Rolex Finally Joins Luxury Watch Herd Peddling Titanium Timepieces

At the annual Watches and Wonders trade expo, several top brands embraced the lightweight metal that’s known for its high tensile strength.

(Bloomberg) — In recent years, sports watches have been all the rage: sleek pendulums of steel and gold that give weight to each swing of the wrist. For many, it was a badge of honor to heft something so heavy—as if wearing anything less demonstrated a lack of responsibility.

This year Watches and Wonders in Geneva, Switzerland, a bit of lighter fare was on the menu. Titanium sports watches appeared among the offerings at haute horology’s most important trade show of the year, from Rolex, Oris, Grand Seiko, Chopard, Ulysse Nardin, Hublot, Zenith and other brands.

Rolex’s $14,050 Yacht-Master was particularly notable. It’s the second-ever all-titanium watch from the brand, after last fall’s debut of the  Deepsea Challenge. Because it’s so light, titanium should be a natural fit for a watch like the Yacht-Master, which is intended to be used for sports.

“It’s a sailing watch. Titanium being as durable as it is makes it pretty appealing for a sports watch,” says Max Traber, a watch specialist at Bonhams. The material is hypoallergenic and has a high tensile strength. “It’s just much more resistant to things than any other metal. And when you’re doing an activity where you’re lifting your arms to pull ropes and to hoist the jib or mainsail, it’s nice to have something that isn’t so heavy on your wrist.”

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In the Yacht-Master’s showcase presentations, journalists remarked at how unusually delicate the watch felt—at 100 grams, it would be about 50% heavier if it had been made using Rolex’s standard Oystersteel alloy. Rolex calls its Grade 5 titanium alloy “RLX titanium.”

The Swiss independent Oris has a new green version of its titanium ProPilot X called the “Kermit”—thumbing its nose at Rolex, which saw enthusiasts give one of the brand’s green Submariners that nickname. Oris has licensed the right to use Kermit the Frog’s likeness in the watch’s date window.

“It is an official collaboration with the Muppets, and there is really nothing that relates this watch to what the enthusiasts called the Kermit from Rolex,” said Rolf Studer, the Oris co-CEO. “Knowing that there is a watch being called like that by enthusiasts just adds to the depth of the story.” 

The Oris Kermit retails for $4,600 and is part of an entire collection of ProPilot X with colorful and varied dials that debuted in 2022—all in titanium.

Zenith is offering a stealthy new version of its Defy Revival with a micro-blasted titanium case and Gay Frères-style ladder bracelet, the first time it’s made a bracelet in titanium. The blacked-out version of the retro time piece is called the Shadow, and it won’t be a limited edition, Zenith says. Titanium is here to stay.

Grand Seiko, Japan’s answer to Rolex, introduced its very first mechanical chronograph movement at the show, the 6,000 beats per hour 9SC5 Tentagraph. It’s also housed in titanium, a metal that the high-end brand has long used, including in its flagship Snowflake watch.

“We have been traditionally very strong in titanium as a material,” Akio Naito, the president of the Seiko Watch Corp., says in an interview. With the Tentagraph, the band has refashioned the metal to make it brighter rather than its usual dull gray. According to Naito, “Titanium has been an important technology for Grand Seiko.”

In 2021, Chopard introduced a limited edition titanium timepiece in its Alpine Eagle line. All 250 pieces sold out, and the response was so enthusiastic that the brand announced titanium would become a permanent part of the collection. 

IWC, in its resurrected Ingenieur line, also includes titanium.

The metal is far from new in the watch world; brands such as Hublot, Ulysse Nardin, Montblanc, Alpina, Bulgari and more have long had titanium options in their collections. Rolex is just finally coming around to something other brands already believed: The properties of the metal make it ideally suited to watchmaking.

“The interesting thing about titanium in general as a material for a watch is, we’re so used to something heavy and significant that feels sturdy,” says Traber, the Bonhams specialist. “But titanium is really sturdy, it’s just you won’t notice it in the same way.”

Since Rolex makes changes slowly and iteratively, an entirely new material will be a big deal for collectors. It might take some getting used to, even if it’s well-suited to the watch’s stated use.

“Let’s be honest, most people buying a Rolex aren’t using the watch for the intended purpose,” Traber says. “I mean, the Submariner is a diving watch. I don’t know how many people are diving to great depths with that watch, particularly the gold model. I think watches, in general, have their intended use, but the reality is that they’re worn by well-to-do people in office settings in New York City.”

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