Why Stainless Steel is an Ideal Watchmaking Material
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Stainless steel watches are so common, affordable, and fashionable today that it can be baffling to recall that up until the 1960s they were relatively rare, quite expensive, and considered to be about as stylish as a hardhat. Until the 1970s, the vast majority of steel watches were job-specific tools — anti-magnetic models for railroad workers and scientists, waterproof versions for divers and chronographs and GMTs for pilots.
According to fashion norms of the first half of the 20th Century, those tool watches (as large as 40mm) were unsightly behemoths, and they came off the wrist at quitting time to make room for sleek gold (or gold-plated) watches down in the 32mm range. It wasn’t until the 1970s that the luxury sport watch category opened the world’s eyes to the potential elegance of steel.
For over 4,000 years humans have been melting iron, removing excess carbon, and adding in other elements to make steel. China, India, and Japan were early masters, developing high carbon formulas like Wootz and Damascus thousands of years ago. Rust was a common problem, limiting many hoped-for applications, and it wasn’t until the 19th Century that France, England, and Germany started to crack the codes of stainless steel, while the Americans, a bit late to the game, didn’t succeed in producing significant quantities of stainless until the early 20th Century. Eventually, a steel that was highly corrosion-resistant, ductile and extremely hard was developed.
Early tool watches are quite collectible today, and certain complicated stainless steel dress watches from the early to mid-20th century are so rare that they can handily outperform their precious-metal counterparts at auction. Case in point: a stainless steel Patek Philipe 1518 from 1944 sold in 2016 for over $10.7 million, thus becoming the world’s most expensive wristwatch sold at auction until Paul Newman’s stainless steel Rolex Daytona famously stole the title in 2018.
Often complicated, expensive pieces such as the 1518 (which was the first serially-produced perpetual calendar chronograph) were put in precious metal cases for the simple reason that stainless steel seemed an inferior, pedestrian material to house such special movements. Additionally, sometimes stainless steel cases were used in complicated watches to fulfill special orders or because of a scarcity of precious metals. In either case, complicated, mid-20th century watches in stainless steel cases from the well-known Swiss marques are often significantly more rare than their precious metal counterparts.
Why else did watchmakers largely relegate steel to rugged tool watches for so long? The short answer is that up into the 1960s, steel was just too hard (literally) to work with. Compared to softer metals like platinum, gold and brass, working steel into small parts was such a headache that it was more economical for factories to pay the premium for softer metals in order to save on the enormous labor costs of making steel watches. Consider fabricating a steel bracelet back in the day — huge assembly lines stretched across vast factory floors, workers milling, brushing, or polishing the hundreds of unique parts by hand. It took forever. The same was true for cases, crowns, bezels, and so on.
With the help of mavericks like Rolex, machining techniques and new stainless steel formulas emerged after WWII that began to make steel a more viable material for watchmaking. However, it would take some time for steel watches to shed their cultural baggage as workwear and come into broad enough demand that other companies would jump on the trend. As was typical, Rolex was at the front, setting the pace.
During and after WWII, the steel tool watch started a slow ascent from workwear to jetsetter fashion. Many WWII fighter pilots picked up Rolex Oysters during the war, and when these men went on to become commercial pilots, their steel Rollies came with them. Suddenly these tools were on the wrists of handsome men flashing comforting smiles and decked-out jetsetters boarding beautifully appointed mid-century planes. Those stylish passengers were exactly the folks Rolex was courting with 1945’s stainless steel Air-King, arguably the first tool watch overtly marketed as a status symbol.
In 1954 PanAm issued its pilots a specially-designed steel Rolex GMT Master, which is still considered the ultimate pilot’s watch today. By this time, commercial pilots — and, of course, flight attendants — had become symbols of an emerging sexual freedom, and shortly thereafter a new class of pilots called astronauts sported big steel watches like Omega’s Speedmaster. Stainless steel tool watches had finally found sexy ambassadors, and this drove watchmakers the world over to figure out how to produce stainless watches and bracelets in massive quantities.
By the 1970s, every country seemed to be handily turning stainless steel into every imaginable shape, including the highly decorated small parts that watchmaking required. This was right on schedule, as the demand for steel watches was growing along with the brawny, casual, and often shirtless male fashions of the time (think Redford, Newman, and McQueen). The time was right for the birth of the luxury sport watch.
Enter Gérald Genta. A masterful designer from Switzerland who churned out hits with the consistency of the Beatles, Genta designed what remain today cutting-edge stainless steel watches. Genta’s Royal Oak for Audemars Piguet came to market in 1972, spurring IWC to release Genta’s Ingenieur in 1975, and, uncharacteristically, Patek followed suit with Genta’s sporty Nautilus in 1976. These were very weird watches by the standards of the time. Futuristic, large, and emitting the cold hue of stainless steel, these luxury sport watches were devoid of nostalgia and, thus, fueled the aspirations of world travelers who, quite reasonably, assumed that supersonic travel aboard the Concorde Jet would trickle down to everyone like the pocket calculator and microwave oven had.
You could do a lot more than ride in jets with luxury sport watches, however. You could swim, SCUBA dive, sail, play tennis, ski, hike, go to the office, grab a Martini at lunch, share a fondue dinner by candlelight, hit the disco until sunup, then rinse and repeat the next day. The sexual revolution was on, and a stylish steel sports watch was a talisman of one’s physical and financial vitality, as well as an effective advertisement for one’s virility (however real or imagined). These watches went perfectly with a sports car, a mustache, and definitely some exposed chest hair.
Once an object embodies that level of personal expression, it will proliferate. Japan’s Seiko began exporting affordable steel wonders to the world; Rolex was starting to put diamonds on their tool watches; Omega was pushing out steel Seamasters with intricate bracelets; Rado was making Milanese mesh marvels; and in 1980 we Americans put a stainless steel Rolex Datejust into the White House on the wrist of former Hollywood sex symbol Ronald Regan. Steel watches had arrived, and new manufacturing techniques assured a steady supply that hasn’t stopped since.
Today you can get a pretty decent steel watch for tens of dollars, and in every brand’s catalog the steel models are the least expensive. But don’t let that tarnish your impression of stainless steel. Alloys continue to improve, as do polishing and brushing techniques, such that today steel can shine with the brilliance of a precious metal while remaining far more durable.
Below are five current models that’ll be sure to blow your hair back.
Seiko SRPB51 Samurai
The Samurai dive watch is Seiko’s most shameless celebration of steel. The SRPBxx series shows off Seiko’s abilities to manufacture complex cases and bracelets for less than what you spend on groceries in a month, and the nickname Samurai probably cropped up due to the various angular case surfaces that look distinctly like ancient Samurai armor plates. It weighs a ton, stands up tall, yet fits remarkably well due to the short lugs and the excellent stainless bracelet. In bright orange (SRPB97) or Pepsi (SRPB99), it has pure diver aesthetics with superb specs, but the black SRPB51 is all that while also being compatible with your Tuxedo.
Movement: Seiko 4R35 automatic
Power Reserve: 41 hours
Size: 44mm x 12.8mm
Water resistance: 200m
Nomos Club Campus Neomatik 39
If the bravado of the Jet and Space Ages aren’t working for you, consider this Bauhaus-inspired watch from Germany’s Nomos, now with an all-steel bracelet. A representative from Nomos told us that the bracelet took years of R&D to get right, and like all things from Nomos it is made right in their factory and polished by hand. Inside the watch is the Neomatic movement, a trusted automatic that has continually stunned watch fans as an affordable in-house caliber. It’s really thin, too, which is great under a tight cuff, and unlike most Nomos watches, this one is ready to go SCUBA diving with you.
Movement: DUW 3001 Automatic
Power Reserve: 43 hours
Size: 39mm x 8.4mm
Water resistance: 200m
Rolex GMT Master II Ref. 126710
The GMT Master II hadn’t been released in steel since 2007, but in 2018 Rolex answered everyone’s prayers by putting out an all-steel GMT Master II with a Jubilee bracelet, a superhard Ceracrom bezel insert, and the classic “Pepsi” colorway. Good luck finding one, however, and if you do, expect to get gouged. Certain steel Rolex models are getting really hard to come by, with wait lists for steel Skydwellers and Daytonas stretching to years. Alas, there’s likely no more iconic and rugged all-steel traveler’s watch out there.
Movement: Rolex cal. 3186
Power Reserve: 50 hours
Size: 40mm x 12mm
Water resistance: 100m
Audemars Piguet Royal Oak 15400ST
There are seemingly endless versions and limited editions of the Royal Oak, but the 15400ST goes straight to the heart of Genta’s original impulses. At 41mm, this self-winder is an easy choice for those who want to whittle down to just one watch. The bracelet is a functional work of art, and the Grande Tapisserie engraving on the dial a masterful expression of retro-futurism. If you prefer a smaller watch, check out the Jumbo Extrathin.
Movement: Cal. 3120 by AP
Power Reserve: 60 hours
Size: 41mm x 9.8mm
Water Resistance: 50m
Patek Phillipe Nautalus 5990/1A Travel Time Chronograph
The 5990 will douse any doubts that steel watches can be badass luxury items. With a chronograph function, dual time zones with individual AM/PM indicators, a pointer-date sub-dial, and one of Genta’s very best designs, this Nautilus is ready to board a Tesla commercial rocket for a look at the Earth from space. (If you can afford this watch, you might be able to spring for recreational space travel, too.)
Movement: Patek Philippe CH 28-520 C FUS
Power Reserve: 55 hours
Size: 40.5mm (diagonally) x 12.5mm
Water resistance: 120m