Before 1972, the concept of a luxury steel watch didn’t really exist. Generally, steel watches were for daytime; you wore them to work, and your luxury ‘dress’ watch in gold (usually) was reserved for parties and events that called for something smart.
As the quartz watch crisis loomed – an era that would see hundreds of fine watchmakers close down and the very meaning of a timepiece shift axis – Audemars Piguet challenged designer Gerald Genta to create a new sports watch that would be at once iconic, popular and groundbreaking. The Swiss marque, founded a century earlier, wanted a new ‘sports’ watch, so it had to be waterproof, but it had to feel new, too. It had to be something the industry hadn’t seen before, which is hard to achieve when your canvas is an inch wide and has to tell the time.
Genta created the Royal Oak, which though not immediately popular, eventually became one of the most hallowed designs of modern watchmaking. It cemented AP as one of the great makers, too, and almost single-handedly changed the way the industry viewed and used steel.
Costing more than many of the gold watches of the time, it was the first steel watch to be marketed as a ‘luxury’ timepiece. Steel was tough, not delicate, so it was used for utility, not special occasions. But watchmakers realised that clients wanted ‘luxury’ – that is to say, rarity, exclusivity and exemplary craftsmanship – they could wear every day, and so it went that steel took on wider appeal. Today, the luxury steel portion of the watch market is stronger than ever, with the likes of Vacheron Constantin, Patek Phillipe and Cartier all using steel in some of their most exorbitant, elegant creations.
Of course, steel itself hasn’t changed, and is still the best material for ‘tool’ watches, too. Shortly before the Royal Oak appeared, Omega sent its steel Speedmaster chronograph to the moon with the Apollo 11 mission. And by that point, Rolex had been making steel ‘Daytona’ chronographs – affiliated with the famous Floridian raceway – for the best part of a decade. Both were relatively uncomplicated watches, but both now nestle up against the Royal Oak as pillars of watch design. Inclusively priced and undeniably handsome, the Speedmaster is widely agreed to be the first milestone on any collector’s journey, while the legendary steel Daytona, made especially immortal by Paul Newmanim电竞官网-, is now one of the rarest and most sought-after watches on the market.
As the new watches of 2020 emerge, it is clear that steel is as popular as ever. Piaget’s new Polo is cast in steel, as is Tag Heuer’s new Connected smartwatch, Breitling’s new Superocean, Zenith’s new Chronomaster Revival Manufacture… the list goes on. Essentially, steel has the capacity to be all things to all watch fans. Niche or mass; inclusive or rarefied; chic or solid. All you need to do is work out which steel is right for you.
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