It’s no news that most watches today are made in stainless steel. But why has stainless steel become the go-to material for most watches?
That’s what we are going to look closer at in this article.
Over the years, watch brands have experimented a lot with all kinds of different materials to find the best material with the best traits, look, and durability. They have tried ceramic, gold, various special gold alloys, titanium, and much more. But despite this, most brands go back to the original and classic material that has been used for watches for many decades, namely stainless steel.
So why are most watches made of stainless steel?
The answer to that question is not only because ”it’s the way it has always been”. Instead, stainless steel offers many benefits, although it does have some downsides.
What’s so interesting about stainless steel is that it has become an industry standard for watches in all price ranges. You have affordable brands like Seiko and Casio using it, but you also have luxury brands like Audemars Piguet and Patek Philippe using it.
Benefits of stainless steel in watches
Stainless steel is rugged and durable
Stainless steel as a material has a relatively high hardness. In fact, it is harder and more durable than gold. It is relatively resistant against scratches and more importantly, resistant against outside forces that damage it or cause it to change shape and form.
Not only is stainless steel known as a durable material and used in a bunch of different areas. But it also has a long reputation of being a qualitative material which is something that goes well with watches that are made to be robust and durable, such as dive watches or tool watches.
Stainless steel is affordable
Stainless steel is a relatively affordable material. In fact, it is one of the most affordable materials if we look at all of the other alternatives that watch brands have to choose from. With that said, it helps manufacturers keep costs down and focus on more important aspects, for example, the movement and the finishing. Some materials may be more affordable, but the complexity of crafting them makes them more expensive in the end.
Easy to polish
Stainless steel is a material that is relatively easy to work with. Whilst it is harder than gold, it can be polished quite easily and restored to a scratch-free surface. If the scratches that develop over time would annoy you, you can have it polished to restore it to its former condition.
Whilst materials like gold are easier to polish, they are also softer, meaning that they acquire scratches more easily.
Stainless steel is anti-corrosive. Whilst it can rust or corrode over long periods of time, it remains for the most part virtually unchanged for years to come. This is thanks to having high oxidation resistance, meaning it doesn’t oxidize or turn black. Iron, on the other hand, easily rusts and corrodes, but stainless steel is made to be much more resistant against outside forces. In addition, stainless steel keeps its shine and luster.
Whilst some people can experience allergies, stainless steel as a material is, in general, a hypoallergenic material. Thanks to this, stainless steel usually doesn’t cause allergies or skin irritation to those who wear it.
The exception, however, is very few cases of nickel allergies, which may be used in some forms of stainless steel. But many watch brands now use different types of stainless steel which are free from nickel to prevent allergies. But overall, stainless steel generally has very little nickel content, which is why most people never experience any issues.
It is a versatile material
Stainless steel is a very versatile material today. It is found in luxury watches and affordable watches alike. For example, yellow gold watches may be extremely beautiful and elegant, but due to its flashy nature, it is not really suitable for all occasions. On the contrary, stainless steel as a material is much more versatile. Stainless steel works both for formal and casual occasions and isn’t limited to just one type of occasion -both for its durability, but also for its discreet and versatile appearance.
Tradition in the watch industry
As discussed briefly, stainless steel is a material that has become the industry standard for watches. Parts of this can be explained with the points above. Early on, when stainless steel was a new material, watch companies adapted this material due to its properties. It was simply considered the best at the time. Whilst there are other materials that are, at least in theory, superior, and perhaps more suitable to be used in watches (for example titanium which is lighter and tougher, to name two benefits), stainless steel has been the go-to material for the watch industry for a long time. People appreciate stainless steel, and most people look for steel watches today. And since it is, overall, a great material that makes sense to use in watches, watch brands continue to use it.
Almost all watch brands use 316L stainless steel, but Rolex prides themselves in using 904L which is known for its exceptional corrosion-resistant properties.
Today, Omega describes stainless steel in the following way:
”Stainless steel is certainly the most conventional of watchmaking materials for outer craftsmanship and offers beauty, strength, and affordability. OMEGA uses 316L stainless steel. Known for its corrosion-resistance and high lustre after polishing, this material is often the ideal choice for watches in both daily-use and high-stress situations such as diving and adventure.”
Background and history to stainless steel in watches
Whilst stainless steel is the go-to material for watch brands today, it certainly hasn’t always been. As a matter of fact, stainless steel was quite unusual in the watch industry prior to and during the 1960s. It wasn’t until the 1970s and onwards that stainless steel would come to become more and more common in the watch industry. And an important contributing factor was Audemars Piguet - and we’ll go into detail on why further on.
In the early days, stainless steel was not only uncommon but also quite expensive. In addition, stainless steel wasn’t considered very luxurious or appealing. Keep in mind that during this time, gold watches were all the rage and considered the most luxurious and elegant choice.
It’s no secret that the story of iron (which is the base of stainless steel) goes far back. As a matter of fact, the history of iron goes back 4000 years or so, when humans started extracting it, melting it, and realizing that they could use it to make tools and other important accessories. The issue was rust, but this issue would come to be solved when stainless steel entered history during the 19th Century. In other words, it was during this time that a material that was suitable enough to be used in watches was available on the market. Despite this, it would take quite some time until it became widely accepted by watch brands and the market alike.
One of the reasons why watch brands didn’t widely adapt the material in their manufacturing was that without the proper tools, stainless steel can be quite difficult to craft and work with. Steel was simply too hard which complicated the manufacturing process, unlike materials such as gold and platinum. This meant that stainless steel watches, whilst being a relatively affordable material, would climb in cost solely due to the complexity of making them (at least with that time’s manufacturing technology and tools available).
Whilst stainless steel is one of the most affordable materials today, it also requires the proper tools in order to make the manufacturing process streamlined and effective.
Over the decades, as stainless steel became more common and more popular, watch brands developed more effective techniques and tools to make the production process more effective. This would also help speed up the development and usage of stainless steel for watches further.
During the 1950s and particularly the 1960s, stainless steel became more and more common in the watch industry. Brands like Rolex introduced the Submariner and GMT-Master which were both made in stainless steel. These two models were highly popular, but unlike today, they were solely built as functional tool watches, and not marketed nor perceived as luxury watches.
But as things evolved and watches were marketed, stainless steel became more and more accepted by the market, and also not only associated with rugged and sporty occasions. For example, the Rolex GMT-Master was developed for PanAm and was used by Pilots - a profession that was extremely highly regarded and considered very prestigious at the time.
Plenty of other watches would follow suit which helped further drive the market of stainless steel watches and not solely limit it to gold and other precious metals.
Stainless steel for luxury watches
The first ”official” luxury stainless steel watch was the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak. First released in 1972, the Royal Oak would come to change how people viewed luxury watches, but perhaps most importantly, how people viewed stainless steel.
The Royal Oak was released as an answer to the quartz crisis in the 1970s which was a time when the Swiss watch industry was struggling to compete against the more affordable quartz watches that came from Japan. Many Swiss watch brands went bankrupt, and others were doing everything in their power to stay alive. Audemars Piguet’s answer was the Royal Oak.
After the request from an Italian distributor, Georges Golay, the managing of Audemars Piguet at the time, contacted Gérald Genta, and asked him to design an “unprecedented steel watch”. As per the requests, Genta designed a ”luxury sports watch” made completely in stainless steel with an octagonal bezel and meticulously finished case and bracelet. The concept was to create a luxury sports watch with incredible attention to detail and finish never prior seen. Bear in mind that this was a time when essentially all luxury watches were made in precious metal and a time when the general consensus was that a luxury watch should be made in precious metal. It was also a time when manufacturers didn’t really have all the tools necessary to finish and craft stainless steel in a way that the Royal Oak was meant to be finished.
So at the time that this watch was released, it was to a great extent unheard of, and completely shocked the market. And it wasn’t just because it was a luxury watch made in steel, but the fact that it was priced at the then-insane price of $3,000. In comparison, it was approximately 10 times more than the Rolex Submariner. A lot of people were stunned at how a watch made in such a basic material could cost so much.
As a matter of fact, for the first prototypes of the Royal Oak, Audemars Piguet had to use white gold because it was too difficult to achieve the finish that Audemars Piguet was looking for with steel.
Whilst the Royal Oak was far from an instant success - as a matter of fact, it would take almost three years to sell first production run of 1,000 pieces - it became the spark of a new era in the watch industry, and a new way of looking at luxury watches and materials. Today, there is absolutely nothing strange about luxury watches made in stainless steel, and it’s safe to say that Audemars Piguet has been a great contributing factor to this. To quote Audemars Piguet’s motto, ”to break the rules, you must first master them”, and you could say that that was exactly what Audemars Piguet did.
With the Royal Oak, Audemars Piguet would prove that stainless steel and luxury are two terms that certainly can be used together. Because when it comes to fine watchmaking, it’s not about the materials, but rather what you do with them and how you finish them.
Today, steel watches can be considered just as luxurious as their gold counterparts, which goes to show how far the market has come in their viewpoint of stainless steel. For example, the world’s most expensive watch ever sold is the stainless steel Daytona originally owned by Paul Newman. In addition, some of the most sought-after timepieces today are made in stainless steel. Just look at the Rolex Submariner, Patek Philippe Nautilus, or Aquanaut. What is perhaps even crazier is that you can buy older full gold Rolex Daytona watches for less than what a stainless steel modern Daytona 116500LN costs. This just goes to show how much the market has changed since the material was first announced to the luxury market by Audemars Piguet.
Other brands would later follow the steps of the Royal Oak after Audemars Piguet led the way, including Patek Philippe with its Nautilus in 1976.
Why are watches not made of silver?
Surprisingly, a lot of people still believe that stainless steel is silver and refer to them as such. But today, there are very few watch brands that use silver for their watches. One of the exceptions is the Tudor 58 925 silver, released in 2020 which is made in silver.
Back in the days, when pocket watches were all the rage, silver was a common material. It is relatively soft and easy to work with, it is considered relatively luxurious since it is a precious metal, but it has one big issue - it oxidizes. In addition, it is not very durable.
The main reason why watches are not made in silver is that stainless steel is considered a superior, or at least more suitable material for watches. Whilst silver oxidizes and gets a rather ugly surface that needs to be treated, stainless steel remains virtually unchanged over the years.