4 minutes

Durable, elegant, timeless: What’s the story behind stainless steel watches?

By Jorg Weppelink
Patek Philippe Nautilus

What’s the story behind stainless steel watches?

Have you ever wondered why stainless steel has become the standard material in the watch world? The obvious answer is that it’s a tough metal that can resist everyday wear and tear, rust, and corrosion. But how did we come to use stainless steel, and when? Let’s turn the clocks back and discover the answers!

The History of Stainless Steel Watches

We don’t have to go back very far to find the origins of stainless steel. While the use of regular steel can be traced back to at least 326 BCE, stainless steel only dates back to the early 20th Century. If you know your materials, you’re probably aware that steel is actually an alloy of iron and carbon. But to obtain the specific traits of stainless steel, you need to alter the formula. Stainless steel’s resistance to corrosion comes from the addition of chromium. You can also add different materials like nickel, molybdenum, titanium, niobium, and manganese to further increase its corrosion resistance, while giving it additional material properties. The end product is a steel that is known for its strength, resistance to corrosion, and ability to be cleaned and polished.

From shelf-warmer to one of the most sought-after grail watches: The Audemars Piguet Royal Oak.

Stainless steel was introduced to the world of watches in the 1910s, and took off following the Wall Street crash of 1929, after which the demand for gold and silver watches decreased drastically. As a result, stainless steel watches, which were cheaper to produce, swept in to fill the gap. Initially, the hardness of stainless steel presented a challenge to machining. But once watchmakers overcame this problem, stainless steel became their primary material.

The Different Compositions of Stainless Steel

If you’re a watch fan, you’ve probably seen the numbers 316L or 904L pop up in descriptions. These numbers refer to specific alloys and their properties or characteristics: 316L and 904L stainless steel. Both types are what is known as austenitic stainless steel, a class of stainless steel alloys that have the same crystalline structure.

The biggest difference between the two versions is that 904L has a higher percentage of nickel and chromium, and includes copper. This makes 904L steel more resistant to corrosion than 316L, and more acid-resistant. It also has a shinier appearance when polished, thanks to the higher level of chromium. Although it’s sometimes thought to be more difficult to machine, this is actually not the case, because 316L is actually the harder of the two materials.

Although an increasing number of watch brands use 904L stainless steel, Rolex was one of the first brands to use the material, and really celebrates the use of it in its own timepieces. Of course, Rolex wouldn’t be Rolex if it hadn’t given the material its own proprietary name: Oystersteel. Rolex markets its use of 904L stainless steel extensively, with one campaign claiming “At Rolex, steel is a precious metal.” Clever marketing indeed, especially when you consider how much more expensive 904L stainless steel is.

Rolex Submariner ref. 5512
One of the most popular Rolex stainless steel models: The Rolex Submariner.

One of the downsides of 904L stainless steel is the reaction people with a nickel allergy have to it. This happens less often with 316L steel, which has significantly less nickel in it. But if you want to be absolutely sure of not getting an allergic reaction, your best bet is a titanium watch. Besides being more lightweight than stainless steel, titanium is also more hypoallergenic.

To polish or not to polish?

In terms of maintenance and care, stainless steel is a material that will literally last you a lifetime. That said, it’s also obviously not immune to general wear and tear. We all know the scratches and dents that stainless steel watches pick up over time, so it’s great that they can be polished, and returned to their original shine. However, many watch fans don’t want a watch that’s been overly polished. If overdone, polishing can change the curvature of a case, thus altering the watch’s original shape.

But why would you have a vintage watch polished, if it tells a great story? I’m one of those people that loves the look of some vintage watches when they’re all beat up. It gives them extra character. A great example is a vintage Rolex GMT-Master ref. 1675 from the 1960s with a faded bezel, heavily worn bracelet, and beaten-up case. The Omega Speedmaster “Moonwatch” is another timepiece that looks great after a beating. Vintage stainless steel Seiko divers also look great with scratches and dents.

Vintage Rolex GMT Master II from 1967
Vintage Rolex GMT Master ref. 1675 from 1967

What does the future hold for stainless steel watches?

For now, stainless steel is the industry standard for luxury watches, and my guess is that it will stay that way for a while. We have however seen a massive rise in the use of lightweight materials like titanium, carbon, and ceramic in recent years.

Some watch traditionalists dislike the fact that you can’t feel the weight of a watch made from these materials on your wrist. A little heft gives some wearers reassurance they’re wearing a timepiece. As such, there will always be a market for stainless steel watches, and the same will be true for precious metals. It’s good to know we’ll be able to enjoy many fantastic stainless steel watches in the years to come.

About the Author

Jorg Weppelink

Hi, I'm Jorg, and I've been writing articles for Chrono24 since 2016. However, my relationship with Chrono24 goes back a bit longer, as my love for watches began …

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