The Bronze Age – Bronze Watches Are Back and Here to Stay
Frequently dismissed as a mere curiosity, or cited as part of a burgeoning trend, the bronze watch case seems here to stay. The various editors of WOW present their takes on this rugged yet lustrous material.
During the heady years of the in-house movement discussion, starting more than 10 years ago, there was a popular joke/riddle/question in the trade. It goes like this, more or less: if manufacture movements are indeed the most important element in a watch, why bother casing them up and hiding their value? At one point, the movement was thought to be more valuable that any gold or platinum that held it. Imagine turning up at a party with just a movement strapped to your wrist.
Some brands did take up this challenge, if you can call it that, and debuted pure sapphire crystal cases: see Bell&Ross, Richard Mille, and Hublot, to cite just three. Even here though, you can obviously see the practical and aesthetic value of some kind of casing. It is entirely reasonable to argue that when it comes to the watch, everything depends on the case.
The case has one important job: protecting the aforementioned fine engine of time from outside influences. If the case fails, the watch fails, end of story. The case has to take the hard knocks of everyday life, and keep dust and moisture out. Even in the 21stcentury, the material of choice for the case remains mostly steel and gold, for strength and lustre respectively.
For wristwatches, which are worn against the skin, it is also important that the case not cause discomfort. Wearability is the main thing here. Gold is non-reactive so this is a non-issue, and steel can effectively mimic this quality. Contemporary materials such as titanium, mineral glass, ceramic, and even plastics of all sorts, share similar qualities and are thus found everywhere in watchmaking. What’s not found everywhere – the subject of our enquiry today – is bronze.
Now, anyone who owns a watch with a Glucydur balance wheel actually has a bit bronze in play – the alloy features beryllium and the right combination of copper and iron. Typically, bronze is an alloy of copper and tin, although it can be a combination of copper and other metals or metalloids. Historically and right through to today, bronze is created by combining copper with arsenic, phosphorous, manganese, nickel, zinc, silicon and other materials.
Common though it might have been, other than the Glucydur example, bronze is not a typical choice in watchmaking. Traditional watchmaking emerged long after the heyday of bronze had passed, so this alloy is about as traditional for watchmaking as molybdenum or vanadium. One small caveat here is another alloy, brass, which plays a major role in watchmaking. Brass is also a copper alloy, but with zinc instead of tin. Some authorities don’t even use the words bronze and brass, preferring to more generic and all-encompassing term “copper alloy.”
As a case material, bronze has pros and cons (as we covered in issues past), but it is certainly a feature of the contemporary age. Despite the vintage look of bronze watch cases, the material was only introduced in commercial watches in the 1990s. It was a legendary watch, from an important name in watchmaking, that made the bronze watch a reality – the Gerald Genta Gefica, and you can read about that here too. To take nothing away from this landmark watch, and the watches that followed and that are listed in this story, bronze as a material has little to recommend it. And yet bronze watches are certainly mesmerising, and there aren’t too many examples out in the world.
Still, perhaps the biggest negative about bronze as a material is that there is no compelling reason to use it as a case material, other than its looks. It is not precious nor pure, and it is certainly not rare – gold and platinum it is not. It is not hypoallergenic, as titanium and ceramic are; bronze does tend to provoke allergic reactions, as silver does, but contemporary cases usually sort this out with titanium casebacks. While bronze is hard and durable, so are any number of the materials listed thus far, and many more besides.
What bronze does uniquely well is age into good looks. Bronze acquires a stable oxidized layer that protects its structural integrity, and gives it a patina over the years. It is this stability that made bronze so appealing over the years, and why it was favoured on ships and the like – it is still used for ship propellers and submerged bearings.
Bronze shares this neat stable oxidized layer trick with aluminium, except for the patina part. This patina can even be worked on by hand, and thus be improved by the owner of the watch. Conversely, proper care can maintain a bronze watch in its original condition. To make the best of this, collectors need to be certain of the sort of bronze that a given brand is using in a given a watch. Indeed, aluminium when used as a component metal in the bronze alloy of a watch case, develops a dark and even patina. The amount of aluminium in play actually defines how the patina develops. Generally, if low amounts of aluminium are in play, or none at all, then pitting and green discolouration is likely. In this scenario, there is a chance that the watch will stain one’s skin, or shirts – steel or titanium casebacks will resolve this in general but the rest of the case may still come into contact with shirt cuffs and the like, so one should still be fully aware.
As previously mentioned, it is indeed possible to stage-manage the process of getting the patina you want, but it requires some effort. Aside from taking it for a dip in the Dead Sea (there’s a famous example that you can easily google), there are a number of treatments you could actually try at home, using substances ranging from vinegar to liver of sulphur. These are rather more involved than dropping the watch into a liquid and letting it sit there, or wiping it down. It is rather like a chemistry experiment, to make a short story of this. Perhaps we will revisit that topic in another story, but for now, it is time to move on to trends, and actual watches.
Where to Find Bronze Watches
Very broadly speaking, collectors looking for bronze watches have more options that ever before. Unlike ceramic and titanium though, there are still some useful boundaries in effect. Brands that have a strong affinity for the tool watch aesthetic might have a bronze watch in the fold. These include such pack-leading luminaries as Panerai, Bell&Ross, Anonimo, and Tudor; each of these has a bronze diving watch. Indeed, the Panerai bronzo model is arguably the most significant historical bronze watch after the Gerald Genta Gefica. More recent arrivals at the bronze edition of the tool watch party include Oris (also a diving watch) and IWC (not a diving watch but instead a Big Pilot’s model).
On a totally different front, some brands are trading entirely on the vintage look and feel of bronze. These include Bulgari, Montblanc and Zenith, joined more recently by Arbutus, Baume & Mercier and TAG Heuer. Obviously, there is a big spread in terms of price points, which is great because you can adjust your comfort level, and not worry about hunting down very rare models. It also means that bronze will no longer appear primarily in diving watches.
It is interesting to note that major names in the sports watch segment, namely Rolex and Omega do not trade in bronze watches at all. In fact, the WOW editors struggled to think of any current bronze models from the Swatch Group brands. Other notable brands one can bet against significant use of bronze are the traditional holy trinity: Audemars Piguet, Vacheron Constantin and Patek Philippe. At the same time, it appears that Richemont and LVMH brands are upping their respective antes in what might just be the next great bronze gamble. It seems that bronze, once an idiosyncratic choice from idiosyncratic brands, is properly mainstream now – even Panerai’s latest bronzo is not a limited edition (see the following pages).
Gerald Genta Gefica
The late master watch designer Gerald Genta was not known for taking half-measures, so when he unleashed the original Gefica on the world, perhaps as early as 1988, it was in a full bronze case (sources vary on the details). It remains uncertain, for example, if it had a steel caseback, or an inner case of some type that would have protected the movement from the oxidization effects characteristic to bronze. Given that no other brand was using bronze – and big names such as Rolex and Omega never have, even to this day – it was never really explained why Gerald Genta was even using the material.
Apparently, the Gefica case debuted with the trademark rivets that would characterise every subsequent version of the Gefica. Appearances at auction houses, and images from online marketplaces seem to confirm this. When the watch made the news again in 2007 or so, it effectively restarted the conversation about bronze, although once more, nobody was particularly clear as to why bronze was chosen. Unfortunately, with the Gerald Genta brand now subsumed into the Bulgari name, the Gefica is not a part of the current collection.
The historical rationales behind the Gefica may remain obscure until Bulgari decides on a new Gefica. For its part, Bulgari has not forgotten about the Genta connection, of course, and even has bronze watches in its current lineup (as mentioned elsewhere in this story); no Gerald Genta watches in the current Bulgari lineup are available in bronze.
Nevertheless, the Gefica was no “poor player / that struts and frets his hour upon the stage / And then is heard no more,” as Shakespeare put it. It certainly had all the ambition of a Macbeth, although it continues to prove that it is no brief candle as it lights the way for a new generations of bronze watches. Any story that charts the development of bronze watches, for example, will cite Gerald Genta, and that’s worth remembering in 2019, the 50thanniversary of the Gerald Genta watchmaking brand.
Bell & Ross BR 03-92 Diver Green Bronze Limited Edition
Contrary to popular belief, Bell & Ross did have a diving collection before the BR03 series of dive watches. If you are counting, and connecting the dots, there are three in total, including the BR03, which is the only one still in production. The predecessor BR 02 was discontinued a few years ago, but the follow-up is not only more appealling but cemented the brand’s “circle in square” design leitmotif. Hence, the diving collection as it stands after the 2017 debut reinforces the iconic BR square and functional lines but in a more nautical rather than aeronautical bent. It is worth noting that this is one of only two watches in this feature that are not round.
The Diver Bronze is the second new, if Limited Edition novelty to the Bell & Ross BR03-92 Diver collection. Clad in namesake bronze, the professional diving instrument is evocative of maritime history, referencing heritage deep sea instruments such as diving helmets. This signature element of vintage undersea exploits ala Jules Verne is immortalised via a special caseback engraving.
While most brands are content to issue their bronze diving watches in a “stabilised” form – that is to say, patinates brown instead of a “mossy” green because of its alloyed content, the Bell & Ross BR03-92 Diver Bronze achieves a more unpredictable but remarkably unique aesthetic pattern dependent not just on the environment but usage. We take this to mean that bronze used here is the more traditional sort.
That said, Bell & Ross goes beyond merely recognisable aesthetics to embody the technical criteria required of a true diving watch – the ISO 6425. Bearing features such as a minimum depth rating of 100 metres; a unidirectional rotating bezel with graduated scale; and high legibility luminescence, the Bell & Ross Bronze Diver checks a lot of boxes for a professional tool watch. When you add anti-shock and anti-magnetic protection, the rest is just icing on the cake.
Zenith Pilot Cronometro TIPO CP-2 Flyback
The Zenith Pilot Cronometro TIPO CP-2 Flyback in bronze kills two birds with one stone, figuratively speaking. No, I do not condone killing for sport. I may even become a vegetarian one day out of mercy for animals, but that would be an article for another magazine (separately, the editors of WOW do not recommend using watches as weapons, for all kinds of reasons!). What I mean by killing two birds with one stone is that Zenith made the sensible decision to satisfy two strong watch trends of material (bronze) and styling (vintage) in a single timepiece. It looks enticing, appropriate and everything, despite being outside of the diving watch genre typically associated with bronze.
Originally offered in stainless steel in late 2016, the Cronometro TIPO CP-2 Flyback is a reincarnation of a chronograph watch the company created for the Italian armed forces in the 1960s. Only 2,500 examples of the wrist chronometer (cronometro di polso or CP) were produced so the chance of acquiring a vintage specimen is slim. Going to the retailer to get the modern reissue is much easier. In any case, the CP-2 was reworked once again for Baselworld 2018, this time either in stainless steel (treated for that lived-in look) or in bronze, which is our focus for this story. This is, by no means, the only bronze offerings from Zenith, including the Type 20 Extra Special 40mm. This watch is also showcased here because, well, there’s no other space for it.
Turning back to the watch at hand, the 43mm bronze case of the Zenith Pilot Cronometro TIPO CP-2 Flyback houses the self-winding El Primero 405B chronograph movement. Beating at the frequency of 36,000 vph, it measures an event lasting up to 30 minutes with a hand at three o’clock, while supplying a power reserve of 50 hours. The brown dial itself is quite interesting to look at, with slightly recessed counters, a nice gradation from golden brown at the centre to almost black on the perimeter, and graining across the entire surface. These details can be appreciated in all lighting circumstances, thanks to the application of anti-reflective treatment on both sides of the sapphire crystal. A brown oily nubuck leather strap with rubber lining completes the casual, vintage look of this timepiece.
As elaborated by our Singapore team in the opening section of this article, bronze is a highly unusual and unusually expressive watch case material. Its recent resurgence may appear over the top – I did feel that way too at one point, with so many brands offering a watch or two in bronze – but it is just another kind of material at the end of the day, with the potential of becoming a mainstream choice not unlike ceramic and titanium before.
PANERAI SUBMERSIBLE BRONZO PAM968
Officine Panerai was one of the first watchmakers to understand the appeal of bronze to watch collectors. Well, the manufacture believed in the potential of the material, revealing its first “Bronzo” in 2011. This is what I used to call Florence-by-way-of-Neuchatel watchmaking – Panerai watchmakers are not shy about innovating, but always keep the look-and-feel consistent. Unbelievers can look to this brand’s vision of the tourbillon for confirmation of this point, but I digress. Bronze is an understandable choice for Panerai, given its rich maritime heritage, but it is not a forgiving material as far as consistency goes. In fact, Panerai is still using the CuSn8 (a straight copper and tin mix) that it used for its first Bronzo, which develops
that famous green hue as it oxidizes.
In many other ways, PAM968 echoes the first Bronzo, PAM382, including its impressive 47mm girth and the necessary titanium caseback. New for the Bronzo though is the ceramic bezel insert, which features markers in the same bronze as the case, and the automatic calibre 9010. The gradual colour shifts of the bronze material will form an interesting contrast with the evergreen ceramic; it is quite possible that those bronze highlights on the bezel might develop a different patina compared with the overall case.
Straps for this watch include brown leather and green rubber, so presumably if the oxidisation ramps up then the rubber strap will be very useful. It is actually quite surprising that more watchmakers haven’t settled on rubber as the material of choice for straps as far as bronze goes. Bronze will stain the leather strap just as it will stain fabric, or the wearer’s skin. That is why PAM968 also comes equipped with a titanium buckle, not a bronze one. While it is certainly true that rubber will compromise the vintage aesthetic it does make sense in a diving watch. In our opinion, it is actually a great look.
TAG HEUER AUTAVIA ISOGRAPH
Here’s a watch we’ve covered in a lot variation in this issue, thanks to converging editorial themes and cover decisions. Regardless, this watch shares important characteristics that we did not explore in the cover story. In a few words, what’s left to cover is the part TAG Heuer can play in the evolving saga of the bronze watch. When brands such as TAG Heuer, Baume & Mercier and Tudor push out bronze watches, it legitimizes what was once a niche habit. Interestingly, TAG Heuer isn’t shooting for a sort of diving watch here, even though the opportunity exists with the Aquaracer, but perhaps in future then…
The TAG Heuer Autavia Isograph isn’t solely or even primarily available in bronze. If one looks at the TAG Heuer website, you’ll have to try very hard indeed to find information about the bronze
version (we couldn’t even find bronze as a material option to filter by, as of May 2019) so perhaps this bronze watch is a sort of insider’s option. Well, it is on our cover so it is no secret, and we hear that the US site will list the option by June, when you might first read this story.
To be clear, at no point in the past did TAG Heuer ever use bronze in its cases, and bronze is not associated with the world of motoring. Some observers have tried to argue that this is TAG Heuer’s attempt to pay tribute to the aviation side of the Autavia story. As we noted in the cover story, and in issues past, the –avia part of the Autavia name is a reference to aviation. TAG Heuer itself has an aviation story but it is quite complicated and we shall ignore it for now. Of course, bronze and aviation have no relationship – bronze is about 10% more massive than steel so it is not a good fit for the business of flying anyway. The sort of copper alloy in play here is the kind with aluminium, so that makes it quite contemporary too.
Practically speaking, this means the watch will not stain the skin or your clothes, nor will it threaten the straps.
TUDOR BLACK BAY BRONZE
If Panerai gets the credit for starting the current bronze wave, and Gerald Genta is thought of as the historical progenitor of that wave, then Tudor is surely responsible for carrying the wave to the shore. Ok that entire metaphor was a bit forced, but there is certain progression in the brands when you list them – Gerald Genta, Panerai, and Tudor. All are respected names in collecting circles, although each operates (past tense in the case of Gerald Genta) in its own sphere. So, what do we make of the latest 43mm Tudor Black Bay Bronze then? The short answer is that it is a very attractive watch that might actually benefit from being a wee bit smaller. The first one 2016 also received that reaction so we are happy to concede that Tudor knows better than us. The longer answer is quite a bit more complicated, and has to do with how collectors perceive Tudor.
Leaving that perception aside for the most part, the Black Bay Bronze has provoked perplexing responses, ranging from mealy-mouthed think pieces to glowing reviews that employ dubious logic. Part of the reason for this is the fact that Tudor released the first Black Bay Bronze in 2016 to universal acclaim, so there is little more to say on the subject. The bronze in play is the same, the Arabic numerals at 3, 6 and 9 are the same, and so is the MT5601 movement. Indeed, perhaps the main thing is that critics have not learned to accept that the size is a good one, even if it means that the Black Bay Bronze is bigger and heavier than the other Black Bay offerings. We reiterate that the watch wears well, and has great wrist presence.
At the front and back of the watch, there are a couple of important points to address. The dial and bezel are new, both in slate grey, and this colour combination might be even more fetching than the old brown. As before, the nubuck and fabric straps on offer also match this grey. More than this, the dial is a graduated affair, resembling a fume dial even. As you can just make out from the pictures, the centre is lighter than the edges, contrasting again with the uniform slate grey bezel. Just google this watch and you’ll find descriptions of it echoing this sentiment (WatchesbySJX to cite just one example) so it is not just a personal whim. Flip the watch over and you will find a true rarity in a bronze watch: a steel caseback that is PVD treated to have a bronze colour. The shade of this caseback is darker than the case, and is a useful gauge for the patina this watch will develop.
ARBUTUS GUARDIAN AR-BR-01
Having covered the watch fairs for more than a decade now, I’m definitely guilty of exclaiming my surprise at some new release or other. Of course, this is mostly a case of getting carried away by the excitement of the fairs, but here’s a ticker that laid me low with a surprise dropkick. If Baume & Mercier bringing a full suite of bronze watches marked a surreal moment at the SIHH in Geneva, the Guardian series performed the same trick at Basel. Yes, Arbutus – the little brand that could – has outdone itself by creating one of the most sensible and compelling bronze watches in recent years. This 42mm automatic diving watch comes in a few versions, all cased in bronze-aluminium (similar to Tudor and Montblanc).
Unlike the watches from the aforementioned brands, this one is flying below the radar of most observers. To be fair, a lot of that has to do with brand equity, but a quick look at the watches also reveals a certain undeniable link to certain very famous sports watches. It is definitely a popular look, right down to the magnifier over the date, the unidirectional bezel, and the different colour options of the aluminium bezel insert. At 42mm, it is right in the ballpark of the most popular sizes out there.
So here’s what looks to be an entirely commercial proposition, purpose-built to serve existing demand at higher price points. The existence of something like the Guardian AR-BR-01 speaks volumes to the potential popularity of bronze watches. If once bronze was purely an option for niche brands once upon a time, it has now truly taken off. This is the reason we selected this piece for this story because while it is great to see bronze offerings from the likes of Bulgari and Montblanc, that’s almost to be expected. With Tudor or TAG Heuer, marketing dollars will be invested into generating demand for bronze watches. For Arbutus, the demand must already be there, so the place of the bronze watch as a standard, just like titanium and ceramic, must be assured.