These days, we are spoiled for choices when it comes to watch case materials, and in addition to traditional options like stainless steel and gold, we now have a number of modern synthetic materials such as ceramic and carbon composites. With that in mind, rarely is one material objectively better than another in every single capacity, and the “best” material for a watch case largely has to do with the design of that specific watch and the nature of its intended use.
The list of proprietary in-house materials continues to grow each year, and many luxury watch brands now even have their own special names and recipes for traditional stainless steel and 18 karat gold alloys. However, below is an overview of the pros and cons for some of the most common watch case materials.
Stainless Steel Watches
Advantages of Stainless Steel Watches:
While there are multiple different types of stainless steel (316L, 904L, etc.), the material as a whole is incredibly cost-efficient and represents a nice balance of a number of different important characteristics. Stainless steel is significantly lighter than gold, yet it is also highly corrosion resistant. In addition to being able to easily take on many different types of surface finishing, stainless steel is also very durable, and while it can bend and deform under severe impact, a watch case crafted from stainless steel is able to sustain quite a bit of damage before it will fail completely.
Disadvantages of Stainless Steel Watches:
Stainless steel is great for watch cases because it offers a happy medium between a number of different important performance metrics. However, this also means that it is not the flat-out best in any one single category. While stainless steel is lighter than gold, it is still significantly heavier than other materials such as titanium or carbon, and while it is capable of surviving a lot of damage, an untreated stainless steel surface can be scratched fairly easily - even by something as mundane as your desk or computer keyboard.
Advantages of Gold Watches:
Before the proliferation of stainless steel, gold was the material of choice for watch cases due to being highly corrosion-resistant and easily worked into detailed shapes. In its elemental form, pure gold is hypoallergenic and since gold is one of the only naturally warm-colored metals, it offers a unique aesthetic that separates it from nearly all other watch case materials. Additionally, since gold itself has a high intrinsic value, a gold watch is a universally coveted item that is synonymous with luxury and exclusivity.
Disadvantages of Gold Watches:
Although gold is both corrosion resistant and hypoallergenic, in its pure form (24 karat), it is far too soft for jewelry, let alone watch cases. Therefore, it must be alloyed with other metals to increase its durability, and this can often make it more susceptible to corrosion than when in its pure form and also increase the potential for adverse reactions with individuals with sensitive skin. Additionally, despite the fact that gold alloys are significantly stronger than pure gold itself, gold watches are still significantly less durable than their stainless steel counterparts, and they are also both heavier on the wrist and more expensive to repair.
Advantages of Titanium Watches:
Just like stainless steel, there are many different types of titanium, but the most common varieties used in modern watch cases are Grade 2 and Grade 5. Compared to stainless steel or gold, titanium is incredibly lightweight and it offers a phenomenal strength to weight ratio that can be further enhanced by creating different alloys or by using various surface treatments. Additionally, just like gold, titanium is hypoallergenic, incredibly corrosion resistant, and it is entirely unaffected by magnetism.
Disadvantages of Titanium Watches:
While titanium itself is rather hard, it develops an oxide layer to protect against corrosion that can be scratched quite a bit more easily than the actual metal itself. While these marks will eventually fade as the oxide layer rebuilds, it is not uncommon to have a frequently-worn titanium watch that displays numerous faint scratches and scuffs. Additionally, titanium threads have a tendency to gall (adhesion between sliding surfaces, especially under high contact pressure), which is why brands like Tudor use stainless steel case-backs and crown tubes on titanium watches like the Pelagos, while others use a specialized coating on the threads to prevent them from sticking together.
Advantages of Bronze Watches:
With a history of human use that dates back several thousand years, bronze is hardly a new material, yet it has experienced a huge surge in popularity over the course of the last several years due to its unique ability to acquire patina. Bronze’s high copper content is responsible for its signature warm color, but this also means that it will oxidize in a similar manner and will darken over time with exposure to the elements. This unusual quality gives bronze watches an inherently vintage-inspired aesthetic, while simultaneously allowing them to acquire a patina that reflects the unique environment and lifestyle of their owners.
Disadvantages of Bronze Watches:
Bronze’s ability to develop a patina can also be seen as a drawback, and in addition to being both softer and heavier than stainless steel, bronze is also less corrosion resistant. Under normal wearing circumstances, this should not be a major factor, but the lovely patina that is characteristic of bronze is a direct result of the metal reacting with the oxygen in the air and exposure to other environmental factors like sweat and saltwater. Additionally, bronze has a far greater potential to irritate individuals with sensitive skin, which is why so many of the bronze watches on the market are fitted with stainless steel casebacks, and the metal itself has a faint but distinct odor that is not unlike a jar of pennies.
Advantages of Ceramic Watches:
Ceramic can often be somewhat of a blanket term used to describe a variety of different inorganic materials used throughout the watch industry, but all of them are characterized by their super hard and rigid structure. In addition to being hypoallergenic, ceramic is also incredibly difficult to scratch, along with being highly resistant to both wear and corrosion. Lighter in weight than most commonly used metals, ceramic can be colored in numerous different ways to achieve unusual aesthetics that are not possible with traditional metallic alloys.
Disadvantages of Ceramic Watches:
While ceramic watch cases are very hard and near impossible to scratch, they can also be more susceptible to catastrophic failure from impact damage. While a gold or stainless steel watch will dent or deform when hit, a ceramic watch can actually crack or shatter should it sustain a strong enough knock against a hard surface. Furthermore, as the material itself is a bit more brittle and unforgiving than traditional metals, additional care must be taken whenever changing straps or removing links.
Advantages of Carbon Watches:
Just like ceramic, carbon is another umbrella term used to describe modern synthetic composite materials that feature carbon fibers or fragments embedded in a rigid resin structure. Frequently used throughout the automotive racing industry, carbon is incredibly strong yet lightweight, and the material itself possesses an inherently modern and high-tech appearance that is entirely unlike any other material found in watchmaking.
Disadvantages of Carbon Watches:
While carbon is a very strong material when it comes to overall durability, it ultimately still relies on a polymer resin to bind the individual pieces of carbon together, and it is therefore less resilient to scratches and abrasions than ceramic or most traditional metal alloys. On top of that, you cannot really polish or refinish carbon to remedy damage, and the material’s unique appearance has a bit of a love-it-or-hate-it aesthetic that cannot really be avoided due to its natural grain structure.
*All images courtesy of Bob’s Watches.