Because this is an industry that takes pride in its adherence to the old ways, many of watchmakingâ€™s innovations have been limited to materials technology to improve precision and performance. But after years of titanium, high-tech ceramic, silicon and carbonâ€™s many composites, the latest trend comes from an unexpectedly old metal that predates even steel, and itâ€™s the copper alloy we know as bronze. From the mind that gave the world its first luxury watch in steel, itâ€™s not surprising that watch designer Gerald Genta was the one who first came up with the idea of casing a watch in bronze. The original 1984 model was known as the Gefica Safari, named after the three safari hunters who requested the watch (Geoffroy, Fissore and Canali). Bronze was chosen because its inability to reflect light kept the hunters better hidden.
What it does reflect these days is a certain amount of rebelliousness (itâ€™s the furthest thing from precious, after all) and a hunger for personalisation. When the copper oxidises, it gains a unique patina, so the more copper the bronze has, the more obvious its natural or forced ageing. But in addition to the stories you can tell of a watch that ages with you, itâ€™s also highly functional: It resists corrosion in seawater, is anti-magnetic and harder than stainless steel.
Gentaâ€™s watch was ahead of its time, so it wasnâ€™t until Panerai brought attention back to the material 27 years later, in the form of the Luminor Submersible 1950 Bronzo, that fellow dive watch specialists took notice. But watchmakingâ€™s Bronze Age really took hold once fellow big names like Zenith and Tudor joined the parade. These companies are master storytellers, and it was easy to capitalise on bronzeâ€™s role as a foil to luxurious metals because it tells the story of where youâ€™ve been, not where youâ€™re at.
In The Mix
There are myriad ways to make a copper alloy, with inclusions such as tin (the most common), nickel and even silicon to achieve various properties. For watchmaking, though, durability and colour are priorities, so these are the main types youâ€™ll find:
Need For Speed
Canâ€™t wait for nature to do its thing? Try any or all of these methods to speed up the ageing process.
EXPOSE IT TO CHEMICAL FUMES
Ammonia or any kind of vinegar will do. Remove the strap and place the watch head in a sealable container, but raised away from the bottom (for example, place it atop a small, inverted cup). Carefully add the liquid to the container, seal it, and wait eight to 24 hours. If it requires more time, occasionally cleaning the watch with hot water will give you a more consistent patina pattern. The same can be done with mashed boiled eggs.
SOAK IT IN MILK
The ammonia levels in milk are too low for the fuming process to work effectively, but giving the watch a milk bath over several hours may give it a rainbow-like, iridescent patina.
DOUSE IT IN LIVER OF SULPHUR
Mix a few cups of water with a little liver of sulphur gel in one bowl. In another, prepare a similar volume of water with a couple tablespoons of baking soda. Using rubber gloves, submerge the watch in the sulphur bath and watch the bronze change. Once youâ€™ve reached the desired level of patination, place it in the baking soda water to stop the process. Short cycles provide the best results.
GO FOR A SWIM
If your watch has decent water resistance, hit the water. Chlorinated swimming pool water and the salty seas will transform bronze in ways that range from subtle and bright to â€œrescued from a shipwreckâ€.
How to Care For Your Bronze Watch
What to do if youâ€™re looking to keep patination under control.
If you want to â€œresetâ€ the patina, apply toothpaste, or a paste made out of baking soda and lemon juice, and scrub until the original shine returns. Alternatively, give it a quick soak in undiluted vinegar.
If you just want to clean it, Panerai recommends washing the watch with warm water, then using a soft brush or cloth to dry it.
If you never want it to gain patina, buy a gold watch. The allure of a bronze watch is its ability to change, and the only way to prevent moisture and air from reacting with the metal is to never wear it.