I can always tell if someone’s not a ‘watch person’ when they describe a silver-toned timepiece as just that – silver. Odds are, the material is actually stainless steel, which is the most common metal used in watches, ranging from the lower-end Casio to luxury pieces available at NET-A-PORTER. Stainless steel is also, of course, frequently used in kitchen appliances, which may seem counterintuitive to a luxury investment. But if you think about it, stainless steel is used across these categories for the same reasons: its durability, flexibility and resistance to corrosion.
The reasoning here is that watches are meant to be worn. Whether you’re playing a game of tennis (wearing a Jaeger-LeCoultre ‘Reverso’, of which the case can be reversed to protect the watch face) or weekending on the coast (wearing an Hermès Tiimepieces ‘Cape Cod’), you’re bound to knock it around a bit. Accidentally scuffing your watch on a door, dropping it on the floor, having it gnawed by the family dog… such is life. And stainless steel – an alloy composed typically of carbon and iron – is built for life (unlike, say, more precious metals such as gold, which look fabulous but are softer and therefore more susceptible to our mortal shortcomings).
My first-ever luxury watch was, in fact, made of steel and remains my most-worn watch to date. I chose the timepiece in question – a Cartier ‘Tank Française’ – because of how seamlessly it could be worn from day to night, making a statement without causing a stir. It’s low-key enough to be worn on the subway, but elegant enough to accessorize a gown during gala season.
Not all steel, however, is created equal. Within the stainless-steel category there exists various alloy sub-types. Certain watch brands even create their own proprietary metals, such as Chopard, whose ‘Alpine Eagle’ watch utilizes the maison’s trademarked ‘Lucent Steel’ – an extra-hard alloy that conveys an ethereal shine.
Even if steel isn’t bespoke-made for a specific brand, it can still express the refined, shimmering effect attributed to precious metals. My own watch, for example, shines ever so brightly due to the mixed use of brushed and polished finishings. Details like these are what set well-made watches apart. See, also, the steel bracelet on the IWC Schaffhausen ‘Portofino’. The skilfully conjoined links make for an effect that, when the sun hits it just right, evokes the Italian Riviera from whence it gets its name. So, as the old aphorism says, not all that glitters is gold. It could be steel – and we’re here for it.