Everything You Need To Know About Titanium Watches: Part Two

To say there are important watches in titanium is to not say very much.

Oct 12, 2021 | By Ashok Soman
Oyster Perpetual Rolex Deepsea
Image: Rolex

Continuing from our previous article on titanium wristwatches, we continue to talk about the material properties of this metal.

The heavyweights of the lightweights

Titanium is so popular as a material in watchmaking that it is sometimes thought of as a serious alternative to steel. No novelty material this, unlike this tricky sentence. As seen in the segment on material properties, titanium is not the new steel because watches in either material wear very differently indeed, even if they can be made to look similar.

As mentioned from the outset, there are no hidden downsides to titanium, or outright concerns. Desirability as far as it relates to titanium has a few distinct areas, ranging from unobtainable pieces to non-existent watches, and then onwards to a variety of mixed material nirvanas.

Happily, we do have some significant watches to discuss this year, and a few from recent years, so we will not need to get into fantasy and fiction. We will address one point very quickly though, and that is the case of the special edition from Patek Philippe. Now the Geneva brand does not feature titanium in its collection, and various books on the manufacture omit it entirely.

This includes “The Authorized Biography of Patek Philippe” by Nick Foulkes, which we enjoy working from, which does not even deign to list alongside other common notation for materials in the references (A for steel, P for platinum, and so on). This does not mean there are no Patek Philippe watches in titanium of course, and word that a watch from this storied watchmaker is available in this material causes chaos online.

There are special editions from Patek Philippe in titanium, notably ref. 5208 and 5033. The former was a unique piece made for the OnlyWatch auction in 2017, and the latter was part of a bespoke series in titanium for a collector. Great though the appetite may be for titanium Patek Philippe watches, these unique watches should not be thought of in the pantheon of existing collections in titanium.

Here is how auction house Christie’s describes Patek Philippe watches in titanium: “Patek Philippe has only used titanium on very special occasions, this metal is reserved for the cases of its most high profile and special unique-piece watches, in fact, only a handful of titanium cased watches have been created over the company’s entire production. Including the references: 6000T, 5001T, 5102T, 5396T, 5524T, 5712T, 5004T, 5208T and the present 5033T, each a unique titanium example of the respective reference and amongst the most desired and valuable trophies of Patek Philippe’s modern production.”

patek philippe watches
Patek Philippe Ref. 5208T and Ref. 5524T

We are certain that if Patek Philippe decides to create something rather more permanent and regular in titanium, it will do so in a way that makes sense — a method that is logically consistent, in other words. Just releasing it as another variant seems too easy.

Doing so as an outright replacement for something else is another story, and we will not go there. If you know what we are on about here, good for you. If not, you are not missing much. We take heart from Patek Philippe Head of Watch Development Philip Barat’s words to us during the Watch Art Grand Exhibition in Singapore that Patek Philippe will not hesitate to use a material if there is a technical need to do so, especially in the movement.

The Advanced Research watches are a testament to this statement, of course, as is the use of ceramic in automatic movements. Implied in this statement is the idea that the manufacture would not simply use a material that was novel, because it was novel, or to fill a market gap. In whatever alternate universe where Patek Philippe dive watches are a thing, perhaps they are in titanium. In our universe, they are in unobtainium.

Similarly, Rolex is absent from the titanium party, in terms of entire cases and bracelets, but the Tudor Pelagos demonstrates that the brand is not merely ignoring the metal for general applications. That watch, by the way, is included in this article, on its own merits.

Though we do not have the precise weight of that watch, it is likely to be some 40-50 per cent the weight of a similar dive watch in steel, just thanks to the titanium. On that note, before we move further on significant watches in full titanium, we want to address the misconception that Rolex does not use the material at all.

The Rolex Deep Sea model does feature a Grade 5 titanium caseback, which the manufacture chose because of its technical properties. This is why this story opened with an image of this model, but the use of titanium is not confined to this extreme model.

Indeed, the Oysterflex bracelet also features another titanium alloy, this one reportedly nickel-titanium. Given that Rolex develops its own technology, it is fair to assume that there is some expertise with titanium here.

parmigiani fleurier tonda
Parmigiani Fleurier Tonda 1950 with the cage of the flying tourbillon in titanium.

Staying technical, a number of watchmaking firms also note that they use titanium and other exotic materials where they demonstrate their value over traditional materials. One such brand is Parmigiani Fleurier, which makes tourbillon cages in titanium.

The specific strength of the material is probably a good reason for this, and of course the lightness (versus steel) would reduce the inertia of the entire tourbillon mechanism. If the whole structure is lighter while still as strong, it will take less energy from the mainspring to keep it turning.

Vaucher, which makes Parmigiani Fleurier movements, also supplies Richard Mille, a rather famous exponent of lightness and specific strength. There are far too many applications of titanium in Richard Mille watches to get into, but the important point is technical performance, and using the same as a marketing tool.

For its part, Parmigiani Fleurier does not quite make the same style of watches as Richard Mille, or even like those of that same class of watchmakers, including Audemars Piguet, Hublot, Roger Dubuis, Hautlence and Christoph Claret.

One interesting parallel is Breguet, which also uses titanium for tourbillons, and for entire cases in some collections. The rationales are entirely technical, from the Classique Tourbillon Extra-Thin Squelette 5395 to the Marine 5517; these watches are of course world’s apart, even if they are made by the same firm.

It should be remembered though that certain handfinishing standards will probably exclude titanium, because the metal just cannot be worked like that. Not all materials are equal when it comes to accepting hand-finishing techniques, especially ultra-contemporary ones. These facts lead to a lot of diversity at Breguet and Parmigiani Fleurier.

This is where the extreme contrast between brands comes in, because Patek Philippe is not offering anything at any price where titanium, or any kind of ultra-light watch, is concerned. Neither is A. Lange & Söhne, for that matter. These watches simply do not exist.

With the class of contemporary watchmakers from Audemars Piguet to Zenith, not only are there ultralight options but these might be mainstays. These are often spectacular, such as the ultra-thin and ultralightweight Finissimo models from Bvlgari. A useful contrast here is its competition, Piaget, which certainly offers ultra-thin watches, but nothing in lightweight materials.

panerai submersible watch
Panerai submersible eLAB-ID PAM01225

Then there are the various material experiments at Panerai, from 3D printed titanium cases to watches made of recycled titanium. Where this brand is concerned, the monumental release of the Submersible eLAB-ID this year gives us the chance to look once again at recycled titanium.

The case for this model is made from 80 per cent recycled titanium, and is said by the brand to be the equivalent of what we think is Grade 5 titanium. This is our supposition based on the brand’s note that eco-titanium has the same properties as aerospace-grade titanium alloys, and Grade 5 fits the bill.

We interviewed Panerai COO Jerome Cavadini, and certain truths made themselves felt, including the fact that titanium is easily recycled because it does not degrade from exposure to air. Nor will it do so if scratched or similarly damaged.

You will recall that titanium is relatively difficult to process from raw ore, which is a problem that is neatly sidestepped by resorting to recycled titanium. The process uses less energy and generates less waste than extracting titanium from raw ores. It also resolves the persistent issue of potential supply chain disruptions.

The outside research on this subject, available via Japanese, US and Chinese producers of titanium, makes this sound very promising, and we have no doubt that we will see more such watches in future. Indeed, this might make titanium watches more mainstream than they currently are.

Finally, there is the matter of titanium watches being available at more affordable price points, just as steel watches are. Brands as diverse as Seiko, Casio and Citizen are joined by Tissot, Mido, Oris, Hamilton in offering models in titanium.

This has the electrifying effect of exposing watch enthusiasts at all levels to a fantastic material that wears really well, and might even be self-cleaning. For these brands, the psychological question of whether the weight of a watch matters in terms of perceived value does not enter into the picture. The Tissot Gentleman in titanium, to cite just one example, never needs to address this question; it just has to sit comfortably on your wrist.

On that note, we hope this brief introduction, always teetering on the edge of an explosion of watch names and references, illustrates just how many titanium watches there are.

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