Steel age: watch houses rework the metal that built modernity

Chopard, Patek Philippe and Bulgari pay tribute to Gérald Genta's vision with their elegant steel wristwatches 

An image of a black male looking up to arm with a wrist-watch on. The watch is silver in colour with a circular navy face and Roman numerals at 12, 3, 6 and 9. Line marks cover the other numbers.
‘Alpine Eagle’ watch in Lucent steel, by Chopard. Fashion: Aylin Bayhan
(Image credit: Rebecca Scheinberg)

Steel has long been the favoured material for making practical watches. Strong, light, economical, hypo-allergenic and non-magnetic, it was perfect for pilots, engineers and the military, but not a luxury material, not something to create dreams from. That is, until the 1970s, when watch designer and goldsmith Gérald Genta had a different vision. His early 1970s modernist steel watch designs, including the ‘Royal Oak’ for Audemars Piguet and the ‘Nautilus’ for Patek Philippe, integrated case and bracelet in a single fluid loop. His use of handbrushed and polished metalwork, typical jeweller techniques, creating new kinds of luxury sports watches.

Patek Philippe watch

‘Nautilus’ ladies’ automatic watch in steel and diamonds, by Patek Philippe. Fashion: Aylin Bayhan

(Image credit: Rebecca Scheinberg)

It wasn’t long before women’s watches were just as vigorously proportioned – the new Patek Philippe ladies’ automatic ‘Nautilus’, which eschews the smaller delicacy of earlier models with its most generous dimensions yet, is a case in point. A dark grey opaline dial, when framed by a diamond bezel, becomes almost dainty. The grey steel hue of Bulgari’s ‘Octo Roma’ is made richer with rose-gold accents. Chopard’s ‘Alpine Eagle’, meanwhile, although crafted with heavy steel links, boasts a sleek, narrow silhouette, bestowing steel with the elegantly precious credentials it so richly deserves.

bulgari watch

‘Octo Roma’ watch in stainless steel and rose gold, by Bulgari. Fashion: Aylin Bayhan

(Image credit: Rebecca Scheinberg)

As originally featured in the May 2020 issue of Wallpaper* (W*254), available to download free here


Hannah Silver is the Art, Culture, Watches & Jewellery Editor of Wallpaper*. Since joining in 2019, she has overseen offbeat design trends and in-depth profiles, and written extensively across the worlds of culture and luxury. She enjoys meeting artists and designers, viewing exhibitions and conducting interviews on her frequent travels. 

With contributions from