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  • Felix Scholz

Lightness of Being

In the world of watchmaking, it’s titanium’s time to shine, writes Felix Scholz.
Rolex Deepsea Challenge in RLX titanium. Courtesy of Rolex.

In consumer goods, there’s a strong correlation between how heavy something is and how valuable we perceive it to be. Quality has a weight. On the one hand, there’s the calming solidity of marble, and gold carries a social and cultural weight that cannot be measured on a scale. On the other hand, the absence of weight makes a value statement of its own — typically paired with technological innovation or performance. Think of a top-tier road bike, where — beyond a certain point — every gram shaved off the total weight comes with a cost measured in serious dollars.

Titanium fits into the latter category. It’s a material of the space age — a metal of purpose. And while it has been used in watches for some 50 years, the metal has only hit a critical mass in timepieces recently. It’s not being treated as a truly luxurious material and its natural attributes are shining.

An Odysseus in titanium from Lange & Söhne. Courtesy of A Lange & Söhne.

At this point, you might be wondering (and rightly so) why everyone is so excited about titanium. First of all, there’s the weight. It’s about 40 per cent lighter than stainless steel, which makes for a watch that won’t drag your wrist down. Next, the metal is strong, hard and — weirdly enough — elastic. It’s roughly as strong as steel, which is quite impressive when you factor in how much less it weighs. On top of that, it’s about as hard as steel, too — again, something which is really useful in a watch. It’s worth noting that titanium scratches more easily than steel, but there is an upside. Most surface-level scratches are marks in the thin oxide layer that forms on the surface layer, which can be removed quite easily.

A final noteworthy attribute of titanium, one that makes it a good fit on the wrist, is its thermal conductivity. Essentially what this means is a titanium watch will adapt to your body temperature, which might not seem like a big deal, but it’s one of the little things you might well appreciate when you strap on your watch on a cold winter’s morning.

The very last salient point about this very special metal is that it is exceptionally difficult to work with. Hard and tough are great properties for a watch case, but don’t make for a great time when you’re trying to craft a finely finished luxury timepiece out of the stuff. That’s why, up until the past few years, titanium was predominantly used for tool watches. That’s still true, of course, but the lightweight metal is becoming increasingly upscale.

The ponderously named Rolex Oyster Perpetual Deepsea Challenge is a remarkable watch. At a glance, it bears the shared lineage of every other Rolex dive watch — a formula laid down almost 70 years ago and tweaked every decade or so as technological progress dictates. Closer inspection clearly shows how uncommon it is. Firstly, there’s the dial text that indicates that it’s water-resistant to 11,000 metres. The deepest point on earth, the Mariana Trench, taps out at 11,034 metres, though we suspect this watch would handle the final few metres without too much trouble. Secondly, this incredible robustness dictates a massive case; the Deepsea Challenge measures 50mm across and 23mm tall. The real story here, though, is what this supersized case is made from. Titanium. Specifically, a version of grade 5 titanium called RLX titanium (Rolex, like many watch brands, is a fan of proprietary alloys. Most importantly for us, this is the first time Rolex has ever made a serially produced titanium watch, and if the largest and most prestigious watchmaker on the planet is bringing the metal into its catalogue, you can be sure it’s here to stay. $36,750.

Panerai Submersible PAM 1225 in brushed EcoTitanium. Courtesy of Panerai.

For years, Panerai — which blends Swiss technology with Italian design — has been best known for its large, macho dive watches made for large, macho men. These days, the brand is also making a splash for its sustainable initiatives and the PAM 1225, aka the Submersible eLAB-ID, is at the forefront of this push. The concept watch is almost 100 per cent recycled, including the EcoTitanium case. The inspiration for this upcycled luxury comes from an unlikely source: a broken boat. Specifically explorer and Panerai ambassador Mike Horn’s boat. Explains Horn, “I was changing the rudder shaft on my boat after 27 circumnavigations of the world. That rudder has steered that boat out into the world of exploration and safely home. That meant something to me. I took it out, and I was standing there with a piece of stainless steel and I was thinking, ‘This piece of metal has played such an important part in my life. And the life of science and education and the protection of our planet. I can’t just throw it away.’” Eventually this moment of clarity led Panerai to develop the eLAB-ID and its pioneering sustainable titanium case. In the grand scheme of things this 44mm watch might not seem like much, but high-profile efforts like this can make a difference in the long run. $91,600.

The luxuriously sporty titanium Odysseus from German maker A Lange & Söhne is a marker of just how high titanium’s star has risen. Until the debut of the Odysseus, A Lange & Söhne only made watches — and particularly dressy watches at that — out of precious metal. In 2019 that changed with the introduction of the steel Odysseus, and in 2022 this titanium take on the model ups the ante again. Not only does the light metal make perfect sense on the sleek sports watch, but it’s also a very Lange thing to do. Titanium is a famously tricky metal to work with and Lange is famously a brand that doesn’t like taking shortcuts. The fastidious German watchmakers would make it a point of pride to get the obstinate technical material to flow and shine as brightly as gold. Clearly, they have been successful in bending the metal to their will. Price on request.

This is an extract from an article that appears in print in our sixth edition, Page 46 of Winning Magazine with the headline: “Lightness of Being”. Subscribe to Winning Magazine today.


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