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Stainless steel watches

Initially, the first stainless steel watches gave cause for some consternation: these new timepieces were regarded as too heavy, too expensive and too large. Nowadays, stainless steel watches are in greater demand than ever. From the exotic outcast to a worldwide top seller – you can read here the eventful history of stainless steel watches.

Couple with Audemars Piguet Royal Oak
The Audemars Piguet Royal Oak has been regarded for decades as the timeless classic among sport watches for men.

Stainless steel watches are by far the most popular watch category today. Few people realize that this is the outcome of a long process that has lasted more than half a century. Even fewer people realize that in many cases stainless steel wristbands have played a key role in the fact that certain models are regarded today as classics of the watch industry.

Until the late 1960s, stainless steel watches were treated as rarities, because this extremely hard material was almost impossible to process with the production methods of that time. Stainless steel wristbands were unthinkable — too complicated and too expensive. Because they were so bulky, the first models were meant primarily for divers, pilots, and members of the military. Back then they were called “tool watches” and were not regarded as suitable for social occasions. They were taken off as soon as work was over, and for leisure wear one usually selected a more elegant watch made of gold.

man with Glashütte Original watch
The Glashütte Original Seventies Chronograph Panorama Date looks sporty and elegant at the same time.
Glashütte Original watch with a blue dial
Stylish eye-catcher: the Glashütte Original Seventies Chronograph Panorama Date with a blue dial.

From the bulky tool watch to the most favorite timepiece and daily companion.

The modern stainless steel wristband that we know today had its breakthrough about ten years later, in the early 1970s. Back then, the grand old manufactures such as Vacheron Constantin, Patek Philippe, and Audemars Piguet did not have any all-steel models in their product ranges. But then came the triumphal march of the Rolex watches, which were preferred by Pan Am pilots, professional divers, and the international jet set that was forming at that time. The traditional manufacturers realized they had to act quickly to provide a class of globally active customers with a 24/7 watch they could wear everywhere and at any time. The Swiss designer Gerald Genta turned out to be extremely successful at this task. In less than five years, he designed a series of stainless steel watches that are all regarded as classics today: the Royal Oak from Audemars Piguet in 1972, the IWC Ingenieur in 1975, and the Nautilus from Patek Philippe in the following year.

Polishers at the edge of despair

Quite a few customers were initially puzzled by the stainless steel watches. By the standards of the day, these models were not only gigantic (with a diameter of 40 or 41 millimeters) but also significantly more expensive than comparable models in gold. That’s because the complex stainless steel cases and wristbands made the production price soar. In the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak, the wristband alone required 250 edges to be rounded off by hand, and the fascinating interplay of ground and polished surfaces brought many a polisher to the edge of despair.

Man in a classic car with Breitling watch
The Breitling Superocean Héritage II 42 offers a great wearing comfort thanks to its Milanese bracelet.
close-up of a Breitling watch on a live model
Nobel – with a highly sporty look: the Breitling Superocean Héritage II 42.

Production lines for wristbands for stainless steel watches

All of these watches had one thing in common: As in a bracelet, the links of the wristband merged seamlessly with the case. The modern stainless steel watch was born. Today, over 40 years later, these watches are more popular than ever. The waiting lists for some models are very long, and some manufacturers have created huge collections of stainless steel watches that often make up more than half of the product range. The production process is still extremely challenging. Some brands such as Audemars Piguet, Rolex, and Cartier produce their own wristbands. The production lines of these wristbands are impressively long and often as big as a sports hall. All the processes, ranging from the milling and stamping of the components to polishing and the assembly of the intricately screwed-down or pinned spring bars and folding clasps, often require just as many steps as the production of the basic movement of a mechanical watch.

To anyone buying a stainless steel watch today, I recommend going to the experts — at Wempe, for example — and having them explain the special features and distinguishing marks of each wristband. Today wristbands can be divided into three basic categories. 

Do you know the three wristband categories for stainless steel watches?

  1. In the first type, we have a case with traditional strap lugs that are also appropriate for leather or rubber straps, but a gap is left between the spring bar and the case. One example is the Superocean Héritagefrom Breitling. Most of the archetypes of these watches date back to the late 1950s. Today these watches have a casual vintage touch, especially if they have delicate Milanese wristbands. These are made of fine-mesh metal webbing whose production may require up to 80 separate steps. They are very pleasant to wear in the summertime and actually have a slightly cooling effect, because air circulates between the links.

  2. The second type is the integrated wristband with integrated strap lugs, for example in the Nautilus from Patek Philippe and the Royal Oak from Audemars Piguet. These models are characterized by great wearing comfort, because they fit snugly around the wrist, almost like a bracelet. Nonetheless, buyers should remember that, as a rule, such models can seldom be combined with straps made of leather or rubber unless they are offered by the manufacture itself.

  3. The third type is the classic hinged wristband with strap lugs that harmoniously match the watch case. Rolex has offered such wristbands ever since the late 1930s. Initially such wristbands were made of riveted sheet metal, but today the company uses only high-quality stainless steel. The Oyster wristband in combination with the patented Oysterlock clasp is justifiably regarded as the Mercedes of wristbands. The system is excelled only by the Rolex Glidelock extension system for its diver’s watch series. Like all Rolex watch cases, it is made of 904L stainless steel. This type of steel is even more resistant to the effects of saltwater than 316L surgical steel, which is used by most watchmakers today.

close-up of a Vacheron Constantin on the live model
Bold, sporty and high-class – the Vacheron Constantin Overseas sets many standards.
Man in a suit with Vacheron Constantin watch
The silver dial makes the Vacheron Constantin Overseas very versatile.
Rule of thumb: When worn on the wrist, the wristband and the watch case should always from a circle.
sporty dressed man with a Rolex watch
The Rolex Milgauss surprises by its orange, lightning-bolt shaped second hand.

The type of wristband one decides on is a matter of taste. Personally, I find integrated wristbands more elegant than wristbands with strap lugs. However, the overall effect depends largely on the diameter of the model.

I recommend using the following rule of thumb: The outer edge of the strap lugs should never stick out above the wrist. When seen from the side, the wristband should never lie around the wrist in a U shape. Instead, the wristband and the watch case should always form a circle. Otherwise the watch loses its integrated image, which always consists of the wristband and the case as a unit.

For collectors, it’s important to know that in the case of stainless steel models the original wristband is a key component of the watch — by contrast to many models with a leather strap, in which only the clasp is regarded as having lasting value. That’s why stainless steel wristbands can be repeatedly overhauled throughout their lifetime. That too has probably played a role in the lasting popularity of this watch category.

Stainless steel watches

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