In the cut-throat world of Fine Watchmaking, new trends can have several raisons d’être, the main one being advances in technology that enable brands to produce cases in innovative materials such as ceramic or carbon, or decorate parts using lasers. This explains why each year different brands release watches that bear an unexpected resemblance. Unfortunately, the theory doesn’t hold up with bronze. Given that the earliest uses of bronze date back to the third millennium BC, it hardly qualifies as a recent scientific breakthrough. Over the past few years, however, this naturally noble metal has made a niche for itself in watchmaking that hasn’t gone unnoticed.
Ships and sculptures
Nothing could be less futuristic than bronze, yet to see it used in watchmaking offers a welcome break from the mad scramble for the latest high-tech materials. A copper alloy with between 3% and 20% tin, weighing 10% more than steel, we readily associate bronze with art, and more particularly sculpture. Making a bronze timepiece is therefore a clever way to associate watches with artistic creation in the public’s mind. Bronze does, however, have other interesting properties. It is amagnetic; it is also extremely resistant to corrosion thanks to patina, the protective layer of metal oxide that forms on its surface. This is good stuff for brands, which have seized on this natural characteristic to promote bronze as a “living” material, and to boast the unique appearance bronze watches acquire over time.
Shipbuilders used bronze to make propellers; it was also used to make diving helmets, and this association between bronze and the underwater world didn’t escape the attention of watchmakers, starting with Panerai. While the Italian-Swiss brand wasn’t the first to produce a bronze case, in 2011 – those honours go to Gérald Genta, who in 1988 imagined the Gefica Safari – it made a huge contribution to bronze’s popularity. The imposing Luminor Submersible 1950 3 Days Bronzo, measuring 47 mm in diameter and weighing in at 182 grams, was an overnight sensation. The 1,000-piece limited edition sold out within days, encouraging Panerai to make a repeat performance two years later, when it released the equally impressive Luminor Submersible 1950 3 Days Power Reserve Automatic Bronzo.
Esprit de corps
Zenith followed suit in 2015 with, surprisingly, a pilot’s watch. The Type 20 Extra Special takes advantage of bronze’s vintage appeal while featuring the outsized crown and Arabic numerals that characterise airborne watches. More bronze beauties were unveiled at this year’s Baselworld by Oris, Tudor and Hautlence, each with different motivations.
Oris presented a bronze-cased watch and captured the spirit of the metal at the same time by linking it to Carl Brashear. In 1970, Brashear became the first African-American to earn the title of US Navy Master Diver, despite having had his left leg amputated as a result of a diving accident. The Oris Carl Brashear Limited Edition is fitted with Oris’ Calibre 733, built on a Sellita base. It is water-resistant to 100 metres and has all the attributes one expects of a dive watch, with a unidirectional rotating bezel and SuperLuminova-coated hour markers. Oris is making it as a 2,000-piece limited edition.
The majority of brands to have put bronze on our wrists play on its associations with the sea and the military.
Tudor, meanwhile, uses bronze to showcase its own history. The Heritage Black Bay Bronze comes equipped with the in-house Calibre MT5601, a COSC-certified movement with silicon balance spring. Oris delivers it with an aged leather strap and a woven textile strap. The latter is a nod to the elastic that French Navy parachutists would take from their rescue parachutes, recognisable by the yellow stripe running down the centre, and use as improvised straps (in the 1970s, Tudor supplied its watches to the armed forces without straps). The prominent crown, domed crystal and snowflake hands are all derived from the brand’s first dive watches.
So far, the majority of brands to have put bronze on our wrists play on its associations with the sea and the military. Not Hautlence. The Neuchâtel brand was instead won over by its artistic potential. The self-winding HL2.0 movement in the Vortex Bronze is a piece of art in itself. The regulating organ rotates 60° every 60 minutes. Semi-trailing hours on a chain are joined by retrograde minutes and a power-reserve indication. These fascinating mechanics are clearly visible through six sapphire crystals. And for the case of this limited edition of eight, the fourth design in the Vortex collection, what other than bronze?