The bronze edge
If you want your watch to look unique, pick one in bronze from topline watchmakers
- Published 11.05.19, 5:38 PM
- Updated 11.05.19, 5:38 PM
- 7 mins read
When Gerald Genta, possibly the most prolific watch designer ever and the creator of classics like the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak and the Patek Philippe Nautilus, came up with a watch in bronze back in the 1990s, people sat up and took notice. The Gerald Genta Gefica had a unique marine instrument-inspired design and used steel and bronze for the case.
It would, however, be a good decade-and-a-half before any other renowned watchmaker would follow suit. The first to do so would be Panerai, which, in 2011, brought out a limited edition of just 1,000 of the Panerai PAM00382 Luminor Submersible 1950 3 Days Automatic Bronzo that got lapped up pronto. But even when it brought out its second limited edition of Bronzos (PAM 507 series) a couple of years later, it was still the only watchmaker of note making bronze watches.
Bronze has traditionally not been used in watchmaking as it tends to change colour over time through contact with air, moisture and water. Watchmakers would typically go for materials with high resistance to chemicals — gold in various hues, platinum, stainless steel in myriad finishes, titanium, carbon fibre, plastic and so on. So it has taken a bit of time for them to wrap their heads around the fact that they can make timepieces with bronze.
In terms of strength and durability bronze comes with impeccable credentials, having been used in ships and boats for years. Even today, the biggest propeller fitted to a marine vessel — the one to the world’s largest container ship Emma Maersk — is made of bronze. When left exposed to air and water, this alloy of primarily copper and tin, turns dark as a layer of copper oxide forms on the surface.
This eventually turns into the greenish-bluish bronze patina as the oxide further reacts with carbon dioxide and sulphur dioxide in presence of moisture. The thing is, once this layer forms, it acts like a protective film that prevents further chemical reaction — the way it has been doing most famously for the Statue of Liberty or some of Auguste Rodin’s famous bronzes.
When it comes to watches, it results in two things. First, over time, a watch first darkens and then acquires a patina that is totally unique to that particular piece, making it one of its kind. Second — and this could be a problem — the patina could, theoretically, stain the wrist of the wearer. And it is for this second reason that most watchmakers have shied away from making bronze watches.
Watchmakers tinker with the alloy, changing the proportions of its components and adding other minerals and metals like silicon and aluminium to slow down the patination and vary the colour of the alloy from a brown to a reddish gold to a more silvery hue.
In fact, bronze has a rather interesting look. While it could be mistaken for gold when new, it is usually duller and acquires the now-in-fashion matte vintage look quite quickly. For those who do not like the usually much-coveted patina, however, it can be kept in its original colours with a bit of polishing.
While most of the bronze watches that have been made so far have been part of limited production runs — watchmakers are probably still testing the waters — the number of companies with a bronze watch or three in their standard product portfolio has been on the rise. Now, apart from Panerai, it includes names like Zenith, Montblanc, Tudor, Bell & Ross and so on.
And the trend is gaining momentum with more watchmakers like Tag Heuer and Bulgari getting into the fray. While a large number of these timepieces are diver’s watches in keeping with the natural association of the metal with marine instruments — think Panerai’s Bronzos or Tudor’s Black Bay Bronze — some, like Bell & Ross and Zenith, are making airmen’s watches with the metal. While still others, like Montblanc, are using it for non-instrument watches.
A sub-trend that has emerged recently is the use of green dials in bronze watches. While green is a less common dial colour for watches compared with the whites, blacks and blues, it seems to be fitting the whole marine theme.
So, if you’ve been through the usual looks in steel and gold and the rest, maybe it’s time to try out bronze. And acquire a watch that will reflect exactly how you’ve used it in its patina.
German watchmaker IWC seems to have taken a shine to bronze. A number of its pilot’s watches, such as the Big Pilot’s Watch Perpetual Calendar of the recent Spitfire series (bottom), or the Big Pilot’s Watch Heritage of the Classic series are now being sold in bronze as well the usual steel and gold options. As the name suggests, these watches at a little over 46mm across are meant for broad wrists. All of them are self-winding mechanicals with various levels of complications. For smaller wrists there are the basic Automatic Spitfire at 39mm and UTC Spitfire Edition “MJ271” at 41mm.
Also in bronze from IWC comes its Aquatimer Chronograph Edition “Expedition Charles Darwin” (right). The choice of bronze for the case pays homage to the ship HMS Beagle that carried Charles Darwin on his expedition to the Galapagos Islands. The bronze tone recurs in the luminescent material on the hands, indices and quarter-hour scale on the external-internal rotating bezel. The watch comes with rubber-coated push-buttons, the SafeDive system and water-resistance to 30 bar.
This is one watchmaker that has taken to bronze in quite a big way. Currently it has about 10 watches, no less, in its 1858 collection, both special edition as well as otherwise, that have entire cases or the bezels (on stainless steel cases) made of bronze. Three of the limited edition ones come with khaki green dials — a straightforward 1858 Automatic, an 1858 Automatic Chronograph and an 1858 Geosphere. The Geosphere is interesting in that it has a pair of domes with the highest peaks of every continent marked on them with red dots. They are placed at 12 o’clock and six o’clock and rotate in opposite directions.
This watchmaker is a trendsetter when it comes to bronze wrist watches. Back in 2011 it brought out the Panerai Luminor Submersible 1950 3 Days Automatic Bronzo — 47mm (internal name PAM00382) as a special edition of 1,000 and has followed it up with three more special editions in 2013, 2017 and 2019. The current Submersible Bronzo — 47mm (PAM00968) (above), like its predecessors, is a diver’s watch that sports a brown dial and a bronze and brown ceramic anti-clockwise rotating bezel with a graduated scale. It’s water resistant to 300m. The movement is a mechanical automatic with a three-day power reserve. In Panerai tradition, the seconds subdial is at nine o’clock and the date window is at three.
BELL & ROSS
Last year, this Swiss-French watchmaker added a bronze model to its BR 03-92 Diver range. These watches are interesting in that while they are meant to be taken under water, the styling is like that of aircraft cockpit instruments. Nonetheless, they usually look good in an industrial sort of way. While last year’s bronze in 42mm came with a black dial, there’s a new run of 999 pieces (deliveries started this month) with green dial and bezel. It runs on a mechanical automatic movement.
This year’s addition to the Bell & Ross bronze range is the BR V2-94 Bellytanker Bronze (right). A 41mm chronometer, it would also have a limited production run of 999 pieces. And while the previous version of the watch that came out last year had a “tropical” look — tropical being the watch trade speak for dial and bezel colours that have faded after extensive exposure to the sun — this current one can probably be best described as “pre-tropical”. It’s a very dressy and elegant piece that somehow manages to look a little industrial as well.
The latest bronze from this traditional watchmaker is the Black Bay Bronze diver’s watch with slate grey dial and bezel. It is the latest addition to its Black Bay Bronze line. This one is slightly bigger than the steel models at 43mm (vs 41mm) and has a satin-finish case that keeps it nicely understated, particularly with the new dial — it has a sunburst pattern — and bezel. The movement, as for its predecessors, is a COSC-certified automatic chronometer and the watch is being sold with either a leather or fabric strap in shades of grey.
The Bulgari Bulgari Solotempo is the watch that probably has the strongest connection to the first bronze watches. The Bulgari Bulgari was designed by Gerald Genta, whose eponymous watch company is now owned by Bulgari. And it was Genta who brought out the first bronze watch. Trivia aside, this is a standard Bulgari Bulgari. There’s one with a bronze case and another with a black-finish steel case with a bronze bezel. The movement is an in-house automatic with the date function. The watches, at 41mm, are medium-sized. The combination of black DLC steel and bronze makes the one with the bronze bezel a proper dress watch.
This watchmaker is one of the earlier adopters and brought out its first line of bronzes back in 2015 with the Zenith Pilot Type 20 Extra Special Bronze in a 45mm case. Bronze fits well into the period look of the Pilot Type 20 — the other variant for the case is aged stainless steel. Since then, the watchmaker has not only continued with this line but has added various coloured dials, the most recent being the one in green, and straps in hues of green in various materials.
Also available in bronze is the Pilot Type 20 Chronograph Extra Special. This range also comes with 45mm cases and the big crown that characterises this line of watches even though they carry automatic movements. An interesting thing about this watch is the central chronograph hand with the seconds counter in a subdial at nine o’clock.
Also jumping onto the bronze bandwagon would be Tag Heuer with a couple of models of its Autavia Isograph series. With a case size of 42mm, these chronometer certified aviator’s watches would come with polished ceramic bidirectional bezels and calfskin straps to match the dial colours — green or brown. They will become available in August 2019. While the case would be made of bronze, the case back would be stainless steel with an engraving of an airline propeller. The Autavia name comes from the 1960s and is a combination of AUTomobile and AVIAtion. Isograph denotes the carbon spring that is totally non-magnetic, and thereby improves the accuracy of the watch.
At 43mm, the Oris Carl Brashear Chronograph Limited Edition (up to 2,000 pieces) is a chunky watch that was added to the watchmaker’s line of diver’s watches and follows the non-chronograph version. The sheer amount of exposed bronze makes one wonder how it would look after a couple of years of use. The blue dial works well although the addition of the chronograph takes a little away from the classic diver’s watch look that typically has all the indexes.
Also, with the Oris Big Crown Pointer Date 80th Anniversary edition, the brand revisits one of its signature watches, this time in bronze. And at 40mm, it’s not too big considering that the standard watch is smaller at 36mm.