Most of today's watches are made of stainless steel. They're robust, corrosion-resistant, and gentle on the skin. Polished finishes look especially exquisite, and the matte look is great on tool watches. Some models make a very solid investment.
When it comes to watches, stainless steel has established itself as the industry's dominant metal. It's hard but not brittle, corrosion-resistant, doesn't tarnish, and is gentle on most people's skin. What's more, it's easy to work with and can be polished, brushed, or sandblasted to create beautiful finishes. Simply put, stainless steel is the perfect watch material. Watchmakers first discovered it for themselves in the early 20th century. Prior to that, they had preferred working with softer precious metals like gold or silver.
Stainless steel has been an unstoppable force in the watch industry since the 1920s. Models like the Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso and early Rolex Oyster watches were key to stainless steel's rise. It didn't take long for them to find all kinds of fans and start flying off the shelves. In the 1930s and 40s, many militaries realized how robust stainless steel is and quickly came to rely on pilot's and navy watches from Omega, IWC, Hamilton, and Stowa.
Today, timepieces like the Patek Philippe Nautilus, Audemars Piguet Royal Oak, and stainless steel editions of the Rolex Submariner and GMT-Master are some of the world's most sought-after models and enjoy large fan bases among men and women alike. Recent years have seen some of these watches reach astronomical prices, often selling for more than their sister models in gold.
|Model||Reference number||Price (approx.)|
|Patek Philippe Nautilus||5711/1A||76,000 USD|
|Audemars Piguet Royal Oak||15202ST||44,500 USD|
|Rolex Submariner No Date||5512||22,500 USD|
|IWC Big Pilot's Watch||500201||10,500 USD|
|Omega Speedmaster Professional Moonwatch||3188.8.131.52.01.001||4,000 USD|
|Seiko Prospex Dawn Grey Turtle||SRPD01K1||770 USD|
|Hamilton Khaki Field Automatic||H70305143||580 USD|
|Fossil Machine Chronograph||FS4552||130 USD|
Some of Rolex's most successful and sought-after luxury models are made of stainless steel, including the Submariner diving watch. Rolex first introduced this timepiece in 1954. Today, it's available in a number of gold and two-tone editions, though most fans and collectors prefer the versions in so-called "Oystersteel" stainless steel. This is also true for Rolex's other sports models, such as the GMT-Master or Daytona, as these editions bear the strongest resemblance to the originals from the 1950s and 60s. However, it's not just Rolex's stainless steel sports watches that sell well. There are also many fans of the Rolex's classic dress watch, the Datejust, in stainless steel.
If you decide to purchase from a dealer or retail location, expect long waiting lists for the Submariner and similar watches. In some cases, the wait may even be several years. As a result, many collectors and watch lovers are willing to pay a premium to get their hands on one of these timepieces more quickly. That means shelling out anywhere from 6,200 USD for the 28-mm Lady-Datejust 28 ref. 279160 to spending 25,500 USD on a Cosmograph Daytona ref. 116500LN.
Vintage models are even more highly coveted. For example, the especially rare Submariner COMEX often demands upwards of 112,000 USD. At 17.75 million USD, Paul Newman's personal Daytona ref. 6239 worn is the most expensive watch ever sold.
The Audemars Piguet Royal Oak and Patek Philippe Nautilus are stainless steel watch icons. Both debuted in the 1970s and come from the pen of legendary watch designer Gérald Genta. The Royal Oak premiered in 1972 and stumbled a little out of the gate. However, as people got used to the concept of a stainless steel luxury sports watch, it eventually picked up speed and transformed into an industry icon. The Nautilus followed four years later and also had its initial struggles due to the ongoing quartz crisis and skepticism around stainless steel as a luxury material. Both models were also hampered by their prices, which were often more than their gold counterparts. In the end, watch aficionados grew to love everything about these stainless steel timepieces, from their distinctly wide bezels to their integrated steel bracelets.
These days, many collectors consider a stainless steel Nautilus or Royal Oak their personal holy grail. The demand for these watches is exponentially higher than current production numbers can meet, which has led to some mind-blowing prices. If you don't want to wait years to become the proud owner of a Nautilus ref. 5711/1A, be prepared to depart with about 76,000 USD. That's more than double the recommended price! Vintage Nautilus models, such as the ref. 3700, demand around 100,000 USD. Prices for the Royal Oak have also been on the rise in recent years. For example, the same ref. 15202ST that cost roughly 28,000 USD a year ago now sells for some 44,500 USD.
Despite their high cost, both watches are an excellent investment since their prices will continue to climb higher and higher.
Many well-known tool watches owe their existence to stainless steel. Famous examples include IWC Schaffhausen's pilot's watches and Omega classics like the Speedmaster, which was originally designed as a racing chronograph and later became the first watch on the Moon. TAG Heuer has also exclusively relied on stainless steel to create their racing-inspired watches.
Prices for TAG Heuer watches range from 2,000 to 9,000 USD. On the other hand, IWC and Omega timepieces generally sell for between 3,300 and 22,500 USD.
The great thing about stainless steel watches is that you'll find them in all price categories. There's a vast selection of high-quality watches that cost around 1,000 USD. Some even have a cult following, such as the Seiko Turtle. This diving watch gets its nickname from its case shape, which resembles a turtle's shell. This model has been a consistent part of the Japanese manufacturer's catalog since 1977. As a result, there are many editions to choose from, with prices ranging from 300 to 1,100 USD.
Another example is Hamilton's Khaki series. These models are inspired by the pilot's and military watches Hamilton developed for the American military and U.S. Airmail in the early 1920s. The Khaki Field is a fan favorite thanks to its reliability. These timepieces feature an automatic or quartz movement and sell for between 330 and 1,200 USD.
Steel is an alloy of iron and approximately 2% carbon. Humans have been using this metal since antiquity. Stainless steel refers to especially pure steel that's enriched with elements like chromium, nickel, molybdenum, titanium, or tungsten. These elements give stainless steel its special properties, such as its corrosion resistance.
In watchmaking, 316L steel is the variety of choice due to its extreme resistance to corrosion and pitting. This material is perhaps better known as "surgical steel." Rolex has been using class 904L stainless steel for the past few years. This alloy has a higher proportion of copper, making it more resistant to acid or moisture. Both steels are similarly hard and are easy to work with.
Stainless steel is used for just about every watch component: from the case, bracelet, crown, and hands all the way to the movement's gear train and arbors.