Discover 'Habiller'

The Open Secret Behind Bronze and Green Watches That You Didn’t Know


January 16, 2019 Watches By Photo by Hunter D. Kelley
This week, the Palexpo facility in Geneva, Switzerland, will become the center of the watch world for the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie, or SIHH, a luxury watch show rivaled only by BaselWorld in relevance and prestige. We’ve got a team on the ground, there to bring you the most exciting releases. Follow our coverage here, and also be sure to check out Instagram. We’ll be posting to our feed throughout the week.

When the statue of liberty was unveiled in 1886, it wasn’t green, it was brown, which is the color of copper, before it oxidizes. By the time Lady Liberty had taken on her distinctive green hue, in 1906, the US government, convinced the oxidation was a problem, determined to paint over it. The public outcry was enormous, as Ian Frazier writes in this excellent New Yorker essay about her iconic color. As Frazier reports, a New York Times story at the time quoted the country’s largest bronze and copper manufacturer, who declared, “By architects and artists generally this color effect is considered the type of perfection for this kind of metal.” Repainting the statue never happened, obviously, and as Frazier explains, “the statue has been left its own, irreproducible color,” though many have since tried to reproduce it.

Add watchmakers to the list of those who have tried. At this year’s SIHH, we’ve seen a number of watches updated with bronze cases, a trend from previous years, with the added touch of a light green dial color. It’s part of a large movement toward incremental releases, where references that were unveiled in prior years get updated and re-released with new colors and combinations (according to one veteran of the watch world, there’s even a name for this movement in French: “habiller,” from the French meaning “to dress”).

It’s a reasonable tactic, giving watchmakers the opportunity to tweak previous designs given feedback from the watch-buying public, which seems thus far to be pleased with these not-so-new watches (though watch design and the industry itself do seem to be reaching a point of “re-issue saturation”). This process, explained that same watch industry veteran, is also born out of the fact that completely new movements and designs often take up to three years to develop and produce, and in the meantime, one needs something that significantly “lower lift” (to borrow a millennial-ism) to release. Such as a bronze and green version of something one released the year previous.

The most notable of these bronze and green watches so far have been from IWC’s Spitfire Collection, which lends a new, not-so-historical take on the brand’s traditional-leaning pilot’s watches; and Montblanc’s update to its 1858 line. Last year, we saw a similar bronze-and-green pairing in a special 80th anniversary edition of the Oris Big Crown Pointer Date and the Big Crown Pointer Date Bronze some time after the new Pointer Dates were released at Basel. You can probably expect more watches like these in 2019 and 2020, because it’s a good look.

The reason for this specific colorway is pretty well nailed down by Frazier in his piece. Bronze is simply copper with tin added, and it oxidizes just like the Statue of Liberty does. The earthiness of both copper and bronze is a perfect fit for several different shades of green. The two pair well with tons of natural colors, and together, like the best color combinations, they make each other “pop.” They change with the light; together, they have extraordinary depth.

It goes deeper than that for watch people. Oxidation is another word for that thing we watch nerds love so much, “patina,” broadly used to describe a sheen and differentiation of color and texture relating to age. There’s already an entire watch industry built off of different kinds of patinas, like homaging tropical dials that have faded in the sun, or, more obviously, the real patina market of vintage watches. Bronze watch cases, sans green, have been admired in the past because of their ability quickly and naturally patinate. Pairing the metal with the color of its eventual ideal patina simply speeds up the process (think of bronze in a maritime environment and the kind of patina it takes on vis-a-vis the effects of salt and sea).

As Frazier discovered about the Statue of Liberty, that patina process adds beautiful complexity, the sort of thing you can fall into an obsession over. Watch brands are counting on us to do the same, so keep a look out for more of these types of releases in the future, especially with regards to dive watches, and tool watches in general.

More from SIHH 2019

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