The Bronze Age - Tudor, Panerai & IWC
4,000 years ago, humans discovered that if they heated the soft metal copper to 1,000 degrees and sprinkled some arsenic on top, the resulting creation was bronze. This was the first alloy ever made by man, and is much tougher than copper. It was a technological breakthrough in comparison to the stone used for the prior three million years. But that was then, and this now—so why is this outdated material making a resurgence?
Watch our video review of three of the finest bronze watches
Tudor Heritage Black Bay Bronze 79250BM
The bronze you see here is fundamentally the same stuff that ancient humans fashioned into tools and weapons. Its great benefit was its hardness, enough to hold a sharp edge, but with the poisonous arsenic used to alloy copper into bronze being replaced by tin, and the tin trade subsequently disrupted by population migrations around 1200 BC, bronze was foregone in favour of iron. Bronze is actually harder than iron, however iron is easier to extract, more abundant and, importantly, can be alloyed with carbon into steel.
The first bronze watch we have here is a Tudor . It's recognisable as part of the Black Bay family, although the bronze case is up 2mm over the standard Black Bay at 43mm. The dial, in a deep, chocolate brown, swaps batons for numerals at three, six and nine, and the hands are driven by the in-house MT5601 with its silicon balance spring, shock-resistant balance bridge and 70-hour power reserve. The case back, by the way, is PVD-coated steel to prevent wrist staining.
The Tudor Black Bay Bronze is 2mm larger than the standard Black Bay
What's immediately apparent with the Black Bay—and with all bronze watches—is that bronze is a deeply industrial-looking and unique material. That's unique in that it's unusual to see a bronze watch, and unique in the literal sense, as the oxidisation patterns will never be seen twice.
But bronze isn't chosen simply for its aesthetic properties: the maritime industry is still a heavy user of bronze to this day. In fact, the world's largest propeller, from one of the world's largest ships, the Emma Maersk, was cast from a bronze alloy of copper, aluminium, nickel, iron and manganese. It took 18 months of development to create this 10-metre wide monster, and needed to be strong enough to transfer the power from the 109,000-horsepower engine to the sea to drive the 397-metre mega-ship along.
The chocolate brown dial and rose gold-coloured markers set off the bronze case
So, why bronze? Amongst many other benefits, its incredible corrosion resistance ranks top. It also resists the growth of marine life, such as barnacles, which can throw the propeller off balance and cause drag, reduce fuel efficiency and even damage or destroy the engine.
It's appropriate, then, for a dive watch to be fashioned from this wonder material, and it certainly looks the part. So why not use it for all dive watches?
IWC Aquatimer Chronograph Edition "Expedition Charles Darwin" IWC IW379503
If you know a bit about watches, then it won't surprise you to learn that the first bronze watch was made by Gerald Genta in 1990. Here's a man obsessed by all things nautical, his works including the diver's helmet-inspired Audemars Piguet Royal Oak and the porthole-mimicking Patek Philippe Nautilus. But dive watches have been around for a lot longer than that, so why are they so rarely made of bronze?
The addition of carbon to iron gave us a metal that is amongst the hardest in the world: steel. It's the most commonly used metal to this day, and has a uniform finish that looks clean and crisp. Its corrosion resistance, however, leaves a lot to be desired—especially in saltwater. Steel can rust quickly, disappearing into nothing, its surface flaking away to reveal fresh material for the water to attack.
This IWC Aquatimer commemorates Charles Darwin's trip to the Galapagos Islands
Bronze, however, does something a little different. It corrodes for sure—that's the pattern you can see here on this IWC Aquatimer—but instead of compromising the resistance of the metal by flaking away like steel, it actually strengthens it by forming a hard coating. It's this coating that gives bronze its unique, uneven appearance—not the quality a manufacturer of fine watches is looking for when promoting a watch that claims to be hard-wearing and water resistant.
But for those who know, bronze can be a beautiful material that offers something special that steel simply can't. It's organic, ever-changing. You can have a different watch every day. That's why IWC chose it for the "Expedition Charles Darwin" edition of the Aquatimer Chronograph, a 44mm instrument that recalls Darwin's voyage to the ecological mystery that is the Galapagos Islands aboard the HMS Beagle, a ship which would have used bronze extensively to protect itself from the harsh Pacific seas.
IWC furnishes the Expedition Charles Darwin with grippy rubber-coated pushers to activate the in-house calibre 89365 inside. The movement, despite being automatic, still holds a decent 68-hours of power, while also squeezing in a flyback mechanism. The bezel display is set internally for protection, and is secured from being turned the wrong way thanks to the clever SafeDive ratchet mechanism.
The bronze case houses an in-house chronograph movement with flyback mechanism
Panerai Luminor Submersible 1950 3 Days Automatic Bronzo PAM00382
If steel's only practical benefit over bronze is hardness—and, let's face it, bronze isn't exactly the consistency of cheese—then it stands to reason that this pockmarked metal is the ideal material for a dive watch. Sure, it's not as slick and shiny as steel, but it has an honesty to it that urges its owner to take it underwater.
It's like the strips of unused rubber on the edges of a motorcycle's rear tyre—everyone knows the rider hasn't got a full lean on, and with the bronze dive watch, the colours and patterns that come from proper use in salty water are unmistakable. Either that, or someone's had their hand a bit too deep in the pickle jar.
At 47mm, this bronze Panerai Submersible is an eye-catching piece
So, if you're sold on bronze and you're looking to make a statement, the Panerai Luminor Submersible could do just the trick. The 47mm diameter can't be far off that of the Emma Maersk's propeller, and the design looks every bit as at home below the waves. This is the oldest dive watch design here, and the maritime detailing like the protruding bezel pips and lock-down crown guard marries with the corrosion patterns like it could never be any other way.
Inside, the P.9000 calibre is another in-house engine that keeps the watch under steam for three days, hiding behind a deep green dial that sets off the bronze more and more as the patterns develop. A titanium-ringed clear case back offers a view of the balance ticking away the beats that make up the day.
The calibre P.9000 can be viewed through the clear, titanium-ringed case back
It's no coincidence that bronze continues to be used predominantly as a material not for industry, but for art—the soft, golden tones of the living surface offering a warmth and identity that makes steel seem cold and harsh.
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