The Revival of the Gold Watch

By Josh Sims

Many people are placing hope in new President Joe Biden to break with tradition when it comes to policy. He’s already done it with his watch. To mark his win, he acquired a Rolex Datejust. However, what’s striking isn’t the fact that this isn’t a Presidential Day-Date. What’s more noticeable is that Biden’s is in steel, rather than gold.

The tradition of celebrating making it to the Oval Office with the precious metal marks its 70th anniversary this year. In 1951, Rolex gave Dwight Eisenhower, the then five-star general, and soon to be President, a gold Datejust. In more recent decades, Obama wore a Cellini, in white gold. Trump preferred the Day-Date in more obvious yellow gold. That’s along with a Patek Philippe Golden Ellipse, in yellow gold, and a Vacheron Constantin Historiques Ultra-Fine in, yes, yellow gold.

 

Gold Rolex Day-Date Presidential with a black dial for A Collected Man London

A unique take on the gold Presidential.

 

As in athletics, so in politics it seems – gold signifies the top spot, marking a great achievement. It may even mark the intention to achieve greatness. When Florida State Senator Grant Stockdale commissioned an Omega Ultra-Thin as a gift for John F. Kennedy – inscribed with “President of the United States” – Kennedy hadn’t yet won the election.

Indeed, look through history and it’s the gold watch that commemorates the significant occasions. To celebrate his scientific insights, Einstein was given a yellow gold Longines by the Zionist convention in Los Angeles. Elvis was given a white gold Omega Constellation by RCA after becoming the first artist to sell 75 million records. When an employee gives long service to a company – back when this actually happened – they might be gifted a watch on their retirement, a tradition said to have been started by Pepsi Co. in the 1940s. Crucially, the watch was almost always in gold.

 

The Omega Ultra-Thin gifted to JFK before he won the presidency.

 

The appeal of gold – perceived as the ultimate precious metal, even if it’s not actually the most expensive – is, of course, ancient. The Aztecs loved it, as did the Ancient Egyptians, though for both cultures, gold was so abundant, with other rarer but more useful base metals like iron being more highly prized. Still, then as now, gold looks the part, even if its appeal still varies from culture to culture. It’s also clearly enjoying something of a revival nowadays. The last year has seen any number of new stand-out pieces all unashamedly golden. Even sports and aviation watches have made a return in gold – surely an unlikely pairing of material and purpose.

“I think if you’re creating a really functional timepiece, then gold is not going to be the most appropriate material,” agrees Raynald Aeschlimann, president and CEO of Omega. “But there are still many reasons a person might choose gold. Its rarity, first of all, gives it an instant connection to luxury. But there’s also a timeless quality to gold. It has always been treasured. Many people remember their parents or grandparents wearing gold watches, so it’s a sentiment that carries through time and connects to their emotion.”

 

There is certainly a timeless quality to a golden Patek Philippe Ellipse.

 

There’s gold’s own special attributes too. According to the watchmaker Kari Voutilainen, while you can’t dismiss the watchmaker’s craft – which is why there are steel pieces that sell for more than gold ones – there’s an almost reflexive human draw to the richness of gold’s colour, especially in its many alluring tones. “More and more companies are developing high tech materials for watch cases that offer greater functionality, but not the warmth. Maybe gold is the strongest contrast to the likes of carbon,” he suggests.

However, he also adds that a precious metal like gold is also appreciated for its weight, again playing to the deeply ingrained, if slowly disappearing, association we have between heft and high quality. It’s why, Voutilainen adds, there’s also a market for watches in white gold. At a distance they look like polished steel, but they offer a feeling a greater substance. “Customers want the idea that it’s still gold without the obvious look of it,” he reckons.

 

A white gold example of Voutilainen.

 

Of course, it’s precisely the obvious look of gold – and especially yellow gold, the most gold of the golds, as it were – that some people still want. Gold may have an attractive colour and weight, but such is the iconography of gold in human culture that it also makes a certain statement. That’s a statement that some find gauche and flashy. “We don’t do yellow gold, for example,” says Bart Grönefeld, co-founder of Grönefeld, “because for me it’s just too show-off. It’s making a statement about being gold. You need a certain confidence to wear gold, I think, but it’s interesting to see even young people opt for gold-coloured Casios now.”

Certainly, for others gold, is accepted as a globally understood expression of having arrived. Not for nothing does Gordon Gekko wear a Cartier Santos in gold in Wall Street. Jordan Belfort also wears a Rolex GMT Master, in 18k yellow gold, in The Wolf of Wall Street. As in high finance, so in rap, another world in which success can sometimes be connoted by excess. “At one time, gold watches were just too bling. There was that phase of wearing big gold watches loose on the wrist. The thing is that brands were all too willing to make them, because they sold in the emerging markets,” reckons Edouard Meylan, the CEO of H. Moser and Cie. “I still think big watches don’t work in gold. However, a yellow gold watch can look very elegant. It can look classy. And I think the rise of the vintage watch market has helped bring about a shift in image. It’s shown how a smaller, more understated watch in gold just doesn’t feel as bad taste as a gold watch at one time suggested.”

 

An all-gold Santos looking at home on the wrist of Gordon Gekko.

 

The gold itself has become more sophisticated too, thanks to various technological advances. Pure gold, at 24k, is iron-free and so corrosion-resistant, which is why it used to be used for internal watch parts. That being said, it’s also a soft metal, easily machined, but prone to dents and wear. On antique pocket watches in gold, you’ll often find the ring by which it’s attached to a watch chain has been replaced by a ring in steel, the original gold ring having been worn right through. That’s why mixing gold with other metals to produce alloys was first done to add hardness. These days 18K gold, 75 percent pure, is about as premium it gets.

 

“Many people remember their parents or grandparents wearing gold watches, so it’s a sentiment that carries through time and connects to their emotion…”

 

But that’s not unique. In recent years, aiming to rise above common-all-garden gold, brands have developed their own alloys, as much for effect as for function. Hublot has its red King Gold, with added copper and platinum to stabilise the colour, but also to neutralise oxidation. Then there’s its Magic Gold, a blend of gold and ceramic, which the company claims as being the first scratch-proof gold.

 

The foundry at Rolex where they craft their patented alloys.

 

Rolex even has its own gold foundry and so developed its proprietary Everose, with a secret formula aiming to combat the fact that rose gold fades over time, especially when exposed to chlorinated or salt water. Swatch Group also has a foundry, which has led to the creation of Omega’s reddish Sedna gold, an alloy with copper and palladium, and its Moonshine gold, a subtle yellow gold akin to the colour of the moon at night. A Lange & Söhne has its honey gold, twice as hard as yellow gold, Chanel its “beige” gold, in homage to one of Coco Chanel’s favourite shades.

“Traditionally, when you talk about a gold watch, you might automatically think of a bright yellow metal,” says Aeschlimann. “But brands like ours have revolutionised that image and customers are now seeing the great variety in the market. Of course, there are other beautiful metals that are getting a lot of attention, such as platinum, but I can’t see them overtaking gold [in part because] we’re always able to keep innovating and finding interesting opportunities to keep gold exciting and desirable.”

 

Adding gold to a sports watch brings a completely new feel to the piece.

 

However, there may be deeper psychological reasons for the revival of the gold watch at play here too. Counter-intuitively, sales of gold jewellery, including watches, increase during uncertain economic times – such as we certainly have now – as people take cash and more volatile assets and put them into those they perceive as much secure, such as gold. Regardless of whether this logic stands or not, it’s certainly one that people seem to have convinced themselves of.

“For the buyer, they’re aiming to carry their money with them in a sense,” notes watchmaker Stepan Sarpaneva. “But for the watchmaker, if you’re going to make a watch in gold, you’d better be sure there’s a market for it. You’d better sell it. I had one in stock and it just sat there for years, and that was when gold was 40 percent cheaper than it is today.”

 

A golden gift to a Rolex employee.

 

Indeed, never mind the trend for gold. Never mind the precious metal’s weight. Never mind the clever blends. Ultimately, the price of gold is a crucial factor at play here. Back when Pepsi Co. started making its golden gesture to its retirees, the price of gold was around $34 an ounce. Today it hovers around a whopping $1,800. Small wonder watchmakers have to consider very carefully whether to commit to making a model in gold at all.

 

“I still think big watches don’t work in gold. But a yellow gold watch can look very elegant. It can look classy…”

 

“Gold prices went up so rapidly over the 80s that it even helped bring in steel as a core material for the high-end watch industry,” notes Michael Benavente, president of Bulova. “And the fact is that now watch companies have to be very sensitive to gold prices. If the price wasn’t so prohibitive, we’d have made more than 60 of our latest gold watch. Even at $19,000, it’s lower in price that it should be given the cost of gold. But we don’t have much choice but to follow the gold market.”

 

Certain stereotypes around the person who would wear a gold Rolex had to start somewhere… Courtesy of Jake’s Rolex World.

 

The upfront outlay is sizable too – for a solid gold case you need around three times its weight in gold to work with. Watchmakers can’t afford much in the way of wastage either. “Sure, gold as a material isn’t hard to work with physically, but it’s definitely hard from a cash perspective,” jokes Meylan. “It’s for that reason that you often need special processes when making a gold watch because you can’t afford to lose any of the original weight of gold. You have to wash the machinery before and after use to retrieve gold scraps, for example, which might account for five percent of that original weight. You really can’t be casual about it.”

 

JFK putting his gold Omega to good use, courtesy of the JFK Library.

 

Such are the gritty business realities that lie behind this most precious of metals. Perhaps that is precisely Joe Biden’s thinking in making such a deliberate move away from gold in his selection of a presidential timepiece. Perhaps he sees hard steel as more befitting the hard times, and a splash of gold on his wrist as inappropriate. Regardless, it seems gold is here to stay.


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