There are an abundance of different materials that are used to craft luxury timepieces in the modern day. Each of these entails a specific look, individual advantages and hindrances, and equally varied price tags.
The variety, in turn, gives the wristwatch buyer an extensive range of options from which to choose from. So many, in fact, it may quickly border on overwhelming.
Correspondingly, we’ve put together this guide on the most common watch materials as a reference. We’ve also included a section of the much fewer watch crystal materials:
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List Of Wristwatch Materials
Stainless steel is by and large the metal most often used in luxury wristwatches. This is due to it boasting many innate properties which make it ideal for a timepiece. Some of these include its strength, corrosion resistance, and light weight. It’s also widely available, making the raw material cheap and the resulting timepieces the most affordable in the catalog.
Some brands, namely Rolex, craft their own stainless steel alloys. Where many brands use a 316L steel, Rolex kicks it up a notch with a higher-grade 904L steel alloy. In true Rolex fashion, the exact composition is not know. Naturally, the brand markets it as better than other manufacturer’s steel.
In the past couple of years, stainless steel has gone through a bit of a renaissance. Where it may have been considered inferior to precious metals in the past, it can now be found in the most coveted watch models of the industry.
For a deeper look into what makes steel perfect for watches, as well as the most popular models, check out our stainless steel watch guide.
Yellow gold is the precious metal most commonly associated with the quintessential gold watch, especially when talking dress watches. It’s mostly used in classical watch designs, as it works quite well.
There’s something about the warm hue of the metal that makes a yellow gold watch stand out. It’s also one of the most renowned symbols of wealth, aided in part by famous characters who sported them in movies like Scarface and The Wolf Of Wall Street.
In past decades, some yellow gold watches were crafted completely or in part from 14K yellow gold. In the present-day, this is generally no longer the case. When offering yellow gold timepieces, most brands will go with 18K yellow gold. There is a slight difference in color between the two, with the higher-concentration variety being more pure and ultimately commanding a higher price.
There’s not a particularly high demand for yellow gold right now, though metal trends in horology are constantly cycling. Ultimately, it’s a part of the world of horology itself, and will always have a place on our wrist.
Rose gold can be considered the contemporary version of the yellow gold watch. The rose tone of the metal gives the watch it constitutes a more modern look than its yellow sibling, while keeping the element of luxury.
Rose gold is another metal through which watch manufacturers are able to display a bit of creativity. Omega, for example, has their own version of rose gold called Sedna gold. Rolex’s proprietary alloy, on the other hand, is called Everose.
Each one is different in hue. Some brands increase the copper content in their watches so much that it results in what is called “red gold”, essentially a more intense rose gold.
Although rose gold may be considered by some as feminine, this is a limited perspective to adopt. The rose gold metal opens a whole new dimension of luxury for wristwatches, and has served as the platform for some truly emblematic timepieces.
The Patek Philippe 5235R Regulator above, paired with a slate black dial, demonstratets how a rose gold case can result in a beautifully masculine watch.
At a quick glance, white gold could easily pass off as stainless steel; it takes a trained eye to spot the difference. Often times it’s much easier to recognize the model, as in the case of the Rolex Submariner “Smurf”. It’s the only modern Sub model with a blue dial and bezel, which gives away its 18K white gold construction to those who recognize it.
White gold is often praised for its intrinsic “stealth wealth” factor. Indeed, to most people, it’s just another steel watch. To the wearer, though, it’s significantly different, as white gold is much heavier than steel.
Unfortunately, it also scratches more easily. This makes it slightly difficult to keep the luster for a long time on a white gold piece. For this reason, it’s generally reserved for dressier timepieces.
Platinum is another white precious metal, and the most prestigious of the precious materials previously discussed.
It is most often used in dress watches, and usually picked as the case material for a brand’s most advanced watch collections. It will also be the most expensive among its white, yellow, and rose gold peers.
As opposed to white gold, which is generally rhodium-plated to give it its bright silver color, platinum is naturally silver and lustrous. Morever, whereas a white gold watch may age and turn a yellowish tint with wear, platinum will not. Unfortunately, it also scratches easier than gold, which makes it less than ideal in sports watch applications.
Compared with how long the previous precious metals have been used in watches, ceramic can be considered one of the most novel materials. It first came onto the watch scene in the second half of the 20th century, but a full-ceramic watch (case and bracelet) wouldn’t be seen until the year 2000.
Ceramic boasts many virtues that make it an ideal material for a watch, beginning with its scratch-resistant properites. In this respect, it is as resilient as a sapphire crystal.
It is also very lightweight. This has made it an optimal construction choice for high-end sports watches. The timepiece will remain light as a feather, while significantly less prone to scratches than a steel equivalent. Oh yeah, it will look awesome, too.
As anticipated, ceramic also comes with some downsides. Albeit resistant to scratches, it will fracture completely with a hard enough hit. When this happens, whole components have to be replaced, as there’s no possibility of soldering like there would be with metal. And you can be sure that the same premium in price originally encountered at the register, will also be witnessed on the repair end.
If you’d like to learn more about ceramic timepieces, including who made the first ceramic watch, check out our guide on the best ceramic watches.
Carbon Fiber (Composites)
Carbon fiber is likely the most high-tech and advanced material used by watch manufacturers today. It’s also one of the most varied, with each brand using their own variety.
Each individual type of carbon fiber generally offers the same advantages, but wildly different looks. Richard Mille’s proprietary Carbon TPT, for example, is very different to Hublot’s carbon fiber. They all tout scratch-resistance, are extremely lightweight, and command high price tags.
As with ceramic, carbon fiber watches are difficult to scratch, but when they fail, they do so in a big way.
For our list of the best CF watches, jump into our carbon fiber watches guide.
Titanium holds a solid place in contemporary watch catalogs as a step above the most basic steel watches.
It is marked by its dark gray color, scratch-resistance, and low density. Given the fact that it’s a specialized metal, it carries a higher cost, and tends to fill the gap between the entry steel timepieces and watches with precious metal components.
For more info, visit our guide on titanium watches.
Bronze metal has enjoyed a lot of success over recent years with bronze timepieces from distinguished brands such as Oris, Tudor, and Panerai. Customarily seen in maritime applications, bronze makes for an apt metal in dive watches.
Aside from its characteristic golden hue or even red tone when new, bronze is preferred for how it “wears in”. The bronze alloy naturally reacts and oxidizes, creating stains on the metal which are called patina. Some prefer to allow this process to take its own course, while others chemically accelerate it. In either scenario, a very distinguished look on the wrist is achieved.
For a deeper dive into bronze timepieces, visit our guide on the best bronze watches.
Those looking to get a taste of a brand’s precious metal models can consider the two-tone watch a sort of stepping stone prior to a full-gold model. Nevertheless, in its own right, a two-tone watch can offer the perfect infusion of flash and luxury to otherwise casual timepieces.
The traditional version is yellow gold and steel, though rose gold and steel are also available. In some cases, brands will use gold-plated components which permit a similar look at a lower price. This will be at the expense of durability, given that the plating will often wear down and reveal the non-precious metal below.
To learn more, and read about our top two-tone watches, check out our two-tone watch page.
List Of Watch Crystal Materials
Scratch-Resistant Sapphire Crystal
A sapphire crystal has been the standard in luxury watches for some time now.
The only instances in which you won’t find a sapphire crystal in a high-end watch is when the brand sacrifices it for historical accuracy. The most recognized example of this is some Omega Speedmaster watches, like the Speedmaster ’57, which are equipped with a Hesalite (acrylic) crystal.
Sapphire is coveted for its resistance to scratches. This is critical given the fact that the crystal is one of the most abused components of a timepiece. It’s also resitant to cracks and fractures, though not unbreakable.
When it does fail, it shatters completely and can cause harm to the dial and movement if care is not taken. It will also cost more by itself than other crystal materials to replace.
Acrylic / Plexiglass Crystal
Acrylic used to be the standard crystal material before the previously-discussed synthetic sapphire became widespread. It is less scratch-resistant, though this can be preferred in settings where a shattered crystal could prove dangerous, as acrylic will not shatter. It is often marked by curved edges on the outside of the crystal, whereas the edges of a sapphire crystal are sharp.
The earliest Speedmaster watches, the ones actually worn by astronauts in space, employed a type of acrylic called Hesalite. It was chosen over sapphire because a shattered sapphire crystal in space could prove dangerous to the professionals themselves if small shards of glass ended up floating around the inside of a craft in zero gravity.
Acrylic is also advantageous in the fact that scratches can be “buffed out”, something not possible with sapphire. They are also cheaper to replace, if need be.
Mineral crystals are a type of glass that has undergone processes which make it more resistant to scratches and breaking. It is certainly not as durable as sapphire, but rather a close second in this regard. Fortunately, they are also much cheaper to replace when damage occurs. For this reason, they are often the crystal material of choice in lower-end mechanical watches.
If you’ve found our guide on watch and crystal materials helpful, we recommend visiting some of our other popular watch guides below:
- Watch Parts Guide: The Anatomy Of The Wristwatch
- Types Of Watch Movements: A Simplified Breakdown
- What Is A Tourbillon & Why Are They So Expensive?
- All Of Our Watch Reviews
- Take It From The Top: Bespoke Unit Watches Homepage
"Great overview of all the materials used in watches. Bookmarking this for future reference, thanks!"Rating: 5.0★★★★★