The word precious carries a lot of meaning. I think of certain people as precious to me and the idea that a material object or metal is precious seems to attach too much value or love to an inanimate object. I believe that in my lifetime, maybe others also believe this, there are very few people that I am programmed to treat a precious. I choose the word “programmed” for a reason because this idea of treating anyone or anything as precious is a form of love and I do not necessarily have control over who or what I end up loving deeply.
You can see that the word precious has strong connotations to me and combined with a hobby that I am passionate about, I found myself contemplating the idea of a precious metal and maybe the idea of what is precious in general. Along the same thought thread, watch collecting is a passion and passions are, by definition, irrational. Therefore, the idea of love and precious being expressed in the same sentence with metals and watches may not be as strange as I initially perceived.
The watches discussed here are iconic in the world of fine time-pieces and the history surrounding them helps to create the context where the idea of what constitutes a precious metal can be explored. As a collector I have studied watches with the same tenacity that I study anything I am highly curious about. As a result the watches that I own in my collection have been carefully considered and because of my research I have managed to turn the purchase of certain pieces that I am passionate about, into actual investments. This involves some knowledge but also quite a bit of luck. No one has a crystal ball, yet I have found that many of the watches have appreciated and do not behave like other depreciating commodities. (That said, this is something I have learned and understood for quite a while now, yet the idea of treating a watch as an investment in all situations is not wise and is something of a misguided errand)
This story about the emergence of steel as a material that has outstripped “precious metals” in several watch markets is something a watch collector has to consider for practical reasons and also philosophical ones. This is a counterintuitive concept. For example, a collector usually starts with lower priced watches and as he proceeds tends to invest in pieces of increasing value to some degree in an effort to secure rare and more sought after examples. One way this often progresses is for steel watches to precede precious metals in the collecting algorithm, if one’s goal is to ultimately obtain gold and platinum pieces. This natural progression, which may have been true in the past, does not apply in 2018, to many watch models, especially sports models in the vintage world, and to some degree modern variants as well. If I traded all my steel sports watches now for gold equivalents I would lose value.
What makes the exact same model Rolex Daytona in 18 karat gold less valuable than its steel equivalent today? When did it become a bargain for a collector to buy the yellow gold or two-tone version of a Rolex sports watch on the pre-owned market. Who would have predicted that a time-only Patek Phillipe steel Nautilus would be sold for about the same and maybe more than the rose gold equivalent, bracelet and all.
As with other trends, there are exceptions to this surge in the value of steel sports watches and the historically denoted precious metals will always have inherent value. In fact, this may be the sweet-spot in time to purchase pre-owned precious metal watches and one can speculate that with time they will reclaim the value initially placed on them. For now, however, this a very interesting turn of events, one that I would never have predicted when I started this endeavor and one that keeps things interesting in the world of watch collecting.
In 1972 an influential watch designer named Gerald Genta, came up with the idea for the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak. The idea was to design a watch that was of the utmost luxury and hand finishing, with all the elements internally and externally of the finest time piece one could make. It would have a revolutionary design with an integrated watch-case and bracelet. Every millimeter of the watch’s exterior would be hand-treated to a degree that surpassed what was available at that time. The movement would be of the finest quality and finishing and the dial would be exquisite. The catch was: it would be made of steel. And, by the way, the cost would be $3600 in 1972, a price six times the retail of a Rolex Submariner at that time and significantly more expensive than most gold or platinum watches at that time.
Initially, this concept caused an outrage and the Royal Oak did not start off selling very well. To add further context, the quartz watch had been invented and was growing rapidly in popularity especially in Asia. A quartz watch contains a simple circuit board run on a battery that could be rapidly mass-produced for pennies on the dollar compared to Swiss mechanical watches, and a quartz design is more accurate than a mechanical watch that is either manually wound or automatic. Quartz watches were gaining in popularity and severely cutting into the profits of Swiss watch manufacturers. If anything, the Swiss watch companies needed to cut costs and try to compete with the lower priced quartz watch. This made Audemars Piguet’s release of the Royal Oak even more preposterous.
Nevertheless, Audemars Piguet argued that the time involved and artistic craftsmanship warranted the high cost. The difficulty of sculpting steel alloys into an octagonal, multi-layered watch-case connected to an integrated bracelet of such high quality was more involved and took significantly longer than the equivalent time piece employing precious metals like platinum or white and yellow or rose gold alloys. To this day, many consider the Royal Oak to contain the most elegant and luxurious watch bracelet in the world.
Looked at from another vantage point, an argument could be made that to shape and sculpt the myriad beveled edges and brushed, satinized, reflective and polished facets out of hardened steel, was to mine, within the concept of steel, a novel jewel that started as a pedestrian metal and was transformed to become a precious metal in its own right by virtue of the inspired artful craftsmanship necessarily involved.
There were design flourishes used for the watch case derived from unique aspects of maritime history. The design concept of the Royal Oak took its cues from old-fashioned diving helmets utilized by divers from the era of Carl Brashear. These helmets, made of copper, brass and bronze had large exposed bolts placed to help seal the diver’s mask. This provided an industrial edge and tool-like appearance to watch. The name Royal Oak was take from a fleet of pre-dreadnaught battleships built for the Royal Navy in England during the 1890s. The Royal Oak was a fleet of eight ships hence the octagonal bezel. The appearance of the watch is also reminiscent of a ship’s portal or viewing window.
After a period of disbelief and reluctance to pay what was thought to be an exorbitant price for a ubiquitous alloy, the Royal Oak began to catch on and slowly sales began to increase. Soon the Shah of Iran became a vocal owner of the Royal Oak. Others in Hollywood and luxury watch enthusiasts in exclusive circles began wearing the Royal Oak and expressing its novel position in the world of watches and jewelry.
There were components of the watch that were pure gold such as the 22 karat winding rotor seen through the exhibition case back, and white gold screws visible securing the octagonal bezel on the front of the case.
Soon after, Gerald Genta also designed a similar watch in steel for Patel Phillipe called the Nautilus. The Nautilus also took its inspiration from nautical themes. The shape of the case is somewhat rectangular with outcroppings on both sides that look very much like ears. The overall thrust of the Nautilus also feels like a viewing portal from a ship. One can see that both of these watches share similar DNA and they are the product of a designer who was able to provide a concept that the watch world has embraced wholeheartedly over the course of the last forty years. Over that course, these time-pieces have earned cult-like status and have become two of the most sought-after watches in the world. There are now many variations of both the Royal Oak and Nautilus in various gold alloys as well as platinum with a host of other complications, but the steel versions of both still command the highest interest, where in most markets these both sell for well over retail preowned.
Currently Rolex ha a shortage of their steel sports watches with gold , two-tone and platinum watches being readily available. In the world of vintage sports watches steel consistently fetches higher auction prices than the equivalent pieces in gold and platinum. Companies like Patek Phillipe that manufactures most of their watches in a gold alloy or platinum is finding that the few steel pieces that they made and sold over their history have become insanely valuable compared to their more plentiful precious metal counterparts.
Is a precious metal born or is it made? Can a watchmaker turn a relatively pedestrian metal into a precious jewel with the artistic craftsmanship, or is steel by definition a common non-precious metal no matter what is done to shape or change it. Is it possible that for certain objects, a sports watch for instance, a certain alloy like steel is preferable in terms of its resistance to stress and its wearability as opposed to softer more malleable and scratch prone alloys like gold and platinum, and as a result these steel versions appreciate more than gold. Additionally, there are other metals, not yet as desirable as steel, like titanium, ceramic, carbon fiber, or pure sapphire that are more scarce than steel and have unique qualities, yet are not categorized as “precious metals, ” and are becoming increasingly more popular as a luxury materials.
But who really cares about any of this? I enjoy the history and it adds texture and context. A passion for something lives at a remove clouds away from the text conceived to explain it. So why am I writing this? Is it possible, with the right words, to turn the material into the sacred, the form of what I hold in my hand into the spiritual with words that otherwise would just be words. One can aspire to that and I believe it is never achieved but the collateral bits and pieces that exfoliate off the pages during this effort bow to the spiritual. When something is made by human hands and it becomes timeless, it is called art. Something happens that is no longer a lump of bronze, paint on canvas, or 367 tiny parts oiled and intricately aligned accurately to record this human invention within the apparatus of the brain, called time. When an object is created by Grace pulsing into human hands from a great unknowable reservoir, there is an obligation to admire and respect it.
Art is fickle. Human beings are fickle. Vain attempts to understand tarnish more often than not. Precious arrives in a world of rules, confined by strictures of matter and space and the limiting expressions designed to understand the unknowable. When I see beauty hemmed-in by the bayonets of perceived human certainty I imagine an engineer constructing formulas to understand the sunset. No one else can tell an individual what qualifies as precious. The Royal Oak, and its subsequent fleet of progressively more elaborate iterations, never lost the minimalist beauty of steel on a three-handed, time-only watch. When I first saw the Nautilus or Royal Oak bracelet, I had trouble believing that it was steel. I too did a double take. And then I felt it. A liberating sensation in my gut, a visceral explanation of the sublime with a lexicon no one else has to understand, a nomenclature born in the heart and outside of all reason with a new clarity not found in any any book or any writing. That may be what I perceive as precious.