Gold Standard: How The Most Traditional Watchmaking Metal Has Moved With The Times

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Gold Standard: How The Most Traditional Watchmaking Metal Has Moved With The Times

Words by Ms Carol Besler

5 March 2021

Spare a thought for the traditional gold watch. With the frenzy that has surrounded steel sports watches over the past few years (if you’re not up to speed with the whims and foibles of the watch-collector market, stainless-steel watches by brands such as Patek Philippe or A Lange & Söhne have become harder to find than hen’s teeth, which has increased demand for steel across the board), plus the influx of so-called new materials such as titanium, carbon and ceramic, gold has faced stiff competition.

To add to that, changing tastes have risked leaving gold watches – yellow gold, in particular – in a sartorial no man’s land, tagged with the wrong kind of ostentation. The softer colours of rose gold became favoured against the brash, brilliant shine of yellow gold, but over the past couple of years brands have slowly reintroduced yellow gold into the mix, especially paired with steel in two-tone designs. The truth is, gold refuses to be left behind. The precious metal is rallying for a comeback, thanks to new alloys and technological approaches. Today’s gold watch is a long way from your grandfather’s ticker, but with modernity comes complexity. Never mind carats, what exactly are honey, Magic and Moonshine Gold? Read on for a complete guide to gold in the 21st century.

From the 1940s until the mid-1990s, gold was the norm for “proper” watchmakers, not just for dress watches, but all watches. Platinum is harder, but too expensive and too heavy for everyday wear. Silver was ruled out because of its tendency to tarnish and stainless steel, while cheaper and harder, was too difficult to machine into small components and just wasn’t luxurious enough. There were exceptions, including limited series of steel-cased military, pilot and sports watches made in the 1950s and 1960s. Some were issued only to the military. They were called “tool” watches and were thought to be about as stylish as snow pants. As soon as the work day was over, they’d be swapped out for gold. (The Paul Newman-style Rolex Daytona, born around this time and now the hottest watch on the planet, was discontinued after a few years because of lack of interest and in 1972, when Audemars Piguet introduced the stainless-steel Royal Oak at roughly the same price as a gold watch, it was scandalous.)

Gold became the standard because it is soft, easy to work with and it has intrinsic value. It’s also a way of passing on wealth. Refiners mitigated the issue of softness by alloying it with other metals. Yellow gold is mixed with silver, copper and zinc. Red golds are cooked with varying amounts of copper – 4N contains 75 per cent gold, 16 per cent copper and 9 per cent silver; 5N ups the percentage of copper to 20.5 for a richer colour. Different brands use different terminology, but the difference between pink, red or rose gold is in the percentages of copper and silver, moving through the spectrum. White gold contains nickel, palladium and silver and is usually rhodium coated to keep it white, so what you see isn’t the gold itself at all.

“From the 1940s until the mid-1990s, gold was the norm for ‘proper’ watchmakers, not just for dress watches, but all watches”

In terms of carat purity, 24-carat gold is 100 per cent pure and too soft to be useful (think gold prospectors biting into a nugget). It is never used in watchmaking. The standard in watch and jewellery manufacturing is 18-carat gold, which is 75 per cent gold, while 14-carat gold is exactly 58.3 per cent gold. It is sometimes used in jewellery, but rarely in watches any more.

Once new methods of machining stainless steel were developed, it became the new normal for serial watch production and gold was relegated to the service of dress watches and high complications. It not only had to compete with steel, but with an avalanche of new case materials that are even harder, more scratch-resistant and lighter than steel – titanium, carbon fibre, ceramic and other composites that are practically indestructible. Watches got bigger and bolder because weight and softness no longer mattered. Still think gold is ostentatious? Meet the Richard Mille Yohan Blake watch RM 59-01, made of aluminium/silicon composite and priced at $620,000 (£445,000), or the Jacob & Co Twin Turbo Furious Bugatti, made of forged carbon and priced at $580,000 (£415,000). A new 18-carat gold Rolex Sky-Dweller is a paltry $40,000 (£29,000) by comparison, practically a symbol of restraint.

Now that ultra-thin, understated minimalism is back in fashion, gold watches are getting out there more. Brands are creating proprietary super alloys using platinum group metals and copper to change gold’s colour and density. They’re harder, more scratch-resistant and, in some cases, subtler, which renders them sartorially safe once again. All are 18-carat gold, which is to say they are 75 per cent pure gold, but the precise ratios of metals that make up the remaining 25 per cent are top secret.

Rolex was the first to alloy its own gold, starting in 2005. Everose – see what they did there? – gold contains copper and a touch of platinum, which protects the alloy from discolouration and creates more lustre. Others have followed suit. Omega’s Moonshine Gold is alloyed with a shot of palladium to make it stronger, more fade-resistant and a little paler than traditional yellow gold, while its Sedna Gold is a secret blend of gold, copper and palladium to create a long-lasting reddish hue. Most recently, Jaeger-LeCoultre has joined in, with Le Grand Rose gold, a proprietary mix that includes a touch of palladium to make it corrosion and fade-resistant, and Panerai has unveiled a number of Goldtech watches, which increase the copper and platinum content.

Not content with ensuring a long-lasting colour, watchmakers have more recently looked to bolster gold’s innate softness and mitigate its easily scratched surface. Hublot infuses its Magic Gold with ceramic to make it scratch-proof (Hublot, like others, also has a proprietary red-gold mix on its books, King Gold, which has a higher than usual percentage of copper and a dash of platinum). Chanel claims its Beige Gold is resistant to tarnishing, as is A Lange & Söhne’s honey gold, which is supposedly twice as hard as platinum. IWC SCHAFFHAUSEN has perhaps come up with the most impressive-sounding name with its Armour Gold, an alloy that it says is five times more wear-resistant than its usual red gold, while losing none of its rosy hue.

Illustration by Mr Jori Bolton

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