Apply the fashionista’s favourite “something is the new something else” rhetorical formula to the world of watches right now and one could say that steel is the new gold. Of course, this is an over-simplification: steel is not just the new gold; in some cases it is more valuable and sought after, as the $31m steel Patek Philippe Grandmaster Chime that just became the most expensive watch ever to be sold at auction amply demonstrates. This autumn also saw two high-profile launches that their makers hope will heighten the frenzy of what you could call “the great steel rush”.
The last time steel was this hot was during the 1970s, when the genre of the luxury steel watch was more or less invented by the great Gérald Genta after he designed the Royal Oak for Audemars Piguet. The story has entered horological folklore, acquiring the sort of status enjoyed by Newton’s apple or Archimedes’ cry of “Eureka!” It was four o’clock on the afternoon before the first day of the Basel Fair and Genta received a telephone call from the managing director of Audemars Piguet, who wanted sketches for a new steel watch to present to his Italian distributor. At the time Audemars was known for formal watches made in precious metals, but the all-important Italian market wanted a sports watch conveying a modern image that could be worn on all occasions: at the wheel of a car or on the deck of a boat, but also in the evening for a formal dinner or at a disco. As the official book puts it: “an all-purpose watch… more beautiful than any other”. It launched in 1972.
Four years later, Genta pulled off something similar for Patek Philippe: the legendary Nautilus. If this is the first you have heard about the steel-rush fever that continues to surround the Nautilus, then I congratulate you on awakening from a long coma. Borrowing from the company’s advertising, it is not stretching things too much to say that you will never actually own a Patek Philippe Nautilus, but you can put the next generation on the waiting list (advisably pre-birth).
Today, demand for steel watches such as the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak and the Patek Philippe Nautilus is the highest it has ever been. Moreover, Vacheron Constantin recently relaunched the Overseas (successor to the 222); Cartier experienced a warm welcome last year for the return of the steel Santos, identical, superficially at least, in almost every detail to the late ’70s original; and next year the highly regarded independent brand Laurent Ferrier is bringing out a steel-bracelet version of its Tourbillon Grand Sport.
It seems that the yacht-to-disco versatility specified in the early 1970s is still relevant – arguably more so. Soren Jenry Petersen, CEO of Urban Jürgensen, says the question he is most frequently asked is, “Do you have anything in steel?” And he notes that “in many markets up to 50 per cent of the luxury watch sales are of steel/mixed-metal models”. Accordingly, this spring he launched the Jürgensen One, a steel-bracelet watch on which brushed satin links contrast with mirror-polished ovoid interlinks.
Nor is this any old steel. It is medical implant-grade steel, which has increased corrosion resistance and moderate nickel content. According to Petersen, there are those who experience an allergic reaction to the nickel content of the steel used in many wristwatches (and I suppose there is the in extremis possibility of melting the watch down and fashioning a medical implant from it). Even for those without nickel intolerance there is the sense that care has been taken, and the mere knowledge that this is not just regular 904L steel makes one feel well-disposed towards the timepiece – no bad thing given that the RRP for the One is around £20,000 at current volatile exchange rates.
What makes this watch particularly interesting is that Urban Jürgensen is a Danish legacy brand with history back to the 18th century. Before the launch of the One it was known for exquisite classic watches in precious metals on alligator straps, with guilloché dials and complications including perpetual calendars and minute repeaters.
The same is true of one of this autumn’s key launches. A Lange & Söhne’s first steel watch made its debut at the end of October. Lange, founded in 1845 in Dresden and re-founded shortly after the reunification of Germany, occupies a special place in the affections of collectors, dazzling them with its complicated watches: the fusée and chain, the double split, the triple split, the Zeitwerk decimal strike and the Datograph perpetual tourbillon, inter alia. These majestic complications, and the brand’s simpler watches, have until now been housed in gold or platinum cases. But it seems that even Lange customers crave a bit of all-purpose action. The steel watch, of which I saw a prototype at the beginning of the year, marks a historic point in the modern story of the brand.
But if the choice of metal, case and bracelet are departures from Lange’s classic offering, the dial, big date, and familiar large seconds subdial at six o’clock show familiar handwriting – and even the large luminous hands are in the Lange idiom. The case has taken four years to design, and the bracelet three, but according to CEO Wilhelm Schmid, the idea of a steel Lange has been kicking around the HQ for more than 20 years. The result is typically Lange and stereotypically German in its thoroughness. “The key point is that it is robust,” says Schmid. “And while we say it is waterproof to 120m, being typically German we tested it way beyond that.” The watch is even named after a sailor: it is called Odysseus, not least because it has been “a long journey not without challenges – hopefully with a happy end”.
Similarly evocative is the name Alpine Eagle – given to the steel watch launched by Chopard in October, a watch that is the result of a journey that began almost 40 years ago. But while the Alpine Eagle certainly bears a marked resemblance to the St Moritz, an early 1980s original, this is an all-round upgrade, with an in-house manufacture movement. Everything has been reconsidered: from small details such as the alignment of the screw heads in the bezel (“It used to bother me that they pointed in different directions,” says Chopard co-president Karl-Friedrich Scheufele), to the steel itself. “Lucent Steel A223” uses a re-smelting process to make a dermo-compatible, hypoallergenic composition. The number refers to its Vickers strength of 223, making it considerably more scratch-resistant and therefore hard to engrave and polish.
The slate-grey or blue dial is brushed to resemble the iris of a blue-eyed eagle, and the second hand is inspired by a feather. “It has an organic look and contrasts with the roman numerals,” says Scheufele, explaining that it would have been very difficult to revive the St Moritz name. “It started as a handshake between the director of tourism of St Moritz and me, with no formal contract and no royalties… These days the world is more complicated.”
Besides, he might have been accused of disloyalty to Gstaad where he has a chalet and which, given that it has both a yacht club and a world-famous discotheque, the Green Go at the Palace Hotel, is the perfect place to test its yacht-to-disco user-friendliness.