Steel Watches Everlasting Appeal

Image: Tissot

There are several sophisticated and difficult-to-understand ideas in fine watchmaking. The enduring attraction and worth of steel watches is by far the most difficult to explain, with certain specimens fetching the greatest value in all of watchmaking. Worse are the core collection watches, which command exorbitant prices while being made of basic steel. Steel is frequently referred to as unobtainium in watchmaking circles since it is theoretically more elusive than even the identical watch in platinum.

The important timepieces of the 1970s, particularly the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak and the Patek Philippe Nautilus, are part of the reason for steel’s seemingly ageless appeal. To this, one may reasonably add the Vacheron Constantin Overseas, Royal Oak Offshore, Aquanaut, and Girard-Perregaux Laureato, among others, as well as the full Richard Mille non-precious metal watch collection. These watches are classified as luxury sports watches, and Richard Mille, in particular, has legitimized outrageous price ranges for ultra-lightweight timepieces.

In a completely different spirit, Grand Seiko introduced excellent finishing to the sports watch category, giving physical form to what premium sports watches should resemble. Grand Seiko has also contributed to timekeeping innovation, with Spring Drive being the most thrilling chronometric achievement (in serial manufacturing, no less) in the previous 20 years. Such chronometric exercises, together with Richard Mille’s overly designed choices, such as the full automatic winding mechanism, present a display of what good watchmaking can bring to the table in terms of resilience.

Image: Tissot

Richard Mille, Hublot, Roger Dubuis, Panerai, and Audemars Piguet have also pioneered high-tech material science in luxury watchmaking. The incredible increase in value — even at the level of detail — of these types of watches indicates a marketing achievement. Not necessarily the type of marketing that arouses desire, but rather the type that emphasizes the genuine necessity for these bold measures.

This is not to imply that non-precious metal watches are a gimmick – Rolex has yet to embrace titanium, but this is likely due to internal reasoning rather than a dislike or fear of modern alloys and composites. The inclusion of ceramic, titanium, and bronze cases in the Tudor collection is evidence of this. Watch collectors have been anticipating the debut of titanium cases in the Rolex line, which would have a significant impact on the broader watch trade. The key to this is determining which price range such watches would fall within.

Currently, titanium-cased watches are more expensive than steel-cased watches, and Rolex would likely only utilize titanium if it could achieve the same high gloss that stainless steel can. Such finishing (or material science) innovation would need a higher price point, playing into the hands of the market’s so-called premiumisation pressures.

In this case, Audemars Piguet’s CEO Francois Henry Benahmias has proved the efficiency of counting on selling fewer watches at increasingly higher price points. By sticking to this method, Audemars Piguet has increased its income to compete with Patek Philippe despite making fewer watches. Surprisingly, unlike Patek Philippe and Rolex, Audemars Piguet is firmly on the titanium route, and has even manufactured a Royal Oak reference in titanium, albeit for Only Watch.

Nonetheless, Audemars Piguet had the opportunity to shake up the Royal Oak game by offering titanium for the regular 16202 model, but it chose not to. It might do the same with ceramic, as it has previously done in complication areas, while charging a premium price due to the difficulty of getting the appropriate finish.

Image: Audemars Piquet

Given the Audemars Piguet stats, it is only logical that competitors are closely monitoring the premiumisation scenario. The strategy would be straightforward: build a successful steel model, then instead of boosting production of that model, add precious metal variations and focus on selling increasingly more of them.

There will be questions about where the best margins are, but this will differ each brand. Tissot’s phenomenally popular PRX model exhibits an expedited version of the premiumisation tale. It started with a quartz model, then moved on to an automated model, and currently comes in steel and gold. We have no doubt that all PRX variants are effective to some extent, because the aforementioned playbook works like a charm.

According to Watchfinder and other experts, gold is the next go-to material, and perhaps Patek Philippe will affirm this with all-gold editions of the Nautilus, as it did with Ref. 3711. For the time being, it seems sensible to shift the collecting discourse away from steel. Gold significantly alters the value proposition and boosts the retail asking price proportionately. This becomes increasingly significant and demanding as secondary market values for steel watches approach — and in some cases surpass — those for gold equivalents.

Image: Patek Philippe

We’ll return to Rolex to wrap out this materials portion. If steel is just out of reach, the brand is providing a masterclass in encouraging customers to migrate up the value chain and acquire precious metal versions. Consider the Rolex Cellini, which is seldom mentioned as a must-have model, as well as the Datejust in a larger perspective. In the first situation, you’ll be hard pushed to find a Cellini watch to try on, let alone buy right away. You will also have to register your interest and wait.

In the second situation, you can still examine and try on Datejust models, but you won’t be able to buy any right away. The Cellini is exclusively available in gold, and most of the Datejust collection is likewise only accessible in precious metals. Clearly, demand for Rolex watches extends much beyond the professional steel sports watch category, but consider a typical watch purchasing process for just this one brand.

You’d probably start with the Oyster Perpetual – it may be your first real watch. After a few years, you may feel that something more substantial is required, at which point you turn to the Oyster Perpetual Submariner with date. You might also consider a Rolesor variant, or even the whole gold model, from here. If your wrist can withstand it, you could even go with the Sea-Dweller. You may proceed in a variety of directions from there, but you will now have plotted a very precise trajectory in watch collecting.

So the transition here would go from a simple time-limited collection, entirely in steel, to another collection that also includes gold and half-gold alternatives. We claim this is usual, but you will find it quite difficult to complete this course at this time. You might have to go straight for that Rolex Submariner… Again, if you desire a Rolex watch and fortune is on your side, do not hesitate.