Mixed Fortune: Bimetal Watches Invigorate Excitement
The full platinum or gold watch may be too weighty for all tastes. Is bi metal the way to go then? We make the case for and against
While our main section looks at platinum, and some related metals, and the coincidental release of the Rolex Day-Date in platinum, with fluted bezel in the same, makes the metal somewhat on-trend, the real story may be the rarely discussed Rolesium (a combination of platinum and steel). This is why we are following up directly on our main section with this accompanying section on half precious metal watches. So, to be clear, we are not really going with half-gold here, but half precious metal and half steel — although Audemars Piguet and Hublot in particular mix all sorts of materials, and we will get into that, briefly. We mainly want to look into the potential of platinum and steel watches, which means we will use the term bicolour or two-tone sparingly.
Funnily enough, we have not covered bimetal watches as a category of watches in any depth. That is indeed a strange omission considering we have had more than 20 years to get to them! Well, this issue corrects that.
Watches that combine different metals have been around for some time, and they have elicited strong reactions from collectors. They have even been called naf, especially for those who feel these watches bring to mind the 1980s. Rightly or wrongly, they also evoke nouveau riche sentiments, or suggest an identity crisis. This all might feel odd to the casual watch buyer, as one might simply like the way yellow gold plays with stainless steel, for example. On the other hand, bicolour or bimetal watches are quite unusual apart from those made by Rolex and Tudor. This represents a clear decision by most brands, which is easy enough to confirm by simply looking at their digital search fields. From Patek Philippe to Breguet, there is no way to search for bimetal options. Incidentally, Breguet has no half gold watches, and Patek Philippe has just one. How is that for scarce?
Waves of Metal
Despite the great success of Audemars Piguet, Richard Mille and Hublot in mixing materials, brands that make hundreds of thousands of watches are lukewarm on the idea. A quick check on the Cartier website reveals just 19 models in steel and gold, while Breitling has 26. Omega has just two. To be fair here, Cartier has many more references in gold while Breitling only has 20 in this precious metal because it focuses on full steel watches. Leaving aside how well these references sell, we find ourselves wondering if the perennially trending half-gold watch is just wishful thinking on the part of overwrought editors and other content creators.
Adding to the confusion is Rolex, the undisputed leader in making and selling fine timepieces. The Geneva brand is so far ahead of its peers that it might truly be peerless in its market segment — and here we are referring exclusively to bimetal watches. Mixed metals have been part of the story at the coroneted one since the days of Hans Wilsdorf, the founder of the firm. In those days, the brand (and all other brands) relied on retail partners to advise them on what worked in their markets. Wilsdorf would have been particularly savvy about this, given his background in retail. The Art Deco period must have seen an explosion of interest in progressive designs because that is what Rolex and other brands responded to. In fact, Rolex was combining different golds all the way back in the 1920s, and this approach has remained part of the assortment ever since. Of course these days it is all gold and steel, so perhaps mixing yellow gold and red gold was really a feature of the Art Deco era.
Besides Rolex, the only other brand making a huge assortment of watches in steel and gold is Tudor. Tudor actually calls this S&G in a manner similar to Rolesor at Rolex. There is indeed something proprietary (or maybe just specific to the brand) going on here, and it is a little confusing so we will have to address that later. To begin with, we have opted for the standard Black Bay S&G, available in various sizes (31/36/39/41mm). This simply demonstrates the sheer variety of options; as it happens Tudor offers unbeatable variety for anyone seeking bi-metal options. The no date Black Bay here is clearly pitched to collectors who appreciate the hauteur of gold, but want to stay humble. Indeed such people do exist, and Tudor is banking on the idea that there is a market here.
At this point, a little history is worth getting into because the multitone watch is very much a 20th century phenomenon. We know that a variety of brands introduced such models in the 1930s, partly as a reaction to the global economic crisis. This continued into the late 1940s, as demonstrated by a steel and rose gold Patek Philippe Ref. 130 sold in 1948 (source: Patek Philippe museum). We have mentioned Rolex, whose Prince model saw all manner of cool (even to contemporary eyes) experiments in form, size and material fusion. There are even so-called tiger stripe models featuring yellow and white gold cases. Alex Ghotbi, Head of Watches for continental Europe and the Middle East at Phillips, told A Collected Man that two-tone pocket watches were made prior to 1920, but concedes that this is mainly a wristwatch thing.
In the 1920s, two and even (fabled) three-tone watches were all about bringing different precious metals together; we know for certain that the Cartier Trinity ring (yellow and rose gold alongside platinum) got its start then so something similar might have happened in watchmaking too. Brands such as Vacheron Constantin were certainly experimenting with mixing materials. We ourselves have seen examples of these, in the book The World of Vacheron Constantin, and of course in the Patek Philippe museum in Geneva. Now, some collectors might recall that Rolex had something called the Tridor in the 1980s, which is a triple material mix. Although today only Rolesor and Rolesium survive, it is worth recalling that mixed material watches occasionally become more popular. We will put our necks on the line and suggest that platinum and steel watches are going to be popular; perhaps white gold and steel, or platinum and titanium too.
Platinum and steel is not actually all that exotic, some would argue, because Rolex not only offers this but also has a special name for such a combination. Rolesium is currently confined to just the Oyster Perpetual Yacht-Master (references 126622 and 268622), which has the bulk of the case (and the entire bracelet) in steel, with only the bidirectional rotating bezel in platinum. While Rolesium completely legitimises the use of platinum and steel, it also highlights how unusual this pairing is. We know of only one other standard offering where platinum and steel are combined as they are in Rolesium: the Parmigiani Fleurier Tonda PF. Not only is the Tonda PF a new approach for the brand (debuting in 2021), but Parmigiani Fleurier would not be riffing on Rolex. It does not rise to the same level, for example, as the many brands releasing multiple dial colours in their entry level timeonly collections, all seemingly inspired by one brand in particular.
White Light White Heat
Nevertheless, it may well be that platinum and steel is the combination to look out for… or maybe good old white gold and steel, as Rolex (once again) has done to great effect in the Oyster Perpetual Sky-Dweller reference 326934. If you keep track of prices, you do not need us to tell you of the gulf between this model and the version in Oystersteel and yellow gold. This is because only the fluted bezel here is in white gold, with the bracelet entirely in Oystersteel. In terms of reputation, Watchfinder & Co declared reference 326934 to be the one that captivated the public’s imagination. The Sky-Dweller is indeed the most popular complicated Rolex model that is not a Professional model. This approach has not gone unnoticed, even if it does not have the same visibility as the Daytona or GMT-Master II.
This year, Montblanc revealed a new signature fluted bezel, done in white gold, with the 1858 Minerva Monopusher Chronograph Red Arrow LE88. Montblanc watchmaking boss Laurent Lecamp was pretty animated as he discussed it with us, and we have to agree that this might be a key detail that defines the future of the Villeret line. It was an impressive move that underscores the incredible value of Villeret models, especially the chronographs in steel. Beautiful movements are one thing, but handcrafted elements that one can see, touch and interact with are quite another. We shall see how the story of the fluted bezel, apparently introduced by the Minerva manufacture as early as 1927, unfolds. To be clear about it, no one brand owns the idea of the fluted bezel.
This development at Montblanc was one of the things to spur this story towards the form you find it. As we implied earlier, we were not convinced that bi-metal watches are the next big thing, but perhaps the industry feels otherwise. At Watches and Wonders, another brand demonstrating its prowess with mixing materials was of course Hublot, which brought the Big Bang Integral King Gold Ceramic into the picture. This watch is what is known as the reverse half gold, where the bulk of the watch is in gold (Hublot’s proprietary King Gold) and the rest in something more humdrum. In a twist upon this twist, Hublot has opted to engineer the large central links of the bracelet in ceramic rather than gold, while issuing the case middle in the precious stuff. A clever and bold move, we give Hublot props for forcing its way into a bimetal story with a watch that features only one kind of metal. Well, the watch also has titanium screws but this is hardly important.
In more traditional territory, we were ready to cast Blancpain as a precious metal purist, like its high-end heavy-hitting peers Breguet and Patek Philippe, but there was a local surprise in store. Retailer Cortina is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, and Blancpain has a very special piece to commemorate the occasion: a limited edition Bathyscaphe with red gold bezel (above). The manufacture told us that this is the only bi-metal watch in the collection, and it will only be in this special series for Cortina. Partly as a segue to our next point, we have to make special mention of the price of this limited edition: S$17,000. Without getting into the precise details and figures, the Cortina x Blancpain Bathyscaphe is perhaps just 30 per cent more dear than the same model in a non-precious metal.
At this point, we turn our attention to another level, because this brand is the acknowledged master of steel and gold watches. We are referring to Tudor of course, what with that brand’s overwhelming focus on steel and gold watches this year. Looking at something like the Black Bay 41mm, this is a S$4,500 watch in steel with bracelet. In Tudor’s steel and gold, the price jumps to S$7,250. Certainly both types of watches are not exactly the same, but the price difference between plain steel and steel with some fancy dress friends in gold is notable. A 60 per cent increase is sizeable, but seems relatively acceptable. The expectation appears to be that a half gold watch will retail for roughly twice the price of the same model in steel. Indeed Tudor’s steel and gold watches have been praised for offering good value. Tudor manages this by using solid gold for the bezel, and the first two links of the bracelet. All other parts in gold here feature a gold cap that is wrapped around a steel core. This approach is unique to Tudor, as far as we know, with most brands opting for electroplating.
For one last comparison, let us look to Grand Seiko, which does have a few steel and gold models. We will speak specifically of the SBGE251G, which utilises a red gold bezel, and has a counterpart entirely in steel, the SBGE201. Considering that the movement here is exactly the same, and so are dimensions of the watch, the price difference is notable; the SBGE251G is more than double the price of the SBGE201. You have basically gone from a nice mid-four-figure watch to a one that passes the S$15,000 mark. Now, finally, let us bring Rolex into it, specifically with the Oyster Perpetual Sea-Dweller in Oystersteel, versus the same model in Oystersteel and yellow gold. The former clocks in at S$17,840, the latter S$23,490. The Rolesor model is thus just over 30 per cent more expensive.
So where does this leave the watch buying public then? Probably a little confused, and perhaps a little angry. This is perhaps not unexpected, at least for the seasoned amongst us. Coming to grips with price is one of the toughest things to manage when it comes to fine timepieces. We reserve our final thoughts on this for the final segment of this section, which represents the opinion of this author on both platinum and bi-metal watches.
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