The Odd Appeal of Stainless Steel

In the world of high end watches, precious metals rule.  That makes sense; if you’re buying a watch that costs $250,000, you want something that you can show off.

In recent years, that means that the watch is going to have a case made of gold, or platinum, or possibly machined sapphire crystal.

Patek Philippe reference 1518

Patek Philippe reference 1518

Gold and platinum are relatively rare precious metals.  Sapphire is a naturally occurring gemstone, but man-made sapphire can be machined into a watch case, making for a pretty amazing (and expensive) watch.

Stainless steel, on the other hand, isn’t a very sexy material.  Sure, it’s strong.  The “stainless” in the name suggests, correctly, that it isn’t going to rust if you get it wet.  Of course, gold and platinum won’t rust, either.

The combination of strength, rust-resistance and affordable pricing is what makes stainless steel a commodity in the watchmaking world, and the vast majority of watches in the $50-$5000 range have stainless steel cases.

Often, a watch will be made with a choice of case materials, and buyers may have the option of gold, platinum, or steel.  The steel model, of course, will make the watch the most affordable option, and buyers who are budget conscious will have the ability to get the same watch for a substantially lower price.

It’s interesting to note that the most expensive wristwatch ever sold, the Patek Philippe reference 1518, which was made in 1944 and which recently sold for more than $10 million, had a stainless steel case.

Why?  And why would someone pay that much money for a watch made from such a common material?

rolex 8171 steel

Rolex 8171 in steel – a $1 million watch.

The reference 1518 is an unusual watch in its own right, having been the first mass-produced (for Patek) watch to include a perpetual calendar.  That alone makes it collectible, but here’s where it gets interesting.

The “mass produced” 1518 was made in a production run of just 285 watches.  That’s not a lot by Swatch standards, but for Patek, especially during World War II, that was a big run.

Here’s the kicker – of the 285 watches made, 281 had cases that were made from either yellow gold or rose gold.  Exactly four watches were made with stainless steel cases, and they were probably special-order items that had been built to accommodate a customer request for a steel case.

As it happens, a number of older watches that have recently set records for high prices have steel cases, and the reason is simple – they’re a lot more rare than their gold or platinum counterparts.  Steel wasn’t used as a first choice by these companies; they were used only when materials were in short supply (as they were in World War II) or when someone specifically asked for a steel case.

That, paradoxically, is why such a common material is actually rare in some circumstances, and why collectors are today paying exorbitant sums of money for watches made from “common” material.

Keep in mind that most steel watches are indeed commodities.  Still, when a company such as Rolex offers a watch with steel or gold, the steel models sell briskly, usually because the buyers know it’s the same watch as the gold one but available at a much lower price.

At the end of the day, it’s still a Rolex.