Steel Yourself: How the material famous for filling your cutlery drawer became horology’s hottest ticket

Alex Doak
Vacheron Constantin FiftySix Day-Date with Power Reserve

After three days’ treading the champagne wash of Geneva Airport’s Palexpo convention centre during the third week of January, one usually succumbs to the effect of two things. The champagne, on tap alongside the sushi and foie gras.

And then the price tags. For the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie (SIHH) is a pop-up pantheon of all things exquisite and refined, knowingly anachronistic and indulgently complicated. Which means, after your working week of luxury brainwashing, a bar bill back in the real world seems outrageous, yet £20,000 for a watch that shows the phase of the moon seems perfectly reasonable.

But this year felt different. For one, Dry January and Veganuary conspired to add a soupcon of guilt to lunchtimes (the humanity). For another, the pricetags were genuinely reasonable. Journalist-salary reasonable. And it’s nothing to do with a lack of hand-crafted, mechanical wizardry ticking inside, which is all present and correct. It’s everything to do with the full metal jacket.

Anyone with a dishwasher on the blink knows that stainless steel certainly doesn’t live up to its name when it comes to cutlery that’s been anywhere near yolk or sticky rice. ‘Stainless’ in fact refers to the metal’s resistance to corrosion rather than actual stains – a technology first pioneered by Sheffield metallurgist Harry Brearley in 1913. This alloy of iron, chromium and nickel withstands chemical aggressions, making it the perfect hardwearing material for watches when they migrated from waistcoats to wrists between the world wars.

"Steel does tend to hold its trend in the fashions of today. And manufacturers have worked hard to produce iconic styles that always have a place in the future watch world.”

Before that, pocket watches would be cocooned all day in soft, dry cotton or silk and could get away with being cased in delicate silver or gold. Tough, stainless steel (generally of the ‘316L’ variety, AKA medical steel, given its use in bone surgery and implants) meant that a watch could now survive being strapped to sweaty, salty wrists and exposed to all the splashes, knocks and scrapes that the outside world brings. It’s harder to machine into the intricate shapes a watch demands, but it’s far cheaper by the tonne too, so generally embodies the entry level of any watch brand’s collection.

Which, cynics would say, is why steel watches are having something of ‘a moment’ right now, given the Swiss watch industry’s recent downturn (now back on the upswing, needless to say). That and its utilitarian metallic sheen, whose workaday robustness finds itself in tune with today’s newfound respect for honest, functional craftsmanship. No fancy filigree here – steel is real.

But Sandy Madhvani, a former watchmaker and current boutique manager for David M Robinson jewellers in Canary Wharf has a slightly different take: “Yes, prices are very inviting, and yes, currency exchange rates have assisted foreign buyers to seek purchases in London,” he concedes, “but steel does tend to hold its trend in the fashions of today. And manufacturers have worked hard to produce iconic styles that always have a place in the future watch world.”

Jaeger-LeCoultre Polaris Automatic

He’s not wrong. For a start, steel pieces are incredibly rare at the top end of the market, with Patek Philippe’s goldwash occasionally (ironically you might say) being interrupted by a highly limited and therefore highly collectable iron-alloy edition. This capitalises on the fact Patek would only make an exceedingly small group of wristwatches in steel during the mid-20th-century, generally built with an express purpose in mind – medical doctors, military officers, engineers – going on to command the highest bids at auction today, rarity being king and all.

By the mid-70s, Audemars Piguet and designer extraordinaire Gérald Genta double-handedly invented the notion of the ‘luxury sports watch’ with the Royal Oak – an octagonal steel classic with merged, or ‘integrated’ bracelet whose iconic lines have barely changed since. Such a thing was deemed to be a genuine affront to the highfalutin scene, and was slow on the uptake. But then Genta went on to design Patek’s first-ever steel sports collection five years later in 1976, again framed by eight rounded sides, bracelet flowing gracefully from their haunches. Over 40 years later, and the so-called Nautilus has barely needed tweaking. See also Girard-Perregaux’s mid-70 Laureato, Piaget’s Polo, Vacheron Constantin’s Overseas… All collections that have seen a welcome reboot in the past few years.

So, given the luxury steel watch is hardly a novelty, what exactly has been surprising about this year’s models? It’s simple, but significant: while it was once the case that new, classically styled collections would be launched in precious metals, allowing anticipation to build for the steel models one or two years down the line, there’s now not a single brand out there silly enough to turn down the kind of sales that steel watches represent. Not out of timidity or lack of faith, but because there’s a new customer in town, and they’re too clued-up and too full of potential loyalty to leave dangling.

This customer, you’ll have already guessed, is the ‘M’ word every marketeer is panting for. But in this case it resonates deeper than influence or sheer hype; it translates quite basically into hard sales. For when it comes to the luxury personal goods segment, the millennial is the largest consumer demographic. According to Bain and Deloitte’s luxury market reports of 2017, the always-on, always-online generation contributes to a whopping 30 per cent of sales value.

Cartier Santos de Cartier

“This shift in the balance of buying power cannot be ignored,” says Sky Sit, founder of new online platform, Skolorr, which champions independent luxury watchmakers with the millennial generation specifically in mind. “I witnessed first-hand the emergence of the affluent millennials’ new buying behaviour, and felt the shift in my bones even back in 2013/4,” she says, referring to her past as communications director of rebellious sports brand, Linde Werdelin.

“Yes, the kids are certainly spending money in more of an interesting way with Skolorr-type indie brands. [But] this demographic is [also] the key to remaining relevant for the bigger luxury players over the next 10 to 15 years. “It’s a race to win ‘mind shares’ as well as market shares. Brands need to nurture their next generation of buyers.”

Which is why, alongside our three other highlights, the biggest news of SIHH was two brand-new collections from two of the Richemont Group’s most capable ‘manufacture’ maisons – Jaeger-LeCoultre and Vacheron Constantin, now willing to defer to non-precious metal when it comes to casing-up their latest horological masterworks. Their respectively sporty Polaris and FiftySix collections are certainly designed with the younger customer in mind, and they both feature steel as well as gold versions from the very outset.

For most, a healthy dose of free champagne might still be required to lubricate the hinges of that wallet, steel or no. But at the very least, as the millennial trope begins to wane in favour of subtler demographics, we’re experiencing a window of accessible luxury.

Steel yourself while you can.

Stainless Stars of SIHH

Five of the best steel watches from January’s Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie trade fair:

Cartier Santos de Cartier, £5,500,
As folklore would have it, Cartier’s square Santos was the original men’s wristwatch, designed for Louis Cartier’s pioneering aviator friend, Alberto Santos Dumont in 1904. Its case curves voluptuously into the lugs, inspired by the legs of the Eiffel Tower, and exposed bezel screws – all out-there stuff, even now. This year’s redux introduces an irresistible detail: bracelet links instantly adjustable with the press of a button.

Jaeger-LeCoultre Polaris Automatic, £5,950,
Taking its name from a diver’s version of J-LC’s Memovox alarm watch released in 1968, the inner rotating timing bezel has been retained for this gorgeous new everyday wearer (boardroom, bar, beach, all covered) meaning the second crown adds a frisson of retro techiness, compounded by the trapezoidal dial marking.

IWC Tribute to Pallweber Edition ‘150 Years’, £20,500,
The price may be high, but that exotic, digital display doesn’t come cheap – especially when you consider it barely worked in the first place, despite IWC instantly buying the rights from Austrian watchmaker Josef Pallweber back in 1883, then sitting on them. Thanks to a new independent powertrain, it’s now a flawless timekeeper that, while rather an esoteric choice, certainly serves as a handsome posterboy for the brand’s 150th anniversary.

Girard-Perregaux Laureato Chronograph, £9,900,
G-P is considered one of the ‘Big Five’ of Swiss watchmaking, alongside Patek Philippe, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Audemars Piguet and Vacheron Constantin (if the more ‘boutique’ of them all). So it says everything about the horological zeitgeist that all efforts in recent years have been about the entry-level Laureato. Strangely, this perfectly proportioned chronograph is the first time a stopwatch function has featured in what constitutes a sports collection, and the price is bafflingly accessible.

Vacheron Constantin FiftySix Day-Date with Power Reserve, £19,400,
For a name as revered as that of Vacheron, £10,500 for an watch kitted out with a newly developed automatic movement, self-wound by a solid-gold rotor… well, that could surely seal the deal with millennials previously put off by the rather ‘historical’ nature of the brand. However, we truly believe in spending twice that on a design (let alone a functionality) that does so much more justice to the Fifties style it has drawn from.

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