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Watch Snob on How Demand for Steel Watches Is Ruining Watchmaking

September 13, 2019DMT.NEWS

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Watch Snob on the Demand for Steel Sports Watches

Watch Snob Discourses on Steel Appeal

Greetings, gentle (and less gentle) readers. Today, I’d like to take a bit of a break from my usual format and discuss the conundrum posed to all of us, by the meteoric rise in popularity of stainless steel sports watches. Unless you have been dwelling, horologically speaking, beneath the proverbial rock you are undoubtedly aware that the demand for steel watches – especially from Rolex, Patek Philippe, and Audemars Piguet – have reached unprecedented levels. For Patek and Audemars the hunger is largely confined to two models, which are, respectively, the Nautilus and the Royal Oak. In the case of Rolex, the demand across the board for stainless steel professional models, including the Daytona, has long since passed the ferocious and has reached the hysterical.

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It was not long ago that I happened to find myself in a watch boutique – disinterestedly browsing the usual lineup of insipid rehashes of last years’ or last century’s designs – when I witnessed the not-unusual sight of a customer abusing a sales clerk. The fellow was quite literally brandishing his American Express Black Card as if it were a two-handed broadsword and he was upon the field of Agincourt (on the French side, naturally) and with as much animation, as he berated the salesman for not selling him a steel Rolex. “What’s the matter,” he demanded, “isn’t my money good enough for you?” (There was quite a bit more profanity than that; I am paraphrasing).

The problem of course (aside from the light this throws on the more fundamental problem of the mendacity of human nature and the fundamental moral unimprovability of watch enthusiasts) was not that the salesman did not wish to make a sale; the problem is that he had nothing to sell, and screaming does not make Rolex watches appear out of thin air (ask the man who knows). The problem is not confined to Rolex, of course. The Patek Philippe Nautilus reference 5711, is just as scarce as any steel Daytona; steel Royal Oak Jumbos, ditto.

It is a very strange phenomenon in the world of high end luxury watchmaking, that steel should seem so much more elevated a material but it is probably due to several factors. The first of course is the brands’ own greed. It is all very well for Thierry Stern, the President of Patek Philippe, to argue that he doesn’t want his company to become a single model firm, which is what has happened at Audemars Piguet due to the popularity of the Royal Oak (which to be fair, has turned the company from a small niche maker of complicated watches, into an international design powerhouse but such success has come at a price). The fact is however that gold watches from traditionally revered Swiss brands, have roughly quintupled in the time that I have been interested in watches. When everything you make is inaccessibly priced to most of your potential clients, you have a bigger problem than becoming a single brand watch.

At Rolex, the problem is more widespread. Driven by a combination of fundamental brand recognition, admittedly excellent quality, and a sort of unimaginative, conservative, but basically reassuring consistency in design, both demand for and reverence of Rolex has reached unprecedented levels. The company has more money than God (an expression which has always struck me as a bit odd because if there is a God, which I increasingly doubt, the one thing he neither has nor needs is money) thanks to this popularity but it also runs the risk of alienating its retailers and its potential client, if the drought goes on too long. The paranoid in our ranks may believe that Rolex is deliberately choking the market for steel pieces in order to sell more precious metal watches, but as they say, just because you are paranoid doesn’t mean you are wrong.

What is one to do, then? Of course there are alternatives. Fine steel timepieces can be had from other perfectly fine brands; Vacheron Constantin has its Overseas line, for example, and if you have a yen for a steel Rolex, you can still get one easily; it will just say Tudor on the dial. That may seem a disadvantage at first, if you are besotted with brand names but it has for many years now been true that Tudor is metamorphosing today into what Rolex was twenty years ago.

Or, you can make the really reasonable decision and get out of the game altogether. In all the time I have been interested in watches I have never seen such undiscriminating, knee-jerk herd groupthink among so called connoisseurs, and naked greed on the part of the brands. This was once a gentleman’s diversion and it is now the purview of bean-counters protecting the value of company stock on the brand side, and peacocks with the intellectual and emotional depth of a wading-pool on the collector side. Clocks are nice.

Send the Watch Snob your questions at editorial@askmen.com or ask a question on Instagram with the #watchsnob hashtag.

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Watch Snob, Khareem Sudlow

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