With the Olympics sadly coming to an end and our focus on the medal count over for at least another 2 years, I thought I’d write a bit about the lesser medal, which is also the lesser metal in the world of watch cases: bronze.
Bronze was never traditionally used in watch cases. Bronze has the nasty habit of staining and irritating skin and discoloring in inconsistent ways, neither of which are characteristics a watchmaker would particularly like in their case material. Leave it to the master watch designer Gerald Genta to take the leap of faith into the world of bronze watch cases in 1995. To solve the first problem of bronze watches Genta simply put a stainless steel case back and slightly raised lugs on his case. This ensured that the bronze wouldn’t contact the wearer’s skin, and the caseback was invisible when the watch was worn. On the color of the case Genta took a gamble. Bronze naturally patina’s when it comes in contact with the elements, and Genta believed this patina would add to, not detract from, the character of the watch.
As ever, Genta was a visionary of consumer tastes and patina became the hallmark of a bronze watch, but bronze watches did not gain more broad market acceptance until 2011 when Panerai introduced their bronzo. The was the first foray into bronze cases by a large established brand, and it was very successful.
Bronze watches today
Today bronze cased watches are at an interesting inflection point. Bronze is a fairly easy way to differentiate a lower end watch from the stainless steel crowd. Bronze is not substantially more expensive than a stainless steel case and can become the focal point of a watch if its lacking a high end movement or brand name. As such many micro-brands have embraced bronze and countless kickstarter watches set themselves apart with their bronze case. At the same time, Panerai’s success has made other high end brands curious about bronze. Most notably Tudor released a new Black Bay Bronze at Basel this year to extremely positive reviews while Zenith and IWC have released special editiion bronze watches in the last few years.
The love-hate relationship
Bronze is certainly a polarizing aesthetic. Some hate the dullness of a bronze patina or its inconsistency, but I think it adds uniqueness and character to a watch. Patina makes a watch look old, like its been through the ringer a few times. Some may find this disingenuous since a day relaxing on the beach can give a bronze watch patina, but the reality is it is the owner’s experience that gives the watch character. And this character can change over time as you rub some patina off and build some more up.
What to watch for
If you are looking to buy a bronze watch there is one key watch-out (no punt intended); make sure the watch you are buying has an actual bronze case. Obviously this isn’t an issue with a Panerai or Tudor, but there have been many kickstarter watches claiming to be bronze that were actually brass. Both bronze and brass are copper alloys, but brass is considerably cheaper and will retain its shine. This means a brass watch will never get the patina that is presumably the reason you bought a bronze watch in the first place. For some brands this has been an honest mistake and they will send a proper bronze watch to you free of charge, but there are stories out there of kickstarters that went bankrupt buying brass cases and never returned a proper bronze watch to their backers.
All things considered a bronze watch is an interesting prospect for me. I am rarely focused on the pure aesthetics of a watch and put more weight into the history of the brand and the movement (as we’ve discussed here) but the character of a bronze watch makes it very personal, and something I think is a fun part of a collection.