A New Bronze Age for Wristwatches

Bronze is the reclaimed barn wood of the watch world.

New York Times - Alex Williams. In an effort to stay au courant in the 21st century, watchmakers have been turning more and more to high-tech materials that seem borrowed from NASA: carbon fiber (the IWC Ingenieur Carbon Performance Ceramic), ultralight polymer (the Breitling Avenger Hurricane), ceramic (the Bell & Ross BR 03-92 Heritage Ceramic), even synthetic sapphire (the Hublot Big Bang Unico Sapphire).

Curious, then, that Tudor, the sister company of Rolex, decided to look back some 3,000 years for one of its splashiest releases of 2016: the Tudor Heritage Black Bay Bronze, which features a case made from an alloy that suggests Stonehenge.

Or maybe the company is more forward-looking than it seems. Bronze may be a humble material associated with third-place Olympic finishes and church bells. But lately, high-end watchmakers like Tudor, Panerai, IWC and Zenith have repositioned it as a signifier of luxury: a head-turning alternative to stainless steel or gold that is brimming with retro allure.

Bronze’s yesteryear aura, after all, is hard to escape: Just the mention of the word calls to mind Victorian snuff boxes or Sumerian artifacts. But at a time that demand for gold and platinum watches has dipped, most likely because of global economic pressures, watchmakers are placing new bets on bronze.

At the Baselworld watch fair last March, Zenith introduced the bronze Pilot Type 20 Extra Special, which eschewed the macho high-tech polymers of many contemporary aviator watches for a 1920s antique-like look that conjured images of barnstorming biplanes, open cockpits and fluttering white scarves.

The Panerai Luminor Submersible 1950 Automatic Bronzo, with its aged bronze case and nautical-gauge stylings, seems almost steampunk, suggesting the undersea adventures of Jules Verne rather than James Cameron.

Indeed, bronze’s seafaring connotations make it a natural for diver watches, as Jack Forster, the editor in chief of Hodinkee, pointed out, given that the metal (typically a blend of copper and tin) has been used in marine applications like ship propellers and naval cannons for centuries because of its resistance to saltwater corrosion.

No wonder then that Oris debuted at Baselworld the Carl Brashear Limited Edition, a tribute to the Navy’s first African-American master diver, who continued to dive after losing a leg recovering a nuclear warhead (the bronze is a nod to his diving helmet).

Similarly, the bronze case of the IWC Aquatimer Chronograph Edition “Expedition Charles Darwin” pays homage to the portholes of the H.M.S. Beagle, the ship in which Darwin toured the Galápagos Islands. Bell & Ross, meanwhile, just introduced the BR 01 Instrument de Marine, in bronze and rosewood.

Its anti-corrosive properties at sea may make a bronze watch attractive to latter-day Jacques Cousteaus, but the fact that it visibly ages under normal wear makes it alluring to landlubber watch geeks.

Bronze, in a sense, is alive, as Tudor puts it, in strangely poetic marketing copy. Over time, a watch like the Black Bay Bronze will develop a rich, chocolaty patina like an antique statue, although its unique aluminum bronze alloy will never oxidize all the way to sea foam green like the Statue of Liberty.

Patina is no small issue among watch cognoscenti. Collectors will pay a steep premium for a vintage Rolex Submariner from the 1960s with a tropical dial — that is, a black dial that has faded to brown because of the sun and weathering. The same goes for a GMT Master with a “Pepsi” bezel — when the royal blue and crimson has faded to a psychedelic sky blue and fuchsia.

Modern high-tech materials are meant to look new forever. That is great for everyday users, but maybe not so great for romantics.

“Ceramic is highly resistant to scratches, carbon is even lighter and stronger,” said Eric Yang, the founder of the site Gear Patrol. “But both materials can be contrary to what makes a watch so great for owners who love watches simply because of the stories they tell. A bronze watch has a natural luster over time that is a wonderful expression of ownership. It’s durable enough, but it also has just enough leeway to acquire all the nicks and scratches life will imbue.”

“Bronze is the reclaimed barn wood of the watch world,” he added.

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