The first sighting goes back to 1972, when Audemars Piguet launched a steel watch at the same price as a gold one. Not out of provocation, but to demonstrate that complex crafting – in this instance for the case – had just as much value as the weight of precious metal. Back then, that the Royal Oak should become an icon was far from anyone’s mind, but it did drive home the point that technical fine watchmaking could just as easily accommodate steel as it could precious metals. The Le Brassus watchmaker delivered further proof this year with the Royal Oak Double Balance Wheel Openworked, which includes a rendition in steel.
Thus at the 2016 Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie, steel again showed itself to be perfectly compatible with the most sophisticated complications, although there is a more practical reason for its presence in the spotlight, and that is the struggling economy. Faced with the uncertainties and hard knocks taken in 2015, a number of brands have been obliged to rethink their plans and change strategy to be more in line with what the market now wants. Which is how steel ended up as one of the stars of the 2016 SIHH; somewhat ironically as gold prices hit a low.
A short step from gold to steel
There is no mistaking the signs. Whereas Cartier generally launches its collections only in gold, introducing steel versions at a later point, its new Drive de Cartier range – positively reviewed by retailers at the fair – includes steel renditions right from the launch, such as the hour, minutes, small seconds and date model, fitted with Calibre 1904-PS MC. Steel also makes its debut this year in the Clé de Cartier range.
At Vacheron Constantin, 2016 sees the arrival of the revamped Overseas collection, which also puts steel in the spotlight. Further highlights of this line include new references with three also new in-house movements, including a chronograph. Each watch is delivered with a metal bracelet in addition to rubber and leather straps, and for once the promise of easy switching between the three holds true. As a response to the market’s real expectations, the Geneva brand’s new collection for travellers couldn’t have come at a better time.
It wasn’t planned this way, but the market decided pilot’s watches would be the mainstay of IWC’s collections for 2016. Once again, steel is very much in evidence across a broad range of models that stretches from the small Pilot’s Watch Automatic 36 to the Pilot’s Watch Perpetual Calendar Digital Date-Month Spitfire, the latter bringing confirmation that technical fine watchmaking is very much at home in steel.
Baume & Mercier also came with a wide array of models in steel. It launched the sequel to what CEO Alain Zimmermann describes as “one of the brand’s biggest commercial successes of the past ten years”, namely the Capeland Shelby Cobra. Hot on the heels of the original, the Capeland Shelby Cobra 1963 is proposed as two limited editions of 1,963 pieces on leather or rubber straps.
This trend towards steel isn’t limited to the mastodons or mainstream brands. Others, with production at the lower end of the spectrum, have also been looking into more affordable options. Greubel Forsey (which makes around a hundred watches a year) is a case in point with its first ever steel watch, the Signature 1. This is still very much top-tier horology and a showcase for a talented watchmaker (Didier Cretin), but is nonetheless intended as a more “affordable” option. While the steel version still retails at CHF 155,000 excluding VAT, this virtually halves the entry-level price for a Greubel Forsey watch.
Clearly then, the economic climate had an impact on the offerings at this year’s SIHH. More generally, average prices are down at just about every brand. More than a passing trend, this is a necessary adaptation to the reality of the market. And it might only be the start.