More discreet (not to mention more scratch-resistant) than gold, everyone is falling in love with steel watches – including stars like Jennifer Lawrence and Leonardo DiCaprio.
Yellow gold watches studded with diamonds and multi-coloured sapphires may lend themselves to leisurely poolside summer evenings spent cocktail in hand, watching the sun dip below the horizon. But now a shift towards minimalism, lower temperatures, an increasingly precarious economic climate and rising instances of watch theft seems to call for the discretion of steel watches.
Fear not. Steel is stylish. And reasonably priced, too. Steel watches are typically six times less expensive than their precious metal counterparts; a mini Panthère de Cartier – a favourite timepiece of Succession’s quiet luxury queen Shiv Roy, costs £2,970 in steel, or £18,700 as a gold version. And Longines’s La Grande Classique steel watch, as seen on the wrist of Jennifer Lawrence at Cannes Film Festival this year, could be yours from £1,050.
Sensitive to the change, Bulgari has spent the past couple of years crafting new steel versions of its much-loved Serpenti watches. The distinctive design, which features an open metallic strap that coils around the wrist, now comes with a closed strap in steel in the latest Serpenti Seduttori model.
This year, the Italian fashion house doubled down on the allure of steel by launching a new iteration of its iconic Bulgari Bulgari watch, created in collaboration with K-pop sensation Lisa from the girl group Blackpink, featuring a colour-changing steel dial. Also this year, Dolce & Gabbana presented its Sofia watch, with its faceted sapphire crystal mounted on a steel case, building on the model’s popularity in 18-carat gold. At the same time, Gucci used a steel model of its 25H watch in a campaign starring Idris Elba.
In 2021, Victoire de Castellane, creative director of Dior Joaillerie, introduced the open, clasp-less cuff watch Gem Dior with its asymmetrical octagonal case in gold and diamonds, but also a minimalist version combining steel and a mother-of-pearl dial for a (relatively) affordable price of £3,900.
Meanwhile, this year, to celebrate the 20th anniversary of La D de Dior – the first timepiece she designed for the maison – De Castellane imagined a steel version named La D My Dior. De Castellane was undeterred by the technical difficulties posed by engraving the design on steel. “Gold is a soft material; it offers a large number of possibilities for manual work and has enabled us to obtain a very precious finish with hand-engraved satin and cane patterns,” de Castellane says. “On the other hand, steel is more resistant, so the steel bracelets were a technical challenge that our Swiss workshops mastered for an equally refined result.”
It was Caroline Scheufele, co-president of Chopard, who broke an unwritten rule of the watch industry in the 1990s when she set diamonds in a steel watch. “As a young, active woman in the 1990s, I imagined the perfect watch for myself and our female customers too: a versatile timepiece that could be worn from morning to night,” she explains.
The head of Chopard’s workshop was sceptical about Scheufele’s vision, joking: “Caroline! If you manage to sell these watches, I’ll give you one rose for each of them.” The Happy Sport, with diamonds floating around its dial, became an instant hit. “Steel resists scratching better than gold. From an aesthetic perspective, its bright white colour offers a contemporary alternative to gold, perhaps more dynamic and modern looking,” Scheufele says. At this year’s Watches and Wonders Fair in Geneva, Chopard invited its ambassador Julia Roberts on the stage to introduce a new steel alloy called Lucent Steel, which is 80 percent recycled material.
Just last week, recycled steel also got the seal of approval from actor, activist and British Vogue cover star Leonardo DiCaprio, who became is now an investor in ID Genève, a Swiss start-up watchmaker crafting timepieces entirely from recycled materials. He’s been spotted wearing the brand’s Circular S with a sunny yellow dial – a nod to the rays at work in a solar furnace to turn steel scraps into a new shiny metal fit for a luxury watch.
Also at Watches and Wonders, heritage brands like Vacheron Constantin and Panerai opted for new watches made of steel to woo female customers. “We are witnessing growing interest from our feminine clientele in fine watchmaking and complications, and they are also looking for elegance, sophistication and refinements,” says Christian Selmoni, style and heritage director at Vacheron Constantin. “In this context, steel watches make perfect sense.”
This sentiment chimes with Alessandro Ficarelli, chief marketing officer at Panerai, which is betting on a new steel version of its Radiomir featuring a bold 40mm dial to attract female customers. “Steel,” he says, “is versatile enough to match contemporary wardrobes.” The view echoes that of Scheufele, who considers steel “something easy to wear on any occasion, and super-chic”.