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Stainless steel in vintage watch cases explained.
In many ways, stainless steel is the classic material associated with wristwatch cases and the metal which, if you like, the wristwatch made its own. Fine wristwatches have been available in both gold and silver since the World War I period, but these two metals were also offered in the form of pocket watch cases. There certainly are stainless steel pocket watch cases in existence, but these were manufactured typically in the 1920s and 30s at a time when the wristwatch was clearly in the ascendancy and the pocket watch was fading quickly in popularity. In the minds of most collectors, stainless steel is something that is associated with wrist rather than pocket watches and in anybody’s view, the increasingly widespread use of steel cases as the 20th century wore on is important in the history of the wristwatch.
As a percentage of the total number of vintage pocket watches in circulation, very few are in stainless steel cases, not because of any kind of unsuitability for purpose but simply because stainless steel hadn’t been invented at the time when they were produced. In 1913, Harry Brearley, a technician working at Firth Vickers in Sheffield, England was assigned the task of seeing if it was possible to blend a steel alloy for use in gun barrel manufacture that would be more resistant to abrasion than those typically available. Notice that at this point, Brearley’s objective was to combat wear, not corrosion. Brearley increased the chromium content in the alloy to approximately 12% but unexpectedly found that as a side effect, when he came back to the scrap test samples that he’d discarded in an outdoor bin several weeks later, they hadn’t rusted to anything like the extent that he would have expected.
Initially, it took quite some time for stainless steel to be adopted on any serious scale by the watchcase making industry. Geared up to working with silver and gold, which are both extremely soft, case makers found machining the much harder steel very challenging. Though we have encountered steel wristwatch cases from the final years of World War I, typically by Longines, these are very unusual. Certainly until the mid-1920s, silver and gold remained the norm, with steel housings gradually becoming more common as the decade came to a close and recent advancements in machine tooling became available to the case making factories. Incidentally, newcomers to the vintage watch collecting field should take care not to confuse nickel cases, which were fairly plentiful on lower grade watches during the World War I era, with those made of steel. Both have a similar silver colour and it is easy for the novice to examine a case from this period, notice the lack of hallmarks and therefore correctly assume it not to be silver, but then go on to make the mistaken judgement that it’s in steel.
It is interesting to note the difference in price at original retail level between steel and silver examples of the same models. We have a large archived collection of several hundred period advertisements from the late 1920s and early 1930s by Rolex, Omega, Jaeger LeCoultre and the other major houses in which prices are often stated. It being a precious metal, we would assume today that a watch in a silver case would have been more expensive new than its equivalent in stainless steel. In fact, again presumably due to the higher costs incurred in processing this harder metal, it can be clearly seen that steel watches cost typically approximately the same amount or just slightly more than those in silver. As an example, a Rolex Prince with flared brancard sides was offered to the public in Rolex advertising in 1931 in silver at 10 pounds and 10 shillings while the same watch in stainless steel was available for just slightly more at 10 pounds and 15 shillings.
Looking through these old adverts in chronological order as this article is written, it is very noticeable that the rise in the popularity of stainless steel for watch cases corresponded directly with a reduction in the use of silver. Again, to employ the Rolex Prince advert as an illustrative example, while in 1931 both silver and steel versions were offered, even by 1937, silver was no longer mentioned and only steel and gold models were listed. We don’t know the exact year in which Rolex stopped production of its Oyster in silver, but we could make an educated guess, based both on period advertising and on the large number of early Oysters that have passed through this business over the last twenty five years, that it was 1932. After this point, gold and steel cased Rolex Oysters were shown in the firm’s advertising, but no mention made of those in silver. Certainly by 1935, silver had effectively disappeared from the wristwatch market as a case material and had been entirely usurped by stainless steel.
By the second half of the 1920s, there were a number of patented stainless steel alloys being produced on a commercial scale, the most important of which to the watch making industry was Staybrite. Introduced in the 1920s by Brown Firth, the company that had employed Harry Brearley, this particular blend was ideal for use by the Swiss watch industry due to the fact that it could relatively easily be worked cold. Watch cases were milled and stamped without heat during production, and Staybrite quickly proved itself as the perfect stainless steel for this application.
For those, like us, with a fascination for such things, it is interesting to see how Staybrite itself evolved along with the luxury watch industry. One of the major challenges that faces modern day collectors of vintage wristwatches is finding early stainless steel models on which the cases are not pitted. Staybrite, and indeed other early stainless steel variants, from the 1920s and 30s was resistant to rust, but was very vulnerable to attack by the acid contained in perspiration. On many examples in circulation today, the front face of the case is fine but the rear, in contact with the wearer’s wrist, where the case back joins the case body and acts as something of a moisture trap, is badly pitted. Early steel Rolex Oysters suffer particularly in this respect, especially those that were sold new in the former British colonial countries where the conditions were extremely hot and humid. The watches sold on this site have been hand picked with a very critical eye as the best of their type and are free from acid damage, but many others are not. When considering the purchase of a pre-World War II wristwatch in steel, high resolution photos of the case should be studied carefully for signs of pitting or excessive polishing that has been performed to disguise past problems of this kind.
First generation Staybrite was marketed by Brown Firth as Staybrite D.D.Q, these initials standing for “Deep Drawing Quality”, a reference to the ease with which this particular steel alloy could be worked cold. The composition of Staybrite was continually refined to provide more resistance to acid attack, leading up to the eventual creation of Staybrite W.C.Q, these letters representing “Watch Case Quality”. The last evolution came with the launch of Staybrite 1.4435NCu, a blend without delta-ferrite that not only offered superb durability and almost complete resistance to corrosion and pitting, but also improved characteristics for polishing, enabling the most gorgeous mirror finishes on cases to be obtained with a minimum of buffing effort.
Almost every stainless steel vintage watch that you’ll see for sale here on our website will either be in Staybrite or a very close relation. Even today, over eighty years after its launch, Staybrite remains the gold standard in stainless steel for luxury watch case manufacture.
Something hardly ever discussed is how the Swiss actually acquired their stock of stainless steel, particular during the war years when the logistics of shipping large volumes of metal from Great Britain to Switzerland must have been difficult. It seems probable that Brown Firth must have licensed the formula for Staybrite to a steel mill either in mainland Europe or Switzerland. We don’t know for sure whether this was the case, but it seems most unlikely that a major industry in Switzerland relied on regular shipments of one of its most significant raw materials from the UK.
Another patented stainless steel blend worth being aware of is “Denisteel”. This was a trade name registered by the famous English case maker Dennison to describe what was effectively its own brand of Staybrite equivalent. Today, we most commonly find the Denisteel stamp inside case backs from the 1940s to the 1960s on UK market models by Omega, Rolex and IWC. While superb as a case manufacturer, Dennison certainly didn’t blend its own steel and would have been supplied by Brown Firth or one of its competitors. In many instances, because the concerns involved ceased trading decades ago and company records no longer exist, opinions on subjects like this one can never be confirmed categorically as fact. As one becomes drawn deeper into the vintage watch field, there is more and more scope for often very interesting detective work of this kind. We have handled large volumes of these cases over the last twenty-odd years and have never spotted any practical difference between Denisteel and Staybrite in terms of resistance to corrosion or the ability to take a good polish. It seems likely that if the two metals were analysed chemically, they would be almost identical in their composition.
Ever the brilliant marketing strategists, Rolex didn’t always describe its pre-World War II stainless steel models as such, preferring to mention in advertising that these had “Rolesium” cases. In fact, the truth was that the exotically named Rolesium, registered by Rolex as a trademark on the 21st May 1932, was nothing more than another very minor variation on the familiar Staybrite theme. In more recent years, after having not used the term since the 1940s, Rolex has resurrected its use of the Rolesium word, but this now applies to a combination of a stainless steel case with a platinum bezel and has nothing in common with Rolesium in the context of vintage Rolex models.
At the time of writing, vintage watches in stainless steel are extremely fashionable and in some instances, ironically carry a price premium over their equivalents in gold. While we’re the first to recommend steel cased watches to our customers looking for something a little more robust, we have held the conviction that for most of the last decade, gold cased watches have been undervalued in comparison to their steel counterparts, which, in our eyes, makes them ripe for investment purchase in the present climate. A customer could buy a very appealing steel Rolex from the 1940s or ‘50s on this site for perhaps £1700 or £1900 GB pounds, but the same model, or something very similar, in gold, also by Rolex and in comparable condition, might be available for perhaps only slightly more at £2600 or £2700. Faced with this choice, we would advise buying the gold example, on the basis that it is almost always a rarer watch that was produced in smaller quantities in the first instance and one that, when gold again returns to the forefront of public popularity, as many watch and jewellery industry commentators are predicting it will in 2012, will rapidly rise in value.