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Steel: The Foundation of modern watchmaking

So, guys, this month we have a new, exciting theme lined up for you. We started talking watches in the office last week, and we couldn’t get past the idea that case material, not only plays a huge role in price, but also in formality and manufacturing. While we all tend to mention materials, we often skip past without asking any questions. Well, not now. Each week we will take on a new material, starting this week with steel and take a deep dive into the souring and making as well as watch applications. While I would have a guess that you own a steel wristwatch, many (including I) don’t know much about why they use this metal. Let’s start at the beginning. Where does it come from? And how is it made?

Raw Material

In the simplest form, Iron mixed with a small amount of carbon, produces steel. Steel is the world's most important engineering and construction material. It is used in every aspect of our lives, from cars to washing machines. It can be recycled over and over again without loss of property.

Steel Manufacturing Process. Image source: Google.

The process, without going into exhaustive detail, can be simplified into a few steps. The products that go into it, lime, coke and iron ore must be made into iron. These are all put into a blast furnace and melted down to create what is called molten iron. Oxygen will then be forced through a furnace, which gets out a lot of the carbon and other impurities, we then have raw steel.

Steel Manufacturing Process
Steel Manufacturing Process. Image Source: Google

Watch Applications

Stainless steel is vital for the wristwatch, with the proximity to your skin, you can build up sweat and moisture, causing corrosion, especially waterproof watches were the threads corrode. Swiss watchmakers collectively refer to steel watch components such as screws, index etc as “les aciers” (French for steel). Among the different grades of steel, semi-hard is used for transmission arbours and stamped or bent parts, hard steel is used for screws, pinions and parts that do not require very hard grade steel and very hard is used for springs and files. The majority of bracelets and cases use 316L surgical steel for its an-allergic properties.

We love vintage sports watches, and they tend to be more popular than precious metal watches form similar decades. Let’s not forget the iconic 1518 (which was the first serially-produced perpetual calendar chronograph) from 1944 from Patek Philippe which sold in 2016 for over $10.7 million, and Paul Newmans stainless steel Rolex Daytona for circa $17million in 2018.

Paul Newman Rolex Daytona
Paul Newman Rolex Daytona. Image source: Horobox

These days, most stainless-steel wristwatches are made of 316L stainless steel, and for a time, so was Rolex. In 1988 Rolex launched its first 904L steel watch in the sea-Dweller and it wasn’t until 2003 its entire production line changed to 904L.  Harder and more rust and corrosion-resistant than other steels, this 904L steel can take and hold a polish incredibly well. This is why steel Rolex watches look different than other steel watches. Rolex calls 904L stainless steel a “corrosion-resistant super alloy.”

Watchmakers found steel to be a very hard material to work with, and as a result, the material was relegated to use in sports watches. Gold was just an easier option.  In 1954 we saw PanAm issue pilots with steel GMT’s and in the 70’s we saw an explosion of crazy case construction, large, round and everything in-between. As well as that, this decade saw the greatest design the industry has ever seen in the Royal Oak and Nautilus by Genta. Steel was shocking – especially given the price point (the Royal Oak was more expensive when it launched that precious metal watches), but it was finally in!

Today you can get a lotta steel watch for your money. You will also be getting something that’s robust, easily serviceable and looks pretty sweet in any setting.

Shop our full collection of Stainless Steel pre-owned watches.