An Effortless Guide To The Best Metals for Wristwatches

by   |  in Accessories

Understanding the differences among all the different watch materials out there can be confusing. Tons of different metals available, and so many questions to ask. In this article, we’re breaking down all the watch metals we’ve come across so you can figure out which is best (for you).

Stainless steel, platinum, and white gold all look so similar. Why would I want to pay more for one or the other? If tungsten is so strong, why won’t watchmakers build more?

It’s okay! We’re here to help. Why don’t we dive into it!

 

Watch Materials: What metal is my watch made of?

There’s a lot of watch metals out there. Let us guide you through the differences!

Steel Watches

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Steel is an alloy of iron strengthened by carbon; stainless steel infuses with a chemical element called chromium, which prevents the steel from rusting. The result is a compound that’s durable and shiny.

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Stainless steel is understandably the most popular metal for wristwatches, especially high-end sport watches. Originally only acceptable for tools, Rolex launched stainless steel into common usage as well as high-esteem.

Today, watches of any style are acceptable in stainless steel, though some purists would still prefer a leather band for evening wear.

As we mentioned in our exploration of watch bands, 316L steel is stronger than 304L because 316L is infused with alloys. Rolex uses a proprietary Oystersteel — the best in the game!

Tungsten Watches

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Tungsten is a shiny, high-density white metal. It’s most famous as a filament in light bulbs and isn’t always used for watches.

Of all the metals, tungsten has the highest melting point and the second highest boiling point. It’s nearly indestructible and equal in hardness to sapphire.

There are two reasons why tungsten isn’t commonly used for watches: First, its hardness makes it almost impossible to work with. Secondly, because of that, tungsten watches are much more expensive, putting them in a limbo market-wise.

You’ll find tungsten in small run special editions and watch brands known for their unconventional choices like Hublot.

Silver Watches

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Silver used to be used as a dressy option for watches as early as the 1600s.

It’s a beautiful metal and a natural germicide and antibiotic, which makes it perfect for high-end dinnerware. However, it’s simply too weak for wristwatches, and is no longer commonly used.

Silver also oxidizes poorly, which means it can leave unsightly stains on your watch and even on your skin. I have an old vintage silver Bulova that I love, and I put a bandage plaster under on my wrist when I wear it, just in case!

If you like pocket watches though, sterling silver is a fine option!

Gold Watches

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It goes without saying that gold, especially yellow gold, is a dress watch metal.

It’s known for being heavy but soft, so it’s often mixed with other metals. The highest concentration is 24 karats.

gold pearlmaster bracelet day date rolex watch from bob's watches
Gold Pearlmaster bracelet Day Date Rolex watch from Bob’s Watches

If you don’t like the delicate wear of a traditional dress watch, getting your favorite sport watch in gold is a good, be it expensive, option. If you don’t want it to be too flashy, just get a smaller case size.

White gold is mixed with nickel and zinc to imitate platinum, while rose gold is mixed with copper for a warmer hue. Many brands have their own proprietary gold, like Omega’s Sedna which is often used to make dress watches from their Constellation line.

Two things to keep in mind though: Gold easily scratches, and high-end, entry-level watches don’t hold their value as well in precious metals as they do in stainless steel.

Platinum Watches

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Platinum looks a lot like white gold, and they’re often stylistically interchangeable.

It’s as striking and luminous as gold, but it’s much more durable, lighter, and naturally hypoallergenic since it isn’t infused with nickel like white gold is.

The kicker is that it’s more expensive than white gold.

If you’re dead-set on having a precious metal watch and you plan on wearing it often, then shelling out the money for platinum isn’t a bad idea. Remember that gold scratches easily, so it’s a better option for “sometimes” watches.

Brass and Bronze Watches

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Brass and bronze are copper-based metals that give watches a distinct antiquey look.

There are some fundamental differences between brass and bronze. Brass is stronger than gold, but softer than steel, so it’s a great material for detailed watch links. Bronze is harder and less malleable than brass, but has the same effect aesthetically.

Both are resistant to seawater corrosion, which has made them a popular and practical choice for divers and tool watches in general.

If you want to be adventurous without overtly breaking any rules, brass and bronze are great options. Since stainless steel is de rigueur these days, brass and bronze have an off-the-beaten-path look about them.

They also develop a desirable patina over time.

You’d be surprised at how versatile this metal can be. For example, military watches aren’t traditionally made with copper-based cases, but it still works because copper matches earthy green palettes.

Panerai watches are meant to be big and unconventional, but a copper-based case tones down its loud style without compromising its trademark unusualness. 

Titanium Watches

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Titanium is lustrous and silver in color, with low-density and high durability.

It’s not as scratch-resistant as stainless steel, but it’s much stronger and dent-resistant. Since it doesn’t contain nickel, it’s also hypoallergenic. It’s often used as an alternative to stainless steel for those with allergies or those looking for something lighter in feeling.

Unfortunately, it’s much more expensive than stainless steel. It’s certainly shiny enough, but it’s not as reflective as stainless steel either.

The Citizen X8 Chronometer, released in 1970, was the first titanium watch ever made. Today, Citizen and Seiko make the most popular titanium watches on the market.

I love titanium for chronographs, particularly in Speedmaster homages — totally appropriate since titanium is often used in aeronautical experiments.

Ceramic Watches

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Ceramic is created by melting and cooling chemicals, then milling them into shape.

It isn’t actually metal, but is often polished to create a metal-like sheen.

Why use ceramic instead of actual metal, you may ask? It’s four times harder than stainless steel, lightweight (used in jet engines and NASA heat shields), and it can be created in several finishes.

It’s also resistant to ultraviolet rays, so the color won’t fade. This is particularly useful for blacked-out watches.

Aesthetically, ceramic is usually designed to sit remarkably between matte and shiny. This makes it perfect for contemporary pieces like the Apple watch.

Carbon Fiber Watches

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Another metal-like non-metal, carbon fiber is five times stronger than steel and a third as light.

The material used for watches is made by twisting together multiple strands of carbon fiber, which can be thinner than a human hair, then surrounding it with resin.

This process is difficult for mass-production, so carbon fiber watches are usually made in small batches or as limited edition pieces for a pretty penny.

It’s a matte, textured material that has a futuristic and utilitarian look. It goes well with tactical sport watch cases that are rugged and chunky. I love a carbon fiber case paired with a rubber or Perlon strap.

Metal Watch Coatings: PVD and DLC

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PVD, or Physical Vapor Deposition, is a process of coating. DLC, or Diamond-like Carbon, is a coating applied to watches using PVD. 

PVD (or Physical Vapor Deposition)

Physical Vapor Deposition adds a thin coat of metal compounds onto the base metal of a watch. They do this using a range of vacuum techniques. 

PVD coating reduces friction and increases temperature and impact strength. It also gives the watch a deep black coat.

While not invincible, a PVD coating won’t wear off on its own and is almost impossible to scratch off.

DLC (or Diamond-Like Carbon)

Diamond-like Carbon consists of carbon particles that are chemically applied to the watch’s base metal. As the name suggests, the coat levels up the watch’s durability and scratch-resistance. 

Colors range from dark grey to a deep black.

Watch Metals: A Reference Chart

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Here’s a quick reference chart listing all the watch metals, their traits, and the types of watches they’re commonly used for.

MetalTraitsCommonly used for
SteelDurable and lustrous. Affordable and versatile. Corrosion-resistantOriginally used for tool watches. Versatile, can be used for all watch styles
TungstenNearly indestructible. Highest melting point of any element, corrosion-resistant. Difficult to work withSpecial edition watches
SilverNaturally antibacterial. Lustrous, soft, malleable. TarnishableVintage watches, pocket watches
GoldLustrous, soft, malleableEasily scratched. Easily conducts heatDress watches, turning sport watches into dress watches. Secondary tone in two-tone watches
PlatinumThe strongest precious metal. Resistant to tarnishing and corrosion. Soft and malleableDress watches, white gold substitute 
Brass/BronzeUnique, reddish color. Corrosion-resistant. Develops desirable patina over timeSport watches, especially divers. Vintage style watches 
TitaniumDurable and lightweight. Hypoallergenic. ExpensiveExperimental tool watches, lighter version of stainless steel watches
CeramicDurable but brittle, lightweight, scratch-resistant. Can be made in different colors that won’t fade. HypoallergenicModern watches, dive watch bezels. Blacked-out watches  
Carbon FiberDurable and lightweight. Matte and textured. ExpensiveTactical sport watches, modern watches. Limited edition watches 

What are the best watch metals for everyday watches?

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All things considered, the winner is stainless steel, with titanium as a close second.

Stainless steel is equal parts affordable and durable, which is why it’s so popular. Titanium is more durable, and even lighter, but far more expensive.

What’s the most common watch metal?

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It’s telling that the most common watch metal used to be gold, but is now stainless steel.

Despite being a utilitarian accessory, watches are still worn for style and often to impress. 

Because it’s strong and corrosion-resistant, stainless steel keeps its luster much longer than any precious metal can. Unlike precious metals, it’s the best of both fashion and practicality.

What’s the most durable metal for watches? What about the most scratch-resistant metal?

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Tungsten is the most durable metal for watches, followed by titanium. Stainless steel is the most scratch-resistant and definitely durable enough. 

Unless you have special reasons (and the budget!) to opt for tungsten or titanium, go for stainless steel when thinking about durability and scratch-resistance! 

Are gold and platinum watches all gold / platinum? 

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100% gold would be way too soft, so it’s always mixed with another metal when used for watches. This applies to the case and the bracelet.

Here’s the percentage purity of each:

  • 24-karat gold is 99% pure gold
  • 18-karat gold is 75% pure gold
  • 14-karat gold is 15% pure gold
  • Gold plating is .05% purity

Platinum, on the other hand, is way too hard to be 100%. Typically a platinum watch is 95% platinum and commonly paired with copper, palladium, rhodium, and iridium. 

Are gold / platinum watches better than other watches

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The short answer is no.

There are several variables that make a good watch. Whether or not it’s made from a precious metal is only important depending on the context.

Patek Philippe 1518 in steel, via Hodinkee

For example, Patek Philippe’s 1518 in steel is valued much higher than in gold. Why? Because the steel version was built out of desperation during a gold embargo and only four of them exist. 

However, a vintage Vacheron Constantin Chronometre Royal 4907 in white gold is a highly desired piece by collectors.

Yes, it’s a rare watch, but it’s also respected among watch specialists because it’s beautifully designed with a large case but minimalist face, perfect for white gold. It’s way more popular than the yellow or rose gold versions.

Remember that horology is as much science and engineering as it is art. So while precious metals are “pretty”, watch complications more consistently add to value. 

To an extent, complications also affect rarity. Building a perpetual calendar or chronograph complication, for example, takes more horological skill than working with white gold.

A watchmaker can build a larger number of simple watches made from precious metals in the same amount of time it takes him to build a much smaller number of complex watches made from any metal.

And of course, rarity is a huge factor when it comes to value

So using precious metals can make for a better watch, but not always.

At the end of the day, there’s no “better” watch, just what’s better for you.

Watch Metals: Did this summary of watch metals help?

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We hope this was helpful!

  • Need a super strong watch and have the budget to spare? Titanium is a great option.
  • Looking for a unique tool watch that doesn’t scream for attention? Try a bronze watch.
  • And of course, you can’t go wrong with stainless steel.

The best part about having a watch collection is diversifying the styles, and experimenting with different metals is a fun and easy way to do that!

If you have any questions or comments, hit me up on Twitter. You can also find join other readers on Effortless Gent’s Facebook page, or DM me on Instagram!

Feature image via Pexels