Why Wear A Steel Watch?
When considering the characteristics of stainless steel watches that makes them desirable, it’s most proper to begin with the most obvious – the aesthetics. Steel watches, especially when they’re paired with a full steel bracelet, are innately attractive.
This may be due in part to it becoming the standard look of the modern watch. A great number of watches that are produced today are made of stainless steel. It’s a familiar look, and one that we have all grown up with.
Yet, about half a century ago, stainless steel did not enjoy the same favorable stance in the world of horology. In fact, it wasn’t until the second half of the 20th century that the metal began to take hold. Before then, technology had not reached a point where working with stainless steel, particularly in making the precise components of a timepiece, was economically feasible.
The ’70s brought about the first full stainless steel models, the likes of the enigmatic Nautilus and Royal Oak, which introduced a look that appeared alien at the time. Watches tended to be crafted from gold and accompanied by leather straps. These models were made of novel steel and possessed integrated bracelets of the same material.
As we now know, the stainless steel watch would not only make its mark on the ’70s; it would likewise rule the rest of the century up until today, where it prevails overwhelmingly.
Aside from familiarity, the metal itself boasts various attributes that make it ideal for a timepiece. Let’s discuss what some of those are.
Stainless steel is so named because “rustless” steel just doesn’t have quite the same ring, but that is essentially what it is. And for an object that, when worn as intended, will be subject to the elements day in and day out, this is quite valuable.
One of the most captivating aspects of a mechanical wristwatch is the fact that it could go on ticking forever. As long as the movement is protected, that is. The innately inert stainless steel alloy surrounding the movement permits this. Not only by not chemically reacting with its environment, but also by taking the punishment of daily wear and maintaining its structural integrity.
This leads us to our next point…
Stainless steel is an incredibly strong metal. In fact, in the early days we mentioned above, steel was not used because it was so difficult to work with. As new methods for shaping and milling the metal appeared, the stainless steel watch came into being.
Rolex Steel Oyster Bracelets Testing At Manufacture. Image: Rolex.com
You never notice how much abuse a watch suffers until you’ve just purchased a new one and are trying to keep it perfect. The culprit could be anything – a doorway, a railing, or your own desk. The most mundane activities seem to result in the worst dings.
Stainless steel is the best metal to guard against these. Indeed, slamming your watch into another surface will generally produce a mark, but consider that it would have been much worse if it were gold. Similarly, a minor scratch on a steel bezel would have meant a gouge (and a hefty bill) on a platinum timepiece.
Along the same vein is the ability for the watch to hold its finishing. Iconic models like the Royal Oak and the Nautilus are notorious for the interplay in design between high-polish and satin-finished surfaces, as well as the sharp edges where the two meet. This is as true for the case and bezel as it is for the bracelet itself.
The hardness allows these meticulous finishes of the metal to last, keeping their luster and allure for years. When the wear becomes too much, the watch can then be polished, ideally by an expert, and returned to its original condition.
The last and perhaps most obvious quality of stainless steel is it’s price. Steel watches tend to form the foundation of luxury watch brand catalogs, with prices climbing as the same model is offered in more premium materials. They are considered the introductory, and cheapest, offerings.
But a trend has developed over the past couple of years with some specific steel sports models from Patek Philippe, Rolex, and Audemars Piguet. Their most popular models, the Nautilus, Daytona, and Royal Oak, have skyrocketed in price on the pre-owned market. Some even sell for over double their retail price.
This development has grabbed the attention of the watch community, as well as the watch brands themselves. Where previously they may have looked to expand their gold models, the market is screaming otherwise. And they’re paying attention, offering new complications in steel when they’d usually only be available in gold.
This change in attitude towards steel from the brands has produced some very exciting timepieces. Up next, we discuss our favorite ones.
The Best Men’s Stainless Steel Watches
1. Patek Philippe Nautilus Travel Time Ref. 5990/1A – Price: $57,300
The Patek Philippe Nautilus line in general has been at the forefront of the stainless steel watch frenzy. This includes the 5711 (time & date), 5712 (power reserve, moonphase, date), 5726 (annual calendar, moonphase), and our favorite men’s stainless steel watch, the 5990 Travel Time Chronograph.
Patek Stainless Steel Men’s Nautilus Models. Image: Patek.com
Though the other Nautilus models are mesmerizing in their own right, the 5990 Travel Time is the biggest and the baddest. It boasts the most intricate movement – a dual time complication with dual AM/PM indicators, flyback chronograph, and date.
It’s also able to carry these complications in a case that’s only .5mm larger in diameter than the basic 5711. As a result, the beautiful Nautilus case remains undisturbed, most notably with the travel time pushers which have been integrated into the hallmark protrusion on the left side of the case.
The dial is beautifully symmetrical, and possesses the same texture of Nautilus dials that we know and love, but this time in a gradient black tone. Dual AM/PM indicator apertures have been added, as well as a skeletonized hand at center intended to record the “Home” time hour.
Lastly, and quite possibly most importantly, is the Nautilus bracelet. Yes, it’s almost exactly the same as the one on the other Nautilus models. But it’s such an outstanding work of stainless steel art that it can’t go unmentioned.
As far as price, the retail on this 5990/1A is $57,300. Unfortunately, it is close to impossible to get one allocated from an authorized dealer unless you’ve built a strong relationship. On the second hand market, these will set you back ~$120,000, more than double the list price, at the time of writing.
2. Rolex Cosmograph Daytona Ref. 116500LN – Price: $12,400
The Rolex Cosmograph Daytona, and specifically the 116500LN (in black or white dials), is another one of the culprits tracing back to the earliest days of the stainless steel watch craze.
Upon release in 2016, the secondhand prices for the 116500LN immediately shot up to $18,000, a 50% premium over the retail price. Most were expecting these to peak and then steadily drop closer to the list price as more were delivered and demand was satiated. It never happened.
It’s easy to see why demand has grown – the 116500 Cosmograph Daytona is a beautiful timepiece. It also touts various aspects that make it ideal to serve as a one-watch collection.
First, it’s a Rolex. Second, it’s one of their most iconic models presented with a versatile steel case and bracelet. Third, it’s received a new black ceramic bezel that adds a touch of luxury over any previous steel Daytona. Fourth, it’s available in two dial colors, black and white, both of which make for alluring looks on the wrist. Fifth, it’s got the new 4130 Manufacturer caliber with 72 hour power reserve. We could go on and on.
As with all Rolex watches, every aspect of this ceramic and steel Daytona is executed with precision and expertise. From the smallest dial element to the individual bracelet links, no detail is overlooked. This just may be the best chronograph ever made.
At least until Rolex gives the Cosmograph Daytona another well-conceived facelift. Until then we can continue to ogle over the current Daytona itself, along with it’s pre-owned price. It’s currently sitting in the range of $23-27,000, and with a retail price of $12,400, it makes for another stainless steel watch selling for more than double it’s MSRP.
3. Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Perpetual Limited Edition Ref. 26606ST.OO.1220ST.01 – Price: $68,500
As with the Nautilus, pretty much every stainless steel Audemars Piguet Royal Oak model has likewise experienced a sharp increase in price, though not as significant. That is, except for special pieces like this green-dial, perpetual calendar, limited edition created by the brand exclusively for the authorized dealer Unique Timepieces.
With a retail price of $68,500, and judging by the price multiplier on the previous two models, you may guess that this Royal Oak would trade hands for around $140,000. This is, in fact, not too far from the current listings set at $200,000. So, what makes this limited edition worth the premium?
It doesn’t take much more than a glance to see how unique it is, without even having to be aware of the 50 piece limited production. The dark green dial is scintillating, made even more attractive by the quad-subregister dial and the traditional Grand Tapisserie dial texture.
The case is 41mm and less than 10mm thick, an impressive feat for a self-winding perpetual calendar movement. It also possesses a design that makes it, in our opinion, one of the best stainless steel watch models ever made.
The use of alternating satin and high-polish surfaces, along with the sharp edges throughout the case and bezel, make for a simultaneously aggressive and sleek look. In stainless steel, this high complication also remains a true sports watch, producing a very desirable horological juxtaposition.
Or maybe just a perpetual calendar that you don’t have to be concerned for, shrouded in stainless steel of the highest quality. Whatever it is, it commands a serious price.
4. Omega Seamaster Aqua Terra 150M Master Chronometer Ref. 18.104.22.168.02.001 – Price: $5,700
The Omega Seamaster Aqua Terra we highlight here is, unlike the previously listed steel timepieces, not selling for twice its retail price on the pre-owned market. In fact, you can purchase it right now on Omega’s website.
We’ve included it on this page to emphasize the point that the hype and frenzy aren’t necessary to make a stainless steel watch an exceptional timepiece.
The Aqua Terra line has seemingly lived in the shadows of the Seamaster Diver for quite some time, an unfortunate fact with how much the model family has to offer. If you’ve never heard of it, think of it like a Seamaster Diver but with a formal suit, as opposed to its natural wetsuit.
Starting with the 41mm case and intriguing case profile. Once more, alternating finishes are used to create an attractive sports watch style and show off the best aspects of the metal. Looking inwards, the dial is equally interesting, with a silvery color and texture, blackened hands and indices, and bright orange accents. Moreover, a useful date complication with aperture is also present at 6 o’clock.
The expertly engineered steel bracelet ties it all together, and ensures this Aqua Terra a place in the office setting. Alternatively, it can also be worn on one of Omega’s premium NATO fabric straps, dressing down the watch while remaining a clean-cut timepiece.
With a retail price of $5,700, the Aqua Terra 22.214.171.124.02.001 can (fortunately) be picked up for less on the pre-owned market.
5. Vacheron Constantin Overseas Dual Time Ref. 7900V/110A-B334 – Price: $23,400
Vacheron Constantin‘s Overseas line is the brand’s longstanding proposal across the isle from the Nautilus and Royal Oak offerings made by its Swiss watchmaking neighbors.
It’s certainly not an easy challenge, but the entire range of Overseas models nevertheless offers some exceptional steel watches if you care to look. Additionally, and much like the previous Omega, they’re not particularly difficult to access and can be had secondhand for slightly less than the $23,400 retail.
The Overseas Dual Time has the same integrated case and bracelet design of the others, executed in the style of Vacheron. In this, the 3rd generation of the Overseas, it means an elliptical case with the memorable Maltese cross motif across its bracelet and bezel.
The 41mm stainless steel case itself is, of course, constructed to the highest standards with impeccable hand-finishing. Although, its sophisticated blue dial may be what steals the show.
The dial is also marked by sharp applied indices, printed minute markers, and asymmetrical AM/PM and date subregisters. Not always easy to execute, this lack of symmetry works well in the Overseas Dual Time. In part due to the depth of the blue dial, and also to the equally asymmetrical crown at 4 o’clock.
Rounding off this stainless steel Overseas is its strap quick-change system, which allows the wearer to swap the band from the bracelet, to the rubber, to the leather, in 30 seconds or less… literally.
Admittedly, it’s going to be hard to beat the look of the bracelet, but it’s always nice to have options. With the Overseas Dual Time, a rubber and leather option are included. These help expand the reach of the watch, and make it easier than ever to do what stainless steel watches do best – jump back and forth between casual and formal, with as little effort as possible, and look great while doing it.