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All you need to know about bronze timepieces

An age-old material is making a comeback, with top watchmakers releasing bronze versions of their popular models.

Because this is an industry that takes pride in its adherence to the old ways, many of watchmaking’s innovations have been limited to materials technology to improve precision and performance. But after years of titanium, high-tech ceramic, silicon and carbon’s many composites, the latest trend comes from an unexpectedly old metal that predates even steel, and it’s the copper alloy we know as bronze. From the mind that gave the world its first luxury watch in steel, it’s not surprising that watch designer Gerald Genta was the one who first came up with the idea of casing a watch in bronze. The original 1984 model was known as the Gefica Safari, named after the three safari hunters who requested the watch (Geoffroy, Fissore and Canali). Bronze was chosen because its inability to reflect light kept the hunters better hidden.

What it does reflect these days is a certain amount of rebelliousness (it’s the furthest thing from precious, after all) and a hunger for personalisation. When the copper oxidises, it gains a unique patina, so the more copper the bronze has, the more obvious its natural or forced ageing. But in addition to the stories you can tell of a watch that ages with you, it’s also highly functional: It resists corrosion in seawater, is anti-magnetic and harder than stainless steel.

Genta’s watch was ahead of its time, so it wasn’t until Panerai brought attention back to the material 27 years later, in the form of the Luminor Submersible 1950 Bronzo, that fellow dive watch specialists took notice. But watchmaking’s Bronze Age really took hold once fellow big names like Zenith and Tudor joined the parade. These companies are master storytellers, and it was easy to capitalise on bronze’s role as a foil to luxurious metals because it tells the story of where you’ve been, not where you’re at.

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In The Mix

There are myriad ways to make a copper alloy, with inclusions such as tin (the most common), nickel and even silicon to achieve various properties. For watchmaking, though, durability and colour are priorities, so these are the main types you’ll find:

  • Brass

    Brass

    Brass is an alloy of copper and zinc, with the most common types being composed of 5 to 45 per cent zinc (any higher and the alloy would be too unstable to use). Brass is typically a golden yellow but adding more copper gives it a red tinge, while more zinc will turn it silvery. Since zinc is cheap, brass watches can be found among more affordable brands.

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Need For Speed

Can’t wait for nature to do its thing? Try any or all of these methods to speed up the ageing process.

EXPOSE IT TO CHEMICAL FUMES

Ammonia or any kind of vinegar will do. Remove the strap and place the watch head in a sealable container, but raised away from the bottom (for example, place it atop a small, inverted cup). Carefully add the liquid to the container, seal it, and wait eight to 24 hours. If it requires more time, occasionally cleaning the watch with hot water will give you a more consistent patina pattern. The same can be done with mashed boiled eggs.

SOAK IT IN MILK

The ammonia levels in milk are too low for the fuming process to work effectively, but giving the watch a milk bath over several hours may give it a rainbow-like, iridescent patina.

DOUSE IT IN LIVER OF SULPHUR

Mix a few cups of water with a little liver of sulphur gel in one bowl. In another, prepare a similar volume of water with a couple tablespoons of baking soda. Using rubber gloves, submerge the watch in the sulphur bath and watch the bronze change. Once you’ve reached the desired level of patination, place it in the baking soda water to stop the process. Short cycles provide the best results.

GO FOR A SWIM

If your watch has decent water resistance, hit the water. Chlorinated swimming pool water and the salty seas will transform bronze in ways that range from subtle and bright to “rescued from a shipwreck”.

(RELATED: Bronze watches are making a comeback – this time with luxury brands)

How to Care For Your Bronze Watch

What to do if you’re looking to keep patination under control.

If you want to “reset” the patina, apply toothpaste, or a paste made out of baking soda and lemon juice, and scrub until the original shine returns. Alternatively, give it a quick soak in undiluted vinegar.

If you just want to clean it, Panerai recommends washing the watch with warm water, then using a soft brush or cloth to dry it.

If you never want it to gain patina, buy a gold watch. The allure of a bronze watch is its ability to change, and the only way to prevent moisture and air from reacting with the metal is to never wear it.

My Bronze Watch Story

  • Rodrigo Becerra

    Rodrigo Becerra, IT Consultant

    Watch: Panerai Bronzo PAM 968
    Date of Purchase: March 2019

    I use this watch for everything.
    I use it on travels, to go swimming, or to the gym... I just change the strap from a leather to a rubber one depending on what I’ll be doing. Panerai leather straps can be worn in the water, but I don’t use this one for swimming because it’s very soft and nice, and I want to keep it in good condition for as long as possible.

    When I have time, I'll look at the watch and play with it.
    Even though I keep touching the watch, its colour has changed with a certain uniformity; it’s not patchy like with some other bronze watches. The patination has mostly occurred around the edges or around the crown, areas I touch when I’m handling it. Eventually, I hope it’s going to look like a photo with a vignette effect. So, the dial will be the main subject that looks brighter, while the edges of the watch will look darker, just like a vintage photograph.

    There have been three other bronzo models prior to this one.
    There’s the original (released in 2011), one with power reserve, and one with a blue dial. I tried to get all, but it isn’t easy. Because I travel a lot for work and live in different countries, I didn’t have a history with any one Panerai boutique. It wasn’t until I lived in Singapore for a few years for work that I was able to build a relationship with the brand here. That’s how I could get this watch.

    What I like most about bronze is that it's not boring.
    It’s not gold. There’s an advantage to that as well. Some of the places I move around in can be dangerous, and if you wear gold, that can be attractive to someone who’s watching. And, even if you were to get mugged, at least you’re not losing something that costs the price of gold (laughs).

    People now don't want the same thing as everybody else.
    They want something that’s more personalised. It’s mine and nobody else will have the same watch. Bronze is a living metal – it ages and changes with you. It will change according to my lifestyle – whether I travel a lot, or go to the gym a lot. It’s similar with scratches – there’s a little ding here on the case where I dropped it, and I haven’t been able to remove it, but it’s all mine.

New Bronze Watches For 2019

Bronze watch fans are spoilt for choice this year.

  • Tag Heuer

    01 Tag Heuer Autavia Isograph

    There are plenty of Autavia Isographs to choose from this year but, if you’re still reading this, then the two bronze models – one with a brown dial and bezel, the other with a green dial and black bezel – will be the references to note.

(RELATED: Standout timepieces for 2019)

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