gold watches
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The Significance of Gold Watches

Everything you need to know about the allure of gold watches, from its historical significance to its modern resurgence…

Josh Sims

Luxe columnist

Rolex launched its King Midas model just over 60 years ago. It was a plain, refined two-hand dial set into an asymmetric, pentagonal engraved case.

The watch, designed by the legendary Gerald Genta, was also gold, and in a big way: the King Midas was not only the first watch with a synthetic sapphire crystal glass, but Rolex’s most expensive watch up until that time. It was also the heaviest gold watch then commercially available.

The watch would find an unlikely fan in the macho John Wayne and was, of course, the watch worn by Bond villain Francesco Scaramanga in ‘The Man With the Golden Gun’, which marks its 50th anniversary this year. But the watch’s most apposite acolyte? The King, aka Elvis Presley, even if he would end up damaging his first of many by wearing it in the bath, such was his attachment to the watch.

Perhaps this was the tipping point, the moment when the gold moved from being a noble material for classic dress watches to making any watch it came in a totem of flashiness, at best of a kind of wearable insurance. It’s a gold Art Deco Patek Philippe, after all, that Michael Douglas – free of any other form of money – hawks for cash in ‘The Game’ (1997) in order to get back to the US from Mexico.

gold watches

Evolving Symbolism of Gold Watches

“A man with a watch like that doesn’t have a visa problem,” as he’s told. But images change.

“I would have felt uncomfortable wearing a gold watch before, so I’m not sure if I’ve changed or gold has,” laughs Edouard Meylan, the CEO of H. Moser and Cie, which recently launched a black-dialled Streamliner in gold.

“And there’s still the idea that if I have to flea in a hurry, I’ll take my gold watch with me.”

Perhaps, as Nicholas Bowman-Scargill, founder of Farer watches, notes, yellow gold is the perfect material for our uncertain times – pandemics, wars, cost of living crises – when we retrench in the security of tradition.

“I’m not sure that yellow gold is fashionable again so much as dependable,” he suggests.

But the idea of the big gold watch as, first and foremost, a symbol of wealth and an expression of conspicuous consumption has cut deep, a trope cinema has acknowledged over and over. It was Douglas, again, who wore a gold Cartier Santos as Gordon Gekko in ‘ Wall Street’.

“You see this watch? You see this watch I’m wearing?” asks the brash salesman, played by Alec Baldwin, of his underlings in ‘Glengarry Glen Ross’ (1992).

“This watch costs more than your car”. It’s a Rolex Oyster Perpetual Day-Date, in gold of course.

gold watches

Market Dynamics of Gold Watches

The gold watch is the wrist candy of rappers and sheiks – and, indeed, the wealth of emerging markets – ensured there was a phase when many brands were only too willing to meet the demand for big and blingy gold watches in order to help pay the company loans.

Undoubtedly the gold watch became iconic, and the watch world of late has certainly been dipping its toe in golden waters again. Not just with less ostentatious red, pink and rose gold either – a trend for some time now – but with the shinier stuff too: yellow gold.

“It’s very hard to explain gold’s allure other than to point out that it’s a remarkably expressive material, in its play with light, in its various shades, its weight and softness [literally and figuratively] such that I think even scratches enhance its appeal, in its connection to the Earth,” enthuses George Bamford, of Bamford Watches.

“I think rose gold has been a kind of gateway drug to getting us back into yellow gold, into making it acceptable again”.

Certainly the draw of gold has been deeply human for millennia – the Egyptians and Aztecs both delighted in the metal even though it was abundant, and actually other rarer but more useful base metals the likes of iron were more highly prized.

Historical Use of Gold

Gold resonates from the Christian nativity story to the flakes sprinkled on otherwise pedestrian dishes and cocktails to warrant stupid prices. It’s why gold watches have traditionally been given for landmark birthdays, or on retirement – a tradition said to have been started by Pepsi Co. in the 1940s – or to mark a special achievement.

Einstein, for example, was given a yellow gold Longines by the Zionist Convention in Los Angeles in 1931. Becoming the US President has been marked with the precious metal since 1951, when Rolex gave Dwight Eisenhower, the then five-star general, and soon to be President, a gold Date Just.

Gold signifies the top spot: when Florida State Senator Grant Stockdale commissioned a gold Omega Ultra Thin as a gift for John F. Kennedy inscribed with ‘President of the United States’ – Kennedy hadn’t yet won the election.

“The symbolism of gold is strong and deeply rooted in the history of watchmaking and jewellery, and no material can replace it,” reckons Bruno Belamich, CEO of Bell & Ross, which last year made the metal work on even its most utilitarian of designs, with the BR 05 Green Gold.

“Gold is a noble material that combines several characteristics: the preciousness of its material, the light and symbolism of power through its colour, and finally, yes, gold does display a certain status.”

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Perception of Yellow Gold

But does that rule out yellow gold as still just being too much? Bowman-Scargill argues the cycle may now be shifting in its favour.

“There’s still a feeling of glamour, decadence and luxury in rose, red and pink golds without the [questionable] overtones of yellow gold,” he says.

“Because the 1980s were all about yellow gold [and record prices for yellow gold too], it came to represent success. But now I think yellow gold is working again as a response to the market saturation of rose golds and steel. Of course some yellow gold watches are unashamedly brash.

“But yellow gold doesn’t have to signal success. Worn in the right way it can signal sophistication, classicism, warmth.”

Certainly the rise of interest in vintage watches has helped to drive interest in yellow gold. So have watchmakers’ growing readiness to apply various technological advances to it. Pure gold, at 24k, is iron-free and corrosion-resistant, which is why watchmakers used it for internal watch parts.

But it’s also a soft metal, easily machined, but prone to dents and wear. 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 as it gets.

But that’s not unique. In recent years, aiming to rise above ‘standard’ gold, brands have developed their own proprietary gold alloys, including Hublot, Rolex, Omega, Lange & Sohne and Chanel. Some offer functional benefits – neutralising oxidation, for example, offering scratch-proofing or to prevent the fading that gold undergoes over time, especially after exposure to salt water – others just a distinctive shade.

Strategic Considerations

Not that gold is an easy choice for any watch brand to make. Gold signifies wealth, after all, precisely because it’s expensive. Back when Pepsi Co. started making its golden gesture to its retirees, the price of gold was around US$34 an ounce. Today it hovers around (even allowing for inflation) a whopping US$1,600.

“Making a model in gold isn’t so much a technical issue so much as one of finance you need to have the money up front, the millions you need for the funds of gold required, and that’s a barrier to entry [to making a watch in gold] for many brands,” Meylan explains – indeed, special processes are required to work with gold precisely to absolutely minimise wastage.

“You’re taking a bet not just on the success of the model you’re making in gold, but on the future value of the gold itself too”.

But, for the moment at least, it’s a matter of comparison. Fifty years ago, an 18k solid gold Rolex Submariner retailed at eight times the price of its steel equivalent; now it’s just four times. With the price premium on stainless steel models rocketing, buying one in gold starts to make much more sense.