that we’d wager the top-ranking Spaniard forgets he’s got it on and wears it in the post-match shower (which is fine because it’s waterproof, too).
The RM 27-02 takes the tonneau watch far away from its Art Deco roots and reboots it for the avant-garde ‘haute horlogerie’ crowd. Limited to 50 pieces and powered by a tourbillon movement that took several years to perfect (it’s certified to withstand 5000 Gs), this won’t so much lighten your wallet as steal it, max out all your credit cards and use your ID to obtain a huge false bank loan.
See more at richardmille.com.
Have we turned you on to tonneau watches? Or is this one form of wristwear you’d rather see get barrelled for good?
Let us know below.