Watch aficionados’ new love affair with bronze

The ancient alloy’s ever-changing patina is bringing an intensely individual element to watchmaking, says Nick Foulkes

Bell & Ross bronze BR01-92 Skull watch on calfskin strap, £4,400
Bell & Ross bronze BR01-92 Skull watch on calfskin strap, £4,400

Patina. It used to be a word chiefly favoured by antiques dealers seeking to dignify the knocks, chips and bruises that time imparts to furniture over centuries of use. I first heard it being applied to shoes in the early 1990s when I met the doyenne of shoemakers Olga Berluti, and over the years I have watched as patination has become an axiom of modern high-end men’s shoemaking and been broadened from its original sense to embrace any form of colouration that is slightly out of the ordinary. The goal is individuality. Ours is the age of personalisation; thus a top modern shoe shop – whether a Berluti, a Gaziano & Girling or a Maison Corthay – will have a man or a woman at a workbench with a set of brushes and an array of pigments, applying colours to a shoe until it reaches the shade required by the customer. As a result, men walk around today with footwear in every shade of every colour, a pantone rainbow at their feet – and we love it.

Now watchmakers, too, have found a way to get in on the patination boom. For at least the past decade, the buzz in watchmaking circles was all about new materials, unpronounceable words usually ending “ium” that have miraculous properties of lightness, shock-resistance, scratch-resistance, water-resistance and so on. So it is rather ironic that one of today’s most desirable “new” materials should be one of the oldest, an alloy first used about 5,000 years ago.

What is more, bronze is quite heavy, marks easily, is susceptible to scratches and its colour is unstable (it is almost impossible to keep from tarnishing)… all things that should make it unsuitable for watchmaking, and yet, horology is in love with it.

From left: Panerai bronze Luminor Submersible 1950 3 Days Automatic Bronzo on calfskin strap, price on request. Tudor Black Bay Bronze on leather strap, £2,730
From left: Panerai bronze Luminor Submersible 1950 3 Days Automatic Bronzo on calfskin strap, price on request. Tudor Black Bay Bronze on leather strap, £2,730

The roots of the modern bronze age can be traced back to the 1980s when a trio of big-game hunters were on safari and spent an evening around the campfire discussing the ideal watch for hunters. On their return they approached the watchmaking genius Gérald Genta. While Genta (1931-2011) is justly famous for such landmark designs as Patek Philippe’s Nautilus and Audemars Piguet’s Royal Oak, his special commissions are every bit as interesting. The game hunters stressed the importance of a case with a dull finish without any reflectiveness or brilliance to distract their prey, and Genta hit upon the solution of using bronze and a dark dial. The result, which also integrated a compass, was the Gefica Safari, its name referencing the first two letters of the names of the hunters: Geoffroy, Fissore and Canali.

Genta was alive to the resonance and romance of bronze. When a commercial version of the watch – with moonphase, second time zone and alarm – was released in 1988, its promotional materials described the case as “unequivocally reminiscent of the primordial beauties of Africa, the studs engraved in the metal bringing to mind indigenous jewellery and tam-tams with their cylindrical or truncated conical shapes”. As his widow Evelyne recalls, bronze was a metal with which Genta, an artist and sculptor as well, enjoyed working. “He felt it was one of the first metals and he liked that sense of tradition.”

Contemporary watchmakers seem to feel a similar attachment to the alloy, except that, where bronze transported Genta to Africa and the early days of mankind, it takes Angelo Bonati, CEO of Florence-based Panerai, to the high seas. “I was inspired,” says Bonati, “by Eilean,” referring not to a woman but a vintage sailing yacht lovingly restored by Panerai in 2007.

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“The accessories on Eilean are in bronze,” continues Bonati, explaining that it was not entirely straightforward putting this material on the wrist. “You have to be sure that it does not release acid on to the skin.” After careful testing Bonati selected a marine-grade bronze, CuSn8, containing copper and eight per cent tin, expressly for its patina. “If you take it into the sea, it will develop a green patina, but, if it is just exposed to the air, it becomes brown,” he says, adding with a typically Italian flourish: “If you are at Portofino, it becomes green; if you are in Milan, it becomes brown.”

Launched five years ago, in a series of 1,000 pieces, the first Panerai Bronzo was a PAM00382 1950 Submersible with a three-day movement in a 47mm case and a particularly attractive green dial, the latter hinting at what the case might look like after wear. Bonati was not sure how the market would react to a watch that would change its appearance as it was worn “We were worried about that and published a leaflet explaining that you cannot avoid patina and that we could not guarantee how it would look.”

As it happens, he need not have worried. “When we launched the watch it cost €7,300; after six months it was selling for €18,000 inside the collecting community,” says Bonati. According to London‑based vintage watch dealer Danny Pizzigoni of The Watch Club, very few Bronzos ever come on the market. “In four years we have had just one offered to us. People tend to hang on to them because of the low production numbers, because they tarnish nicely and people love the way they develop.” There was one further issue of the fabled Bronzo (the PAM00507, £25,000) in 2013, and there is another planned for 2017 (price on request) with a blue dial – for which it might be an idea to start camping outside your local Panerai boutique.

Oris bronze Carl Brashear on leather strap, £1,900
Oris bronze Carl Brashear on leather strap, £1,900

In the meantime, you can try to put your name down for a bronze Tudor, which according to Pizzigoni is also reselling at well over the list price. The Rolex sibling brand has had an extremely good run with its vintage-inspired pieces, especially its Black Bay diving watch, and this year the first Black Bay Bronze watch (£2,730) went on sale. The case diameter is 43mm, compared with 41mm in the standard range because Tudor’s designer, Ander Ugarte, wanted to create a sense of importance for the watch. “Bronze has a link with the naval engineering world, appropriate for a diving watch, and the material changes with use – you have a kind of living material.”

Ugarte gave the model a brown dial because he had a brown patina in mind and created the alloy to achieve it. “The bronze we use has a couple of ingredients we are keeping secret, but instead of tin our alloy has aluminium, and after a few weeks of wear a surface layer develops that protects the watch” – and effectively controls the patination process. “It was a challenge to find the best way to handle the watches. We have to avoid contact with skin and, after contact with water, each piece has to be dried by hand one by one, which creates a headache in terms of logistics.”

Christian Knoop, creative director of Swiss watchmaker IWC Schaffhausen, which uses a copper, aluminium and iron alloy for its bronze Aquatimer Chronograph (£8,500), agrees. “We all love the patina. We do bronze because of the patina but we have to handle the cases in our own factory: with a normal watch it does not matter if the case rings sit on the shelf for four weeks until the bezel is manufactured, but for the bronze Aquatimer it is important that the parts are treated at the same time so they age equally. This was a challenge for our operations team.”

From left: Zenith bronze Heritage Pilot Type 20 on leather strap, £5,200. IWC Schaffhausen bronze Aquatimer Chronograph Edition “Expedition Charles Darwin” on rubber strap, £8,500
From left: Zenith bronze Heritage Pilot Type 20 on leather strap, £5,200. IWC Schaffhausen bronze Aquatimer Chronograph Edition “Expedition Charles Darwin” on rubber strap, £8,500

But, whether it is a question of hand-drying at Tudor or ensuring that components age equally at IWC, wearers appreciate the effort. I spoke to one collector who had been on his boat all summer long and, despite his enviably large collection, the Black Bay Bronze, a watch that retails for a comparatively modest £2,730, had not left his wrist – he was, he said, enjoying the patination process so much. It is rarity and individuality, rather than price, that make the bronze watch exclusive, which gives lower-priced brands – as well as Tudor, Squale (€2,799) and Oris (£1,900) have launched bronze diving watches – the opportunity to propose covetable timepieces that would be less remarkable in steel and too expensive for their core customers in gold.

According to Carlos Rosillo of French watch brand Bell & Ross, the price associated with bronze brings a genuinely exotic watch within reach of all collectors. “There are three things behind the popularity of this material: the colour, the myth behind bronze and the price. The bronze watch is a collector’s item. It is not a substitute for gold, it is about the art of patina.”

At Bell & Ross, which is using CuZn8, an alloy of copper and zinc, the preferred patina is verdigris. When it produced a bronze version of one of its skull watches (£4,400) for the 2015 edition of the biennial charity auction Only Watch, the piece sold for SFr100,000 (about £83,000) largely, Rosillo believes, because of the pre-patination. “We put the case in a container with salt vapours and maintained it in this atmosphere at a temperature of 20°C. In about four days it developed the kind of patina that would take much longer to achieve under natural conditions.”

Squale bronze Master on rubber strap, €2,799
Squale bronze Master on rubber strap, €2,799

Sometimes owners go to extreme lengths to achieve a particular patina. I was in Dubai earlier this year and joined a conversation between two Zenith collectors who were discussing how best to patinate their new bronze Zenith Pilot watches. How many days should it be left in the open air? Should vinegar be used? What sort of salt water is best? Etcetera.

Aldo Magada, CEO of Zenith, who chose bronze because he felt it matched the vintage look of the Pilot (£5,200), recalls how one owner dropped his watch into the sea and only managed to recover it some days later. “He felt it was so great that it had tarnished so much that he does not wear it but has it on show like a piece of sculpture.”

With such impressive patination after a few days on the seabed, imagine the effect of a couple of millennia. At the beginning of the last century, sponge divers in Greece found a wrecked boat from a century or so BC and among the artefacts they brought to the surface was an unassuming lump of bronze so splendidly corroded that it looked more like a stone.

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It took about a century for the full importance of this item to become understood. Known today as the Antikythera mechanism, it is a mechanical device for calculating astronomical events and described variously as the precursor of astronomical clocks or the first mechanical computer. It teaches the archaeological community that the ancient world was incredibly scientifically advanced – it could also teach the modern watch collector a thing or two about patination.

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