How stainless-steel sports watches rose from their utilitarian roots to become the new horological flex. 

ON REFLECTION, PAUL Newman must shoulder some of the blame. In 2017, the actor’s Rolex Daytona (Ref. 6239) went under the hammer at the Phillips auction house in New York. After 12 minutes of ferocious bidding, the 1968 watch was sold to a telephone bidder for $US 17,752,500. 

At the time — before things got really silly — this was a record price for a watch sold at auction and a truly astonishing result. The previous record for a Rolex was just over $US5 million for a watch that belonged to His Majesty Bao Dai, the last emperor of Vietnam. Yet that was a unique piece of almost legendary distinction. Bao Dai’s Rolex triple calendar moon phase (Ref. 6062) was one of just three black-dial 6062 models known to exist and the only Rolex to have diamond markers at the even hours. In addition, it was the most complicated Rolex ever made and was hewn from 18-carat gold. 

Newman’s Daytona, on the other hand, was a relatively stock-standard chronograph, of which there are thousands of completely identical references (one was recently listed on a pre-owned watch site for $136,595). Sure, Newman’s watch had rare provenance, having belonged to a world-famous actor, yet beneath the stardust, it was just another watch made of stainless steel — a material typically chosen for its basic utility rather than its luxury cachet.

But the Daytona sale reflected another notable shift in the market. For many years, a gold watch was the ultimate wrist-bound status-signifier. Yet right now, steel sports watches from Rolex, Patek Philippe and Audemars Piguet are the most-wanted models going. In fact, they’re virtually unobtainable unless you have serious pulling power at a boutique, the patience to endure an interminable waiting list or incriminating photos of your authorised dealer.

To clarify, in horological talk “sports watch” refers not to a timepiece you’d wear to the gym, but to one that offers solid water and shock resistance, has a screw-in crown and reasonable lume — as opposed to, say, a fragile dress watch that’s designed to nestle under the cuff of your shirt. 

In 2020, Rolex unveiled a new Oyster Perpetual range, a collection of steel sports watches with a choice of boldly coloured dials. These were standard-issue watches that weren’t part of a limited-edition run. But just weeks after the launch, demand was so great that one batch of the five-piece range was deemed worthy to be sold at The Hong Kong Watch Auction, which generally specialises in rare and vintage pieces. At retail, the watches were priced at $7,850 a pop; by the time they went under the hammer in Hong Kong, most had doubled in price, selling for up to $18,613. 

One year on, things have become crazier still, as demonstrated by the fate of a certain Patek Philippe Nautilus 5711. In April, the brand released the watch in stainless steel with an olive dial and a recommended retail price of $49,350. In July, a brand-new model sold at the Antiquorum auction in Monaco for $492,000.

What’s Newman’s Daytona go to do with all this? Well, the headline-grabbing sale of that watch alerted the public to the potential value of certain watches. Here was a Rolex you could have picked up for about $US2,000 in the late 1980s now selling for a frankly ludicrous sum. Investors outside of horological circles began to realise that watches are commodities and can be traded like blue-chip shares. Demand for these timepieces was already healthy, but Newman’s watch supercharged it in a way that makes the rise in Sydney house prices look tame. 

You could compare what’s happened with steel sports watches to the evolution of sneakers. This formerly casual footwear has graduated from the streets to luxury status.

Stainless-steel watches also reflect a change in the zeitgeist; fashion today is more casual than ever before, with the likes of Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan in the United States switching to business casual. With the mood less buttoned-up, people have had to find new ways to peacock. 

You could compare what’s happened with steel sports watches to the evolution of sneakers. This formerly casual footwear has graduated from the streets to luxury status, with the likes of Dior Homme and Valentino muscling in on the territory of Nike. Steel watches have enjoyed a similarly upward trajectory (and, like sneakers, they work with a T-shirt and jeans — not always the case with a dress watch). Just as sneaker brands deliberately balance demand within sufficient supply to build hype and stimulate the market’s hunger, there is no doubt that watch companies do the same. 

Admittedly, the demand for a brand-new Daytona or Royal Oak seems so hysterical one suspects the bubble will eventually burst and the circus will move on. In the meantime, however, the likes of Patek and company can sit back and enjoy the miraculous ascent of steel, a material that proves precious metal scan come in unlikely forms.