Bronze is the flavour of the moment as a watch case material – with some models encased in the alloy tripling in value.
Five years ago, at Geneva's prestigious Salon Internationale de Haute Horlogerie (SIHH) watch fair, Panerai showed one of its typically bulky dive watches cased not in steel but in bronze, and announced it would be making a limited run of them.
It wasn't the first watchmaking brand to discover the material – less well-known brands Gerald Genta and Anonimo had used the material before. But it was a natural for Panerai; they were in search of something new, and bronze was a natural fit for a company that started out making watches in the 1930s for the Italian navy. Bronze, like brass, has strong nautical links.
At first glance it's not the ideal material for a watch case. An amalgam of copper and tin, it reacts to air, heat and moisture and visibly degrades, a process – ironically – that protects the base metal from corrosion. Such cosmetic deterioration might be seen as undesirable in the normal scheme of things, but in the watch world it means "patina" and "uniqueness", as no two examples age in the same way. Nice selling points, then.
To further distinguish it from regular models, Panerai gave the bronzed diver a green dial and production was set at 1000 with an asking price of around $11,000.
The move proved to be genius; model number PAM00382, aka the Bronzo, became the hottest item on Panerai collectors' wish lists and the watch sold out on the spot. So much so that two years later, in 2013, Panerai released another version, adding a power reserve indicator to the green dial. There was plenty of room for it – the watch spans 47mm. One thousand of these (model number PAM00507) were made and, again, sold out.
The desirability more than remains to this day: Google "Bronzo" and you'll find they're available no problem, but you'll need around $30,000 to get your hands on one. For the early adopters that's tripling their initial outlay.
Bronze takes gold
Such success has hardly gone unnoticed by other brands, and bronze has now taken gold in terms of buzz at this year's giant Baselworld watch fair.
It featured on arguably the watch of the moment, Tudor's Heritage Black Bay, a vintage-inspired dive watch launched just a few years back that's become the darling of enthusiasts. Red, blue and black-bezelled versions have been progressively available, all 43mm and cased in polished steel, but this year bronze was introduced, along with a black PVD-coated version. It's the bronze that grabbed the headlines – and orders.
At a price of around $5000, buyers will be hoping it proves to be a Panerai-like investment, not that you'd bet on something of that order: better to buy for the reward of wearing something out of the ordinary.
If you don't have the dollars for a Tudor Black Bay Bronze, Oris, too, announced a bronze beauty at the Basel fair - the Carl Brashear Limited Edition, named after the first African American master diver.
The 42mm self-winding model will have a production run of 2000, with just 84 allocated to Australia, priced at $3750. Based on initial inquiries alone, Oris believes it could sell double those quantities.
Oris Australia managing director Peter Bourghouts says: "I was hoping to get 100 pieces, but [because of demand] our allocation has been cut – twice. I don't expect to be able to meet all the orders."
It means, as with Panerai, the race won't be for gold; it's bronze you'll need to be fast on your feet for.